Guy Pearce and Julia Savage on The Clearing’s Miranda Otto-led cult
May 27, 2023
Guy Pearce is a legend in Australia, having gotten his start (like fellow Aussie stars Margot Robbie and Chris Hemsworth) on the popular series Neighbours. Since then, he’s gone on to have international success in everything from comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to mystery thrillers L.A. Confidential and Memento, even winning an Emmy for the 2011 miniseries Mildred Pierce alongside Kate Winslet. Julia Savage is well on her way to having an equally exciting career. At just 16 years old, she’s already been nominated for an AACTA and AFCA for her performance in Blaze and appeared as the younger version of Emily Browning’s character in Prime Video’s Class of ‘07.
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Savage is once again playing a younger version of an established actress in The Clearing as Amy, with Teresa Palmer starring as her adult self. As one of the eldest — and most empathetic — children in the terrifying cult at the center of The Clearing, Amy is, in many ways, the heart of the show, with the role requiring her to go to some dark places. Pearce plays Dr. Bryce Latham, who works closely with the cult’s leader, Adrienne (Miranda Otto).
I got a chance to speak with Pearce and Savage about shooting some of the show’s most intense scenes, why they’re both grateful for the leadership of director Jeffrey Walker, cult documentaries they watched to prepare for this show, and more.
Image via Hulu
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COLLIDER: First of all, congratulations on the show. It’s so terrifying in the most riveting, exciting way. Julia, I want to start with you because I feel like you have some of the most intense scenes. Some of the ones that really stuck out to me are the ones that you share one-on-one with Miranda Otto, who’s pretty scary in this. What was it like shooting those scenes with her?
JULIA SAVAGE: Yeah, the very intense scenes had to do with the administering of drugs and things like that, but it was a very safe and respectful set. It was a very trusting environment, and Miranda was absolutely lovely to work with. I think that when you’re dealing with such material — especially with a young person and that kind of complex of her godlike character to who she views as her chosen one, her daughter — it’s obviously very heavy content. But on a set where we kept it light, it was really enjoyable to film out.
Obviously, everyone gets nervous, especially for some of the heavier scenes, which my character did have quite her hand in, but it was a trusting environment. For the LSD scene, Jeffrey Walker, who directed the first part of it, was right there kind of guiding me through it. And having that relationship with the director and with Miranda in scenes that are so intense is really important. It’s I think what allowed me to go to those places with that character.
Speaking of Jeffrey, Guy, you’ve said that directors have often factored into your decision to take on certain roles and projects. What was your experience like working with Jeffrey and also Gracie Otto?
GUY PEARCE: Well, Jeffrey is a very old friend of mine. I knew him when he was a little boy, so I’ve known him for many years. When he was a little boy, he was like a little old man, and now that he’s a little old man, he’s like a little boy. He’s like Benjamin Button. He’s just brilliant and the most compassionate, considerate, communicative, respectful human being that I think I know with wonderful ideas and great inspiration. So I would do anything for him. As Julia points out, it’s a very respectful set, particularly, I think, being led by Jeff.
Obviously, Gracie, as well, when she came on board. But she’s a very different energy altogether. She’s kind of a great [pumps fist] knockabout, you know. She’s lovely, lots of fun, but highly respectful as well. But Jeff, he and I are like old brothers. We really know each other well, and I worked with him on Jack Irish, and Matt Cameron, who wrote this along with Elise [McCredie], also wrote Jack Irish. It’s a little team that I kind of know, so it was really easy for me to sort of slip into it.
I didn’t have a great deal to do like Julia and the others did, but I love actually coming into something where you’re not necessarily carrying the show but you’ve got a really integral part and to understand the importance of that role and exactly how present to be or not to be. And Jeff really respects that as well, so it’s great.
SAVAGE: Jeff also having been an actor himself, especially at such a young age, really had this way about him. As Guy was saying, he really knew how to handle the content with such young children, and it just felt like fun and was a very kind and loving set.
