Some actors are just born with the aesthetics that allow them to believably inhabit any character, but as we all know it’s not just the look that counts, they need to have the skill to back it up, and Australian actress Karen Mitchell has both. In her youth Mitchell spent years training as a classical ballet dancer, something that has no doubt helped her achieve grace and fluidity on screen. Mitchell recently wrapped production on several upcoming films including “The Margin of Things” where she plays Tina, “Just One More Day” where she plays Alexa and Michele Konrad’s (“Antartica Now!”) romantic drama “If I Were You” where she plays Linda.
Over the years Karen Mitchell has created an astounding repertoire of work that spans the gamut and includes award-winning feature films, hit television shows and a lengthy list of nationally aired commercials. Early on in her career Mitchell landed the role of Twila Busby on an episode of the American crime series “Facing Evil” with former FBI profiler Candice DeLong. Airing on Investigation Discovery channel, “Facing Evil” gave Mitchell the opportunity to showcase her undeniable talent for intensely dramatic situations to viewers around the world, and led her to land many more roles in the dramatic crime genre. She went on to play Carmen on the popular crime series “Behind Mansion Walls,” Catherine in the dramatic thriller “Nameless: Blood and Chains,” Tracy Grissom on the Discovery Channel series “Deadly Women” and more.
Playing roles as both the victim and the criminal, her ability to capture our attention with her performances in high-stakes roles in the crime genre has been proven, but what makes Mitchell such a unique talent is her gift for portraying a wide range of characters across genres. She has shown her gift for comedy through her roles in the series “It’s a Dole Life” and the film “The Tail Job,” where she acts alongside Craig Anderson (“Black Comedy,” “Double The Fist”) and Laura Hughes (“Legally Brown,” “DisEnchanted”). Some of Mitchell’s other lead roles include playing Sally in the thriller film “Fearless Game,” Angela in the family drama “About a Husband,” Deedee Banks in “Torn Devotion,” as well as Pia and Rena in the fantasy series “Atomic Kingdom” and Mum in “The Hand That Feeds.”
When it comes to taking on conniving and immoral characters such as criminal Tracy Grissom, Mitchell manages to magically transform herself; but her natural look is one that is purely sweet and wholesome, something that has been paramount to her success as a sought after commercial actress. Over the years audiences around the world have gotten to know Mitchell’s face through her work in major commercials for brands including Coles, Commonwealth Bank, Biophysics, Eurobed, New Zealand’s Thin Lizzy makeup, Aspen Pharmacare’s Coloxyl, Shark Sonic Duo, Marasilk and more. Aside from having a look that casting directors love, Mitchell’s amiable voice has been a major asset in her commercial work; in fact, she is currently the voice of the Australian-based kid’s entertainment company, Party Pirates.
To find out more about Karen Mitchell and how she got to where she is today, make sure to check out our interview below! You can also find out more about her work through her website:
Hi Karen, thanks for joining us! Can you tell us where you are from and a little bit about yourself?
KM: I am originally from Melbourne, but I have spent the last 10 years in Sydney where I have worked as an actor, presenter and voice artist.
I’ve also been blessed to have had a hugely successful business career, working for Channel 10 (TV), Sensis (Yellow Pages) and BMW (Automotive) as well as having my own Real Estate business. I’ve found that my success in each area has helped me grow the other. I work very hard but it’s all been worth it! I started off as a Miss Australia Quest finalist in ‘95 and now here I am, still working in film and TV all these years later because I love it!
When and how did you get into acting?
KM: I have loved acting since I was a young child. My mother was a professional dancer, and encouraged me to study dancing from the age of 3. I was classically trained and worked up to Australian Ballet Standard, where I attended the Victorian College of Arts School of Dance. I appeared in many plays and musicals, and performed in ice skating shows, and was a finalist in pageants such as Miss Rye Beach and the Miss Australia Quest. I did a number of theatre productions, attended drama school and took the Australian Music Examination Board Exams in drama.
