By MICHAEL GINGOLD
In the independent psychological thriller BURN, Australian actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey finds herself in the wilds of upstate New York, portraying a young woman who’s more than a touch on the unbalanced side. She took some time for a chat with RUE MORGUE about the film and her unique role.
BURN, written and directed by Mike Gan and currently in select theaters and on VOD from Momentum Pictures, casts Cobham-Hervey as Melinda, who works in a roadside gas station/convenience store and has some odd habits, like taking stealthies of customers on her cell phone. On a wintry night, a desperate would-be robber named Billy (Josh Hutcherson) tries to hold up Melinda and her co-worker Sheila (Suki Waterhouse), but thanks to Melinda’s unbalanced psyche, things don’t go the way anyone expects. The film (see our set visit here and interview with Gan here) is an attention-grabbing vehicle for Cobham-Hervey, who will also be seen this year as singer Helen Reddy in I AM WOMAN, which opens next month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
What were your impressions of Melinda when you first read the script?
I was really drawn to the character; I found her quite fascinating on the page. I’ve always been interested in the more unusual people we don’t always get to talk about, and Melinda was someone who really stood out. I was intrigued to know the whys and the hows of how her brain worked.
Did you audition with any particular scene?
I didn’t actually audition for this film! I believe Mike had seen some of my other work; maybe it’s scary that he thought I was right for this role, I don’t know what that means [laughs]! But we had a terrific conversation and talked a lot about the script, and we had similar visions for the character and the story, and very similar tastes in film, so it felt like a natural fit.
Were there any moments of behavior or lines of dialogue that you brought to the role?
Mike’s a really collaborative director, which I love, and we spent a lot of time talking and coming up with things together, which was beautiful. You don’t often get that time on a movie, and we certainly didn’t have time while we were filming—it was only a 14-day shoot—but we did spend two or three days before we started talking through the character. I found it very helpful as an actor to find some physical traits for her, and reasons behind everything she does in the film, because obviously, some of the things she does are quite questionable [laughs]. I had to find ways to lean in and emphasize at every moment, and Mike was great at being part of that conversation. For a first-time feature director, he was so in control and knew what he wanted, and he enjoys the process with the actors, which is something I appreciate on set.
Had you done any thrillers or films like this before, or played any characters similar to Melinda?
Not really. It was the first time I’d done an American film and had to perform with an American accent, which was a bit of an adventure. I’ve always been interested in the outcast and the oddball, so I have some played some characters in a similar vein, but I’m not sure I’ve played anyone quite like Melinda!
Even though she does odd and questionable things, Melinda is also the center of audience sympathy in BURN, so how did you maintain that balance?
That was important to me, and I spent a lot of time working up a backstory for her, and thinking about how she came to be this person. I see her as a naive, innocent dreamer who is desperate for connection and love and to be seen, and I think everyone can relate to that. So I tried to lean into that part of her, and although she might sometimes do it in ways that don’t quite work, she’s always trying to make positive connections. Unfortunately, the way the night plays out, all of those attempts don’t quite land the right way.
Since this was your first U.S. film, was shooting in a rural American milieu a different sort of experience for you?
It was very different! It was also snowing the whole time, and there was a blizzard that shut us down one day, actually. I grew up in Australia, so snow was a whole new world for me; that was very exciting. It was so, so freezing; we had to put heat packs on the camera to keep it working since it was so cold. But on a film being shot that quickly, and in such a remote part of the world, you do come together and form a family, so we all became very close during the making of the film.
Was it a challenge to build and maintain the character on such a short schedule?
Well, I had about a month to prepare during which I wasn’t doing any other work, so I spent a lot of time writing notes and making notations in my script to make sure Melinda was hitting the right beats at the right moments. This is obviously a very dramatic story, and a lot happens in a very short amount of time, and it was important to me that we could really track her emotions, because the whole story is told through her eyes and you do need some empathy and understanding for someone who is doing very questionable things. It was important to make sure I had that arc all clear in my head.
Did it help that you were shooting in a real gas station/convenience store, instead of on sets?
It was great having that one location; it meant we had a lot more time to work there. The store sort of becomes another main character in the film, and being able to block and use that space, it was almost like doing theater. We could really dance around the space, and make that part of how we worked out the dynamics between the characters. And when you’re somewhere so far from your own home, that pushes you to live within that world and within that character.
Melinda is at odds with Sheila and Billy over the course of the story, so was it ever a situation where you were keeping your distance from Waterhouse and Hutcherson?
No. I wish I could be more serious like that as an actor, but we had too much fun. They were lovely, and we all had a good time, but that being said, we were shooting so, so quickly that there was not a lot of time to talk or hang around on set. We were pretty much shooting from when we got there right till the end. We were doing all night shoots as well; we didn’t see the sun for two weeks, which was a very strange experience.
What were the most difficult scenes to shoot?
That’s a very good question; I’m not sure if there’s a particular one that stands out. It’s always nervewracking on a quick shoot just because you don’t have a lot of time to get things right, and you only get one or two cracks at it. If there was a particular scene that was hard, it was probably a random one you would never expect that just felt odd and difficult to get right.
Are you a fan of this type of film, and do you have any favorites in the genre that influenced the way you played this role?
I took inspiration from a lot of different mediums and places. Mike and I talked a lot about our different influences as artists, and I can’t think of one particular thing we were going off for this project. But I’m always interested in films that look at the world through a different perspective, and Melinda has a very different perspective of the world, and that’s what excited Mike about with the character. It’s always great when you leave the cinema after watching a film and have to discuss it and try and work it out, and everyone comes out with a different perspective. I feel like we can all have very different opinions of what we think about Melinda and her morals.