Mel Gibson’s latest film tells the story of Desmond Doss, a man compelled by duty to join the Army during World War II and compelled by belief to avoid committing acts of violence. Palmer, who first impressed me in 2013’s zombie romance Warm Bodies, turns in another beguiling performance here as the nurse who takes Doss’s blood and steals his heart.
Matthew Lickona: What would you say is your strongest quality as an actor?
Teresa Palmer: Life experience, I guess. I had a very colorful childhood, with lots of left-of-center experiences. My emotional well is pretty deep, and over the years that I’ve been acting, I’ve figured out how to tap into that.
ML: Did you bring that eclectic upbringing to bear on your role as Dorothy [the nurse who Desmond woos and eventually marries]?
TP: Not really. I had a really interesting dynamic with my mother growing up, but it was her beautiful qualities I took for this character — very, very gentle and sweet. 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 she used to tell me about the feeling her friends had, knowing that their husbands might not return. That was just part of life for them, and that’s a huge part of this story, because Dorothy must have had the expectation that her husband was not going to return from the war, given his radical choice, the incredible risk he was taking in standing by his convictions. It proves to me what an unconditional love they had.
ML: Speaking of sweet, that mountaintop kiss between Desmond and Dorothy had an old-fashioned sweetness about it, very unlike the sort of modern-day screen kiss that signals the unleashing of passion. How did you manage that?
TP: Mel very much directed that screen kiss. He had the same observation in terms of what kisses look like today compared to what it would look like for two people of great faith in the 1940s who are falling in love. He talked to us about the kiss: obviously, not opening our mouths, more of a tight-lipped kiss. But, really, it was just a love for each other. It wasn’t about the physicality, the bodies coming together. Where the kiss came out of was, like, “You are my husband, you are my home,” as opposed to, “I want to take your clothes off.” And Mel was right in there directing. He’s such a romantic — he really understands love. He talked so eloquently about what it feels like to fall in love for the first time. It was very endearing.
ML: Last year, you appeared in Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. He and Gibson are both directors with strong personal styles. Could you compare your experiences working with each of them?
TP: Vastly different. With Mel’s film, I auditioned by doing a couple of scenes from the movie, putting it on tape, and sending it to him. With Malick, the audition is talking about yourself in front of the camera — tell a sad story, tell a happy story. Then you get a piece of his writing, look at it for 20 minutes, hand it back to casting, and do an improvised monologue based on what you remember of it. It’s a fantastic way of getting to know people’s spirits. I didn’t get the role I auditioned for, but I found out that Malick had to decided to write one scene for me to do. Then he just kept asking me to stay. I’d get a phone call, “Can you be in a scene tomorrow?” “Can you come to Vegas with us?” I was, like, “Sure!” And there was nothing to read, it was all improv. They kind of found the story in the edit. With Mel, it was much more specific. He knew this narrative back to front. But they’re both really gentle beings with big hearts. Terrence is a man of faith, and so is Mel. They both really lead with compassion, which may sound surprising.
ML: Dorothy visits Desmond while he’s in prison for disobeying an order, and she asks him to meet the Army halfway. It’s a high-drama moment. Could you break down your preparation for that scene?
TP: She’s been unwavering in her support, but in that moment, she gets bound by her fear. You see some real vulnerability. I read a lot about Dorothy, and I listened to her audio tapes, to the way she was. And she sometimes says things impulsively, without thinking. So in the scene, it just rolls out of her: “Don’t confuse your will with the Lord’s.” Mel really directed that scene. He wanted her to say it really fast, like it’s verbal diarrhea. And then she stops herself. You can see the regret, because she knows the impact that’s going to have on Desmond. I read the scene over and over to get beneath her emotional turmoil, and I tapped into my own experience — I’ve been in a similar headspace.
ML: You’ve been in a wide range of roles, including the lead in this year’s horror hit Lights Out. How do you go about choosing parts?
TP: Now that I’m older and also a mother, I’m a lot more selective in terms of projects. I’m drawn to real. I just want real — characters that are steeped in a reality, strong women with a specific point of view. For 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. And I recently did Berlin Syndrome, which is from Cate Shortland, who did Lore. I play a woman who gets into a situation, and the movie explores Stockholm Syndrome. My character is completely flawed and vulnerable, and it’s such a dark, dark film, but I loved it because it was real.