After two decades in the industry, the Australian actress relishes the opportunity to play awful characters—as she does in her new Starz series American Gods and in Alex Ross Perry's Sundance hit Golden Exits.
“My muse is not a horse and I am in no horse race and if indeed she was, still I would not harness her to this tumbrel…” It is the end of a four-day press run in New York for the new Starz series American Gods and Emily Browning is reciting to her castmates, the show’s developers—Michael Green and Brian Fuller—and the story’s original creator, English author Neil Gaiman, the infamous rejection letter penned “to all those at MTV” by fellow Australian and rock music’s ‘Prince of Darkness’ Nick Cave. “It’s incredible—he was nominated for an MTV Award for Murder Ballads and he wrote MTV a letter saying, ‘Thanks but no thanks,’ and essentially that art is not a competition,” Browning tells me over coffee the following morning.
As Browning recalls it, her dinnertime recitation of Cave’s letter emerged from news that episodes of American Gods would be screened in front of a panel to determine whether the series might qualify for Emmy consideration. “I was telling them how scary that is to me and I ended up reading them the letter that Nick Cave wrote,” she explains.
In the hours before Browning journeys back to her adopted home of Los Angeles, the young star appears understated and sincere, her dry, self-deprecating humor ringing true to the country she called home for some twenty-plus years, the country where at just eight years old she got her start in the television movie The Echo of Thunder and where over the following five years, she would hold her own alongside Billy Connolly in the comedy The Man Who Sued God, Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom in the retelling of the life of the infamous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly, and Julianna Marguiles in the Australian-filmed, American-released horror flick Ghost Ship. But her big break came in 2004 in the shape of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which saw the actress share screen time with Hollywood heavyweights Jim Carrey, Jude Law, Meryl Streep, and Connolly for the second time.
Yet despite her two decades in front of the camera racking up an impressive list of IMDB credits spanning myriad genres including everything from crime dramas (Legend, in which Browning plays Tom Hardy’s wife) to musicals (the British drama God Help the Girl, for which she took the lead), the young star speaks frankly and openly about the fears that go hand-in-hand with a burgeoning acting career.
There is the wavering skepticism surrounding award ceremonies—”If our show won awards that would be really exciting and wonderful, and yet I’ve always had a weird feeling about awards. I really don’t understand how every year there is one person from each category who is the best person at the art that they do”—but equally, if not more so, Browning’s uneasiness stems from a lingering and very real apprehension towards the ostensibly public nature of fame itself. “I have a feeling that if this show is big, it won’t be long before there are stories about me being an asshole because I wouldn’t take a photo with someone—but it is so often because it makes me panic and I don’t know how to respond,” she says. “I’m such a socially inept person in general that I’m like, How am I going to deal with it?” she concedes with a laugh.
Needless to say, with the series’ premiere last night—and a substantial pre-existing fan base by virtue of Gaiman’s award-winning novel of the same name about a clutch of Old Gods pulled from ancient mythology who confront New American Gods who represent some of the more complicated aspects of our modern society like Media and the stock market—Browning’s fear may soon become a reality. It’s a gamble the 28-year-old actress says she is willing to take in support of the series and her character, the enigmatic and pivotal Laura Moon, for whom Browning developed a profound appreciation. “I fell in love with Laura immediately,” she explains. “I had never read a character like her before who is not built to be likable, which is wonderful and really freeing.”
In many ways, Browning’s gritty portrayal of the “unapologetically crass and complicated and flawed” Laura inadvertently opens up an important conversation about what it means to be a woman in today’s Hollywood. “We’ve been having this discussion about strong, female characters and I think that a lot of people misinterpret that to mean girls who kick ass and independent women who don’t need a man, but really the strength is about characters being written in a complex and interesting way,” Browning says. “That’s what I mean when I say I want to play strong characters, I mean characters that are written well and fleshed out well. I want to play horrible people and lovely people and weak people and stupid people. I think that’s what it’s about—we just want as much range available to us as men have had forever.”
Furthermore, the series comes at a time of unprecedented change and trepidation harnessing both the current political and social landscapes, which in effect has instigated an expansive and perhaps long overdue conversation around what it means to be “American.” Throughout the eight-episode first season, questions surrounding faith, sexuality, sacrifice, loyalty, belief, and love are a guts-and-all affair, the camera’s focus holding steady during scenes that in the industry by and large are deemed too provocative to be shown in their entirety. Take for instance the gay love scene between characters Salim and Jinn, two Muslim men, which Browning cites as a favorite moment. “If you ever see a gay love scene, so often there’s a moment early on when the camera decides to look away, and I like the fact that we don’t look away from it,” she says, “and that it’s tender and awkward and emotional and lovely, and it’s also a really hot scene. I think that there’s not enough of that.”
Additionally, the series addresses such contentious issues as America’s obsession with guns and gun control, along with the ongoing immigration debate. “I definitely don’t want it to sound like the show is liberal preachiness in any way because I don’t believe that it is,” Browning explains. “I don’t think that we’re prescribing any set of beliefs. I really think that if there is a message, the message is that all faith is relevant and whatever it is that you believe in, you should be able to believe in that thing no matter what it is. The show is naturally, effortlessly diverse, which is how I think it should be. It makes me really proud to be a part of it, especially right now.”
Indeed, for someone who has “never really had a plan,” relying instead on sheer gut instinct when it comes to the projects she has pursued, Browning’s trajectory to date cuts a singular path that above all champions multiplicity over certainty. “I’m not the kind of person that wants to work nonstop—I want something special,” she says. Something like Golden Exits, for instance, which premiered at Sundance and cast Browning alongside Jason Schwartzman, Chloë Sevigny, and Mary-Louise Parker in the artfully defiant independent feature from writer-director Alex Ross Perry. “I’ve been playing a few awful characters lately, it’s great,” says Browning of her Golden Exits character, Naomi, an Australian girl whose arrival in Brooklyn sets off a train of events that, in true Perry style, depict the more cantankerous side of human behavior. “Alex thinks that that character is me,” says Browning with a laugh. “We’ve essentially talked about the fact that the character is the worst possible version of me. I mean there were a few times when I had to say to him, ‘This isn’t me, though, I’m not this horrible, I don’t actually treat men this way.’ But a lot of that character came out of stories that we shared with one another about people that we knew respectively and about ourselves, so I knew her very well from the beginning.”
As for now, Browning is taking some well-earned time to catch her breath after a grueling six months of four AM starts on set for American Gods. “I’m just having a moment to gather inspiration and ideas, and to just gather my energy before season two as well.” And of the future, no matter the course her career may take, Browning resolves to never lose her pure, unconstrained love of the craft—despite the anxiety it instills time and time again. “I still absolutely have the feeling of being a huge fan of performers and of movies,” she says. “I don’t ever want to lose that. I don’t ever want to be jaded, because I think then you’re screwed.”