Film Spotlight: Menik Gooneratne (Mortal Engines)
Menik Gooneratne is an Australian actress (you may remember her from Neighbours) who stars in Peter Jackson’s upcoming new franchise, MORTAL ENGINES. She plays supporting lead (Sathya) opposite Hera Hilmar (Hester Shaw).
The Universal/MRC produced film is directed by Christian Rivers and executive produced and written by Peter Jackson and the rest of the team behind THE LORD OF THE RINGS, and has just been released in Australia with a US release due on 14 December.
Menik was gracious with her time in allowing us to conduct an interview on the eve of the film’s release.
Q. Apart from those who watch Neighbours, many in Australia don’t know much about you. Tell us about your early life in coming to Australia and developing into an actress?
A. Well, I was born in England and, from an early age, our family travelled around a lot to developing countries with my father’s work on climate change. In that time we spent a few years in Papua New Guinea where I started school. In fact, my first acting gig was playing the “wild boar” in our Kindergarten Easter Play! I still remember being carried around on a stick once the hunters “caught me.” I’d like to think it was that starring role that got me thinking about a career in acting!
We settled in Melbourne, Australia when I was 8. I remember all through school I loved acting – my friends and I would make up plays during lunchtime then sometimes get to perform them for the younger year levels. I was incredibly shy though; so acting was a means of expressing myself without fear of judgment.
Q. I read about some racial tensions that occurred on the Neighbours set that led to your departure. Is that true? If so, I never thought such a thing would occur in Australia. Was that a real setback for your career? Did it give you even more determination to succeed?
A. Not true! I have nothing but fond memories of my time on Neighbours, and to this day I am eternally grateful to the producers for giving me the chance to shine. This role was what opened the door to my international career. My exit was due to nothing more than a natural conclusion to what was a very tumultuous and dramatic story arc for my character.
Q. You’ve done some acting and directing in short films. Was this film a big step-up for you in terms of your output and commitment?
A. I definitely put a lot more pressure on myself stepping into this role, mainly because I was about to start working with such iconic, Oscar-winning filmmakers. I tend to throw myself in 100 percent to any role I commit to, regardless of the medium, but the one difference I noticed on this film was the luxury of time. We had more time to prepare and develop our characters, more time to shoot our scenes and more time to experiment on set. Everything else I have worked on in my career has operated on a much faster pace, so it was refreshing to be able to take my time with this one and really dig deep.
Q. How did you feel about being cast for Mortal Engines and your thoughts on the script? Many Australian and New Zealand actors involved too.
A. Honestly, at times I still can’t believe I was part of this film – I still pinch myself! I am very lucky indeed. When I read the books, I couldn’t put them down, and I feel the script certainly does the book justice. Although having been responsible for THE LORD OF THE RINGS & HOBBIT trilogies, I don’t think you can expect anything less than brilliance from Peter, Fran, and Philippa.
Q. Tell us about the people you worked with: Peter Jackson, Christian Rivers, Hugo Weaving, and Jihae, for example?
A. Peter is enigmatic with a wicked sense of humour. He directed some of my fight and stunt sequences. He is very specific with his vision and what he wants from actors, which at times could be daunting but oh so very rewarding when you nail it!
Christian is a very generous director. I loved working with him. He allowed us the chance to experiment with our own ideas for our characters, which is not a luxury you get on most sets. He is also an amazing artist. If we had a little downtime or a break, you’d often find him doodling some amazing picture on a scrap piece of paper.
Hugo is one of the loveliest (and cheekiest) people I’ve met. Jihae is the epitome of cool and grace! And incredible at martial arts to top it off. It was mesmerising watching her rehearse her fight sequences. She is certainly a natural leader, which is fitting, given her character. It was quite funny – when we all started hanging out together (the actors who play the Anti Traction League) we all naturally fell into the roles of our characters. I guess that’s a testament to great casting choices.
Q. What were the locations like?
A. Everything I shot was on the lot at Stone Street Studios in Wellington. The level of detail and intricacy in the sets was breathtakingly beautiful. It gave me a newfound appreciation for all that the set designers and prop makers do.
Q. You are married and have started a family. Are you settled in Australia now, and what other opportunities have been presented to you?
A. I am currently living in Los Angeles with my family. We’ve been here almost three years now, and it’s been a wild ride adjusting to life in the US. I filmed a comedy pilot for CBS earlier in the year which was so much fun. It was a multi-cam show, so it is filmed in front of a live studio audience, so it was like doing a play. Apart from that, I have been developing my own screenplay over the last few years – The Wedding Season. It’s an adaptation of a book by Melbourne author Su Dharmapala. It’s like a cross between Bend It Like Beckham and Trainwreck. With the success of Crazy Rich Asians, it has really opened the doors for us in regards to getting this film greenlit, so fingers crossed, I might be back home in Melbourne making this film very soon!
Mortal Engines is screening on wide release across Australia.
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