It was the kind of story that just begs to be made into a movie. Two years ago, at Flemington, on the first Tuesday in November, jockey Michelle Payne stormed home on a 100-1 outsider to win the nation’s greatest horse race.
Michelle, the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup, had to fight for her ride on Prince of Penzance that day. In her victory speech, immediately after the race, she was characteristically blunt: “I just want to say to everyone else to get stuffed if they think women aren’t strong enough, because we just beat the world.”
The race that so famously stops a nation had yet another fairytale, one that grabbed the attention of film and television powerhouse Rachel Griffiths. The Oscar-nominated star is about to make her directorial debut telling Michelle’s story in a feature film, Ride Like A Girl.
Cast in the coveted starring role as the battler jockey, whose mother died when she was a baby and grew up one of 10 siblings in central Victoria, is fellow Aussie Teresa Palmer. And she is relishing playing such a feisty female.
“Michelle was always warned she could never be a world-class jockey. She was not tough enough. She was not a man,” Teresa said on announcing her part in the film.
There are other big names attached to Ride Like A Girl, including Sam Neill and Jackie Weaver, but the film will very much be Teresa’s vehicle. Her career to date has shown she has the grit and versatility she’ll need to nail the part.
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Since her early AFI Best Actress-nominated role in Australian independent film 2:37 at the age of 18, the Adelaide-born actor has worked across a wide range of projects, from sci-fi blockbusters (I Am Number Four) and horror films (Lights Out) to indie thrillers rich with character work (Wish You Were Here). She has worked with big-name directors including Terrence Malick (Knight of Cups) and Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge).
In her most recent film, Berlin Syndrome, in cinemas earlier this year, Teresa played a photojournalist who enters into an obsessive relationship with a charming German while being held captive in his flat. It was an emotionally challenging role that required Teresa to draw on her own difficult childhood growing up with a mother suffering a bi-polar disorder.
“I had a very colourful childhood where I experienced a lot of difficult moments, so my emotional well is pretty deep,” she says. “This was the kind of film where I really needed to tap into that reservoir.”
Teresa’s early challenges meant she had to develop a strong independent streak, and she still prefers to take care of things herself. Even on the press tour to promote Berlin Syndrome earlier this year, there were no nannies in sight as she breastfed her five-week-old baby boy Forest, while her husband, American actor Mark Webber, watched their eldest son Bodhi, 3.
“I like being able to travel with my kids, and I consider myself very fortunate that I’m able to do interviews while my baby is right beside me,” she says. “Most working women don’t have their luxury when it comes to their work.
“I’ve always looked forward to having children, and I’m enjoying everything that comes with that. But I’m also lucky to have a husband who is a very dedicated and hands-on father, which is exactly how I am as a mother. It all comes down to being good at juggling all those different roles in your life.”
The young family divide their time between homes in Los Angeles and Adelaide.
Teresa, 31, is fresh-faced and effervescent, juggling her work and family with the same aplomb. But while she genre-hops with ease, there’s one thing she looks for in every new project – an appreciation for truth and resilience that will serve her well playing Michelle Payne.
“Now that I’m older and also a mother, I’m a lot more selective in terms of projects,” she says. “I’m drawn to what’s real – characters that are steeped in a reality, strong women with a specific point of view.
“When I was asked to do Lights Out, I connected with the lead character because I also have a mother who suffers from mental illness. It was a therapeutic experience for me. I also drew on my relationship with my mother for my work on Hacksaw Ridge.
“I used a lot of her beautiful qualities – how very, very gentle and sweet she could be. I also used my grandmother – she’s a very strong woman who definitely wore the pants in her relationship with my grandfather. He was a firefighter, and my grandmother used to tell me about the feeling her friends had, knowing their husbands might not return.
“I think working on Hacksaw Ridge and Berlin Syndrome has made me realise that I don’t want to work on anything but truly interesting and meaningful projects. I love being able to spend time with Mark and the kids so much that I really only want to work when I have the chance to work with a great director and tell an interesting story.”