It’s unusually windy in Los Angeles and Cleopatra Coleman is having a self-imposed day off, or, as she calls it, “a cosy day inside”. For the actor, that usually involves watching films, writing, tarot readings and drawing, which she does throughout our Zoom interview.
“I like to draw sometimes, when I talk,” she says, her shoulders moving back and forth as she doodles on a piece of paper out of frame. “I hope you don’t mind – I’m listening.”
Coleman’s bohemian demeanour harks back to her childhood. Born in the small, idyllic town of Wentworth Falls in Australia, the 35-year-old was raised “by total hippies”, as she puts it. A cinephile with an encyclopaedic knowledge of films, she was raised on a steady diet of arthouse films.
“My dad’s a hippie anarchist and my mum’s a crazy goddess from Jamaica,” she continues. “I grew up in a very alternative community, around art and artists. There was an intense creative energy in my household – that’s how I was raised and it turned into what it turned into.”
What Coleman is referring to is a near two-decade long career as an actor. Aged just seven, she starred in one of her dad’s short films, which gave her the performing bug. She properly got her start in the TV and film industry around eight years later, mostly in Australian projects at first, before eventually moving to LA and starring in a string of sci-fi thrillers and comedies.
“As far as creative satisfaction goes, I really relish empathy and playing characters, taking someone into a world,” Coleman says. “I’m so fascinated by human beings on a psychological and anthropological level. There are so many stories to tell.”
Most recently, she starred in Brandon Cronenberg’s utterly unhinged, satirical body horror Infinity Pool, which came out in the UK last week. In it, Coleman plays Em, a nepo baby on holiday with her boyfriend James (Alexander Skarsgård), an impressionable, failed author who becomes seduced by the impenetrable Gabi (Mia Goth) while staying at an all-inclusive resort. Before long, things take a seriously dark turn, and Coleman’s Em is the only one whose head remains screwed on.
“She’s a lot more buttoned up than me,” she says, laughing. “I based her on Melbourne socialites that I’ve come across over the years. She’s the only one behaving normally which is way less fun as an actor, but that’s what I love, too – being in service of an insane, hedonistic storyline.”
As a big David Cronenberg fan, it was a dream for Coleman to act in one of his son’s films, even if it wasn’t necessarily in an “insane” role. She’d already managed to scratch that itch in A Lot of Nothing, anyway, a 2022 social thriller directed by Mo Mcrae. In it, Coleman plays Vanessa, one half of an affluent Black married couple who turn into vigilantes after witnessing their white policeman neighbour murder a child.
“I’m the one instigating the insanity in that,” she continues. “It’s so cool to have that variety. I’d been wanting to play a character like that for some time – the specificity of her identity as a biracial woman in America, pushing everything down until it explodes, her entitlement, her vulnerability. I found myself relating to her really well.”
With upcoming roles in Zack Snyder’s space opera Rebel Moon and an as-yet-unnamed FX mini-series in the pipeline, it seems Coleman’s rest day has been well earned.
The films and actors that made me want to get into acting is…
So many. My dad really loves films, so I grew up watching Fellini, Truffaut and Godard. There’s something so anarchist about Godard’s filmmaking, especially in Breathless. His famous quote was that every film has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order. If I had to pick one actor, it would be Cate Blanchett. As an Australian, I’ve always been very aware of her and I find her work deeply inspiring.
My foolproof tip for memorising lines is…
If I really, really love the material, it just goes in. But other times it’s got a procedural element, maybe with techy words. Reading it over and over again helps, obviously, but there’s a special trick with your brain that if you read something before you sleep, you can memorise it better.
The one thing I have to have in my trailer is…
When I’m in Los Angeles, my dog. Lavender oil, palo santo, maybe a candle. And a blanket.
The project that taught me the most about myself was…
It hasn’t come out yet, but I’ve just done a mini-series where I play a very interesting character. She’s a pretty well-known viral figure online and everyone has an opinion on her. She’s someone who takes up a lot of space and, in the process of playing her, I had to learn how to take up space in a way that’s continued in my life since we wrapped the show a couple of months ago. It’s something I’ll probably take with me forever.
The best piece of advice I got in the industry was…
Ordinary life, extraordinary career. That’s the goal. You want to focus on the work – there’s so much distraction in this industry. Living in LA, you could be out every night at some networking event or whatever. I think a lot of people think that going out and getting that feeling of glory from a party is adjacent to the work. But it’s not the work. It mimics the feeling, but it’s not it. I’ve been a working actor for twenty years, so regardless of the highs, the lows and the in-betweens, you need to remember this is an art form that requires a curiosity about humanity. I’ll always approach it that way.
My dream role is…
I’m looking to play women who are as complicated as possible. I think that men have long been afforded the ability to be unlikeable yet loved. Take Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár. That’s a very complex character that at times you are rooting for. That grey area where it makes the viewer question themselves and what they’re willing to accept from a person or character, that’s the type of place I want to live in with my work. Difficult, unlikeable, complicated, brash, bold women who take up space are really important. They deserve love, too.