Australians are really good at stealing New Zealanders and claiming them as their own. They’ve claimed Jane Campion, the Finn brothers, Phar Lap and Russell Crowe among others. Now they want Emily Barclay and they’re willing to strike a deal for her; New Zealand can have Russell Crowe back as long as Australia gets to keep Barclay for ever and ever.
Barclay’s first major role came in the 2004 New Zealand feature film In My Father’s Den. She plays Celia, a teenager in an uninspiring small town who strikes up a friendship with a world-weary journalist recently returned to the town after the death of his father. The den of the title is like a secret garden full of books that serves as the incubator to Celia’s dreams of travelling the world and becoming a writer. Barclay’s performance received universal praise, even cracking the hearts of stalwart Australian film critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton.
The difference between your regular young actors and Emily Barclay lies in fact that post-Den many would probably have faded fairly quickly into bit-part oblivion, featuring in solid yet ultimately rehashed versions of the characters that first got them noticed. But Barclay was smart; her next major role was completely different to the endearing Celia, thus neatly cementing her as a savvy and committed actor.
Meet Katrina Skinner. She’s a 19 year old single mum. She uses sex to get what she wants, her brother is in jail and she’s currently plotting the murder of her own father. Regardless of the lack of pearl-handled pistols and silk trousers, there is no doubt that Miss Skinner is the femme fatale to end all femmes fatale. Barclay plays the lead character of 2006′s Suburban Mayhem to perfection; her masterful manipulations are completely ugly and yet utterly compelling. The way she portrays Katrina’s sense of being owed something by the universe makes you want to slap her. Even though it is ‘just a film’, spending two hours in a dark room with Katrina will ensure you lock your windows and hope to hell she doesn’t know where you live.
In an interview with The Blurb, Barclay said of the role;
‘I wasn’t nasty to people but I certainly wasn’t myself on set and afterwards she stayed with me for quite a while which is disturbing. But when you take on someone like that and let them inhabit you it has to change you in some way for a while.‘
Just watching Katrina is scary enough; imagine being inhabited by her. Yikes.
Also starring alongside Barclay in Suburban Mayhem is the waif-like young Mia Wasikowska. While she has gone on to Hollywood and featured in a number of films, Barclay has not. After seeing the difference in their acting abilities, it is rather confounding to understand why. Perhaps Wasikowska—with her ethereal appearance reminiscent of Cate Blanchett—represents a type more easily accessioned by Hollywood. Her work has so far centered around period dramas, but her performances come off as somewhat tepid. Wasikowska inspires questions of whether that vacant look on her face is acting or her normal expression, whereas Barclay routinely acts the balls off anything she is thrown.
Barclay has also starred in a number of smaller productions in Australia, New Zealand and the UK, including Prime Mover (2009), Lou (2010), and Weekender (2011). However, Barclay is now more well known and loved for her work on stage. Hollywood’s loss has certainly been Australian theater’s gain. She has performed in three plays for the Belvoir St Theater in Sydney to date, including Gethsemane (2009), That Face (2010), and The Seagull (pictured above, 2011), and has also worked for the Melbourne Theater Company for their 2011 run of The Importance of Being Earnest, which also featured Geoffrey Rush dressed as a woman.
Most recently, Barclay was seen in the Sydney Opera House‘s season of This Is Our Youth opposite the squeezable Michael Cera and the similarly squeezable-but-first-please-have-a-bath Kieran Culkin. Set amongst the rich and aimless young people of 1980s New York City, this play has been able to inject new interest in the theater amongst younger generations wherever it is played. While the pull of the Cera-Culkin combine should never be underestimated, it was incredibly sage casting to put Barclay in as the neurotic Jessica. She held her own commendably and presented a wonderfully idiosyncratic version of Lonergan’s female character.
Emily Barclay will soon be seen in another Belvoir St production, this time in a production of Strange Interlude which starts its run on 5 May. Barclay plays the lead character Nina, a young woman who we follow over 25 years; from seeing her lose her first love in wartime, through various relationships and a less than inspiring marriage. Written in 1923 by Eugene O’Neill, it will be interesting to see how the Belvoir team have adapted this play for contemporary times. The video featured above gives you a fun behind-the-scenes look at current rehearsals of the play. It’s nice to see that even Emily Barclay Googles herself.
What makes Barclay special is that she has been able to do an incredibly rare thing; survive as an actor outside of the usual flee-Australia/New Zealand-for-North-America route. She is not restricted to one form, throwing herself whole-heartedly into any medium, even including a music video for Angus & Julia Stone’s song “Big Jet Plane“. While the waning of theater through chronic underfunding is routinely bemoaned, seeing Barclay perform tells you that at least it is not through poor quality that the death knell ringeth. And while you may hang out for the next Ryan Gosling film just in case he takes his kit off again, you will definitely wait for the next Emily Barclay feature for one hell of a cinematic ride.