Two years ago, Judy Davis received a best-actress Oscar nomination for her work in "A Passage to India." After that, the Australian actress disappeared from view, at least on this continent. Only PBS fans might have caught sight of her last season in an "American Playhouse" production of Clifford Odets' "Rocket to the Moon," with John Malkovich.
In Los Angeles recently, Davis, who says she doesn't like interviews, was persuaded to sit down with her husband, Colin Friels, and talk about their new film, "Kangaroo."
A slender woman, Davis initially perched tensely in a chair in the couple's hotel suite, letting her husband do the talking. But gradually she took over, proving to be remarkably quotable.
"Acting is a hard profession," she said warily. "First, there is all the paraphernalia that surrounds the actual job, which is in itself a mine field to sort your way through. Then there's the reality of being an actor. Unless you play the same part all the time, it can be very psychologically disturbing if you actually attempt to get away from your own persona."
In her eight-year film career, Davis, 31, has been a prostitute ("Winter of Our Dreams"); a terrorist ("The Final Option"); a radical ("Heatwave"); a vamp ("Rocket to the Moon"), and a sexual innocent ("My Brilliant Career" and "A Passage to India").
In "Kangaroo," Davis plays the worldly German-born wife of British novelist Richard Somers. One of D.H. Lawrence's lesser-known books, "Kangaroo" grew out of an eight-week visit he and his wife made to Australia in 1922. Although the story is not autobiographical, Richard and Harriet Somers bear a remarkable resemblance to the Lawrences.
"Harriet Somers was a great character," Davis said, "and her world was so interesting to be in." She regrets the movie couldn't focus more on the husband/wife relationship.
"We stuck to the novel," she said. It concentrates on Richard's investigation of an underground political movement in Australia.
Harriet was kept on the periphery, and she didn't like it.
"I sympathize with her," said Davis, who turned out to be no shrinking violet herself as she warmed to the subject.
"Certainly most places I've been, it's common for men to be given more critical attention," she said. "Men are thought to be the more worldly ones, the ones you discuss serious things with.
"So in order to be heard, women may become more strident and pushy. I didn't find Harriet strident. I didn't find anything she said unjustified."
Davis knows about such matters.
"I remember once working for a male director, and we were talking about a miniseries and wondering why it hadn't rated so well," she said. "I said, 'Maybe there were too many commercial breaks.'
"The director said to me, 'Oh, you're so self-opinionated.' A little while later, the sound recorder came in, and the director asked his opinion about the miniseries. He said, 'Maybe there were too many commercial breaks.' 'Oh, do you think so?' asked the director."
Perhaps the real reason Davis avoids interviews is that she fears she will be too frank. For instance, she credits the Roman Catholic Church with awakening her passion for acting.
"The Mass was wonderfully theatrical," she said about growing up in Perth.
"Those images in your head so young, and those costumes. . . . It was a terrific show, a big production, great lighting, no interval to go out and lose your concentration.
"It doesn't mean I was religious. I had to do something while I was sitting there. I remember before I could talk properly, I was showing off in church, copying the priest. Everyone laughed. But I overdid it, and my mother clouted me."
Her passion for acting remained strong, and she chose drama school over law school. She never regretted that decision, but she has come to regret others--for instance, making some of her films.
"I loved doing 'Rocket to the Moon' and 'Kangaroo,' " she said. (She has just won a best-actress award from the Australian Film Institute for that performance). "And I very much enjoyed making Gillian Armstrong's new film ('High Tide'). It's about a woman forced to confront her past. I can't say I've enjoyed any other film I've done.
"I don't think 'A Passage to India' is a great film. I did it, and that's it. An actor, more often than not, is the victim--happy or sad--of the director. Actors can do as much as they can in rehearsal and shooting. But unless they've got a good contract that gives them editing rights, how on earth can a film be treated as an actor's project? In the theater, it's different."
She is equally blunt about "My Brilliant Career," the film that first brought her international attention.
"I thought it was a bit simplistic," she said of the story about the young woman in who wanted to be a writer. "Life's actually more complicated, and I like films that show all those complications."
Davis agreed to play the young Golda Meir in "A Woman Called Golda" in 1982 because she wanted to go back to Israel.
"Once on my way to Europe, my plane stopped at Tel Aviv airport," she said. "Everyone I saw seemed about 18, and they all had guns. I wasn't much older than them, but in their heads they were years and years older than me. I wanted to go there and find out more. The project seemed fairly innocuous. I wouldn't do it now. Then I didn't have as many choices."
Of "The Final Option," she said, "That was just rubbish. You've got to learn. That movie opened my eyes quite widely. You learn not to trust people. Get it written down in the contract. Don't trust people's innate taste.
"When I started, I assumed most people's taste would be the same as mine. That was kind of idiotic, I know, but it was true in a way in Australian theater and films."
Her husband Friels offered: "In your own country, you know the people who'll give you a job." He recently won a best-actor award from the Australian Film Institute for "Malcolm."
"It took me a couple of years, but I probably know the ropes now."
Davis is not so optimistic.
"I'm sure there are horrors I've not even dreamed of."