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Film: INTERVIEW - Radha Mitchell: BLIZZARD FROM OZ; AFTER NICOLE KIDMAN AND CATE BLANCHETT, HERE COMES AUSSIE RADHA MITCHELL.

Byline: MARIANNE GRAY

Travelling in the back of a taxi from Melbourne airport to her home, Radha Mitchell was exhausted after flying to Australia. She'd just landed from LA where she'd been shooting the blockbuster Man On Fire with Denzel Washington. When her cellphone rang and the caller claimed to be Woody Allen, the blonde actress immediately assumed it was someone winding her up.

"I thought it was my mum," laughs the 31-year-old, "but apparently it was Woody ringing to see if I wanted to be in his new movie. It didn't sound at all like him, and I was shocked and jetlagged. I just sort of said, 'Oh, gimme a break'. But it turned out really to be him and he sent over the script for Melinda And Melinda, with a dual leading role for me playing two parallel stories.

"He'd never heard of me but had apparently seen me in a rather sexy independent film called Ten Tiny Love Stories. I think he probably thought he could get me quite cheap as I was still relatively unknown. When we met he just asked me to do six handstands and one cartwheel and that was it."

Radha is the latest in a line of feisty, elegant Australian actresses which includes Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett and Naomi Watts. Curled up in jeans and bare feet in a chunky armchair in a smart London hotel, she's not the kind of actress who settles for roles as window dressing for the male lead.

Radha's first major film was Pitch Black alongside Vin Diesel in 2000. She then joined Colin Farrell in Phone Booth, but her career didn't really start to bloom until last year with Man On Fire and, most recently, Finding Neverland in which she played Johnny Depp's wife.

"I don't think I'm part of the Australian migration to Hollywood, but there is a tenuous link," she smiles. "We absolutely don't sit around and hold hands on Sundays and hope for work, but we do keep in touch and there is a sort of implicit support network. I think we Australians have proved that we are pretty commercial and maybe that gives us an extra strength. I was young when I went to LA. I went to act but I got involved in a relationship there and stayed.

"It's a pretty good lifestyle because, depending how you manage it, you do have a lot of time between films to do other things, such as travelling and being yourself. I take care to keep out of the celebrity world. I'm not athletic so I don't go off climbing mountains, although I like to dance and hang out. But I'm afraid you won't find any scandal about me on the web."

Like so many Australian stars, Radha's done the obligatory stint in Neighbours, twice in fact. In 1994, she was a parachute instructor and in 1996/7 played Catherine O'Brien. But for the past seven years she's split her time between Los Angeles "paying my dues" and Melbourne, where she was born.

"I was brought up in the country on my parents' organic farm, growing vegetables and all being a bit hippy," she says. "Veggies and yoga! I'm still a vegetarian and the way I keep sane is with yoga, but not in a hardcore way.

"When I want to chill out I get my exercise mat and head off. I travel light, just with my little computer, which has got my photos in it, and the book I'm reading. You can buy more books anywhere. Last time it was to India and I loved it. I don't have a partner so I went on my own and it was scary and exciting. It ended up being one of the best things I've ever done.

"I'm not sure where home is now. Melbourne, I suppose. My father left Kent in the '60s to find adventure and ended up in Australia making videos. My mother was a model at that time, then she had a clothing shop in the '70s and '80s. She and I would do a lot of shopping trips to India when I was a kid, to buy silks and satins.

"I did modelling as a child and then I worked in a TV series for a couple of months, but I was quite shy and didn't do anything about it. I wanted to finish in high school and get a degree which turned out to be literature and media.

"It was a fun time because I also did some shows, made some money and wrote some essays and hung out with both grown ups and students. I had no ambition to be an actress or a star, but I felt comfortable in that sort of environment.

"Being in big-budget movies has come to me quite late. I've made so many small independent films that I haven't encountered the Hollywood 'lights'" - she makes inverted commas in the air - "until now.

"The first time I came across a Hollywood ego was quite recently and I was quite shocked by it. Egos are intrinsic to the world of big films. I've developed my own energy towards them and focus on what I'm doing. The egos just fly over my head, really.

"People don't usually get egos unless they've earned them. Most leading men are pretty macho, especially as they usually are in the lead role, while I'm usually playing their wife. Denzel is pretty classically macho. Johnny Depp is really unusual and interesting - always playing around like a kid. Colin Farrell, on the other hand, is mad!"

Her new movie is really two films within a film - one a tragedy, the other a comedy - and she plays the Melinda of the title in both. It is her biggest role to date as she follows in the footsteps of such names as Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow and Dianne Wiest as Allen's screen muse. Its high profile will move Radha up the Hollywood ladder a few rungs as she leads a cast including Brits Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jonny Lee Miller, plus Will Ferrell, Josh Brolin, Amanda Peet and Chloe Sevigny.

"There are some pretty sexy scenes in it," admits Radha, "but, y'know, you just take them in your stride. You work with Woody and scenes just grow organically. He didn't even want us to meet each other before shooting.

"Chewy (Ejiofor) called us all up and we had a brunch which started at 11am and went on until one o'clock the next morning, but I don't think Woody minded. He was too busy pondering whether life was essentially funny or inherently tragic."

l Melinda And Melinda is released today.

CAPTION(S):

SEEING DOUBLE: Radha plays the character Melinda twice in the new Woody Allen film; SOAP START: Radha and Nicola Charles in Neighbours; BIG DEBUT: Pitch Black with Vin Diesel (right); HOT LINE: With Colin Farrell in Phone Booth; THRILLER: With Denzel Washington in Man On Fire; FANTASY: Finding Neverland; DUAL ROLE: Melinda And Melinda with Ejiofor
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 25, 2005
Words:1172
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