Did you experience an “aha” moment at any point in your career where you realized that acting was something you wanted to devote yourself to?
KM: Both of my parents passed away within 12 weeks of each other, and I realized that life is too short and you should follow your heart. My heart had always been in acting.
Why are you passionate about working as an actor?
KM: I am passionate about working as an actor because it is constantly changing and always challenging. I am allowed to breathe life into different roles, develop new characters and work with different people. No one day is ever the same. It’s such a rewarding experience to give life to words off a page that an audience can appreciate. I strongly believe that it’s the best way for me to do service to others: serving a story by using my feelings and my understanding of what it means to be human.
You recently wrapped production on the film “Just One More Day,” can you tell us about the story the film brings to the screen?
KM: “Just One More Day” is a really remarkable project that sheds light on defense families and how they cope when family figures are deployed for combat. It’s a “tale of the unsung heroes in defense families, who fight the battles no one ever knows about.” Some great Australian actors are in it, like Glenn Millanta. He just appeared in the feature film “Teenage Kicks” which won awards at the recent Sydney Film Festival, and he’s also well known for being in the AACTA-winning “Love My Way” that starred Sam Worthington from “Avatar.”
How does your character fit into the story?
KM: I play the role of Alexa whose husband goes off to war and I have to help my child grow into a man without a father figure. It’s a lead role; critical to the story and to how everything unfolds. It’s very rare that there’s a woman at the centre of a story in an Australian feature film, so I was really blessed that I could give service to a story like Alexa’s which is connected to a broader social issue, and something that not many people talk about.
What was it like playing Alexa? How did you approach bringing the character to life?
KM: Playing Alexa was challenging but so rewarding. I was able to use my skills as an actor, which I’ve worked on for so long, in an interesting way because I had to tap into every possible emotion on the spectrum of what people experience.
I’ve trained for many years as an actor, and recently worked with Sundance feature film director Kim Farrant (director of “Strangerland,” starring Academy-Award Winner® Nicole Kidman). She was able to give me great tools to do the character justice, and she said they were comparable to what Nicole used, as well as Hugo Weaving (“The Matrix”) and Joseph Fiennes (“Shakespeare In Love”). It’s quite rare for an actor to be given a role like Alexa’s – a woman who has to show off her incredible strength and also her vulnerability, so I’ve been really lucky in getting to play Alexa.
Can you tell us about the some of the emotional situations Alexa goes through during the story?
KM: Alexa had to deal with raising her son on her own while also having to confront the possibility that her husband had died. This was an incredibly traumatic set of circumstances I felt I had to give justice to and wanted to explore in such a way that I was servicing a story bigger than myself. There was a particular scene where Alexa had to take her son to school, and mask the news that her husband had gone missing in combat with a strong face so no one would pity her and so she could forge on being a good mother. There were a lot of layers to explore and delve into.
Can you tell us about some of the other film projects you’ve done?
KM: “The Margin of Things” is such a funny film, I starred opposite Dominic McDonald, from famous series “Neighbours” and the classic “Blue Heelers,” and played the role of Tina. It’s an excellent comedy crime caper, sort of in the style of Guy Ritchie’s films but set in Australia’s underworld. It was so great because Tina was the matriarch of the crime family – I was in nearly every scene and got to tell all the other characters what to do, like a crime boss! In the movie a blue-collar worker is bullied into a petty crime to free him from his debt to a local underground mogul - I played that underground mogul, a matriarch head to a crime family that’s responsible for the building of all the major hotels and restaurants in the city! The worker is in debt to our crime family because he tried to start his own construction business and took out a loan from us, on the condition that he gives us cheap construction. But when he can’t pay it back we pressure him into messing with the construction of a competing company’s restaurant and hotel.
