Booth plays Molly McGee, a Hobart constable whose traumatic past seeps into her present when she’s forced to investigate the murder of a 62-year-old woman. Booth’s Molly is a study in taut surfaces. She’s wound coil-tight but prone to moments of wild abandon. There’s a stunning scene in the first episode where Molly, eager to cast off the grim weight of her day job, cracks open a beer and dances on her deck.
Booth, who never went to acting school, is herself a combination of steely intelligence and laid-back energy. Her gaze is piercing, deliberate, and she’s prone to speaking with the drawn-out vowels particular to those who grew up on the side of the country closest to the Indian Ocean.
One of Booth’s gifts as an actor is her ability to embody characters who are caught between opposing impulses. Take, for instance, the feisty and loving Jill of Clubland, the 2007 drama that introduced her to global audiences, or the troubled animal-rights campaigner in Pelican Blood (2010), a gritty British romance about a pair of suicidal birdwatchers. (That character’s name, Stevie, is tattooed on one of Booth’s wrists.)
Then there’s Kim Hollingsworth, the infamous stripper-turned-police officer who’s a star of Underbelly: The Golden Mile, the 2010 series that attempts to capture Kings Cross’s history of sleaze and corruption.
Wearing an oversized indigo jumper and high-waisted black jeans, before swapping into a Prada dress for our shoot, the actor lopes into the room to meet me, then collapses into her chair without a trace of self-consciousness. Booth’s characters often possess a raw physicality, and she says she chooses roles that let her get her hands dirty.
“It’s all about the arc of the character,” she grins. “I want to go on a journey that rips them apart, shows them moving through great adversity and [arriving at] a lot of truth.”
Booth was born in Denmark, an idyllic town on the south coast of Western Australia. She grew up in Fremantle, a faintly bohemian Perth outpost, the youngest of four sisters and attended Santa Maria College. As a child, she says, she was obsessed with telling stories and performing plays for her family. In past interviews, Booth has been open about the fact that she was bullied and, at 12, vowed to her mother that she’d become an actor. She landed a role in the children’s television series The Adventures of Bush Patrol. The next year, she was named a finalist in Girlfriend magazine’s Cover Girl competition, a national arbiter of beauty of teen girls in the mid-1990s. Soon, Booth became one of the country’s most sought-after young models, the face of Australian Fashion Week. But something felt amiss she recalls.
In 2003, Booth was offered a role in the adaptation of The Shark Net, Robert Drewe’s account of growing up in Perth in the 1960s. Then came Clubland. The 2007 comedy-drama, starring Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn, followed Jean, a washed-up British entertainer who performs comedy routines at Sydney’s Leagues Clubs. Directed by Cherie Nowlan, Clubland was a warm and tender look at class and family in Australia. It received a standing ovation at Sundance – and changed the course of Booth’s life.
“[Clubland] was the first time I could really explore my emotional range,” she recalls. Booth won an AFI award for her portrayal of Jill, Jean’s son’s free-spirited girlfriend, and went on to star alongside Clive Owen in 2009’s The Boys are Back, a film about a sports writer who loses his wife. “It was the first time I had to do a sex scene. I had to face stuff that I was embarrassed about, but I just pushed myself. You have to bury your pride if you want to be a good actor. You have to confront your fears head on because there are things on screen that your character does, and you have to be honest in the moment.”
Magazine stories still refer to Booth’s “ethereal good looks”, and describe her as a “vintage beauty.” Sure, like most great actors, she has a face you want to look at, one that’s capable of expressing fear or joy or grace, sometimes within the same moment. But this overlooks Booth’s commitment to – in her words – peeling off the layers of her characters, figuring out why they are the way they are. In 2016’s Hounds of Love, the debut thriller by Australian writer and director Ben Young, Booth plays Evie, one half of a serial-killer couple.
“Evie is in a relationship with this narcissistic psychopath, but I told the director that we were going to lose the audience if we don’t see her vulnerable,” she says. “I thought she needed to be staring at her body, comparing it to the young girls they’d taken, feeling aged, feeling unattractive. That’s our job as artists, you have to find the humanity, crack people open.”
There is stuff going on in other realms – I have had experiences with ghosts before.
Booth’s interpretation of Evie caught the eye of Victoria Madden, the writer and director of The Gloaming, who was seeking a similar quality for Molly McGee, the show’s troubled female protagonist.
“When I first interviewed Emma via Skype she was running late and came into camera with piles of winter woollies on – she went about peeling clothes off herself, beanie, scarf, puffer jacket, shoes and by the time she sat down I had found my Molly,” Madden says. “Emma is a character actor. She can to slip into the skin of whoever she’s playing with conviction and ease. She even eats the way I envisaged Molly eating. Too much in her mouth and talking at the same time.”
Booth says Molly McGee is a dream role, while the aftermath of the #Metoo conversation has created new on-screen possibilities for women.
“Once it was like, ‘whose wife or girlfriend can you be?’” she laughs, saying that once she entered her mid-30s, she was offered more interesting roles. “But now women older than me are winning the awards and there are so many strong female characters.”
Popular culture is also serving up more female detectives. These tough but flawed women – Sarah Lund in The Killing, Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson in The Fall, Toni Collette’s Grace Rasmussen in Unbelievable – are remaking a genre that’s been historically masculine. Familiar tropes such as the murder, the suspects and the detective’s call of duty now offer new ways to challenge old assumptions about the female psyche, what it means to be a woman in the world. In The Gloaming, Molly McGee, in the process of investigating a religious cult with links to Tasmania’s convicts, must also navigate working with her ex-boyfriend Alex O’Connell (Ewen Leslie) and balancing her instincts as an officer with her love for her daughter Lily.
“It took me a while to get my bearings with Molly,” says Booth, who also starred as Rose Pickles in the 2011 remake of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet and played Kate Willis, a woman who has risen from the dead with no recollection of her identity, in the acclaimed 2015 Netflix series Glitch. “She’s so obsessive about her work, about finding out the truth and seeking justice that she is constantly risking everything that’s most important to her. I was always like ‘Jesus girl, what are you doing?’ She is the most challenging role that I’ve played, hands down.”
The Gloaming is really a story about ghosts. It’s about how our lives can be in thrall to people who are no longer with us and about how the places we move through are haunted by narratives that are unacknowledged. Victoria Madden, a long-time fan of Nordic Noir, says: “There’s a dark history that’s never really been resolved in Tasmania, a sense of the Gothic. I’m always trying to capture how everyday people get caught up in darker elements which may or not be influenced by the landscape.”
Booth is an advocate for unseen forces. “There is stuff going on in other realms – I have had experiences with ghosts before,” she says. “I’m a great believer in manifestation, in focusing intently on what you want to create. I missed out on a big American series recently because of another contract. I was angry for a day and then I told myself there’s something else. If I’d got it, I wouldn’t have been able to take on The Gloaming as the lead – and it is epic.”
The Gloaming premieres on Stan on January 1.