The Knockturnal sat down to discuss the Australian classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock with stars Lily Sullivan and Lola Bessis. Based on the novel by Joan Lindsay, director Larysa Kondracki adapted the mysterious story into a six part episode series. The plot surrounds the sudden and strange disappearance of four girls while on a school trip, where they were never found.
The Knockturnal: Where were you guys when you found out about the role you got?
Lily Sullivan: I was in Australia. I had gone through quite a few auditions. I think especially in Australia, Miranda the character is an icon. And yeah I was at home with my mum who had showed me the movie when I was really young and I was extremely stoked.
Lola Bessis: I was in, I was about to say Paris but that’s not true! It was during Christmas holiday, so I was in the North of France in Normandy with my family to celebrate Christmas and I got this email. That’s not when I got the job, that’s when I got the first email from Larysa saying she wanted me to play Mademoiselle that she had to convince the entire network, et cetera, there were a lot of people. She said, “I know your work and I want you to do it, but still you have to do these two scenes and self-tape” and I did it and then I had a second round of self-tapes and she said “I finally showed it to the network, and production, and Foxtel, and everybody loves you so you’re in!” and that was after 3 weeks of sending self-tapes, et cetera. So I was very excited because I loved the movie and I had such a great feeling speaking with Larysa and hearing her thoughts and her vision. So I really wanted to do it. So I turned down another job, I packed my bags and I was like “Okay, I’m going to Australia”. And the day after they were like, “No you can’t do it because you’re French and union won’t allow you to get the Visa unless we audition all the Australian actresses who could potentially do a French accent” or whatever. So they did two weeks of auditions in Australia, and I was like ‘Okay’. I unpacked my bags and said “Okay, I’ll take another job in France’. A couple of weeks later they called me back and said “We couldn’t find the perfect French girl in Australia so you’re in”,
The Knockturnal: Since you are French were you aware of how big of a classic this Australian novel was?
Lola Bessis: No, I had seen the film when I was younger and I know that in France, people like, if you talk to someone in the streets, they will not know the movie, but it’s a big deal for like photographers and it’s a big reference in arts and every time I get to work with a new photographer, he puts a shot from Picnic at Hanging Rock in his mood board. I I had no idea that it was such myth in Australia.
Lily Sullivan: A lot of people believe that it’s true, the story, those girls went missing.
The Knockturnal: That’s what I was going to ask you. So it’s based on true events, is what it said. Did you guys believe it could actually be true, that the story could actually happen?
Lily Sullivan: Definitely. I know a lot of people who even when we were shooting were like ‘That’s not true?’, like I know Harrison who plays Mike believes it was a true story. But yeah once we read the scripts though it’s the way we have taken the story and where Larysa and the creatives and Natalie, it felt leaps and bounds away from the factual side of it. And the myth and the mystery and having the urban legend vibe about it, it was really exciting to explore and flesh out these characters that so many people believed were real.
Lola Bessis: And when you actually go to Hanging Rock, you’ll realize that this could totally have happened. Like, the place is magic.
Lily Sullivan: Yeah it’s eerie, there’s just something else about it.
Lola Bessis: It’s full of surreal vibes and those things could totally have happened there. But I think that more than the story itself, all the things that are in it, are very accurate and it happens all the day. I mean, first of all, girls disappear, and I remember that’s the thing when I was like 8 and in France, there was that girl Marion, she’s a young girl that disappeared when she was like 12 and there were posters of here everywhere, and that was so frightening to me. Like okay somebody is going to take me someday and I’m going to disappear. You know, so I think that’s part of the myth because it happens everywhere and it’s scary. But all the themes that the film is talking about, you know femininity and sexuality, empowerment, and female friendship, resilience, liberation, racism, everything, those themes are real and the issues are real and so yeah it’s kind of based on not one true story but several true stories.
The Knockturnal: Had you guys visited Hanging Rock before this or was that your first time.
Lily Sullivan: That was my first time
Lola Bessis: That was my first time in Australia, so yeah.
The Knockturnal: What about your characters drew you to the role?
Lily Sullivan: I think for me, the more and more I got to know all of the female characters in the script it was so exciting because there was room for all of us, we all get to play such different women in their own set of struggles, and for me to play Miranda, it’s really fun to not fear having strength and to really sit in a character that is comfortable with herself, it felt it was a great challenge to try and be comfortable within myself in that sense but also a woman that just respects the hell out of her intuition, so I love a girl who trusts her gut, cause it’s usually right. So that was fun.
