Lily Sullivan Talks Female Empowerment in ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’

Amazon Prime’s latest limited series Picnic at Hanging Rock takes a look at a turn-of-the-century girls boarding school in the Australian outback – and the mystery of three women who disappear at Hanging Rock.

Based on the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay, the film centers on Appleyard College, a boarding/finishing school that is under the steely supervision of headmistress Mrs. Appleyard (Natalie Dormer). She runs the school with an iron fist and while most girls stick to the rules, one is constantly breaking them — the rebellious Miranda Reid (Lily Sullivan), who befriends and influences the younger Sara (Inez Currõ).

On St. Valentine’s Day, 1900, however, things go haywire when three of the older girls – Irma Leopold (Samara Weaving), Marion Quade (Madeleine Madden) and Miranda – go missing after a picnic trip to Hanging Rock. Although forbidden to climb it, Irma, Marion and Miranda sneak away anyway, followed by a younger student, Edith (Ruby Rees), who tags along. One of their teachers and chaperones, Miss McCraw (Anna McGahan), also vanishes.

Only Edith returns that day, running and screaming, in complete shock, never able to tell the authorities what happened. A few days later into the search, Irma also reappears and is equally inarticulate on what exactly took place on the rock. The disappearances shake the Appleyard school and the small-town community to the core, as an international sensation swirls around it. Rape, abduction, and murder are assumed as probable explanations.

The book was made into an eerie 1975 movie, directed by Peter Weir, but the Amazon Prime series delves even further into the psyches of these characters, who are grappling with the ensuing allegations and puzzling circumstances. This Picnic at Hanging Rock is a simmering mystery that draws you in and takes its creepy time unfolding the layers until you get to the nebulous end.

The cast is superb, particularly Dormer (of Game of Thrones fame) as Appleyard, who has a dark past she’s trying to hide, and Australian actress Sullivan as the strong-willed Miranda, who may be in touch with more than just her inner free spirit.

We Live Entertainment had a great conversation with Sullivan, talking about the themes of the show, how empowering it really is as a female-driven story – and why corsets suck.

First of all, I just have to ask: How uncomfortable were those corsets because they looked tortuous?

Lily Sullivan: Oh my god, not only was being a woman at that time suffocating, exhausting and restricting, but also physically. I think everyone to prepare for the roles put a corset on to understand what it was like a woman in that time. I’ve never shuddered going into a wardrobe fitting or waking up at 4:30 in the morning, everything in my body was like, “I don’t like this. This does not make sense.”

What was your take on your character, Miranda Reid?

Lily Sullivan: This massive house of cooped up adolescents and women, who are being groomed for auction basically, for the marital status in the outside world. I feel like each of these women in this house of refinement, whatever that means, are representations of women and together feel like a full free woman. So Miranda to me was the representation of the rebellion when someone else is trying to dictate your existence and your happiness. She grew up on an [Australian] cattle ranch with brothers and was the closest thing to equality for a woman at that time. Literally just having some of the same responsibilities. She’s also a woman who trusts her gut. And wants more than what a woman was expected of or what society expected of her. She didn’t want the iron rule, as one would call it. She didn’t accept the iron rule.

Are you a tomboy in real life?

Sullivan: Well, I did grow up in Queensland, with horses around and acres. I did grow up riding motorbikes. At first, I loved that I got to be in bare feet a lot for the scenes, but by then I had hobbit feet. Running in the bush and twigs… I lost a toenail during production. It was not glamorous at all.

And about the mysterious story itself, what was intriguing to you?

Sullivan: For me personally, I’ve always had an intense passion for a mystery. In the 1900s, I didn’t exist, so there are these fantasy elements because you didn’t know what it was like in the Victorian era trying to put the rules of that time in the wild bush of Australia, in its own little unique reality. I mean, it’s this weird little town that’s isolated in Australia, at the bottom end of the world, with all these people trying to create their own version of their society and community. With colonization in the background, it’s a bunch of people trying to search for identity, sexuality… For me, it’s the struggle of creating your own reality in a time when there was not much guidance. And I loved the blurred lines between what’s real and what’s not.

I mean writers of that time had such imagination, like Emily Dickinson – a time where your imagination was your only escape from the time that was quite cold and forceful, very right or wrong, black or white. So I feel like using the fantasy elements, the dream sequences and surreal moments and images just show the desperation of these people to try to grapple with their existence.

This also brings up the idea of the class struggles in the story, particularly with Natalie Dormer’s character, who is pretending to be upper class when she really came from the streets.

Sullivan: Exactly. Your self-value was based on things that were completely out of your control, which is why this story is so relevant and why the themes that are laced through it still resonate. We are always facing issues on how people let you grow or how people interpret you. And how you find your own identity or liberation. Or your sense of friendship and equality. I feel like all those things are always there. I mean these young girls, how much admiration I had for them. The more we explored these young women, the more we felt how relevant the story was to us to this day. As humans, I think it’s just more about how we accept each other and let each other express ourselves and find those answers. In that time, there no respect for the individual.

So now, there might be a class structure, but there’s room for you to express yourself and connect. With the #MeToo movement and #TimesUp, it’s about being able to have discussions now. Let’s have discussions and not keep known secrets and behavioral patterns behind closed doors. Use the Internet and social media to our advantage.

I think this version of Picnic at Hanging Rock really shows that. How did you and the other actresses bond?

Sullivan: We had the beauty of rehearsals and being able to explore our characters and had some freedom in the creation of this project. It was so collaborative, playful and childlike, too. Everyone’s opinion was valid in every department. I just think everyone felt grateful for the material. There were no egos or insecurities in the journey. Just gentle generosity in everyone. On screen, sometimes the girls don’t say much and it’s just left to looks and things that are unspoken. I think everyone just felt really grateful to tell the story. We all loved each other. It was ridiculous. I mean there are some great men in the show, too…

True, but this was a girls’ story. All the way.

Sullivan: [laughs] It was. It was so exciting to show up to set and like every woman was different and in different stages in their lives. It’s was kooky and mental – and really enjoying. It was nice to feel ageless. Yes, this is female driven and it’s good and the way it should be. But there’s the feeling that there’s room for both, and it was nice to mix it up.

The ending is so very confounding because you don’t know what happens to these girls. What are your feelings about it?

Sullivan: The older I get or the more I know, the less I know. In terms of an answer, enjoy the slow burn and the ride – and enjoy not being spoon fed. And also you have to participate in this series. I don’t want to give anything away, of course, but I guess it depends on how you want it to go. But there are many clues along the way. Many clues. Have you ever read the final chapter of the book from Joan Lindsay?

No, I haven’t.

Sullivan: Let’s just say the marker point of how far you want to take it of what happens is in the book. Lindsay wrote a final chapter that got released later that had Miss McCraw, the teacher who goes missing with them, opens up a portal, grows crab claws and beckons the girls in. We don’t go there, but there’s your perimeter.

Check out Picnic at Hanging Rock, premiering on Amazon Prime this Friday.

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