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Julia, it’s so interesting because you kind of know where your character ends up a couple of years down the road, with Teresa Palmer playing her as well. When I spoke to her, she talked about how she would really watch your performance and try to take some of your mannerisms and things. I’m curious if there are any seeds that you planted that you knew would have a payoff later.
SAVAGE: That’s very interesting. It’s quite interesting when it’s reversed because I guess Teresa’s character would look back on her childhood, and that could impact her future and the way her character is then. But I really didn’t read much about Teresa’s character Freya because I think that Amy doesn’t really know what’s gonna happen in her future. And I think that, because she’s in this cult, this is her life right now. This is what she sees for the foreseeable future. This is what she expects the rest of her life to be, taking after Maitreya and all of that. So I didn’t really do much exploration of Teresa’s character because I think they really are stand-alone in their different time periods.
Guy, you were talking about how your character obviously isn’t the lead, but I do think he’s very interesting because he’s sort of a perpetrator but also a victim in a way as well, which is such an interesting position. I’m curious how you found that balance and that juxtaposition of falling into the trap but also being complicit in the abuse.
PEARCE: Yeah, had Bryce not discovered [Adrienne] as a student of his at university, he probably would have just kept on lecturing at university with all these weird and wonderful ideas that he had about metaphysics and alternate ways of living and alternate ways of thinking. Probably, he would have just been parked on a shelf somewhere, everybody thinking he’s a bit of a kook and he’s of another time and he’s a bit dated in his thinking. Or is he sort of ahead of his time but quite socially inept? Then Miranda’s character sort of coming up to him at university saying, “I know exactly what you’re saying, and I really want to be part of this,” and something cracking opening for him as far as going, “There could be a better voice for everything I think than my own. Here it is in this glorious, beautiful, charismatic vision of loveliness. Off you go.”
And so he is complicit, absolutely. I think he’s quite responsible. And because I think, on some level, there’s part of him emotionally that can just cut off from any negative ramifications of what’s going on. The way these children are treated…I forget what the line is exactly, but I have a line about when earthly delights are taken away from these children, that’s when you really grow. So any pain and suffering that he sees them going through, he would actually see as a step in the right direction. So let’s keep on doing it. I’m sure there might come a point, if it became too out of control and too torturous, where you’d go, “Hang on. This is not what I’m talking about.” But he was able to, for want of a better phrase, turn a blind eye to that stuff because he just saw a much bigger picture constantly.
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I’m personally a big fan of cult documentaries. I think they’re so fascinating. I’m wondering if you watched any to prepare for this and if there were any that you either found particularly helpful or just particularly interesting.
PEARCE: Well, I mean, I’ve seen a few along the way. I was a bit fascinated with David Koresh. In fact, I went to Waco, Texas, years ago back in the late nineties when I was working not far from there. I thought, “I’ve gotta go to Waco.” And so I went there. Of course, I didn’t see anything because the whole place burnt down. Recently, since having shot our show, I saw The Vow, but I’ve seen things on Jonestown and various other cults that have existed before. And obviously, there’s a lot on Charles Manson, as well as various other ones that aren’t so infamous.
They’re all intriguing. They’re all this power dynamic that exists and the vulnerability on one hand, and then, on the other hand, you’ve got the leader who sort of easily ends up with some sort of god complex. It’s just such a recipe for disaster. So they’re all fascinating — as you point out, you’re quite fascinated by them as well. The interesting thing about them, in the same way that you might look at religion — Christianity or whatever — is we’re all looking for answers. We’re all looking for a better way of life. We’re all looking for community. We’re all looking for kind of a way to feel connected and help each other through life. And so that need that we have is taken advantage of quite often.
I think the cult in our story is even more sort of extreme because it’s not like these children went and chose to be in this cult. They weren’t 18 going, “I feel really lost in life, and I’m failing at university, and my boyfriend doesn’t love me, so I’m gonna go join this group of people and feel better about myself.” These kids were taken when they were babies. So this is a really extreme, unusual kind of version, I think. And also it’s weird because it’s run by a woman. That’s weird.
The Clearing is available to stream on Hulu.
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