For Esquire Magazine, May 2011
Single, demure, fire-dancing, surf-loving, gun-toting,
It's a time of transition at Soho House in Los Angeles. The late afternoon lull when the crowd thins to a murmur, the waiters change shifts and the golden light of the day turns orange, then pink. And catching that light just lovely, in the rooftop garden, is Abbie Cornish, in a black shawl and red lipstick, smoking a cigarette. She looks Grace Kelly, peering out at the Hollywood Hills.
"It'll be dusk soon," she says. "Dusk is my rap name."
She's not kidding. This isn't a game, like "what's your porn name?" Dusk is neither the name of her pet or the street she grew up on. It seems Cornish, aka "the new Nicole Kidman", is an actual rapper, albeit a rare blonde varietal from the wilds of eastern Australia. That there are strange creatures down under is no secret. But MC Dusk is stranger even than the platypus or the roo. She has neither a grille nor a gun nor a stripper pole in her living room. Her car doesn't bounce up and down - it's a rented Prius. And she won't admit to smoking marijuana, medical or otherwise - "my greatest vice is probably hot chocolate," she says.
"I got into deejaying and making beats when I was about 17," she says. "I was always fascinated by the four elements of hip hop - you know, writing, rhyming, breakdancing and graffiti. I'm in a crew now. Yeah, I love it! It's a huge part of my life."
But Cornish is no arriviste. She's been rapping for almost as long as she's been acting. Her crew is led by an ex-boyfriend called Kid Lyrical, whose group Blades of Hades was once a fixture on Australia's hip hop scene. And they've played many a gig in their time. "Oh a whole bunch," she says, with her sweet Aussie lilt. "I would love to play here in LA too. And record an album. I think it's just a timing thing. I'm so focussed on movies now."
For now, she gets her fix by taking her laptop onto movie sets with her, and spending the downtime making beats and rhymes. "Oh I'm always writing lyrics. I have so many lyrics written on so many stray pieces of paper. Everywhere. I just write about, you know. Whatever's on my mind. Whatever's going on."
For Abbie, that could mean a lot of things. There's the film career, of course, which we'll get to in a minute. Just this year her releases include Suckerpunch, part of the action chick genre, Limitless, a Bradley Cooper vehicle, and W.E, Madonna's directorial debut.
But it's when the camera's are off that Cornish gets busy. "I'm into painting and street art and I'm a musician, I play piano," she says. "And I love taking pictures or filming things documentary style. And I'm definitely active, I love surfing…."
She's also a trained clown and stilt-walker, a fire-dancer of 20 years experience and committed vegetarian. All of which makes her something of an original in Hollywood. Particularly in the bombshell actress category.
To date, directors haven't yet harnessed the full palette of Cornish's talents. There's not much call for a stilt-walking painter in Elizabeth. And breakdancing experience doesn't necessarily help in playing a love-sick junkie in Candy, opposite Heath Ledger. (Although it would have livened up Bright Star, the ponderous Jane Campion movie about Keats).
And the same goes this year's crop. If only Limitless were the story of Dusk, a firedancing rapper chasing her dream of becoming a surfing clown. Instead, it focuses on Bradley Cooper as a dishevelled wannabe writer who discovers a pill that unlocks the 80% of the brain that we don't use, and thereby transforms himself into… an investment banker? Clearly the screenwriters could have done with that pill.
Suckerpunch, however, looks more promising. The story of five girls who band together to escape a psychiatric ward in the 1960s, it has a spark of originality about it. The arena keeps changing - from a psych ward to a brothel and then a dreamlike action world - while the narrative drifts between them, which may be a first. But all this cleverness is underpinned by the more reliable pleasure of seeing hot girls kick ass, a genre that appears to have endless appeal.
"Of course the story's great," says Cornish. "It's about destiny and fate and what we can and can't control. But the action is top notch new shit you haven't seen before. It's insane. In. Sane."
It required Cornish to add to her prodigious skillset. For three months - five days a week - she was trained in swordplay, martial arts and guns by both Navy Seals and stuntmen. Three hours of mixed martial arts every morning and then shooting and stabbing in the afternoon. She especially loved the broad sword.
But she didn't escape unscathed. Once when the timing was slightly off, she copped a bayonet in the head. "I remember hearing a metal-on-metal sound. It had struck a metal hair clip on the side of my head. That hair clip saved me. I still had blood running down my face though."
The training has stayed with her. "I feel like I can handle myself now," she says, putting up her fists and grinning. "In fact, if you put an apple on your head, I could probably kick it off."
"How we doing for drinks here?" says the waiter.
"Yeah I'll have another, thanks," says Cornish. "Rose."
So many girls in Los Angeles come off that conveyor belt of prom queens and talent show types, just fierce with ambition, that Kardashian lust for fame, cash and things. Abbie Cornish isn't one of them. Her life isn't so much a pursuit as an adventure. And it's been that way, since she was a kid.
