by Zoe Stagg
photography by Baldomero Fernandez
Radha Mitchell’s lilting Australian accent is the perfect concealed weapon: you’re at once lulled by its silky tone, and caught off guard by the razor-sharp observations hiding in the blooms. Raised in Melbourne, this actress credits her artistic sense of imagination to her parents, a designer and a filmmaker: “I think I gained a sense of that from my mum. And my father gave me my first camera. They definitely gave me a creative spark.” With roles in films ranging from Man on Fire, Phone Booth, Finding Neverland, and the Woody Allen flick, Melinda and Melinda, it’s easy to see how her free-spirited background shaped her work.
Another progressive holdover from her childhood, Radha is a long-time vegetarian, asserting her mission in the open-minded and diplomatic tone that wins converts without trying. “It’s sort of a philosophical choice, but it’s also a health choice. I think everyone has their own kind of body and sort of needs to eat what they need to eat, but I do think the meat industry is a little out of hand as it is right now.” Acknowledging that the philosophy extends to the planet, she tips her meat-free hand on an acute global understanding. “In countries where there are huge populations, there’s not a lot of meat eating – in India, in China. Part of it is that they eat whatever they can, but I mean there’s a lot of rice and tofu and substitutes for protein. I think that’s probably just how it’s going to have to be as the population increases. I don’t think it’s going to be a choice – and I think that will be good!”
As international as her perspective, Radha remains tied to her beloved Down Under – and launches into a nimble and enthusiastic discussion on Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s recent apology to the Aborigines. “I was really excited by that – I think the whole of Australia was excited by that. Just the idea that an idea can shape the consciousness is significant. And that idealism isn’t just for children. I think that is an eye-opener for everybody.” It’s a progressive idea that she supports while acknowledging both the necessity and the potential complications. “We made a movie in the Northern Territory and it was basically an eye-opener for me because I’d grown up in Melbourne so I always thought that everything was great – then you realize there’s a divide and it’s really significant. Almost like one side of the street is black and one side is white. I was really shocked by that. It’s sort of like a real 1950s racist situation and people, they live together and work together, but there’s not a sense of community going on. For that reason, I think it’s really significant to start with an apology and see where that goes. Ultimately, it’s about equal rights for everyone.”
Almost proving her earlier assertion that idealism knows no age, she begins an equally savvy musing on the US election, alluding to the Idealist-in-Chief without uttering, Yes, we can. “I’ve been following it. And it sort of brings up the question of what divides and unites a people, where we sit in the world. And that’s been fascinating because the discussion has been kind of embarrassing in a way.” She laughs a touch self-consciously. “Sort of, just the focus on race. You think it’s something that we’ve got beyond, but obviously it’s just so entrenched in the culture.” On the one hand demurring her expertise, while clearly proving otherwise, she says, “Just the principle of ‘Yes,’ things are possible instead of clinging to the idea of no, or it’s not safe, or it’s not going to be okay, and when somebody shines a light and says, ‘Yes, it is going to be okay,’ and people become inspired by that. There’s so much that we can actually do!”
So what of the forces that try to cram negativity in our minds in the name of a 24-hour news cycle? “There’s something magnetic about negativity and the idea of drama, it’s sort of exciting – that’s why they sell it in the news. To talk about how great everything is incredibly boring. Recently when I was shooting in China, [on the news] they would always talk about success, or what was going on that was really great in the economy – and you just didn’t even want to watch the news because you felt it was all propaganda. Whereas here, everything’s opposite, everything’s terrible, and if it’s a human story then it’s sort of negative or mean, but there’s something about it, like eating junk food.” Emphasizing the word “food” in a heartily Australian way, she reflects on it for a moment and decides, “It’s a very sort of self-promotion. If you see someone else going down, then you feel good about yourself. But I don’t think there’s a sense of a connection. I think that’s all we really want as a culture is to be part of a group and to be accepted. And we want to feel like we’re supported by one another.”
Support like that came to her in the unlikely form of an LA tow-truck driver. Her upcoming fall movie, Henry Poole Is Here with Luke Wilson, follows a man who learns he only has six weeks to live. Naturally, that begs the obvious question: what would Radha do? “This guy came to pick me up in a tow truck and he said that he’d just dragged out a motorbike of a guy who’d just died and he said, ‘It makes you think.’ And I said, ‘What do you want to do before you die?’ and he said,” dragging her voice into an impersonation of a gravely-voiced tow truck driver, “’I just want to sleep with more women.’ I said, ‘How many women have you slept with?’ and he’s like, ‘30’ and I said, ‘How old are you?’ and he’s like, ‘30’ and I said, ‘Well how many more do you want to sleep with?’ and he said, ‘I dunno, like 30.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter to me, like, money doesn’t matter, my job doesn’t matter, I just love women.’” She laughs at the memory, her upbeat conclusion reached: “I think you have to know what you want.”
So what does Radha want? “I think I want to have some kids. Yesterday we were shooting in a garden in New York on Sixth Ave and it was created by this woman who had this amazing life and had done a lot of service and she just planted this beautiful little space. That’s what I’d like to leave behind, something that’s inspiring to people. Whether it’s a garden, or a movie, or a piece of art. It doesn’t have to be a great expression of something that’s difficult to achieve, just something beautiful.” With her quiet intelligence, creative spirit, and fair-minded and pragmatic approach to an ideally lived life, there’s nothing that’s more possible than that.