At 22, Alice Englert is already a veteran in her field. Boasting an impressive resume as both a filmmaker and an actress, every passing year sees her taking on increasing challenges and meeting them. More remarkable is her unshakable modesty about all that she has accomplished.
Family Happiness, a short film she wrote, directed and starred in, screened at Sydney Film Festival this year. The first two episodes of Top of the Lake: China Girl, showing at a sold out event at the Sydney Opera House this week, will introduce her as new character, Mary.
Asked about how she balances her competing passions, Englert is very matter of fact. “I think I’ve got to try and do different things. I want to try and do them extremely well and maybe not always succeed, but I will try very, very hard. But, if I’m not good enough then I guess it won’t go.”
The daughter of Australian filmmaker Colin David Englert and New Zealand director Jane Campion, she discovered a passion for storytelling early on. “I knew that I had a way of communicating or articulating myself when it came to stories from when I was very, very young,” Englert tells Broadsheet. “But I didn’t know I would pursue that probably until I started noticing I could act.” Despite having appeared in small film roles from the age of eight, Englert points to her mid-teens as the time where her confidence in her chosen career path really solidified.
Being in the creative industries themselves, her parents neither pushed her towards or away from following in their footsteps. “There were warnings about this industry, which I think is fair enough,” says Englert, laughing. “And there was a lot of support.”
In particular, she points to her relationship with her mother. “My Mum and I have always enjoyed the conversation we have about work, and it’s not a surrogate for a mother-daughter relationship, but actually it’s sort of its own hybrid friendship thing.” She pauses then laughs. “Somehow she managed to birth someone who thinks she’s really great, and actually occasionally just wants to do everything she says in the circumstances of acting or working together. Because I trust her in that way.”
The mother-daughter team had the opportunity to put this to the test in Top of the Lake: China Girl. With Campion both writing and directing the series, Englert explains how their relationship was an asset during filming. “My Mum knows me so well as an actor and she knows where I can go – and I’ve heard her say that was useful with this character.”
Campion is known for writing complex female characters, and it’s hard for Englert to sum up just who Mary really is. “I honestly find when I play characters, once I’ve done it I find it hard to explain them because it sort of becomes a wee bit like trying to explain yourself.”
In an added layer of complexity, Mary is at the centre of a complicated maternal triad – her biological mother is Elizabeth Moss’s detective Robin Griffin, and her adopted mother is Nicole Kidman’s Julie. Throwing further fuel on the fire, 17-year-old Mary’s boyfriend is a crucial player in the crime Griffin is investigating. Asked how bringing their own mother-daughter relationship to the mix impacted things, Englert says “Well I think it was actually a part of why it was going to work, because it was intimate.” She laughs and adds. “It also really wasn’t us.”
Englert’s drive to keep working has stepped up. “I’ve got a lot of energy even though sometimes I feel like quite lazy,” she says. She views Family Happiness as an experiment in some ways, explaining how the team she put together was so familiar with one another they could create the exact kind of tone and weirdness she was aiming for. Wanting to build on this, she is now working on the script for a full-length feature. “I just have to finish writing it!”
Top of the Lake: China Girl will premiere on BBC First on August 20, 8.30pm.