“The Hand That Feeds” is a powerful thriller. James Fraser, who played Daniel Radcliffe’s (“Harry Potter”) brother in “The December Boys” and Russell Crowe’s son in “The Water Diviner,” played my son who becomes addicted to facebook, and my character had to deal with the social repurcussions of that and how it impacts our family, so it was a really crucial role.
“If I Were You” is another great project about love and mental health, and is doing well on the festival circuit because it’s attached to a social cause. I’m very proud of that one and the role I played – “Linda” – and the director, Michele Konrad, and I were recently profiled in The Daily Telegraph about it. It’s about a couple who loves each other dearly but have an argument, and one of them commits suicide before they reconcile. So it’s very tragic. I play the mother of the main character who never has the chance to say goodbye to her partner, and I am the reason for her staying alive, as she wants to commit suicide. Her daughter goes into a deep depression but finds hope through seeing the wonder in the small things of every day life, like a sunny blue sky or a hot chocolate. My character makes a lot of sacrifices for her daughter, including quitting her job to take care of her full-time and get her mental health treatment, and I had a very expurgative monologue explaining why we need to stay alive for one another - to help each other find a reason for living and serving others, otherwise there’s no point to anything. My character goes through a lot of silent turmoil; she deals with her struggles internally because she’s from an older generation where giving up isn’t an option but it seemingly is for her daughter’s generation. I felt quite proud playing a character like that - someone who’s very in touch with their reason for living.
I’m really proud of “Awake for a Moment” because it’s like Australia’s “Crash” with interconnected and tragic storylines and amazing actors like Paul Dowson, who was in ABC’s “The Code”. My character was nameless – only known by ‘Nurse’ – but actually critical to the story because I run the hospital where all of the other actors and characters become connected, so I felt like the glue that was holding everything together in that movie. My character is stern in some moments, like when one of the ensemble has come to the hospital in search of painkillers (they’re addicted), but warm and tender in other moments, like with another one of the storylines which a couple who come to the hospital for a premature labour, and they’re really worried about the health of their baby. I helped them through that, so they feel safe and calm.
“Fearless Game” was a terrific project because Scott Pirlo, from the Robin Wright and Naomi Watts’ drama “Adore,” played the lead and I was able to bounce a lot of ideas off of him. His character Mark Wilson is dealing with a lot of mental issues, and I played his psychologist, Sally – so I was able to explore very interesting ideas about science and human behavior. The movie is about a guy who isn’t able to remember the last 48 hours, and I have to help him figure out the clues so that he can crack a code before a hit man takes him out. My character is a very smart woman, almost cold but very motherly. Being his psychologist, I help him decipher his dreams and memories so that we uncover what’s real and remember a numerical sequence that allows him to identify the hitman and figure out that he works for the government! The film is mainly told in flashbacks, and I appear both in typical patient-psychology sessions, as well as visiting Scott’s character in hospital. The audience end ups discovering that the hit man is after him because Mark is an ex-government agent who’s gone rogue, and he could accidentally reveal government secrets because he sleepwalks and unknowingly writes messages online.
How about television projects?
KM: I played Tracey Grissom in “Deadly Women,” who was the main role in the series. It was very fascinating playing a real life person, because I felt compelled to do a substantial amount of research into the role. It was tricky balancing my understanding of the horrible crimes Tracey committed in real life, so that I didn’t judge her. It was important to me to play her character truthfully. Tracey shot and killed her ex-husband after he allegedly subjected her to a brutal rape and physical abuse. I felt a bit scared playing a criminal because I was initially worried about being closely associated with someone who was very harshly judged by society. But ultimately I felt compelled to be a part of the story so I could help shed light on such a controversial social issue.
I played Megan in “It’s a Dole Life,” and got to work with such funny people. I was so blessed to be given a main role in a sitcom. My character runs the office where everyone gets ‘the dole’, or government benefits. It’s such a rarity in Australian television to do comedy, so I jumped at the chance. Australians and New Zealanders especially responded to Megan, and followers write to me all the time on social media telling me how much they laugh at the show.
