At one point in "Impromptu," James Lapine's new romantic film comedy, 19th century novelist George Sand offers some of her strength to Frederic Chopin.
"I'll show you how to breathe," she promises the frail, introverted composer, on whom she's developed a gargantuan crush. "Why stay inside wrestling with perfection? I may not be full of virtues, but I love strongly, exclusively, steadfastly."Who is better suited for the role of this feisty, free-spirited bohemian than Judy Davis, an acclaimed Australian actress who has made a career of playing liberated, unconventional sorts: a spunky turn-of-the century rebel in 1979's "My Brilliant Career," the young Golda Meir in TV's "A Woman Named Golda" and the headstrong Adela Quested in the late David Lean's "A Passage to India."
"I suspect I'm not interested in making ordinary films about ordinary people," Davis says. "What intrigues me is how a person's mental and physical environment can thrust him from being balanced and sane into something else."
Yet, Davis makes it clear that she should not be confused with the roles she has played. She uses words like shy, fearful and occasionally passive when talking about herself.
"I would not describe myself as free," the 35-year-old actress says, fighting a cough in her villa at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. "I'm caught by all kinds of fears. I have to work at driving myself more, throwing myself into life."
Dressed in a trendy short spandex olive-green skirt and a black-and-olive top that plays up her bone-thin figure, Davis looks far from reticent. A mane of auburn curls highlights penetrating blue eyes, giving her an exotic, feline look.
Growing up female in Perth - a "male society" on the west coast of Australia - made it hard, she says, to develop a sense of self. Living in what she terms a "silent household" made matters worse, leaving her "isolated and internal."
Davis bolted from home shortly after her high school graduation, singing with a rock band touring Taiwan and Japan. Upon her return, she signed on as a student at the prestigious National Institute of Dramatic Art. Acting, she says, helped her to shed inhibitions and to return, in part, to the extrovert she once was.
"Taking on a role expands my parameters," Davis says, "to find parts of myself I didn't know were there. Though I don't relate a lot to George Sand, I identified with her need to want too much after being abandoned by her mother as a child. I could also relate to her romantic view of life: She didn't feel alive if she wasn't in love."
The film, a semibiographical approach to the real-life affair between Sand and Chopin (Hugh Grant), was the first big-screen outing for Lapine, whose Broadway reputation ("Sunday in the Park With George," "Into the Woods") preceded him. By all accounts, he had his hands full.
"We shot in France, and most of the crew was French," Davis says. "James didn't speak the language, didn't have a translator and relied on the first assistant director to communicate. The film was a recipe for disaster. That it didn't turn out that way is a credit to James. He's got a lot of staying power - and Mandy (Patinkin) and Bernadette (Peters), with whom he worked on Broadway, provided tremendous support."
Davis has less-kind words for David Lean, whose "autocratic" approach, she recalls, turned the "Passage to India" shoot into an ongoing tug of war. "When I walked into his office for the first time he didn't know the first thing about me as an actress - which is a put-down in itself," she says. "Later on, it was clear he was surprised I had any opinions at all. We got into an actual screaming match in India. The reputation I have for being difficult comes from that film."
The outspoken Davis gives "My Brilliant Career" mixed reviews as well. Though working with Australian director Gillian Armstrong was a pleasure, she says, the character - an aspiring writer - turned her off. "I found the girl quite distasteful to play. Her overwhelming ambition in life was to be special and extraordinary, which to me is concentrating on the end, not the journey. Achieving such success at 23, only months out of drama school, also made for terrible pressure on me."
Were it not for Colin Friels, an actor ("Class Action") to whom she has been married for seven years, Davis says, she would no longer be calling Australia "home."
"Four years ago, I decided I didn't want to work there anymore. Too many bad experiences, too many bad scripts. The Australian film industry doesn't respect its own until they prove themselves in another country - preferably a white Western one.
"Giving birth to my son Jack 31/2 years ago also changed things - made life much less momentary, for better or for worse. I never thought about money much, but now I'm looking 10 years down the road."