The LRM Interview: Teresa Palmer on Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge

– by Edward Douglas

When filmmaker Mel Gibson decided to tell the World War II story of Desmond Doss, a brave soldier who saved 75 of his company at the battle of Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, Japan, he made the choice to return home to Australia to do it. In doing so, he also ended up hiring some of Australia’s finest talent, including Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths.

Another one of the film’s Australian cast is actress Teresa Palmer, who was able to break into Hollywood earlier in her career with roles in Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the young adult films I Am Number Four and Warm Bodies.

In Hacksaw Ridge, she plays Dorothy Schutte, the eventual wife of Andrew Garfield’s Desmond Doss. She’s a nurse Desmond meets and falls for, and whose work inspires him to go to war as a combat medic, while sticking to his religious teachings to not do harm--which means he goes into battle without carrying a gun. Even without firing a single bullet, Doss’ diligence to his duty has him sticking behind to save his troop after the most brutal battle.

LRM got on the phone with Palmer last week for the following interview, where we also asked about a sequel to her summer horror hit Lights Out. 

LRM: I think this is the third movie you’ve been in that I literally watched the whole movie, not having any idea it was you until the very end. I was like, “Oh, that actress is really good. Who is that?” It’s a little embarrassing, because I’ve met and spoken to you a bunch of times in person. Maybe it’s just the way you change your accent…

Teresa Palmer: The accent, I was wearing a wig, different makeup, different time. It was a transformation to become Dorothy Schutte.

LRM: So how did you find out about this? Did Mel already know your work and think that you’d be good for that role or was this a script that was out there that you auditioned for?

Palmer: The producer Bill Mechanic, I had just worked with him earlier in the year. So he knew my work. Then I put myself down on tape, sent him my little iPhone audition, and then I didn’t hear anything for a few months, so I wasn’t sure that I got it. I just figured I hadn’t got the job. So I moved on with life, and then I found out that Mel had seen the tape and he really liked it and he wanted to Skype with me at some point. Then I got a phone call one night saying, “Mel has been waiting for you on Skype for 40 minutes.” Then I realized that obviously some emails had gone missing, and no one had told me when this Skype conversation would be, and so, I was completely unprepared. I hadn’t re-read the script in all those months, so I just had to jump on Skype immediately, and all my devices were dead. So I had like two percent on my iPad. I had no percent on my phone. I had to jump on my computer, and then the computer wasn’t working. It was literally the most disastrous Skype meeting I’ve ever had with a director, but I got the job somehow. At the end of it, he was like, “I like you. You’re real.” Because I was very flustered. I didn’t have any makeup on. It was the most unprepared I have been for a Skype meeting, but there was something about it that he liked, and I was cast from the Skype meeting.

LRM: Do you generally have time to do a lot of preparation for a character like Dorothy? Obviously she was a real person, and I actually watched “This is Your Life”, which I didn’t even know about before seeing the movie.  Did you have a lot of time to prepare and figure out how to approach her?

Palmer: I spent a lot of my prep time working on the accent. It was definitely something that I needed to perfect and get right, because I was just really dedicated to the idea of breathing life into this character who’s based on a real woman, and I wanted that. I wanted to do justice to that. So I had to completely transform my voice, even the intonation of my words and how I have certain lilts on my words that she didn’t have. So I had to work with a dialect coach and really changing the tone of my voice, as well as the accent. So that was the most preparation that I was doing. I really had two days between wrapping Cate Shortland’s movie, Berlin Syndrome, and jumping onto Mel’s film. In fact, I had to go back and finish Cate Shortland’s movie a couple of weeks into filming Hacksaw Ridge, so it was really crammed in there, and I had limited time. So my main focus was the accent.

LRM: You’ve done American accents in different movies like “Cut Bank” and “Lights Out,” but this was a very specific area of the country, so did you have to approach it differently than those?

Palmer: Yeah, that was very specific, because it was a real person’s voice. Also, it’s Lynchburg, Virginia, 1940. So it was a period accent as well as this very specific region of the south that I had to perfect. Then also just her own quality of voice. I wanted to get that right. I wanted to really bring her back to life, so it was probably self-imposed pressure. I don’t think anyone required that of me, but it was my own desire to get as close to who she authentically was as possible, and that included sounding like her, walking like her, looking like her. We changed my hair color because she obviously wasn’t super blonde. She was kind of more of that mousy brown color. So we wanted all of that, so that I could completely embody her.

