A veteran of theatre, film, and television, Genevieve O’Reilly is an actor who has done it all, seamlessly transitioning from one medium to the next without breaking stride. Whether it’s Shakespearean theatre, a recurring role on Showtime sitcom Episodes, or taking on the role of Mon Mothma in recent Star Wars films (and the upcoming Andor Disney+ series), O’Reilly always shows up and blends into her characters remarkably well.
The Dry, her latest film, presents one of her strongest roles to date. As Gretchen, she is faced with a tragedy in her local Australian farm town that brings up long-buried secrets from a shared past with Aaron Falk (Eric Bana), a Federal Agent who left town long ago and has just made his return. The two hit it off well at first, picking up right where they left off, but those secrets are simmering just beneath the surface, waiting to explode as Aaron investigates the new crime that brought him back home.
Directed by Robert Connolly, The Dry is an Australian film through and through, something which O’Reilly relished the opportunity to get to work on. While its mystery storyline follows the tradition of other classic films, the landscape offers it a specificity that you won’t get anywhere else. As noted in our review of the film, it’s something that takes The Dry to the next level, and it was a major talking point in my recent discussion with O’Reilly about the film.
Charting her involvement in the project from the moment she rushed out to the bookstore to read the highly acclaimed novel by Jane Harper that the film is based on to the massive financial success it received in Australia when it released in theaters earlier this year, O’Reilly and I discuss the journey of the film and why this character was one that she knew she needed to play.
Read below for my interview with Genevieve O’Reilly:
Mitchell Beaupre: You have a really varied career where you bounce back and forth fluidly between the worlds of theatre, television, and both large scale and independent films. Do you get excited by switching it up like that so often?
Genevieve O’Reilly: I do love different mediums of storytelling. At its heart it’s similar work because you’re working on a character, but theatre, film and television all stretch different muscles as an actor. Theatre requires perhaps a broader, bigger muscle while film requires a focus on storytelling because quite quickly you have to lend a narrative and an emotional connection with characters, and then long form television allows us a slower burn for it.
MB: Your first ever films were the Matrix sequels. What was that like, stepping into your first films and having them be these mammoth productions where you’re working with the Wachowskis?
GO: It was extraordinary! What I learned so quickly there was that when you’re stepping on a set like that you’re not just stepping into a film, but into an entire world that these people created. The Wachowskis had built this whole world with so many different levels and it all lived in their minds in such an expressive and creative way. They spoke about it so passionately so that even though I had a tiny part in it I still felt like I was part of a world there.
MB: The novel that The Dry is based on is enormous in Australia. Were you familiar with it already when you signed on for the part? What drew you to taking on the role of Gretchen?
GO: I think I was one of the three people in the world who hadn’t read the novel, so when Rob and our extraordinary casting director Jane Norris sent me the script I spoke to one of my Australian friends because I was doing a play in New York, and she was so incredibly effusive about the book and loved it so much that I had to rush to a bookstore in Manhattan to pick it up and read it. So then I read the script and began to speak with Rob about it. He spoke so enthusiastically about not just the book but also about his vision for the film, how he felt that through the language of cinema he could possibly elevate the book. That was what he was reaching for, and that’s what really excited me.
MB: Speaking of that idea of translating it to cinema, you do really get a sense of the landscape in the film and how much that informs the community – that idea of The Dry being represented with the drought in the region, and the kind of impact that has on these people. How much did that inform your process of getting into the headspace of Gretchen?
GO: Something that Rob and the producers all achieved, something extraordinary, was establishing this landscape as one of the most potent characters in the piece. Through that language of cinema you get that romanticism, but also its threat, and they work simultaneously. I think it’s one of the reasons the film is as compelling as it is, because they used that drought ridden landscape to really draw us in. Also the fact that we’re seeing in real life what that fire can do to Australia now in a way that perhaps we hadn’t seen before. We’ve witnessed the real terror of that landscape, which is ever present, and I think consciously or subconsciously that feeds into the way that I watch the film now.
MB: Gretchen is a character who in other versions of this story could have been rather underwritten, quite stale and one-dimensional. Were you excited when you read the script and spoke to Rob about the part to be able to bring such multi-dimensionality to a character who oftentimes is poorly served in these types of films?
