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Margot Robbie: "Scorsese Was So Reserved"

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Margot Robbie talks working with Will Smith and The Wolf Of Wall Street with Andrew Lowry.

Margot Robbie had a hell of a 2014. Coming from seemingly nowhere to play the fiery trophy wife of The Wolf Of Wall Street’s scumbag-in-chief, she gave one of the most emphatic, star-is-born performances in years.

However, it wasn’t her first time in front of the cameras – the 24-year-old Australian had already paid her dues with three years in Neighbours and a star turn in the short-lived US show Pan Am.

Now, she’s appearing in the new Will Smith comedy-thriller Focus as a perpetually underestimated con artist. Just don’t ask her to recite the lyrics to the Fresh Prince Of Bel Air theme tune…

You started acting at quite a young age but you weren’t a child actor – were you the star of all your school plays?

I wasn’t like the child of stage parents or anything, but I did ballet for 10 years so I did a lot of dance concerts. I was always involved in the performing arts – I just really liked being a part of all the production, but I wasn’t the standout star in school. I was just among a group of kids who always got involved in the school plays. It wasn’t a conscious decision that I wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to be, it was just that I didn’t know anyone who had done that, so it never seemed like a feasible career choice. It was just as distant a dream as saying, “Yeah I want to go to the moon.” It seemed impossible, but it was fun to dream about.

But you wound up being a star on Neighbours for three years. How was that as an acting apprenticeship?

It really is like a boot camp for actors – if you can work on Neighbours, you can do anything. One of the last things I said when I was walking off the set was that I would never do a job that hard again, and it’s true. You have three cameras, all rolling at once, and you shoot pretty much an episode a day – which is an insane schedule compared to the film world. There’s no room for error, which ingrains good habits because you learn a kind of discipline.

Even as you worked on Ramsay Street, was reaching the US always the plan?

Totally. There was a moment a couple of months into my time there when I realised there were people who’d been working on Neighbours for 17 years and could make a living out of it, and I thought, “Oh, you can support a family on this. You can be an actor for a living”, which I hadn’t thought about. But I quickly realised that the whole industry in Australia is limited, and that if I wanted to move forward, I would have to get into the industry in the US.

So you were working on your accent in your spare time?

It was hard, because my hours on the set were insane. At the weekend I would do dialect coaching and whatever I could to learn. I would freak out, because I was only 17 and Dakota Fanning was younger than me and doing all these films. I would say to myself, “I need to get a move on.” I’m just a very impatient person. I remember when I signed with my agent, I told him we needed to get the ball rolling with the US. He said, “You don’t need to be in such a hurry,” and I said, “Yes I do.” The person I compared myself to was so much younger than me, and I needed to get a move on. My agent said, “Enough with Dakota Fanning!” I think I drove him crazy. I used every minute I got.

So then, after a year on Pan Am, Scorsese called for The Wolf Of Wall Street. Presumably Dakota Fanning was busy?

Yeah, she must have been doing something else. The fact I was cast in that still boggles my mind.

Did you get the chance to pester him for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull stories?

Lighting set-ups take a long time, so between takes we would have 40 minutes or so just to hang out, and every time he told a story we were like little kids in school, we would just shut up and listen. He’d tell us these stories about Frank Sinatra or Charlie Chaplin, all these iconic people he’s met over the years, and it was just amazing to witness – everybody would just be quiet and listen.

How was it working with Scorsese? Is he quite exacting?

Funnily enough, he really leaves you to your own devices. I assumed he’d be very hands-on and have a lot to say, because his style is so distinctive, but it was actually quite the opposite. The most important thing was that he would give us the freedom to explore the characters – he would let the camera roll for 20 minutes sometimes and not call cut. It was a very liberal set, you could say and do what you wanted. It was all about creating characters people would be interested in. We had a lot of time, as well, which was magical and he just trusted everyone to do their own jobs.

How was he with some of the edgier material?

For a guy who puts such raw and honest things in his movies, he’s extremely conservative when talking about them. I remember talking with him about the sex scenes and he said, “So in that scene when Jordan and Naomi are making love,” and I was just, “Making love? I don’t know if I’d call it that…” He was so reserved.

Are nude scenes as nerve-wracking as people imagine them to be?

It was daunting to say the least. It’s not like Marty came in and just said, “I think you should be naked and having sex on a bed of money.” That was all in the script. My prep was more like salads for three days leading up to it. I’m a lot more careful now, but during that shoot I just ate what I wanted, then three days before a nude scene I’d cut out the burgers and drinking. It’s not the most fun part of acting, I eat terribly.

In Focus, you’re opposite another Hollywood megastar. When did you get the call to act opposite Will Smith?

I was in Belgium shooting a film called Suite Française, and I had a month off between blocks of shooting. It was a great opportunity to do some travelling, so I went backpacking with my little brother. I was on an island in Croatia, in the middle of nowhere, when I got the call that I needed to be in New York the next day to audition for this Will Smith film. I got every form of transport I could to get there, in a total panic – it was like Planes, Trains And Automobiles, just this mad dash across the world to get there in time, so I was exhausted when I arrived.

You have to do a lot of pickpocketing in the film – did you have to master these techniques for real?

We had a consultant called Apollo Robbins come in and give us all our pickpocket training. It was real stuff, he’s done it for real and taught police about it. We had people in grift teams come in and teach us, people whose livelihood it actually is. It’s a bit of a grey area, but it was fascinating seeing how it happens in real life. We had to adapt it for the screen a little, more so that people could follow what happens than anything else. They’re so fast.

What was Will Smith like? Was it hard not to rap the lyrics of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air theme at him constantly?

Will is everything you can imagine, and more – but I’d actually never heard of The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. He was… not offended, but maybe a little surprised I didn’t know who Jazzy Jeff was. I didn’t understand a lot of the references, which of course the crew were all over. I said his name wrong, I called him Jazzy Jam or something. Will said, “Are you serious?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I think he thought I was a lost cause.

Finally, now you live abroad, is there anything you get from Australia to keep in touch with your roots?

I live in London so I get people to bring over Dilmah tea, and Tim Tams, which my housemate assures me are similar to Penguins. We have lots of arguments over what is better, and they’re yet to be resolved.

Focus is at cinemas nationwide from 27 February

(Image: Rex)

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