Frances O’Connor for “A.I.: Artifical Intelligence”

Aussie actress Frances O’Connor may have made her film debut in the ultra low-budget Love and Other Catastrophes, but these days, the mow London-based actor is riding high on the Hollywood merry-go-round. Her latest film is Stephen Spielberg’s highly anticipated “A.I. Artificial Intelligence”, in which she gives a beautiful performance as a young mother who turns to a human-like robot for love, while her real son remains ‘frozen’. The film was shrouded in secret — until now. She talked to Paul Fischer in Los Angeles.

Frances O’Connor arrives in Los Angeles in between shooting The Importance of Being Earnest, in order to promote a film once shrouded in extraordinary secrecy. Spielberg’s A.I., based on the late director Stanley Kubrick’s vision, remains one of the most anticipated and talked about films of the hot US Summer season. But if the actress is feeling the heat, you wouldn’t know it. Calm and relaxed, O’Connor had moments of intimidation working on the highly publicised project “especially with Stephen [Spielberg] behind the camera. I mean every day you’d turn up at work and it really is Stephen Spielberg and that’s kind of weird”. However, she adds, “once you get used to it and you’re acting, it’s such a great, creative project to work on that you forget that feeling”.

While A.I. was directed by Spielberg, the film was made as it were a Kubrick venture, shot under intense secrecy to such a degree, that most of the cast, O’Connor included, was denied access to a script during production. “I read the whole story once, while I was at Amblin, but I wasn’t allowed to take it away with me, then a month before we started shooting, I got my part of the script to work on. But while we were filming it was kinda hard to get to, and I had to ask for it all the time”. O’Connor said the on-set secrecy was part of Spielberg’s homage to Stanley Kubrick, the late director on whose story the film is based. Kubrick was notoriously press-shy and usually kept a tight rein on his film productions.

“Because Kubrick died so recently, I think [Spielberg] felt a great kind of responsibility himself to doing the whole process in the way Kubrick would have done it,” O’Connor said. “It was kind of surreal, because no one I knew had read it, so they didn’t really know what I was doing, so they couldn’t really offer me an opinion on it. So it was kind of like being a bit blind during the whole process and not talking about it up until now.” Still, she said, “It kind of concentrates the energy, because you feel like you’re doing something secretive.” But given the film’s history, O’Connor understood WHY the film needed to be so secretive. “Because Kubrick had died so recently, I think Spielberg felt a great responsibility to do the whole process in the way Kubrick would have done it”.

A.I. is part Spielberg, part Kubrick, a curious but fascinating hybrid. O’Connor was not only excited at being directed by the former, but was certainly a devotee of the latter. “I’d seen all his films and already loved his stuff”. The actress further comments that thought Spielberg directed the movie, “it felt, while we were doing it, as a Kubrick film, in that there are certain elements which had that Kubrick feel to it”. Eerie, almost, she says hesitatingly. “When we shot the end of the film, that whole last sequence felt kind of weird”.

O’Connor tackled the often complex role of a mother, who forges an uneasy relationship with a robotic child, as she does with any part: Through extensive preparation. “I based my interpretation of her on the fact that this was a woman who had lost a child and what would that be like. I went and saw this group who kind of meet once a month, like a support group for women who’d lost children and just kinda sat in and listened to some of their stories. So that kind of helped me to understand what that would be like”, the actress explains. That proved vital for a key sequence, and one of the film’s most emotional, in which O’Connor is forced to leave her robotic son in the depths of a forest. “Stuff like that ids very difficult to do, and takes a little while to let go”.

Shooting this sequence, which closes the film’s first act, remains one of O’Connor’s toughest, “because ANY mother contemplating leaving a child, even though he’s artificial, made me feel incredibly guilty while I was doing the scene and I felt really horrible the whole next day. So I think it’s something a lot of mothers will identify with”. In this case, her robotic son is played with an instinctive maturity by 13-year old Hayley Joel Osment, whom she describes as being “very specific about every scene; every scene is about something different and he always has different objectives to go for in every scene. Then you when you put that altogether, you have this amazing character that he has put together”.

A.I. is set in a future in which artificial intelligence is the norm, and the human race is being supplanted by technology. It remains a dark and chilling vision, and asked whether such technologies should be embraced if given the opportunity, O’Connor gives an uncomfortable laugh. “I THINK we do have a responsibility for the things we create, either living or non-living, so I don’t know”.

The daughter of a nuclear physicist father and pianist mother, O’Connor trained at the West Australia Academy for the Performing Arts. Like so many other Australian actors, she got her start on television, earning an Australian Film Institute award nomination for her role in an episode of the forensic pathology drama Halifax f.p.. Her nomination led to her being cast in the successful romantic comedy Love and Other Catastrophes (1996); her portrayal of a university student undergoing a messy break-up with her girlfriend (Radha Mitchell) was responsible for her second AFI nomination. It was also an ultra-low budget comedy, a far cry from the multi-million dollar AI and even its Hollywood predecessor, Bedazzled, which introduced the pretty Aussie actress to a mainstream audience. For Frances, this has been part of what she describes as “a gradual journey for me, with A.I being the biggest leap for me. It’s obviously a journey I love”. O’Connor now works out of London, but doesn’t rule out returning to her native Australia “within the next couple of years. I’m trying to get something going there”.

Never short of work, O’Connor will next be seen playing a nurse in John Woo’s Windtalkers starring Nicolas Cage “which I did as a favour when someone unexpectedly pulled out”, and is currently shooting a new film adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest, opposite Rupert Everett and Judi Dench. “It’s a dream project and we’re having a ball”. The same can be said for another Aussie actress breaking out big time.