CHRIS Hemsworth, Margot Robbie, Guy Pearce … add Maggie Naouri to the list of graduates from the internationally-renowned Neighbours school of acting.
“It was my first job out of VCA and a fantastic start,” says the star of Joe Cinque’s Consolation, a film based on the true story of Canberra law student Anu Singh who killed her boyfriend with a lethal dose of heroin after first lacing his coffee with the sedative Rohypnol.
Naouri’s guest appearance on the long-running Channel Ten soap as flirtatious journalist Ruby Knox led to a recurring, two-season role on the popular Australian prison drama Wentworth as nurse Rose Atkins.
And that was what gave director Sotiris Dounoukos the confidence to cast the Armenian/Jordanian beauty as the lead in his film just three years out of acting school.
“Maggie learned a great deal being on Wentworth. She definitely brought a TV toughness and grit to the production,” he says.
Dounoukos, who considered “close to” 100 other actresses for the role, says Naouri stood out from her first audition.
“There was this profound sincerity in every action she played.”
He still called the actor back six more times to be sure.
“The first (audition) was at the beginning of 2013. I got the role at the beginning of 2015, so it was a long process,’’ Naouri says.
Anu Singh was such a complex character, Dounoukos says, he felt he had to “get to know the many facets of Maggie.
“The thing about casting a character like Anu, she has to believe every utterance, to justify every one of her actions, to feel it in her bones.
“Maggie had that honesty. And that quality is essential, otherwise you end up judging Joe for being with her.”
Joe Cinque’s Consolation is based on the book by Helen Garner, who attended the separate trials of Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao in 1999, publishing her account of the chilling crime and its aftermath five years later.
Singh remained silent in court. And she chose not to speak to the author.
“When we were doing our FOI application, Anu again didn’t want us to access any evidence,’’ says Dounoukos
“That strengthened the idea that, as an adaptation, we needed to embrace her absence because we’d also be getting her point of view on (what happened) many years after the fact. And in a way that would silence Joe all over again since he’s not here to tell his story.”
The film doesn’t take an explicit position on Singh’s mental state at the time of Cinque’s death, preferring to let the audience make up their own mind.
Naouri has never met the woman she plays. She based her character on the screenplay
“I didn’t want to just play her as stereotyped evil character, I wanted to play her as a troubled human being.
“I wanted to play it as honestly as possible to try and … gosh, it’s not to try to understand … to question how someone does something like this, what state of mind that they were in.
“I had to create a different reality for her to be living in.”
Almost 20 years later, Joe Cinque’s death still haunts his peers at ANU.
“There is still a tear in the social fabric,” says Dounoukos, who was in Singh’s year at law school.
“One of the really painful things about (what happened) is how it gathers so much momentum. You feel like it’s this house of cards that should absolutely fall, even by luck, and it doesn’t. You are left considering just how powerful inaction can be.”
With the help of Rao, Singh organised two separate dinner parties at which the guests were are at least partly aware of her intentions.
“A group of people, and not just a handful, watched this unfold,” says Dounoukos.
While Naouri relished the opportunity to play a character as complex as Singh, she was also pleased when it was over.
“I sat with the character for a long time. It absolutely took a toll on me. It was a big relief for me to say goodbye to her.”
For her next film role, the actor is hoping for something lighter. A rom-com, perhaps.
“I have already had that discussion with my agent,’’ she says.
***Joe Cinque’s Consolation opens on Thursday (October 13).
Originally published as ‘It absolutely took a toll on me’