I found it interesting that Margot Robbie, an Australian actress with few screen credits but fantastic looks and diverse acting talents, was entrusted to do almost as much media as superstar Will Smith to promote Focus, a mischievous mix of suspense and romantic comedy that is playing at the UA East Hampton 6. And that the movie’s trailer was filled with (sexy) images of her. I think it’s because everyone involved with the movie believed her multifaceted portrayal of a young woman who is eager for Smith’s dapper conman to make her his partner in his trade and his life will launch her into instant stardom. That was the prerelease buzz, which made her an in-demand talk show guest and the subject of numerous magazine and newspaper profiles. For the Australian magazine FilmInk I participated in this roundtable with the smart, congenial, no-airs actress about the hit movie and a role that could have been written for her. I note my questions.
Danny Peary: Did you get this part in Focus before or after The Wolf of Wall Street?
Margot Robbie: After. Wolf opened a lot of doors for me and has given me so many opportunities. A lot of people are interested in me for characters that are similar to the role I played in Wolf because that’s the only movie they have seen me in, but fortunately some people are giving me the opportunity to play different kinds of roles. I want to keep it a little diverse, and earlier this year I was in Z for Zachariah, which is an indie film, and I play a character who is the polar opposite of my character in Wolf. And playing Jane in Tarzan will be very different again. It’s brilliant that all the films I’ve done lately, including Focus, have been totally different genres and with totally different characters. It keeps it exciting.
DP: I would think this film is an incredible showcase for you because you get to do almost everything in this role. You get to be funny, sweet, cold, sexy, silly, daring, a fun date, a sexpot.
MR: Yes, I guess I didn’t appreciate that enough in the beginning and it wasn’t until we really got into making the film that I started to know how lucky I was.
Q: You were in Croatia when you heard you were going to audition for the movie?
MR: Yes, I was backpacking with my little brother, and I was on an island. I had just been on another island that night and I came back and went swimming at 6AM, off this island. It was this big carpe diem. We’d been swimming in the ocean and I was soaking wet, I got back and my little brother was locked out of our hostel room. I took out my phone and I had this voicemail message from my team, frantically saying, the Focus audition is happening in New York and I had fly out from Croatia that night. I was thinking, “Oh, god how do I get back to the mainland?” I asked the hostel owners, and they’re saying, “There’s only one boat that leaves the island and it leaves in fifteen minutes, otherwise you won’t get there until tomorrow and you’ll miss the flight to New York.” So it was like this mad rush and I literally ran down, grabbed my suitcase, left half my things in the room, and ran down the hall yelling out to my brother. He said, “Where are you going?” I said, I gotta go to New York. I’ll meet you in Italy in four days!” “Where?” “Rome!” I never actually met him in Rome in four days, but he went off and he managed just fine. It was this giant race to get back to the mainland for this flight to New York. I had to get a catamaran, then a bus to the airport, wait for hours, then fly to France, wait for another bunch of hours, for the flight to New York. I got to New York but they lost my luggage. I’d been wearing the wet clothes because I hadn’t had time to change. I couldn’t be bothered, so I took off the wet shirt and put on a pajama shirt. So I was in New York about to do this audition in ripped shorts and a pajama shirt. I had nothing else, no makeup or anything. And my audition was in a couple hours’ time. The next morning, I was walking to the audition in my pajama shirt, thinking, “I cannot do an audition with Will Smith in my pajamas, this is ridiculous,” so I stopped in at TopShop on the way and bought a button-up shirt. I went wearing that, but the rest of me looked so shabby. Denise the producer was like, “We loved you, you came in very fresh-faced in ripped shorts. I said, “Yes, that wasn’t a strategic wardrobe choice.” It was literally because I had no other options at the time.
DP: On your Wikipedia page, it says you’re going to be in an upcoming comedy, Focus. When you talked to the directors for the first time, did they say Focus was a comedy?
MR: They didn’t specify, no. John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have made all kinds of films so it’s very hard to put them into a specific genre. I wasn’t told Focus was a comedy, though there are obviously a lot of comedic moments in it. I didn’t know if it was going to be an actual comedy. When I first started hearing about the project, I looked at John and Glenn’s previous film, I Love You Phillip Morris. There were these massive tonal shifts and moments when I would be laughing, then I would be crying, that sort of thing, and the actors on screen did that pretty much too—laughing and then crying. There seems to be really a bit of everything in their movies. All the actors have an opportunity to do a bit of everything—and that was very enticing. That’s really what made me want to work with them.
DP: What was your audition?
MR: We did the first scene in the hotel bar, where Will and I meet for the first time. Then we did the scene in which she tries to convince him to let her come on board with his team.
DP: Did you do it the same way every time?
MR: We started improvising, and I can’t remember what he said but I said something like “Wow, you’re a dick!” And apparently when I walked off, Will was saying something like, Yeah, I like her, I think she’s the right one.” And they said to him, “You like her because she called you a dick, right?” And said, “Yeah, that was awesome.” It ended up becoming this running joke in the film. I don’t know how much ended up in the final edit, but we always ended scenes with my saying, “You’re such a dick” or “Why are you being such a dick?” All because I said that at the audition. It wasn’t in the script.