She was one of five siblings - three brothers and two sisters - growing up on her parents' farm, a 170 acre plot in the boondocks of Hunter Valley, where you could see both horizons from east to west. "Our town was so small, it didn't have a gas station," she says. "We had one post office which had a general store in it where you'd get fish and chips and magazines and candy. If our mum couldn't drive us, we'd take the horses down to get our lollies. It was like 5 km away. It was awesome."
It was a playground. She had a pet kangaroo. Though she missed out on movies and TV, she made up for it in other ways - by setting huge fires, blowing stuff up and learning how to drive donuts at the age of 14. And it's all thanks to Abbie's mum.
At 16, she left home. Not because it was an unhappy place - though her parents would soon divorce - and not because she wanted to rebel. She just felt ready. She'd done some acting by that stage - she played a paraplegic on an Australian drama which earned her enough money to buy a car and move to the nearby town of Newcastle, a half hour's drive away. And once she finished school, a couple of years later, she left again - this time for Europe, a faraway land that no one in her hometown had even considered visiting.
"I travelled alone," she says, "but it wasn't lonely, it was amazing." It turns out her fire-dancing came in handy. She took her firestick with her, as one does. "It was kind of like my weapon as I travelled," she says. "And every chance I had, at night obviously, I'd just light it up, and of course within half an hour, there were drummers around, people hanging out."
She ended up in New York, where she realized that she could keep doing this for ever - she had that itinerant Aussie gene that would take her around the world, working in bars and finding apartments that locals only dream about. But rather than give into it, she turned back. "I owed my grandma money and I wanted to pay her back," she said. So she returned to Australia to get more acting work. And within a few years, she was a movie star.
The film that made her was Somersault in 2004. Her portrayal of Heidi, a teenage runaway, won her a bunch of awards and a standing ovation at Cannes. The "new Nicole Kidman" thing started then and it never really stopped as she has advanced through bigger films and bigger roles, working with virtually every other member of Hollywood's Australian elite - Geoffrey Rush, Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger. And for all the praise that critics have lavished her with - how instinctive an actress she is, how intuitive and beautiful - it's worth noting just how good she is at sex scenes.
"Oh that's a new one!" she laughs. But it's true. She's all naked passion and hunger, it's quite a treat. In Somersault, she's a precocious teenager pushing the boundaries with with Sam Worthington, and almost veering into a threesome. The New York Times raved about her "sexual magnetism". In Candy, she makes helpless junkie-love with Heath Ledger as their lives fall apart. Suckerpunch lacks a Cornish sex scene, which is missing a trick, frankly. But she turns up the heat again with Bradley Cooper in Limitless.
"They're all mates, that's the thing. So I'm lucky. With friends, if someone's pants don't come off properly, or if something gets stuck, you just end up giggling."
But the passion doesn't spill over. It's all acting. Cornish likens the experience to alligators. "Alligators have two eyelids - a clear set, so they can see, and another one which is opaque. It's like that when you're acting those scenes. You're looking through the clear eyelids. So it's not me doing the scene with Bradley, it's my character."
The adventure continues for Cornish, though she's not as restless as she once was. There was a time, she used to make money in the movies only to spend it all on travelling, living the gypsy life, pursuing her interests. But now, at 28, she's decided to settle somewhat and focus on her acting.
Most recently, she made W.E with Madonna whom she describes as "very well-read, very smart and very conscious," not to mention, "so famous, she's like the weather - the air changes when she walks in." In a few weeks, she'll be off to shoot a film called The Girl in which she plays a 25 year old mom who goes on a journey through Mexico to get her son back.
But the rest of the time she spends in LA, with all its glorious distractions. "Oh I love it here. I love the outdoors, the canyons, the beach, the weather. I love the people, the wildlife. I've got no complaints." She's like a Fast Show character the way she loves things - the indoors, the outdoors, the animals, vegetables and minerals. But that's how Cornish is - relentlessly enthusiastic. She loves how LA reminds her of Australia with the outdoors lifestyle and the surfing. She loves Soho House at dusk. She loves all the culture here. And how the "paps" don't hunt her in the streets, so there's no need for ski masks. "I do wear hats," she says. "But I do that because of hip hop culture. I love hats."
It was love that brought to her LA in the first place. She didn't come here to become famous like everyone else, she moved her for Ryan Phillipe whom she'd met on the set of Stop-Loss, a movie about a returning Iraq veteran. As a result, Phillipe ended up leaving Reese Witherspoon, the mother of his two kids, and Cornish moved to LA to join him, but it didn't last - the couple broke it off last year. Not that Cornish wants to get into all that, just now.
"I am single now though, I'll say that," says Cornish. "And I'm dating." So prospective suitors may take note - she likes artist types and vegetarians. "I could date a non-vegetarian," she says, "but it would be incredible and dreamy to be with another vegetarian. Shared interests are always important."
Fair enough then. Perhaps Esquire can help. If there are any fire-dancing surfers out there who take a good picture and enjoy a spot of rapping, then it might be an idea to drop by Soho House around dusk. And try not to order the lamb skewers.