Teresa Palmer and Miranda Otto on ‘The Clearing’ and Cult Documentaries

Jun 1, 2023

Teresa Palmer is no stranger to intense roles, having survived everything from a zombie apocalypse in Warm Bodies to evil spirits in Lights Out to a kidnapping in Berlin Syndrome. Miranda Otto is often larger than life in the projects she takes on, known for iconic roles like Eowyn in Lord of the Rings and Zelda Spellman in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Both of their resumes naturally lend themselves to their parts in The Clearing. The Clearing is a chilling, eight-part psychological thriller series about an Australian cult. Palmer’s character has a terrifying history with the cult, whereas Otto takes on the role of the disturbing organization’s leader.

I got a chance to speak to Palmer and Otto about working with the show’s young cast, how they prepared to play their complicated characters, and their favorite cult documentaries.

COLLIDER: I have to say: I love horror movies, but this series gave me nightmares. Miranda, I’ll start with you because you are terrifying in the show. Obviously, you work a lot with children, particularly Julia Savage, who’s also incredible. I’m curious about what it was like working with her in this very intense environment and how you prepared for some of those scenes

MIRANDA OTTO: Well, you know, some of it was really just kind of happening on the day. You do all the preparations for the character. Julia and the rest of the children — they were all kind of working together and rehearsing when they were working on all my hair and makeup and trying to work out all the looks for the show. And they purposely kept us kind of separate because they wanted the children to have that authenticity of feeling like, “Oh, special lady. Oh, kind of scary. Must be well-behaved,” kind of thing. So that kind of got worked into the whole process of how we worked. But Julia was fantastic — she’s young but just so well-prepared, and some of the scenes with her are some of the very first scenes that we actually shot in the whole thing. So it was really just a process of working out how to manipulate her and what was the most effective in the scene. [Laughs]

Sort of keeping on that topic: Teresa, you don’t really share screen time with Julia, but there’s obviously a connection there with you playing the same character. Did you have to work with her at all to develop those mannerisms so they felt consistent and like the same character throughout?

TERESA PALMER: Well, Julia actually filmed a lot of her stuff before I did.

OTTO: Yeah, they started it off.

PALMER: Yeah, the kids started it off. So it was great because I knew that I had access to hours of footage that I could go and filter through and watch all of her beautiful scenes. And her work is so stunning. She’s so nuanced. I think she was only 15 or 16 when she was shooting it. There were particular things that she would do with her face and her mannerisms — the way she used her hands and her body — and I wanted to study that so that I could use some of them later in life. But a much more fractured version because, obviously, my [version of the] character’s older, and she’s been through a lot between when we’ve seen her at a younger age to when we are introduced to my character in the show. There was a lot I could take — it was like a smorgasbord of different things — and I definitely use some of it and applied it to my character.

RELATED: ‘The Clearing’ Review: Miranda Otto Is a Terrifying Cult Leader in Gripping Thriller Series

That definitely shines through. Miranda, I know that there are a lot of different ways to approach playing a villainous figure. I know some actors have to like develop a strange sort of empathy or connection to them somehow, which I imagine is very difficult when it’s someone like this. What was your way of understanding and getting into her mindset?

OTTO: Well, I think first, as an actor, you’ve kind of got to not judge it even though on some level, when you first read it, you’re judging it and going like, “This is this kind of person.” But then, once I’m in it, I have to let that go and think about it from my — being Adrienne’s — point of view of what I need and what I want. And I’m definitely working from that.

I’ve done a lot of research over the years about cults. I’m really fascinated by what is it that draws people in and then what is it that changes so drastically when they’re in there. What are the amazingly good intentions that you have going in, and how is that kind of corrupted? Some of it was even rehearsing on camera, to be honest. It was really only once you were in there with people that you could find what it is that actually works on people. How do you get control over somebody?

Teresa, your character is obviously strong and resilient, but I feel like her biggest sort of superpower is her empathy, in a way. Where do you think that empathy stems from?

PALMER: Well, she was one of the oldest in this experience as a young child, so she was almost like the mother hen in many ways taking care of these younger children and looking out for them. So I think she’s always had a nurturing quality about her. She is an empath. She’s been through the wringer. She’s gone to hell and back, and she’s a survivor. So she recognizes the vulnerability in everyone, and I think that’s a really powerful trait to have.

What I loved about her when I read the script — I just thought she was so, so many things. She’s so many colors. She can be both brave but also terrified, and she can have insecurities but then also strength. She’s just a very complex character, and I felt that was so human about her. Like, oh, you can be all these things. There’s room for all of it to coexist.

I know this is based on a real cult — The Family — which I did so much research into and went down such a rabbit hole about. It’s so intriguing and interesting. I’m curious, how much research did you do into it? And did you get to speak to any of the people who were actually in it or involved?

OTTO: It’s actually not really based on any particular cult. I mean, it’s based on a novel, which is a piece of fiction, and then this is then again removed from that once it went into a series. And so we’re really basing our characters more on all different types of cult leaders. I’d done a lot of research into things, from as broad as Waco, NXIVM, the Rajneesh because my auntie was in that when I was a kid. So I didn’t feel like I was drawing from any particular person. I was very much drawing from many different areas and sort of finding my own thing from the page and from my imagination.

PALMER: Yeah. The same. There wasn’t any single source of inspiration. I looked at the book, but I didn’t dive into it too deeply. I just thought, “I’m gonna read the script, and I’m gonna kind of massage this character in a way and use all the different things that I researched.” I watched documentaries. I loved Wild, Wild Country.

OTTO: Oh my god. It’s so good.

PALMER: It was incredible. And I actually had read books from him, Osho, when I first came to LA. I’d gone to this little spiritual bookshop, and I was like, “Oh, this sounds really interesting.” And then, of course, the documentary came out. I was like, “Oh my gosh — it could have been me.” But it’s funny because, when you look into cults, you realize that people who fall for cults — it’s not reserved for just the down and out or the vulnerable. It can be anyone who’s interested in bettering their lives.

OTTO: Yeah, it’s about people trying to find a community and trying to find a better part of themselves. They feel like something is missing — they feel unseen — and then suddenly, someone comes along and says, “I know the world is morally complex and it’s hard to navigate, but I have the answers. All you need to do is trust in me and our people here, all of us, together, our community.” And then, next thing, you’re kind of giving over all your perspective to them, and they’re encompassing you in this world, and you’re not allowed to see outsiders, and then suddenly, before you know it, you’ve totally been taken away from it.

Teresa, I know you mentioned some, but I was curious if you had a favorite cult documentary because I’m also very into that genre.

PALMER: I love NXIVM. I’m a true crime podcast gal — I listen to all the true crime podcasts. The NXIVM podcast was fascinating — just the firsthand retelling of these stories. And that is the part that I find fascinating is that really, it’s everyone going in with these great intentions of self-work and “I just want to be the better version of myself.” And it’s just such a fine line of how it can go from just having a regular spiritual ideology into something that becomes really dogmatic and obsessive and abusive. It’s just a wild thing, and all of that research really helped imprint the work that we did in the show.

OTTO: The one about the Sarah Lawrence one was really fascinating. Because it really dealt with, how do you actually come out? How do you come out of that kind of brainwashing? How do you find your way back to yourself?

That’s been on my list forever, so I’ll make that my next watch.

OTTO: Oh, you must!

The Clearing is available to stream on Hulu

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