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Miranda Otto: Taking on the full horror

Annabelle: Creation opens in NZ cinemas on August 10

Miranda Otto is sitting at the table so noiseless and still, that for a moment I don't even realise she is in the room with me.

Usually with these meetings the press – ie, me – arrive first and wait for ten minutes or so until the subject – Miranda Otto – turns up. So when I'm ushered into the hotel room I'm not expecting to see anyone there. Not her anyway. She looks, and there's no other way to put this, amazing.

It's a suffocatingly humid Los Angeles day, late in the afternoon, and she is at least six hours into a tranche of interviews and publicity events. And yet there she is, cool, composed, looking for all the world like this is the first meeting of the day and that she is truly delighted to see me come shambling in.

Miranda Otto never thought she'd do a pure horror film.

Miranda Otto is pale – for an adopted Los Angelino especially – with striking green eyes made all the more startling by that famous mane of gold and auburn hair. She looks delicate, fragile even. And, of course, is no such thing. Every successful actress I've ever met has been as tough as nails. I don't doubt for a second that Otto is any different.

The film we are here to talk about is Annabelle: Creation. It's the origin story spun off the wildly successful franchise that began back in 2013 with The Conjuring. That film has spawned a raft of sequels and prequels. But Annabelle: Creation looks as far back as the story-line will credibly go. The film is set in the 1940's and 1950's. Otto plays the mother of the young girl – Annabelle – whose death will be the spark that ignites the entire 'Conjuring Universe' – as the franchise has been dubbed – into life.

Read more:
* Miranda Otto in 24
*Miranda Otto shows her true colours


Miranda Otto in Annabelle: Creation.

Otto's role in the film is unusual in that she spends most of her time on screen in isolation. Her character is horribly disfigured. She wears a porcelain mask over much of her face and acts out most of her scenes mostly concealed behind the diaphanous curtains around the massive, vaguely gothic bed in which she spends most of her day.

Her only significant interactions are with her husband – played winningly by fellow Australian Anthony La Paglia. By the time the rest of the cast finally meet Esther – Otto's character – she has recently had a run in with the film's resident demon, and is not really in any condition for a conversation. "I never really thought I'd be attracted to such a straight forward horror project. I've done films that I guess you could call horror before – What Lies Beneath was in the genre – but I liked this script a lot.

"It was more concerned with character than just gore. I think that's why it's so effective. I always look for characters who have some depth written into them, and she very much did."

Miranda Otto as American poet Elizabeth Bishop in the film Reaching for the Moon.

I ask Otto whether she prefers to play roles which she can bring a lot of interpretation to, or whether she would rather have everything 'on the page' already. "Oh the former, definitely. That's what acting is. Even if the writer and director give you pages of backstory and character notes, it's still up to you to bring it all to life. And that always involves a degree of interpretation and...I guess it's a process of translation. You're taking one language – print – and translating it into another language. You're never just reciting the lines. You have to Be Somebody."

Otto has some strong links with New Zealand, and she talks, as everybody seems to, with a real passion for the place ("I was there for Lord of the Rings of course"). Otto played the pivotal character of Eowyn, who raises the roof after the evil Witch King has taunted her that 'no man may kill me' by pulling back her hood, calmly replying 'I am no man' and stabbing him in what we presume is his face.

It's an iconic scene in a series in which the blokes usually had a lot more to do than the women. "She was fun to play. And to be involved in a production of that scale was amazing. In film, we often get taken to beautiful, spectacular places to work. But Lord of the Rings was just something else. The New Zealand locations were just beyond spectacular. And the Kiwi was very comfortable for me, as an Australian, because Kiwis work in a very similar way. There's an expectation that you'll work hard, and not cause any dramas.

Otto in South Solitary.

"I like that. What we do is just a job. It's a great job. But you have to show up and do it. I like working with people who know that too."

And on that appropriate note, the publicist sweeps in, to signal the end of my allotted time. We shake hands. As I leave she gives me one of those room-lightening smiles that only the real professional can pull off. And then rearranges herself in her chair. Ready, I guess, for the next job.

Otto with Greg Kinnear in the US version of Rake.

Sunday Star Times