When Shannon Murphy was offered a chance to make her directorial feature film debut, bringing Rita Kalnejais’ hit stage play Babyteeth to the big screen, she knew the project would attract major talent.
“And I was lucky enough to get my dream cast with Ben Mendelsohn, Eliza Scanlen, Essie Davis and Toby Wallace,” says Murphy, a theatre veteran whose list of TV credits include homegrown dramas Love Child, Offspring, Rake, On the Ropes and, more recently, directing a couple of episodes of hit BBC series Killing Eve.
One of Kalnejais’ most personal plays, Babyteeth was inspired by a dear friend who died of lymphatic cancer, aged 21, during which time she embraced her death sentence by falling in love, painting and dancing, seemingly without a care in the world.
Murphy knew she had to find the perfect young star to play Babyteeth’s cancer-stricken yet spirited heroine, Milla, looking at more than 100 potential candidates before finally casting former Home and Away actress Eliza Scanlen.
Not that she ever watched the soap. “I watched some shorts and tests she’d done. Then she auditioned quite a few times for me because with the lead of your first feature, you really want to make the right decision.”
Then came the deal-breaker: “From the very beginning, I said, ‘The actress 100 per cent has to agree to shave her head’. There’s no way you can make that work with a bald cap. It also sucks up a huge amount of time to do that every day and use special effects. So it’s impossible on our budget.”
Surprisingly, only 10 per cent of the candidates dropped out. Thankfully, Scanlen was onboard.
“It was amazing that Eliza felt very strongly that, in order to authentically play that character, it was essential to go through that experience.”
“It wasn’t that I didn’t see it. I was still trying to work out who Milla was. Eliza is such an extraordinary actress in terms of her range that she could pretty much give me anything and then I was like, ‘Yes, but that’s not helping me understand who Milla is, in a way.’ But what turned out to be incredible is that Milla is in transition from the moment she starts the film. And so actually, her ability to shape-shift was just what I needed.”
Even more remarkable was that Murphy persuaded the largely US-based Ben Mendelsohn to come and slum it back home for the six-week shoot in Australia.
“We were shooting in January and February and it was disgustingly hot and all of us were in a non air-conditioned house. It was hard and intense because we had to shoot Ben very quickly ‘cause he had to go start filming his TV show [The Outsider], so we were under the pump.
“But it was still a joyful place to work because Ben brings on his boom box and the music and he’s dancing and it’s really fun. But I’m sure he was happy to get back to some cooler weather.
“I knew he could do comedy. I mean you look at his early films, oh my god. And he’s such a natural goofball and so funny on set. I’m just so happy he was up for it.”