Lola Bessis: Yeah, I think I relate to my character more and more as we were filming bc she’s a bit, not like Miranda, but like I said earlier, it feels like to me the way I built the character, Miranda is a better version of Mademoiselle. She’s like what she would dream of being and she becomes, well, Miranda disappears and she becomes the new Miranda as the show moves forward. At first in the beginning she’s like the good teacher and she’s very professional and very nice to the girls, but to the headmistress as well, but little by little with all those events happening she learns to say no, to say not exactly ‘fuck you’, but to fight very hard and to be truly herself and to be true to who she is and to do things that are important to her and what she believes is good and that’s what Miranda does. She’s the only one in the very beginning that could say no to the headmistress and to follow her own rules, and that’s what Mademoiselle does toward the end and that’s what I love about this character is that she evolves a lot and at first she’s what society expects her to be and then she becomes what she wants to be and that’s what I really relate with I think, and other girls can relate to that, because it’s a life journey. You’re here and you get on this earth and people tell you what you should do, and its unconscious like the general things like when your parents would give you a doll when you’re a kid and you play with the doll and you think that you just should be like a good mom or whatever, and then you learn what is really important to you and you learn that you can do other things with your life.
Lily Sullivan: It was very much an exciting and intoxicating set to be a part of, and with Natalie Dormer and Yael Stone who are such brilliant character actors and Larysa Kondracki taking the creative direction to another realm, you know for this show to be, this is before the ‘Me Too’ movement in the sense that it just shows you, it proves to you that this movement and change for females is happening organically and it’s not about the hashtag. It was amazing to feel present, and feel like our generation is creating room for both sexes.
Lola Bessis: And I think it also shows that women are not just victims.
Lily Sullivan: The show is so not victim-y. There’s no like, everyone is just trying to liberate themselves.
Lola Bessis: All the characters are just going through very difficult things and sometimes it’s terrible, but they’re strong and they fight and they’re bold.
The Knockturnal: Especially while watching I think at least for me it was very, even though it took place such a long time ago, it was still very modern.
Lily Sullivan: Totally. That’s always so exciting – it wasn’t a stuffy period case, it felt muscular and crazy and whack and it just kind of shows you that humans will always be dealing with themes of identity and trying to exist and trying to belong but, it’s now about how we let people do that, and how we let people do what they want to do and that actually just breathes a much better world. The time where humans tried to dominate nature to another degree, it’s so weird, it’s such a weird time to tap into.
Lola Bessis: I love period novels and period films but it’s true that sometimes you can’t really relate to it because it’s so different. But that’s not the case.
Lily Sullivan: Totally.
Lola: The show, it’s just so, maybe we’re not objective enough.
Lily: No, but I feel like it’s a big enough ensemble, there’s so many scenes I never got to see because you have your own character’s journey and then you’re like, ‘What I didn’t know that that happened!’
Lola Bessis: I really enjoyed watching the show, and I even forgot that I was in it! With Larysa, you have no idea when you’re on set what it will become. Sometimes I feel so comfortable but sometimes I feel like I wasn’t good in this scene, and she’s like “no worries, I know what I’m doing,” and she knows because the editing is like amazing. She created, when you’re on set and you see a camera, I mean I’m a director, and I’ve directed films, but I have no idea how she does that, like for example, the upside down shots, I have no idea how she’s doing it.
Lily Sullivan: Like when Miranda opens up in the fourth wall, she said, “Look into the camera you’re supposed to tell your secrets to and never look at the actor, just look down the barrel,” – like what? It was very playful on set. It was very exciting.
Lola Bessis: Yeah, or a slow motion, you have no idea what’s happening or also in first production, the color correction is super strong like I wasn’t expecting it to be so colorful and bright and you know, it adds a lot it, and you know, makes it very modern because you’re only used to seeing, you know photos or drawings from 1900’s and most of them are like black and white. And you get to see the actual colors of the dresses and everything is so strong and the music that she uses as well. So yeah I really enjoyed watching it. It surprised me a lot in a good way.
The Knockturnal: Do you guys have a favorite scene that you filmed?
