“I was terrified,” says Clara Rugaard about scoring the biggest break of her career with the lead role in I Am Mother. “When I found out that I got it, I had to fly to the opposite side of the world and take on this lead role in a sci-fi thriller…”
The opposite side of the world is Adelaide, where the majority of I Am Mother was shot. In the film, Rugaard plays the last human being following a Terminator-style apocalypse, which has seen machines take over, and one robot, named Mother, bring up a child in a sterile environment in the hope of creating a perfect human being.
For the majority of the shoot, Rugaard was required to interact with a robot.
“Everything was provided for me and it made the job so easy,” acknowledges Rugaard today. “Our set designer [Production Designer Hugh Bateup, Supervising Art Director Adam Wheatley and Set Decorator Lisa Brennan] had literally created this impressive set, which you could completely immerse yourself in and you immediately fall into Daughter’s shoes. And the robot was right in front of you as well, which Luke Hawker portrayed. He carried around this 42kg robot, which he also built.”
Luke Hawker works for WETA, with the esteemed visual effects company heavily involved with the film (a portion was shot in New Zealand).
“Most of what you see on screen was what was in front of my eyes. There’s only a couple of CG bits that the robot couldn’t do due to lack of mobility and visibility. Like the running, for example, but the majority of the film, the robot is in physical form.”
Hawker even provided Mother’s voice for Rugaard to act against, which was later dubbed with Rose Byrne’s voice.
“I was reacting to Luke’s voice,” Rugaard says. “He’s an amazing actor and provided a brilliant performance for me, which I could apply my energy to. The robot was quite animated. Someone was controlling Mother’s face with a remote. The performance wasn’t fake as such, and the connection was genuine.
“You have to put yourself in daughter’s shoes,” she continues about her approach to performance. “Daughter’s never interacted with anyone else, Mother has taken care of her for her whole life. She loves her. She has so much love for Mother, as well as yearning for this human connection. I could relate the mother/daughter thing and the teenage flip-out. You have to find yourself at some stage and be independent. It’s never easy for a parent, and you can relate that to mother and daughter.”
Rugaard’s performance in the lead role is phenomenal for someone of such little experience in front of the camera, however, the 21 year old has been performing since she was very young.
“I’ve been singing my entire life. I grew up with a lot of music in my household. I initially thought that I wanted to be a singer. I was in a choir, had a singing teacher. When I was 11 years old, my dad saw in the paper that they were looking for kids to play in a production of Mary Poppins at the National Theatre in Denmark, and I got it. And then, stayed in the musical industry for a little bit in Denmark, and then eventually moved to acting, moved to London and got an agent.”
And it was her agent that put her onto I Am Mother. “My agent had heard about the script [by Michael Gordon Green]. It was blacklisted. I know that they weren’t looking for any actors outside of Australia. And I somehow scraped my way in, and got to do a self-tape. Grant [Sputore], the director saw it, eventually flew me out to LA and we did another test, and here I am.”
We spoke with Rugaard following the film’s premiere at last year’s Adelaide Film Festival, which also helped fund I Am Mother. The actress freely admits that there were some surprises upon seeing the finished film for the first time.
“I don’t think that it ever comes up the way that you remember it, or the way that you think it will turn out like. But definitely for the better. I couldn’t have imagined what it has become now. There are some twists and turns, which I think they may want unanswered.
“Grant and I discussed the script a lot, but he also left space for ambiguity and for my curiosity and imagination to run wild. It would take away from my character if I knew everything. The character is so naïve at the beginning, and as the story grows, she becomes this woman. If I had known everything it would have taken away from the journey.”