LRM: There’s different sections of the movie, obviously. There’s the stuff with you and Andrew, then him off at war, but there’s a few scenes with you and Hugo and Rachel. When you’re doing scenes with Hugo and Rachel, do you all shift back to your Australian accents right after he yells “cut,” or do you try to stay in that kind of region?

Palmer: Yeah, I did. Andrew actually pretty much stayed in accent the entire time, although with me, it was a little different. I think he was more method with the other characters in the film, but because we have such an intimate relationship that we’re portraying, I think he wanted to truly be himself around me so that we could really get to know each other and that connection could be very organic. So he dropped the accent with me, so that we could just get deeper and connect more and be very, very real with each other and have a beautiful open communication with one another, so it could be quite seamless, this connection and this draw that we have to one another. So that was pretty important.

But I did come in and out of the accent. I have such a hard time staying in an accent and feeling like I’m being my authentic self in between takes. I have never been very good at that. So instead, I just had my dialect coach on speed dial, and I would call her 15 times a day, asking her questions and having her run scenes with me right before I did them. Then I also had an on-set dialect coach who was working in conjunction with my dialect coach in America, who was also coaching Andrew, Liz Himelstein, who I’ve been working with for a very long time, and she works with a lot of Australians. So she was just an integral part of my preparation for this film and really helped me to find this character through her voice.

LRM: I’ve spoken to Mel before, and Mel’s accent is pretty amazing, because he can talk like an American all the time. Did he get a little more Australian when he was around you guys?

Palmer: He did. He sounds more American to me than Australian, but he definitely did blend into the Australian culture again. He sounded like an Aussie. He looks like an Aussie. He dresses like an Aussie. He behaves like an Aussie. I could tell he was in his element, shooting this film back in Australia, because he has such a connection to Australia, and that’s where he grew up. So he felt very comfortable being there and being around Aussies. It feels like what he knows and it’s like, the stuff that he knows is Australia. So it was really interesting to see him in that place, and it was lovely. It was really lovely. I, in particular, loved going back to Australia and shooting, because I’m just so impressed by Australian crews. It’s like, always a jovial set, but everyone works incredibly hard and there’s a family-like quality to the filmmaking process in Australia and this film was no different.

LRM: You mentioned earlier about working with Andrew. Did you do all your scenes with Andrew before he went off and did all the war stuff?

Palmer: No. Other way around. 

LRM: Wow, interesting. Okay.

Palmer: Yeah, so they started with the war. They did about six weeks of war filming before, and also the barracks filming before we came in. They finished with us, with me and Hugo and Rachel and Andrew, and that story. So it was very interesting, how that works. I came into the process, these guys already had formed a bond, in a way, of working with each other, and everyone was in this beautiful dynamic, so I was the new kid on the block, who came and showed up. I know that they were really excited to have some feminine energy around when Rachel and I showed up, because it had been very male heavy, and it was fantastic. It was wonderful, because Andrew had had all this time working on the film, and the weekends to really delve into the idea of who these two people were and what their relationship looked like. He had done a bunch of research and had access to incredible materials, audio tapes and footage from This Is Your Life. He also had a bunch of photographs. He was just a wealth of knowledge about the history of the two of them, and so I just sat with Andrew and we spoke for hours about them and their connection and what made them fall in love with one another. So that process was very organic and very easy to engage in that way, with Andrew.

LRM: It’s great you had the time with him, because I’d be worried that he was just completely worn out from doing all that war stuff, to actually have time. They always try to shoot fast, so having time with the other actor to work with them beforehand is a luxury, in some ways.

Palmer: Yeah, it was. I wasn’t expecting that, to be honest, because he was there all day, every day, and I didn’t know how much time I would have to be able to get into the process of getting beneath who these people were. And he was so open and excited to explore this aspect of Desmond. I know he was very much looking forward to telling the love story of these two. It meant so much to him because the love between them that was the foundation for so many of the decisions that Desmond went on to make, and she also did, in some way, bring support to him. So it had to be on point, and it had to feel real. We both had the desire to breathe this authentic life into these characters. It felt easy to go in to this dance with Andrew in that way. He really was generous, and wanted to. We just both wanted to explore the two of them and it felt very easy doing it together. We really put our trust in one another.

LRM: It came out great in the movie, obviously. I just realized that if he was shooting the scenes without you first, then he had basically a picture of you in his bible, without having met you before. Is that right?

Palmer: (Laughs) We had actually met a few times, not on this movie, but we had had mutual friends years ago. So we had met then. I think we had met in an audition a few years later. So we knew of each other. So that was really good. Yeah, so we were definitely familiar with each other. We just got to really know each other during the filming process.