People have been really supportive of my role in “Nameless: Blood and Chains,” where I played Catherine, a Queen-like character who oversees the war that the series revolves around. Fans from all over the world, even in Serbia and South America, write to me on Twitter and Facebook and send letters to my managers saying how much they want to see more of me and how I should be on “Game of Thrones.” I’m really grateful to generate such an enthusiastic fan response.
They are all very different, what made you choose to participate in these projects?
KM: The reasons for why and how I choose my projects vary. Sometimes I simply want to have fun with other extraordinary people, sometimes I want to explore a life that is far different from mine, or sometimes I want to draw attention to a social cause. I’m really passionate about making sure people embrace the positive aspects of life, and so I’m always conscious not to propagate harmful values by portraying people in a way that could be construed as endorsing their amoral behavior. That being said, sometimes playing antagonists and women who have committed crimes is a great way to draw attention to the world’s injustices.
You get approached all the time to work on projects with people, what makes you pick one role over another?
KM: I am very lucky to have worked with such a high caliber group of people, and that I am asked to participate instead of having to audition like in the early days. Basically I go with my gut. If I have to choose between projects, I think about what I might get out of the role in the short term-- Would it be fun? Would I be challenged?-- and the long term-- Would I be happy for my kids to see this when they grow up? Will this be something I’m proud of in 10 years?
I’ve had to choose between projects before, like with “The Margin of Things” and “Just One More Day” and fortunately they rearranged the schedules for me so I could fit both of them in! They were so nice about it – one of the producers told me that the films wouldn’t have kept their financing without my involvement, so I needed to be in both.
Do you feel that you get cast to play a certain type of character more than others?
KM: The roles I’ve played have certainly changed over the years. A few years ago I became really interested in stronger, corporate-style roles and I think maybe people sensed that was what I wanted, so I started to get offered those types of roles. Once you do a few characters in that type really well, other people will continue offering similar opportunities. Ultimately though, I started to become cast because of my profile back in Australia – which I’m very fortunate to have, because it means some projects are financed because my name is attached. That happened with “Awake for a Moment” with Liam Hall from NBC’s CAMP, which starred Academy-Award Nominee Rachel Griffiths; or they get guaranteed distribution, like with “Broken Spirits.”
What is “Broken Spirits” about?
KM: “Broken Spirits” is about four young people who are pulled into an alternate dimension through a portal. On the other side four murderous spirits of centuries-old gold hunters await to steal the young peoples bodies and return to the living world.
What is your character like in the film and how do they fit into the story?
KM: My character controlled the portal, so she is the reason for the young antagonists entering the alternative dimension. She’s quite manipulative and mysterious - it’s fun to play a villainous role. She’s almost like a snake! She wants them to enter the portal because it feeds off human energy - like a virus. The audience soon realises my character isn’t human at all - just an ethereal presence who relies on there being real humans around her to ‘survive’ and continue to appear in the real world.
Out of all your productions what has been your favorite project, or projects, so far and why?
KM: I feel like choosing your favourite project as an actor is like having to choose your favourite child – it’s too hard! I’ve been so lucky to have worked with such talented and advanced people. I’ve worked with people of a really high caliber and I also got to feature alongside musical sensations like Reece Mastin… So it’s very tricky to pin point just one. I’d say that, in the past few years, I definitely enjoyed “The Margin of Things” and “The Hand That Feeds.”
What has been your most challenging role?
KM: I recently worked on an independent film where I played a Magistrate. I can’t say too much about it because the project is under lock and key (some big people are involved!), but I can say that performing in a real courtroom and embodying the character of a Judge was surprisingly overwhelming, even though I’ve been a part of huge productions before. Once I became aware of the courtroom and the fact that there were real barristers and lawyers in the room, it helped me sink into the role without any question.
What is your favorite genre to work in as an actor?