Lily Sullivan: It’s so hard – there are so many. I think once you’re on the rock, it’s pretty spectacular, all shooting all of that where you just, you know the mystery of the story, I think to then have scenes that actually you can immerse yourself because you are in the magnificence of Hanging Rock which is, the rock itself is mesmerizing. So I think having that and not doing it with green screen, so I think it was quite intoxicating. But otherwise I think the bond is shooting stuff with my sisters and having fun and getting delirious and making art together is my favorite part. All of it. It was very hard but it made my closest friends.
The Knockturnal: I mean, part of why everyone loves it is because it’s an unresolved mystery. Do you guys have your own theories as to what the ending is?
Lily Sullivan: I mean there are always theories bouncing around. Everyone’s characters are very much on their own journeys and I think the disappearance just makes you ask more questions and that’s I think, the point of the series. It’s these characters spinning out of control from their own sense of the unknown.
Lola Bessis: Actually I think it’s natural, it’s human to always try to get answers, but I also think that’s what makes it so good and for my character I think she has no answers and she’s trying to discover the truth so I didn’t want to know more than that I just wanted to be at the same level as the character. But I mean, life is full of mystery and that’s what is good about it otherwise there is no point of living it.
Lily Sullivan: I’m always going to choose the supernatural one because it’s way more fun!
Lola Bessis: I mean I went to go see a psychic reader once but why do you want to know your future? I mean yeah the mystery and the magic in life is the good part of it.
Lily Sullivan: There are lots of theories though, lots of theories. And I hope that’s kind of what’s like, bled throughout the whole series, is that you’re itching towards an answer, but actually life leaves you high and dry usually. And that it’s the boogie, it’s not the destination.
Lola Bessis: It’s endless possibilities.
Lily Sullivan: Wow it’s getting so existential here, I love it.
Lola Bessis: I’d say in like a crime movie or whatever, there would be like three potential possibilities, like they did that or that or that. But there is a supernatural or spiritual feel to it so it’s endless.
The Knockturnal: Your character [Mademoiselle] was one of the few that found love. Do you think – he had just proposed – do you think they end up together?
Lola Bessis: Oh yes, I think so. Yeah, it’s true love, nobody forced her to be with that person and she, I think the beginning, he was trying, I mean he’s been proposing several times and she’s just like, “I wanna be free, I wanna be Miranda, I don’t want to be married and I have time and I wanna enjoy being by myself,” but then you can’t do anything against love and when she falls in love, she’s like, “Okay that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life, I guess”. But that wasn’t planned, like Irma’s story for instance, who had planned, probably since she was a very little girl to get married, that’s a plan, that’s a life plan. And I think plans never work out.
Lily Sullivan: Not when they’re based off of other people’s ideas of a woman’s journey.
Lola Bessis: Mademoiselle near the end she doesn’t plan anything and she’s like, “I don’t want to get married,” then like she just falls in love and you know.
Lily Sullivan: When you’re not looking for it, it finds you.
The Knockturnal: You guys are so close in age, how was it playing a teacher to her?
Lily Sullivan: I think that was a choice, to show you how easily, and even Mrs. Appleyard being so close to our age as well, how easily and quickly it can go very wrong. How much you can fall into the system, or not. And I think it’s supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. As opposed to, I think if you were much older, it kind of removes you.
Lola Bessis: But yeah, my character, she’s the one, she’s very close to the girls, and she’s supposed to be a bigger sister to them. It’s funny because when I tell people I am in Picnic at Hanging Rock, they ask me, “Oh are you one of the girls who disappear?” And I’m like “No, I’m playing a teacher!”
Lily Sullivan: They ask you if you play a professor now and you’re like, “Yes I do!”
Lola Bessis: They darkened my hair a little bit and they lightened the girls so I don’t know if that helps. But yeah I think that it’s a choice that they are close in age, and that makes my character be in between two worlds: she’s closer to the girls in terms of age and also mentality but she’s a professor and she has to behave like it. So she’s always in between those two worlds. She ends up choosing the youth.
The Knockturnal: How do you guys feel about boarding school now?
Lily Sullivan: I’m quite glad I didn’t go! I don’t know, I think I loved so much working so closely with all my ladies so for me it was actually kind of enjoyable for me to jump into it from an acting point of view and from a playful creative side it was great, but to be actually at a boarding school, people push their own values on to you and restrictions – no. Don’t think I like it very much. But from a creative sense, boarding school full of ‘find your own voice and do your own thing’ in the Victorian era, the iron rule as one might say.
Lola Bessis: Agreed, one hundred percent
Picnic at Hanging Rock is now streaming on Amazon Prime!