Q: So how was it starring in a film with Will Smith?
MR: He’s the most incredible guy and so wonderful to work with and hang out with. When you hear the name Will Smith, you think that he’s one of a handful of actors for whom you automatically have very high expectations—impossible expectations. And he’s one of those people who exceed any expectations.
Q: When the film’s trailer was released there was a lot of talk online about the chemistry between the two of you.
MR: Yeah, it’s so bizarre, it’s not one of those things that you can really plan for.
Q: Sometimes when you see a film where the male lead is significantly older than the leading lady it is quite noticeable, but in this film it’s just not an issue because you seem well matched.
MR: Yeah, I’m equally surprised as anyone. I remember thinking when I got that call about auditioning for Focus that I would never get cast opposite Will Smith. I couldn’t think of a couple that made less sense in every way, shape, and form. No one would ever buy it because of the age difference. But initially I didn’t think we would ever work either and I don’t think a lot of people did. I had met John and Glenn previously and they insisted that I come in to read, and I think a lot of people, including Will probably, were thinking, “I don’t see this working.” Then we got in the room and it was apparent that we have very similar personalities. Chemistry is a weird thing–we had this immediate rapport and it worked out fine. If there is a rapport, it takes away the idea that it couldn’t be possible. It does make sense on the screen.
Q: In TheWolf of Wall Street, you play the wife of a criminal, Jordan, played by Leonardo De Caprio. And in Focus, you fall for a con man. Are you attracted to crime genre?
MR: I don’t really think of it as being attracted to the genre. It’s just that a lot of films are made about criminals, because there’s obviously a lot you can do with that. I never actually thought of Jordan being a criminal in The Wolf of Wall Street. InFocus, I guess there is a different kind of thievery, it’s a little more playful.
Q: What excited you about playing Jess?
MR: We filmed in New Orleans and then in Argentina, Buenos Aires, two locations that were very high on my to-go list, so that was something enticing about the job. But I suppose the main thing about my roll was that I was really excited to learn pick-pocketing. One of the thrills of being an actor is you get to pick up little skills, and whether you’re doing stunt training or martial arts, whatever. You can always pick up a little skill or party trick, and this obviously was a fun one. I was like, “Oh, it would be awesome to learn to do actual pickpocketing.” We were taught by Apollo Robbins, one of the world’s best pickpockets. He’s known for being that because he’s done shows in Las Vegas. It’s fascinating to learn the methods. You can take it from an intellectual side, understanding how the mark’s mind works; and you find blind points because that’s how people steal effectively. So we learned those sorts of things. We had to practice dexterity because the physicality of it is kind of difficult. So learning pickpocketing was the first thing that attracted me. On a basic level I think it’s a fun party trick, but I am also fascinated to learn anything that kind of incorporates the cerebral sides of things. There’s something a little exciting about pickpocketing. I learned how to do the steals. Apollo, had me practice on people who were walking into the room, that were working on the set, that sort of thing. The most terrifying thing was having the confidence to actually execute a lift. I knew how to do it, and I knew how to place my hands and everything, but to have the confidence to do it while looking someone in the eye is so ballsy and that’s the thing I struggled with most. But I think Jess does not have that problem at all.
Q: So who is the bigger con artist, Jess or Nicky?
MR: I guess that’s an argument that Nicky and Jess could have until the end of time. Since I play Jess I would say Jess is the bigger con artist but if you speak to Will he’d probably say Nicky is the bigger con artist.
DP: What does Jess think of herself?
MR: I think she’s aware that she’s ambitious but she’s also very confident that she can achieve whatever she sets her mind to. She doesn’t really have any fear when she is working towards a goal, and that works perfect for a pickpocket.
DP: So she’s confident and resourceful. But does she like herself?
MR: Yes…yeah, she does. She has a moral compass, and though it may be askew to other people’s standards, to her standards she would never do anything immoral.
DP: How much does Jess care about money?
MR: I think she likes the thrill of stealing more than the rewards of stealing, I think she just wants enough to get by and have what she wants. I don’t think she’s too money-crazy, too greedy.
DP: Does she change between the beginning and the end of the film?
MR: Definitely. I think what she wants changes. She wanted a new life and to experience the excitement of the grifting world, but in time she just wants honesty, I suppose. There’s a transformation from the old Jess to the new Jess, and it’s like playing two different characters because they’re so different.
DP: Yes, again, you get to see many facets of your acting in this film. When I was watching the film, I was struck by the patience in your delivery, so my assumption would be that you’re very calm and confident in front of the camera? Is that correct or totally wrong?
