TERESA PALMER Ride Like a Girl interview

In 2015 Michelle Payne made Australian sporting history as she rode Prince of Penzance across the line at the Melbourne Cup. However, becoming the first female jockey to win the Cup is only part of Michelle’s extraordinary tale. This week the story of her life comes to cinemas in Rachel Griffiths’ directorial debut Ride Like A Girl. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to actress Teresa Palmer (Lights Out, Hacksaw Ridge) who plays Payne, as she was filming her series A Discovery of Witches, about what it was like to play an Australian racing hero.

You would have had a lot of early morning shoots for Ride Like A Girl

Those days where the earliest on any show or film that I’ve ever done. Those pick-ups were about 4:30 or 5am. They were early mornings!

So the scene of hitting the 3am alarm wasn’t just acting?

(Laughs) Exactly.

How do you prepare to play a real life sporting icon?

I did a lot more preparation on this role, because I wanted to make sure that I was portraying Michelle in a way that really captured her essence. She’s such a unique and remarkable individual, who’s achieved greatness, so I wanted to make sure I was on point, as they were very big shoes to fill. So I met Michelle. I went to visit her in her comfort zone, which is her beautiful farm, where she trains horses. I went to see her with the horses, and how she is with them – so at ease, so loving. Just being around her you feel inspired. I asked all about her life and her back story.

And of course all the horse riding.

Did you have much riding experience before the film?

I used to go to trail rides with horses when I was 12. That was my level of experience with horses. So I was basically starting from nothing. Luckily they gave me the most sensational trainer. I worked with Peter Patterson and he’s phenomenal. Also with Chris Symons one of the jockeys. The two of them together trained me.

They started me on a pony, and then we moved to a proper racing horse. One exercise was to make me let go over the reins, hold my arms up in a ‘T’ shape, so I just had to use my legs to hold on. It was just about building my core, my comfort level, and trying to be one with the horse. Horses are also sensitive to your energy, and the way you behave to them. I just had to learn to relax. Peter helped me get to a place where I felt very confident on the horse.

How long did it take till you felt comfortable around the animals?

A while. So the first three weeks I was still nervous. I’d arrived at Peter’s house sweating, knowing I’d have to be focused. After about three weeks something just clicked in. Peter was a Victorian Racing Club Clerk of the Course, so he was there on the day with Michelle when she won. So, to be in the hands of such an expert, made me feel really confident.

You’ve had physically demanding roles before, such as I Am Number Four, how did this compare?

That was really physically demanding, as well, but with I Am Number Four, I felt like I had a longer period of time to learn the martial arts. And it was a different kind of physicality, at least I was on the ground. But with this, I’m on top of the horse! I’m on top of an animal, with its own thoughts and feelings. I had to get acquainted with each horse, and how different they were. I’d say this is the most physically demanding role of I’ve ever on. About halfway through, I was getting dressed one day, and I noticed I had a six pack. I don’t think I’ve had a six-pack since I was 21! I have three kids! Even if you don’t feel like you’re working hard on the horse, from moment to moment it’s just physically taxing on the body. It just goes to show how strong you need to be to be a jockey.

You also got to work with the real Steven Payne. Was it challenging to form that sibling chemistry for the film?

So easy, to be honest. He just walked in the room, and I gave him a big bear hug, ‘cos I felt like I knew him. And he is so funny. Of all the actors on the show he’s the one that cracked me up all the time. He had these brilliant one liners that would pull out all the time and just had me on the floor laughing.

Which was how it was when the two of them were growing up. Being the youngest in the family, the two of them were always making each other laugh, and getting into mischief. And that’s how it felt with Stevie and me. I felt like I lost a family member, when I went back to America. I really miss him, I feel like I gained a brother through this experience.

Ride Like A Girl doesn’t shy away from the risk of injuries in racing. Obviously Michelle herself has had a litany of injuries. Did that ever concern you?

There’s always an air of caution. Now that I’m a mother, I’m more cautious. I was hyper-aware of dangers and the risks of getting on a horse, but I also knew I was protected in many ways. And hearing Michelle talk about her falls, that really hit home. It is such an incredible achievement, winning the Melbourne Cup, being a female winning the Melbourne Cup, and facing all the adversity but to also have to overcome those injuries. It’s achievement, after achievement, after achievement. You couldn’t make the story up.

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