Radha Mitchell for “Melinda & Melinda”

Radha Mitchell is appropriately glamorous as we meet in a large, New York hotel room in which she is spreading the news about her starring role in Woody Allen’s latest comedy/drama, Melinda and Melinda.

While Allen even admits having been unfamiliar with Mitchell’s work prior to casting her, the Aussie actress says she was somewhat surprised when the veteran director literally gave her the call to star in his latest film. “It was a little random. I mean normally you have your agent call the other agent, and all the agents talk and then finally you get a phone call and you hear some misrepresentation of what someone else had to say,” Mitchell says, laughingly.

Allen’s latest film combines romantic comedy and drama in a way that Woody Allen, unique among filmmakers, likes to contrast, with two alternating stories about Melinda’s (Mitchell) attempts to straighten out her life. “I don’t know how he got my cell phone number, but he had it and my phone was ringing,” Mitchell recalls. “I had just come back from Australia on the plane and I thought it was my mum and it was Woody Allen just checking to see if I wanted to be in his movie.” It was an offer the young actress couldn’t refuse but had little time to decide. “I was given an hour to read the script at some point, which was delivered and I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody what it was about.”

What was unique for the actress, was the opportunity to give the same character a both a tragic and comic twist. She admits that that she found the former, more of a challenge, at least initially. “Both were interesting, but I was actually sort of judging the tragic side for a while. It took me a while to connect to it because it seemed a little farfetched and ridiculous to me and I just thought ‘Ah, come on, get over yourself’. That’s an interesting tone to the piece because there’s definitely a cynical kind of humour that runs through there,” Mitchell explains. “Here’s somebody who just got out of a mental asylum who killed somebody and tries to kill herself, which seems a little farfetched. But in playing it really straight I think it develops its own kind of weird humour, and that was something that Woody was really conscious of, that this had to be completely kind of like a sober, straight performance.”

Radha says that “unfortunately” for her, she can relate to both Melindas in Woody’s complex tragi-comedy. “And I think we all do and I think New York in a way functions as another character within the story, as it does within most of Woody Allen’s stories. This city does have an affect on the people who live in it, and after a while you do find yourself ranting on and talking about yourself, a lot, and you feel insecure. I don’t know why that is but I think it is part of the experience.”

Actors who have worked with Woody Allen have described his approach as being relatively unorthodox, rarely giving too much insight into an actor’s performance. Mitchell pauses when asked for her description of Allen’s directorial approach, breaking into laughter. “It’s a hands-off approach,” she begins. “There’s not a lot of rehearsal so you kind of arrive on set and do your thing. For the first week I don’t think he said anything to anybody but just kind of let them say their lines, so we all thought we were gonna be fired, especially me,” she says, laughingly. “That was just sort of his way of creating the tension and anxiety that you often see depicted in his films; I mean he just takes the piss out of that, but has to create it first and then when everybody is more familiar with what they’re doing. We started to talk about what we were doing and he would always give me a very specific direction which was just ‘say the lines’ which I actually think is a really good direction. I would try to keep that in mind next time.” In a relatively short time, Radha Mitchell has emerged as another shining Aussie export, appearing in diverse films from Hollywood’s mainstream, through to independent. An Australian actress who began performing professionally while still in high school, Mitchell got her start in the Australian TV series “Sugar and Spice” and followed up with credits in the popular soap opera, “Neighbours” as well as other TV productions including “Blue Heelers”, “Phoenix”, “GP” and “The Flying Doctors”. Mitchell also played the leading role in the Australian stage production, “Desire”

The actress enjoyed a major career breakthrough when she made her feature debut in Emma-Kate Croghan’s engaging romantic comedy, “Love and Other Catastrophes” (1996), playing Danni. Mitchell’s follow-up film and US debut, Lisa Cholodenko’s “High Art” (1998), was a different, much more dramatic film. After a turn as a house guest who won’t leave in the Indie “Cleopatra’s Second Husband” (also 1998), Mitchell moved more into mainstream fare with the science-fiction horror of “Pitch Black” (2000), the thriller “Phone Booth” (2003) and as Dakota Fanning’s mother in “Man on Fire” (2004), and more recently acquired her best role yet in “Finding Neverland” (2004) as the disconnected, alienated wife of “Peter Pan” creator J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp). Meanwhile the actress wrote, directed and starred in her own labour of love, the Indie “Four Reasons” (2002). Mitchell will next be seen in another Indie, which she describes as a comedy, Mozart and the Whale. “Josh Hartnett and I play two people who are autistic, fall in love and then struggle.”

As to whether she plans to return to work in her native Australia any time soon, Mitchell says that is a distinct possibility. “I might be doing a movie in Australia in the next month or two”, but won’t reveal more than that. “I have the offer but I’m not sure who the rest of the cast is going to be at this point or anything like that.”

Mitchell has survived the highs and lows of a Hollywood career, and says that since breaking out in this town, her perceptions of Hollywood have changed. “I’m much more cynical than I used to be,” she says, amidst peals of laughter. “Doing Melinda, I was just appreciating somebody like Will Ferrell who is very much about just the teamwork and the work. So you do have people who sort of blow up, are big and are still very grounded, and then you have people that don’t – so what do you make of that, I don’t know.” Asked what keeps her grounded, Mitchell merely quips “I drink carrot juice.” But she further admits that on occasion, being Australian helps to give her a sense of humour about Hollywood.

“Sometimes it seems very serious. For instance, I was just at the Oscars going to all the parties and everything in L.A. and I was standing outside the Four Seasons cause I’d had a meeting there and there was this woman on this cell phone screaming like, ‘Oh, my God, you saved my life. Thank you, thank you’, and you could hear all these people muttering ‘what happened, what happened’, and we’re thinking like she had a kidney transplant, something really important was going on. Then I heard her say, ‘Oh, my God, you really got me off the hook, I got the tickets’, and it was somebody’s publicist,” recalls the actress, laughingly. “There’s a complete kind of commitment to the idea that the parties are important, that the photograph is incredibly important, that the dress is important; and I guess on a certain level it is. After all it’s marketing, someone is making money out of it, but beyond that I’m not sure of its significance, and it seems kind of sad if that’s its only significance.”

Now that Mitchell has the lead role in a Woody Allen film, she can afford to bask in her success and begin turning down the wife roles that come her way more often than not. “I definitely don’t like the wife roles and I think they should just be written out of movies, but hey seem to continue to write them and sometimes you just have to do them because that’s all that’s going on. However I’d hope that this would lead to less wife roles in the future.”

Asked finally whether she believes, as Woody Allen suggests, life to be a comedy or a tragedy, Radha merely smiles, adopts a deep Eastern European accent, and drolly exclaims: “Life is neither comedy or tragedy; life is what you make it. That’s it!”