Watching Australian actress Abbey Lee makes you wonder if the Men in Black isn’t a real agency welcoming visitors from other worlds to work and live on Earth. Her almost-supernatural beauty means filmmakers have sought her out for years to play otherworldly and alluring characters. George Miller gave Lee her screen debut with Mad Max: Fury Road, in which she played the Dag, the most eccentric member of the Many Wives collective. Nicolas Winding Refn cast her as his most vicious climber in The Neon Demon, a meditation on how we commoditize and worship beauty. And now she’s starring in Elizabeth Harvest from Sebastian Gutierrez, a techno-modern telling of the story of Bluebeard, in which Lee plays multiple versions of the titular character — a woman who’s being fabricated in a lab and repeatedly murdered by her mad scientist husband (Ciarán Hinds).
But don’t make the mistake of counting her as just a pretty face. While her characters may conjure fantasy, they’re also adept at exploiting desire for its weakness and punishing those who would keep them prisoner. Before Elizabeth Harvest debuts in theaters this weekend, Vulture got on the phone with Lee to talk about how she prepared for her most ambitious role yet, the tolerance for bullshit she developed while working in fashion, and what question she never, ever wants to answer again.
Did each of your Elizabeths have a backstory, or was each one just a blank slate because she was reacting to the world anew?
I couldn’t build backstories for all of the Elizabeths separately, but I spent a lot of time writing a backstory about the original Elizabeth. It’s not the sort of film where you can just fucking wing that shit. I really went into detail about her past, which informed the physicality that I chose, which is very different from my own. I decided that she took ballet, which I’ve never done in my life, so I took ballet classes and that changed the way that I moved. She’s also British and I made the decision that she was well-educated, which means she had a different set of manners to her, a different way of holding her neck up and stuff like that.
There were some days where I had to play four Elizabeths in one day, so I gave them all a specific name. I’d find a picture of a woman who reminds me of the essence of that Elizabeth, and I printed out cards and on the back I had a song for her, a nickname for her, her favorite food, her favorite color. I was kind of keeping tabs on each girl so I could step in and out.
Do you feel like you can be selective with the projects you take, or do you feel a pressure to commit to things because you’re newer to the film industry?
I’m financially stable, because I modeled for half of my life, so I don’t have to make decisions based on money. I can really sort of craft my way a little bit. And listen, it’s not easy. I’m not saying I get handed everything that’s out there. I’ve had some pretty heavy heartaches the past couple of years, and I’ve really tried and gone gung ho, but there has to be something that’s really exciting to me. It’s so rare for a woman to be handed a script that has this much gusto, where the female character is driving the film in a really sort of violent way. Like, I got to hold a gun and bleed from the mouth and crawl out of a tank covered in ooze. There are really deep reasons that I chose to do this film, like Elizabeth’s constant rebirth and the fairy-tale aspect of it, and then there’s reasons where I’m like, “That would be fucking fun.”
I’ve noticed that in a handful of films — Fury Road, Neon Demon, Elizabeth Harvest — you’ve played these very stylized women who are avatars of male desire, and who end up violently rebelling against them. What draws you to that?
Well, that’s an interesting question. To be honest, it’s not so much what I’m going for; it’s what people see in me. When I entered this industry, I was older. I was 25, and I didn’t know where I’d be placed, how I would translate. I still am sometimes quite surprised to discover that most of the interest in me is for these women with balls, you know. Even when I’ve auditioned for big studio comic films, I’ve always been asked to test for the villain, and I love that because I love tapping into that space.
I also have a lot of fight, and my dad used to say when I was a kid that I was born on planet Zod. I was always in the clouds a little bit, and I think that that has turned into somewhat of an ethereal essence that I have. At the same time, I have very strong beliefs that I’ve had to fight for. I’m very passionate and I can become very enraged, and a lot of the time it has to do with female issues. I’m very protective of women’s rights. You know, being a six-foot 14-year-old who starts modeling, the world gets pretty fucking scary, and I’ve had to really muster up an extreme amount of courage for such a young girl to work my way through some really difficult situations. Because I have that fight it’s something I want to be able to translate through my art, because this is not a job for me. It’s my most vital form of expression. I do other things. I paint. I play music, all that stuff, but this is like my pulse, you know?
