Whether it’s via a news story, a podcast or even word of mouth, we as human beings have an innate fascination with cults. One of Australia’s most fascinating real-life sects, The Family, serves as the inspiration for the new Disney+ series The Clearing, and this is just one of the many reasons the show will undoubtedly receive a cult-like reception from its audience.
“I think we’re fascinated by the idea of someone coming along and supposedly having all the answers,” Miranda Otto, who stars as The Clearing’s fictional cult leader, told Lifehacker Australia during an interview in Sydney.
“I think, at times, life is extremely morally complex and confusing and you’re not really sure what you should be doing, or how you can feel happy and fulfilled, and then people come along and say ‘just follow me and do all these things and you will be happy and have a community.’”
Kate Mulvany stars opposite Otto as one of the fearsome Aunties, who is responsible for overseeing the children in the cult’s commune.
“That’s it, it’s the community. I think knowing that you have a guaranteed set of friends and contacts with seemingly like minds that will be there to support you. Until they don’t,” she agreed.
“What surprised me a fair bit was just how deeply these individuals fell for each other and found their way of caring for each other, which of course became warped and went quite awry. But that it came from a place of hope,” Mulvany added.
The Clearing is based on the book by J.P. Pomare, which details the life of a woman whose traumatic past growing up in a cult named The Kindred is triggered by the abduction of a child in the modern day.
Otto’s character bears many similarities to The Family’s real-life leader Anne Hamilton-Byrne, but when it came to building out Adrienne, the actor said it came down to a combination of influences:
“I’ve watched a lot of [documentaries] on cults. I’ve read books on cults. It’s just something that I’m really interested in,” Otto explained. “I was very influenced by this book called Breaking the Spell by Jane Stork, about the Rajneesh cult. But then at the end of the day, it was really taking what was written on the page and working with the other actor.”
“Adrienne has discovered the power of actually seeing people in the moment and actually making physical contact and eye contact and making them believe that they are unconditionally loved and that she sees them and believes in them,” she continued.
“And then after that initial contact with that drug of that love, they spend the rest of the time trying to regain that.”
It’s this level of devotion that leads Mulvany’s antagonist, Aunty Tamsin, down a dark and questionable path.
“We are awaiting [Adrienne’s] presence. So there’s something quite extraordinary about going from that adulation, for Aunty Tamsin, to then doing some pretty horrific things to the children,” Mulvany said.
“Adrienne tries to keep herself above the fray, like an idol on a pedestal. And so she actually farms out a lot of her dirty work to the aunties,” Otto added.
Female cult leaders are far less prevalent in history, let alone on screen, so the opportunity to have two such complex antagonists share the screen in The Clearing was unique for the actors:
“My character has far less power than Miranda’s, so when you put those two antagonists in a room, it’s a dynamic that we don’t often see on screen,” Mulvany said. “What is it when you put those two energies in a room together?”
The Clearing is also unique in that it marks the first Disney+ original scripted series released in Australia (with a few more to come). One of the perks of this, according to the actors (both of whom have worked on local and international projects), was the way in which the series was treated like a major production, but still maintained its Australian aesthetic.
“[It had the] production value of a lot of big American shows. We were able to bring in a lot of the expensive equipment and have time to go out and source amazing locations. Those are the things that often, here, the budget sometimes doesn’t allow us,” Otto said.
“It was nice to make the beautiful landscape of Australia, Victoria, a whole other character in this show. It’s got a real Australian Gothic feel to it,” Mulvany added. “…we get to really exploit the Australian landscape in the most beautiful, eerie, spooky way.”
The Clearing premieres on Disney+ on May 24.
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