GO: Absolutely. There is always that fear within a big mystery film like this that a character like Gretchen might sort of get lost, but Rob spoke to me so strongly about women in these towns and how they’re running farms, picking up where there is great despair. We spoke about these great women shouldering a lot of the responsibilities of those farms. I was reaching for that, for her to be a single mom running a farm, and a good friend. She’s a bit complicated with a history that we don’t have to apologize for, or even talk about too much. There’s this understanding that she is a woman who has lived a life, who has made choices, and is confident about those choices, and Rob and Eric both allowed great space for that. Eric is such an extraordinary actor to work with. He’s intensely collaborative, he’s very interested and asks questions. He’s so open, and we had this lovely collaborative working relationship that was really special.
MB: That relationship between Aaron and Gretchen really is the sort of crux of the movie. Aaron comes in after having left for so many years, while Gretchen has remained there shouldering the weight of this town and what happened in their past, yet she’s also happy to see him and they pick up right where they left off. Could you talk about developing that relationship, and working with Eric to capture that dynamic between the two characters?
GO: I think there’s something universal in all cultures when you grow up and you have these friendships that are there when you’re at this turning point of youth and so they’re raw and risky and tender all at once. Then life happens and some of those people leave, and some of them stay, especially within these kinds of small communities. The great challenge between Eric and I is that when Falk comes back there must be that immediate history there between these two people. We all experience that when you have these relationships that exist at that sort of fulcrum and then you go back and they pick up without even having to say anything. That history lives between you, and so Eric and I spoke a lot about that relationship, and how Gretchen is really generous to him when he comes back. She’s not hard on him for leaving, instead she’s just thrilled to see him again. They shared that youth, but they also share these secrets, and that’s at the heart of their relationship. Those shared secrets and that willingness to hold secrets for each other is beautiful and broken at the same time.
MB: Gretchen and Aaron’s arc has an interesting trajectory throughout the film that builds to this very emotional climax when there’s a confrontation between the two in one particularly wrenching scene. What was the process like of getting yourself into the right emotional headspace for that scene, and working with Eric to develop it?
GO: It’s almost like a play within a play. I felt their relationship was like this three-act play with each of their scenes. First, you had the scene at the farm with the rabbits and the gun. Then you have some of that lovely kind of flirting, this tease of romance and seduction with their past tying them together and connecting them so deeply. Then it does climax with this awful fallout between these two people who are so lonely, and love each other deeply, but there’s this secret that lies between them that neither of them are able to talk about easily because it’s weighed on them so much. Eric and I spoke about that scene a lot, and Rob really gave us a lot of time and room in that regard. My memory of it is that he shot it like a play where we did it all around the same few days and it was all very focused without many people around. I loved shooting that set of scenes because that really is the heart of Gretchen and Falk, and it allows them to both be so complicated.
MB: So much of the sense of community in the film is influenced by the fact that you actually shot it in Australia, and it was developed as this authentically Australian film. It’s very homegrown, which gives it a texture and realness that feels so much more alive. Was that something that really drew you to the project?
GO: Yes, it feels very truthfully Australian. We stayed in these towns while we were filming. A number of the people in those scenes were actually locals. There’s a scene for instance where Eric and I are in a pub together sitting and talking, and the woman playing the waiter was a local woman who had never acted before. So many of those scenes were populated by local people who came to be in the film, so we were really sharing the filmmaking experience with the people from those towns. Not only was the authenticity of the cinematic vision really ambitious, but it is so populated by people from those areas as well. I also just want to quickly say that all of the characters within the piece are so textured and well-drawn. I felt like there was no judgement in any moment from the creators, from Rob or the cinematographer or anyone, on any of these characters. All of these characters exist within the tapestry of this town, and are allowed to be developed by this extraordinary cast.
MB: The film had the highest opening weekend ever at the box-office in Australia for an Australian independent film. Particularly after so many theaters had been shut down for the past year, how did it feel to have Australians show up with so much support for the film?
GO: I live in London, so I felt separate from it a bit, but I was so thrilled that Australians loved the film. Australians are never going to pretend. They’re so quick to be honest with their opinions and tell it like it is, so the fact that so many people went and told their friends to go and see it was absolutely thrilling. There could be no better review than that for me, for people to go see it and then tell their friends to go, and they loved it as well.
The Dry will be available in theaters and on VOD starting May 21st
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]