KM: If you would’ve asked me this question five years ago, I probably would’ve said drama, because I relish giving justice to a person’s story so that people learn something about themselves or humanity when watching it, whether it be a TV series or feature film.
Recently though I really love working in comedy, because it’s so much fun! When I’ve worked in comedy shows, the success of the productions (be it ratings or box office) is so nicely attributed to me by the producers because I’ve always been asked to employ my own unique personality into the role, and that’s what audiences and critics respond to, being me! It’s funny how easy it might sound but it’s very difficult being yourself, being loyal to the script and making it all work together so that people laugh.
What separates you from other actors? What do you feel your strongest qualities are?
KM: I think that my big personality sets me apart from other people, and my agility in being a strong but vulnerable person who can play both sides of what a ‘modern woman’ equips me with a really advanced acting skillset that means I can play any role thrown at me.
Can you list some of the people you’ve worked with that our readers might know?
KM: I’ve been really blessed to have worked with some amazing actors. I was Australian legend Andrew O’Keefe’s love interest in ‘It’s a Dole Life,’ a series that poked fun at Australian culture. Andrew’s obviously a household name in Australia because he’s the face of so many different TV shows like “The Morning Show” and “Deal Or No Deal,” and he’s been nominated for so many Logies (Australia’s version of the Emmy’s), so it was really great to work with him.
A film I recently worked on, “When Push Comes to Shove,” which is due to come out in Australia next year, also involved Bryan Brown – he’s been nominated for a Golden Globe and was in “Cocktail” with Tom Cruise, so that was really cool! Chloe Bayliss, who recently appeared opposite Oscar Winner Adrian Brody in “Backtrack,” also appeared in “Deadly Women” with me.
In theatre, I’ve been lucky to cross paths and study my craft with Richard Roxburgh, from “Moulin Rouge.” Such a great actor! I’ve also taken classes with Marcus Graham, from “Mulholland Drive,” Anthony Brandon Wong from “The Matrix” sequels, Nic Bishop from “Covert Affairs” and Denise Roberts from “Packed to the Rafters” through having worked in the industry for so long. It’s lots of fun and humbling when I meet people I admire and they see me as their equal.
You’ve also had quite a bit of success as a commercial actress, can you tell us about some of the commercials you’ve done over the years?
KM: I’ve been so blessed to be consistently working with leading companies. Producers have always recognized my wide-reaching commercial appeal and I think that companies and brands have really responded to my acting career and my personality.
I’ve been the face of Coles, Lowes and Commonwealth Bank. Commonwealth Bank brought in $25 billion last year, so it’s an honor that my branding and advertisements have been connected with that financial success. Most recently I shot a campaign for Channel Nine, now Australia’s number one network (since my ads have aired!) I’ve done some shows for them in the past, so it was great to shoot for them again because it’s like being a part of the Channel Nine family. People have always been so nice when they associate me with a brand, as I always choose to work with companies who share similar values to my own so I like to think it makes people think that they know me on a personal level.
I’ve also been fortunate to be the voice for many companies. Producers have told me that people respond to my sound really well. I’m currently heard as the voice of “Party Pirates,” one of the most successful kid’s entertainment companies in Australia.
What projects do you have coming up?
KM: “Broken Spirits” will be released in cinemas at the end of the year. It’s a great film and stars Andy McPhee, from “Animal Kingdom” and “Wolf Creek.” My role is key because I play a witch-like character who allows the lead character to explore the alternative universe in which the film is set. I’ve also got the magistrate independent film coming out, but I’m not allowed to talk about it.
What are your plans for the future?
KM: I’m really excited to have some projects lined up in America, so it’ll be great to get started on those. Other than that I’m just interested in continuing to explore interesting characters and tell stories that make people feel good about life.
What do you hope to achieve in your career as an actor?
KM: After I finish shooting on my projects in the US, I’d love to work with Dick Wolf on one of his series like “Law & Order” or “Chicago PD;” maybe playing a quirky-cop character!