MR: That’s probably just me being a selfish actor and trying to milk the moment, I suppose. I kind of learned what works and doesn’t work on screen when I was on Neighbours. I did like over 300 episodes and I haven’t seen all of them obviously. I don’t know if anyone has–my own family wouldn’t’ have even seen half of them. It was a really great learning experience for seeing what works on-screen and what doesn’t. I remember watching some of my very first episodes. I’m blinking and looking around the room, and sometimes I’m looking at a point–but on on-screen it reads totally different from how I felt it. So I kind of learned, one, what’s distracting for an audience member, and two, also, that I can take my time when it’s needed. Sometimes I used to get the feeling that I wanted to rush through it, to keep the pace up. John and Glenn would always say when to pace it up and when to slow it down. They were like, “Take those moments.” Or they would be like, “Let’s make this snappy,” and then you’d have a kind of Ping Pong dialogue. So they kind of controlled that as well.
Q: What was it like on the set?
MR: The set was very lighthearted, very fun, and very quick-paced. John and Glenn obviously write very funny material and they are also really hilarious in real life. Will, as everyone knows, is really funny, and we had so many wonderful actors in the film who were comedic gold. BD Wong, who plays the gambling guy in the stadium scene, improvised and he was hysterical. There are so many outtakes where I was just absolutely in hysterics because he was so funny.
DP: You mentioned the Australian show Neighbours. You made a couple of films early in your career and then you committed yourself to a soap opera. Was that a tough decision?
MR: That wasn’t a strategic choice at all, that was me purely taking any opportunity that was available. And at that stage the thing that got the ball rolling was doing a couple of very low-budget indie films. It was unpaid work, but it was a chance to be on the set, which was a dream come true. And then I did a couple of guest spots, an episode or two, on a couple of TV shows, and one thing led to another, and within six months I got the job on Neighbours from being in that first indie film.
DP: But did that sabotage your movie career for a while, by committing to a soap opera?
MR: No, because at that stage committing to a role on Neighbours was a much better career move than doing the indie films that weren’t ever going to get distributed or seen at all. In Australia, unfortunately, the industry is kind of limited, but the two biggest shows–the most internationally recognized– are Home and Away and Neighbours. So being on one of those shows is the biggest stepping stone to get to America. Indie films that can’t get distribution and were never going to get me to America.
Q: Are you still interested in doing a movie that shoots in Australia?
MR: I would love to. I’m dying for an opportunity to get back home and work at home and do an Australian film or an Australian project somehow. I was home for my mom’s 60th birthday, just for a day, which meant a lot of flying to and from London, and other than that I take a few days at Christmas. This year I am going to take a couple of weeks. which is the longest amount of time I will have had at home in years. Otherwise it is very hard.
Q: You mentioned that when you got the audition you were traveling – is this what you like to do in your downtime?
MR: Definitely. My plan once was to finish school and then travel, just kind of run around. Now any time I have any time off from work I try to travel. I always have the most fun when I stay in hostels because I meet many more people. It makes sense to stay in hotels when I’m in New York doing work things, but while traveling, I don’t really get a feel for a place if I’m in a hotel. A hotel makes it seem like everywhere else. But yeah, yeah, bead and breakfasts and hostels are generally the best way to do it.
Q: Do people recognize you?
MR: It’s weird, I stayed in a hostel earlier this year in Dublin, when I had a weekend off from Tarzan, and Neighbours shows I was on played there. When you’re somewhere like Croatia, you’re going to be under the radar a lot more, but I was actually fine. I think I look so different from how people see me on screen so they don’t make the association. Maybe they think, “She look like the chick in Wolf, but it couldn’t possibly be her because why would she be in a hostel in Dublin?” In fact a couple of people did say that to me. So I haven’t had any problems being recognized–once or twice but that was it.
Q: Do you still keep in touch with Scorsese?
MR: I haven’t seen him in a while actually. I think the last time I saw him was around awards season earlier this year. After the Golden Globes, a bunch of us from Wolf went off and had dinner, and it was so much fun getting together and catching up. After each of the awards shows we’d all go have dinner somewhere. I got two solid hours of chatting just with Marty, I was so grateful for that time, because after that things got chaotic and I was gone five days later. I went to New Zealand and after that everything sort of took off again. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with anyone from Wolf since then.
Q: Are there any other directors you’d like to work with if you get a chance?
MR: My absolutely dream ultimate list of the top three was Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers. I could watch their films a thousand times. They’re the top three on my bucket list.
Q: Do you have a master plan now for your career?
MR: Nothing specific I guess but the plan has been the same since my first meeting with my managers–in my career, I want quality, diversity and longevity. So that’s the big goal and we always strive toward that. The smaller, in-between goals are obviously to work with great filmmakers, and we have a list much more extensive than the three I mentioned. Also I’d really like to create some work as well, whether it’s producing or directing or writing one day.
Q: A lot of movie actors are on Broadway now. Do you have any interest in theater?
MR: I definitely want to get on stage at some point. Maybe Broadway but I’m not sure. I doubt if it would be in a singing role, because I don’t think that’s my forte and there are so many talented singers out there. But you never know. Definitely getting on stage in some way is pretty high on my priority list.
Q: If you had not discovered that you have the gift of acting, what would you have done?
MR: I’d probably end up performing in some way. I love the trapeze so I’d like to think I’d be a trapeze artist. To be in a circus would be an amazing job.