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Englert: China Girl and calling ‘action’ at two

Actor Alice Englert discusses working alongside her mother, director Jane Campion, and her burgeoning career as a filmmaker in her own right.

It’s hard for Top of the Lake: China Girl actor Alice Englert to pinpoint the first time she stepped on a film set, because those memories are also some of her earliest.

As the daughter of Palme d’Or winning-director Jane Campion (The Piano) and filmmaker Colin Englert, that world was very much entwined with her childhood.

“I have heard there was an occasion when Jane – mum – was shooting The Portrait of a Lady and I had watched her yelling action and cut,” Englert says. “And on one occasion when the actors were all set up I heard the cues going and I yelled ‘action!’ and apparently [the actors] started. They just went on with it.”

Englert would have been around the age of two.

Now, some 20 years later, she’s an actor and filmmaker in her own right. Her first foray into acting was in Campion’s 2006 short film The Water Diary, but she’s since gone on to star in features such as Beautiful Creatures and Ginger & Rosa, and TV series Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. In 2015 her debut short film as a director The Boyfriend Game, had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival and in 2016 screened in Competition in Berlinale’s Generation KPlus. Her second short film Family Happiness – which she wrote, directed and starred in - screened at Sydney Film Festival in 2017.

Next up, audiences will see Englert and Campion working together for the second time, with the highly-anticipated mini-series Top of the Lake: China Girl, which airs on Foxtel’s BBC First channel from 20 August. Co-directed by Campion and Ariel Kleiman, its impressive cast includes Englert, Elisabeth Moss, Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie.

Nicole Kidman and Alice Englert in Top of the Lake: China Girl

Englert says she has wanted to work with her mother again for a while. In fact, she had a smaller role in the first season of Top of the Lake, but had to bow out when she scored a starring part in Ginger & Rosa.

“Working together with Jane there was a challenge, which I was very excited to take up, of being able to just take direction and really give her the space to occupy her role as a director. I guess it’s an unusual thing to be in a position where you really just want to do whatever your mum tells you,” she laughs.

“As an actress it was exciting for me to work on Top of the Lake: China Girl because I think it’s a really special show and I think I’ve been able to observe it [and] I think Jane is an amazing director. But as a human being I found it quite interesting to break out of my role as a daughter and work with my mother as a person.”

Alice Englert, Jane Campion and Nicole Kidman at the Sydney <em>Top of the Lake: China Girl</em> premiere / Foxtel Alice Englert, Jane Campion and Nicole Kidman at the Sydney Top of the Lake: China Girl premiere / Foxtel
Unlike the first season, which was set in New Zealand’s South Island, the second season was filmed in Sydney in 2016. The breathtaking mountains of Queenstown have been replaced by the undulating waters of Sydney’s east – but the sense of foreboding remains. Set four years after the events of series one, it follows Elisabeth Moss’ detective Robin Griffin as she tries to unravel the mystery of an unidentified Asian girl whose body washes ashore on Bondi Beach.

Englert says she remembers sitting on the couch with Campion, when her mum told her season two would not be set in New Zealand – a location that was almost like another character in the first season. Initially, she was shocked.

“But I’ve reflected on that a lot and I found it sort of is a symbol for me for what Top of the Lake does. It’s unsentimental.”

Englert says just when you think you’ve got Top of the Lake all figured out, it does something like that and switches gears. She puts on a voice, like the show is speaking aloud: “You thought you knew what this was, you don’t.”

“And I actually really respected that,” she says. “It was sort of around that time that Jane… said I’m going to give you something.”

That “something” was the role of Mary - the biological daughter of Elisabeth Moss’ Robin and adopted daughter of Nicole Kidman’s character.

“There’s nothing simple about this second instalment. But I don’t think people who love the first one [want that],” she says.

The first series, which received production funding from Screen Australia, garnered rave reviews and has been sold to more than 225 territories around the globe. Co-created by Campion and Gerard Lee (who both co-wrote the second series), it was nominated for eight Emmy Awards and won one, with Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw taking home the coveted statuette. Elisabeth Moss was also awarded a Golden Globe for her performance.

It’s a lot for a second series to live up to. But already Top of the Lake: China Girl is attracting acclaim. The first two episodes as well as the full six-part season were shown at separate events at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2017 – one of only two TV series to be showcased at the festival (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks was the other).

Englert attended Cannes with the Top of the Lake: China Girl team, including Campion, Kleiman, Lee, Moss, Kidman, Christie and David Dencik. 

“It’s quite overwhelming going to a place like that. It’s incredible. I can’t believe I got to go to Cannes as an actress. Gwendoline, I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this, but she shed a tear when we were at the top of the stairs and that was very touching. I was really moved because she really has worked her way up that red carpet and up those stairs as an actress. Lizzie of course too. It was nice to see people [who] do really work hard to get there,” she says.

“I find it’s quite different if you go to a festival alone or when you’re with your team. I think it’s much better if you can go with someone so when you go back to your hotel room you can go, ‘what do you think? Was that good? Was that bad? Who cares?!’”

Englert attended Berlin on her own with The Boyfriend Game and says it was lonely in comparison.

“But it was lovely to go into those warm rooms in that cold, cold winter of Berlin and it was exhilarating and touching to be able to be so far away and find people who come up to you and have just seen your work and want to talk to you about it. That really meant a lot.”

As for what the future holds, Englert is open to the possibilities in front of and behind the camera. From a writing/directing perspective, she doesn’t want to limit herself to a singular goal and choose between TV or film.

“I think whatever is allowing you to articulate something that feels like it can connect and wherever is the best place to try and make that connection is where I want to take it. I’ll do anything if I feel like I’m doing it with some spirit and some honesty.”


Top of the Lake: China Girl is co-produced by BBC First and Foxtel with BBC Two, See-Saw Films, BBC UKTV in New Zealand, SundanceTV and Hulu in the United States, ARTE in France and BBC Worldwide.

Top of the Lake: China Girl airs from 20 August on Foxtel’s BBC First channel