I feel like most of the interviews I’ve read with you skew heavily toward your career in fashion, which you’ve basically left behind, and don’t really dig into the film work you do.
Listen. You might still ask me this question at the end of it, but the amount of times I get asked what’s in my fucking handbag — if I have to answer a version of that one more time in my career I might explode. The worst part about it is I don’t carry a handbag [laughs]!
You’ve been very open about your issues with the fashion industry, and the lack of control models have in their environments at times. Is it a lot of emotional labor for you to sink into these characters who are either literally or figuratively imprisoned and treated as objects?
Yeah. Always. I’ve never taken on a role where I haven’t had to then shake it off, not only because of the emotional aspect of it, but the way that I like to infuse myself in the world. Like, if I’m shooting a movie, for two months my family has no fucking idea where I am. My phone is dead half the time. I’m not eating right. I feel like I always lose weight when I’m making movies, and sometimes it can feel really heavy, like you’re pulling from places that would rather stay dormant. It can bring a lot of stuff up, and at the same time you love the character so much you want to give in to it. You want to do it justice, and you get a release from it. It’s cathartic in a way. You can be on your hands and knees crying all day and then all of a sudden go home and you feel fucking excited, because you made her. Until you are willing to expose yourself and open up to a character so that you can work through her, it’s just a piece of paper, you know? To really do the job justice you have to be willing to go to those places, and I think that sometimes you have to make the sacrifices of comfort.
Sometimes after I finish a film I have a hard time snapping back into reality. So much changes and then all of a sudden you finish shooting and you go back home and you’re like, “What the fuck do I do? I’m not sure whether I take a shit, eat, sleep or like read a book right now.” I get discombobulated, because I’m not somebody who has their fucking mobile on set all the time.
Your body has always played a big part in your professional life, and you bring a very specific physicality to your roles. Elizabeth Harvest really puts you through it, and I wondered how you put boundaries in place to feel safe on a set.
I’ve been very physical my whole life. I played lots of sports. I danced. The modeling. I would say that I have a very intimate relationship with my body. But listen, there have been times in my career when I was a model where I did things that I would rather not have done, and I was too young, too vulnerable to make a decision. So I just went along with it, but now I am much stronger. I’ve grown. I’ve made a lot of mistakes. If it serves the character and it serves the film and I believe in it, then I will do my best, but if I’m uncertain about something or a little bit iffy, I just open up and I communicate as long as I need to until I get to a place where I’m comfortable. You just need to be really, really in tune with that stuff, and listening to your body.
It seems like going from the frying pan to the fire, making the jump from modeling to acting, since both industries can be so punishing for women. But it really sounds like your time in the fashion industry actually gave you a lot of tools to cope with Hollywood.
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I had discovered acting much younger. I feel like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do, and I’ve been working really hard to build my craft, but then I realized I’ve got a backbone to take a lot of bullshit that this industry throws at you. It is harder if you’re younger and you haven’t had the experience, so I’m glad that I’ve got a bit of spine, because I think any entertainment industry is pretty gross and grotesque sometimes.
You’ve said you got into acting because it felt so much more satisfying creatively. Are you still finding that to be true?
Oh my God. Yeah. It’s becoming almost an unhealthy obsession. I’ve just gone back-to-back-to-back taking classes, exploring different styles of acting, reading tons of plays and wanting to get into theater, and it’s all based around realizing that as an actor you have to keep working your instrument. You have to keep trying stuff out, and if you just sit around L.A. and wait for a fucking job to come by you’re going to end up pretty bitter and pretty stale and pretty neurotic. Sitting around there waiting for something to happen is so toxic to me. I become so frustrated and upset and so I travel around looking for good teachers, good people to work with. I’m discovering more and more things that I want to do that I didn’t even know existed before. I feel much more sane when I’m working, and I don’t need to be on a movie set to work. I can be in the basement of some strange New York building with a bunch of people who really love what they do.
This interview has been edited and condensed.