LRM: What’s Mel like to work with as a director? You’ve obvious worked with a lot of really interesting directors over the years. Mel’s got a special thing, because he doesn’t make movies very often. He’s very specialized. So what does he bring as a director when you’re doing dramatic scenes like the ones in this movie?

Palmer: He was wonderful. It was so refreshing, working with him, I think also, because it was my first time experiencing the idea of an actor’s director coming from the perspective of a director who had had so many years of acting experience, that he just understood how to communicate with me, and how to meet my needs and how to create a safe space for me to explore. I haven’t had that before with a director. I would highly recommend that all directors try the experience of acting for themselves because it can be a very vulnerable process, and Mel really understood it and he just knows what it takes to transform yourself into another character and live and breathe somebody else, while also trying to balance your real life. It’s a really complicated and complex process, but I felt so supported in it because he just knows what it feels like. He handed me the reigns. He really did, and he trusted my instincts and was this gentle guide and really understood my character. He knew my character so well. I keep saying how refreshing it was, that he understood all the things she was navigating, and being a very masculine man, to be able to understand and get underneath the psyche of a 1940’s woman of great faith falling in love for the first time was pretty remarkable. I think it’s a testament to him as a performer, and just as a deep thinker and a researcher. He could offer me such a beautiful insight into her. So I loved it, and of course, he’s so jovial. He really is a ray of light, of sunshine. He is so funny and upbeat and knew everyone’s name that he worked with on his 200 plus crew. He was so respectful and just a really delightful human being. I really was very pleased with my experience.

LRM: Obviously, it turned out great, and the fact that this is mostly an Australian and British cast doing an American story is just amazing. Obviously, Mel must’ve really gotten deep into the research to make it.

Palmer: Yeah, he’s so special and it was so fantastic. It’s an American story, but it feels like an Australian film, because without the backing of Screen Australia and the support of the Australian film industry, this movie and this story never would’ve been told. So it feels just as much an Australian story as it is an American story. It is very much a universal story, because to me, it’s about love. It’s not a war movie, it’s a movie about a man who chooses love, I mean, the love for his brothers, the love for other people. He is so selfless and just the way he stands by his morals in the most incredible way, despite facing such huge amounts of adversity, is a lesson that we could all learn. I just think it’s the perfect film to be released in today’s climate, and just this idea of him choosing love over violence and connection over violence is so beautiful.

LRM: It’s great timing for a movie like this, so what else have you been working on? You mentioned Cate’s movie. You were in “Lights Out” this summer, which was an amazing film. I just spoke to Eric Heisserer yesterday for his other movie as well, so small world.

Palmer: I think he might be writing the sequel right now.

LRM: He was very cagey. He was like, “Oh, I have too much work right now. I can’t talk about that right now. I don’t want to add more work.” But yeah, he probably is, so do you think you’ll be back for that? Do you think it’s going to be the same characters?

Palmer: I assume that we’ll be back. I think we’re going to be back. Who knows? And they’ll change their minds? But from the talks that I’ve had around the time the movie came out, it sounded like they were doing the sequel, including the original cast, so I would love to be a part of that. I feel like I want to see more of Rebecca and Martin’s story and just how that’s developed and where Diana fits. So I have potentially that, and then, Cate Shortland’s movie Berlin Syndrome, coming out I think probably at the top of the year. I have another film by Fabrice Du Welz, a Belgian director, who did this amazing film called Message from the King with Chadwick Boseman.

LRM: Oh yeah, I spoke to Luke Evans recently, too.

Palmer: Yeah, and Luke Evans. It’s an amazing film. It just got picked up, I believe, by Netflix at the debut at the Toronto Film Festival. That’s another one. I’m also giving birth in five weeks.

LRM: Congratulations and good luck with that.

Palmer: Thank you.

LRM: So you’ll be staying a few months and taking care of the baby, I assume?

Palmer: I will be. I’ll be taking a few months out. As long as I can bring my traveling circus with me, then hopefully, I’ll be working at the top of the year.

LRM: Listen, it’s great talking to you again. I’m glad you told me what movies you have coming up, so when I see the movie, I’ll know that’s you in the movie beforehand.

Palmer: (Laughs) That’s right. “Who’s that girl?”

LRM: When I spoke to the director of “Cut Bank," I told him I didn’t realize that was you, and same when I spoke to Eric the first time.

Palmer: So funny.

LRM: Anyway, congratulations on this great movie and good luck with everything coming up. Hopefully we’ll talk again sometime next year.

Palmer: Amazing. I’m sure we will on the next one. 

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge opens nationwide on Friday, November 4 with previews Thursday night.

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