“It’s non-stop at the OK Corral here,” enthuses Essie Davis in the few minutes she has spare to talk while shooting season two of the Australian smash-hit drama Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.
So hectic has been her schedule that finding a time for a chat with the Tasmanian actress has proved to be a major challenge.
But such is Davis’ charm and chutzpah that such setbacks are quickly forgotten as she launches into what attracted her to playing novelist Kerry Greenwood’s Melbournian lady detective Phryne Fisher.
“It is such a fantastic part, kind of like a female James Bond or Indiana Jones who was in born in some poverty but inherited great wealth. She’s a fighter for the causes of women and a lover of men.
“She’s also multi-skilled – Phryne can fly planes, drive cars, shoot guns, use a dagger, pick a lock, speak Russian and Mandarin – you name it. Dance a tango, save a life – whatever skill she needs. And she has such a fantastic history and joy of life, living and independence that I just couldn’t resist her.”
A mother of twins born in 2006, Davis admits that she didn’t read the books until she got the part, but because she believed they were required reading before she began filming, immediately put herself on a crash course.
“A lot of them have lots of details of her history and where she comes from. Also, Kerry and her books have such a massive fan base already I didn’t want to get it wrong.”
While the first series of 13-episodes, currently screening on TV One, was loosely based on the books (“characters and plots had to change quite a lot in order to constrain them into an hour”), Davis confesses she “certainly interfered with the scripts as much as she could”.
“I probably took it to far funnier places than they wanted, and those scenes got removed, and far darker places than they wanted, and that got removed. But I believe the essence of the character is still there.
“Phyrne’s search for her lost sister’s body and her nemesis provided a beautiful part of the arc of the first series and also was a really grounding dark force behind this light-hearted sexual murder mystery romp.”
Having previously starred in films like The Matrix sequels, Davis says she has worked closely with costume designer Marion Boyce and Anna Karpinsky and Pam Murphy, who do her hair and make-up, to bring to life the Phyrne specifically described in the books as having a “helmet of black, shiny hair, ox blood lipstick and a frock for every every occasion”.
“Marion has been madly creating things for me, I often just walk into a room and see a piece of material and she’ll say – ‘this is going to be this’. There are lots of brooches, buckles and pieces that she’s found or had all her collecting life that she’s been generous enough to use on me and this character.”
And unlike costuming for many other period dramas, Davis says what she gets to wear is “incredibly comfortable”.
“I get to dress in a lot of silk, fur and other luxurious materials. Mind you, it always seems to be 40 degrees when we’re in fur coats and hats and now that it’s freezing weather I’m in linen, but I guess that’s the nature of film-making.”
With the likes of this, The Great Gatsby and the most recent Downton Abbey series, the roaring 20s seem very much in vogue at the moment, something Davis puts down to the similarities to today’s lifestyles.
“Then, like now, was a time of great women’s liberation. Having gone backwards due to the more oppressive 1950s, we’re now stepping out again, paving the way for future generations.”
So would Davis liked to have lived in the 1920s
“Ah, I get to live in it anyway – we are non-stop in the ’20s. But I get to enjoy those historical times from the luxury of 2013.”
Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries 8.30pm, Saturdays, TV One.