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How Gracie Otto Won Over A Generation And Caught The Eye Of Dolly Parton

"My worry was not with the show, but with how fast the conversation changes."

Gracie Otto’s life is a movie. After wrapping her latest project, The Clearing alongside her sister Miranda Otto, the award-winning Australian actor and director has been busy sifting through the family archives for her new documentary on her dad, Otto on Otto. As I dial into my call with Otto, she explains, in between breaths on the hike up to her Fitzroy residence, that her Melbourne apartment has been transformed into a film studio.

“The cast of Love Me had to shoot a scene, so I think they’re in my apartment. I told them they could use my place as a green room for the day. So, I’m probably about to walk into 150 crew members inside.”

Blurring the boundaries between work and life might seem like the antithesis to a new age of ‘quiet quitting’, but Otto wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I love being on set. When you’re use to working with 150 people a day, suddenly being by yourself can be a bit of a downer.”

Luckily for Otto, this year hasn’t afforded much downtime. After the global success of Heartbreak High (the show received eight AACTA nominations, including Otto for best director), Otto debuted the first feature film under her production company Dollhouse Pictures, Seriously Red.

Sitting down with marie claire, the film-maker reflects on the making of mega hit, receiving a shout out from Dolly Parton and working with family.

Marie Claire: Congratulations on Seriously Red! Tell me how the idea came about.

Gracie Otto: Krew [Boylan] wrote the script a few years ago and we always knew we wanted it to be our first big project from Dollhouse (an all-female production company founded by Otto, Rose Byrne, Krew Boylan, Jess Carrera and Shannon Murphy). Initially, I wasn’t involved in the film, I was more of a cheerleader, but during lockdown I was asked how I felt about directing. I had just completed a music documentary, so directing a musical comedy just felt right. When I first read the script, I thought it was so original and uniquely Australian and quirky and colourful.  

MC: Aside from being a hilarious and important lesson in living authentically, the film is also an ode to the queen of country, Dolly Parton. What did you learn about Dolly through the process?

GO: I worked as an associate producer on the Whitney Houston documentary back in 2018. Part of my job on that was to go through and watch all the archived interviews. Dolly wrote Whitney’s song ‘I Will Always Love You’, so I knew a bit about her through her music and the scope of her work, but I definitely became a big Dolly Parton fan through the process of creating Seriously Red. When I started directing the film, I would walk around the park listening to a Podcast called ‘The United States of Dolly Parton,’ where this university studies her as a subject.

Seriously Red
From left: Gracie Otto, Jess Carrera, Krew Boylan and Rose Byrne. (Credit: Getty)

MC: Dolly tweeted ‘I just loved #SeriouslyRed! The film is a wonderful tribute to being the best version of yourself.’ What was that moment like?

GO: It was surreal. We were on a bus headed to the Seriously Red premiere in Texas. And Jess (Carrera) burst into tears and said, ‘Oh, my god, Dolly just tweeted!’ Moments later we were on the red carpet. It was crazy.

MC: How incredible to get the green light from Dolly right before the film’s first screening.

GO: It was! There’s always a bit of anxiety around the first screening and it’s weird because US Americans will often say ‘that’s funny’, and not actually laugh. But they were really laughing. At the end of the film, when they opened the room up for questions, everyone was wearing masks on their face because of COVID, so I couldn’t read anyone’s faces!

Gracie and Krew
Gracie Otto (Left) and Krew Boylan. (Credit: Getty)

MC: It’s been a busy year for you, Heartbreak High was such a massive hit. Did you anticipate such a huge global response?

GO: Honestly, no. I thought it would have some kind of niche audience. For teens, my worry was not to do with the actual show, but with how fast the conversation changes. There’s a pronouns scene, where James Majoos says, ‘I can be they’, and his stepdad replies, ‘you can’t be two people!’ I remember wondering if that dialogue was going to be passé by the time the show came out and if we will have moved past that discourse in a good way. But it ended up being such an important scene, parents would message me saying ‘I really understood by kid after that scene.’

MC: What was important to you about telling these characters’ stories?

GO: Every character in the show has both flaws and likabilities about them, which I thought was important. I grew up in a public school and I ran into a friend who went to a private girls’ school, and she stopped me to say how much she loved the show. I asked her what she liked about it and she said, ‘it was refreshing to see a world, that didn’t exist even 10 years ago, where people could freely talk about their gender.’ 

I think the shows authenticity can be attributed to the inclusive group of people and voices working on the show, from the actors to the writing team and the costume department. I had a lot of the older guys on set come up to me and tell me that they grew up in Maroubra and that they had such sympathy for the stories.

I’ve also had boys’ private school teachers cry and say ‘You don’t understand, your characters have changed these boys lives at the school.’

Heartbreak high
(Credit: Getty)

MC: You just wrapped filming The Clearing, an upcoming drama about a cult starring your sister, Miranda. What’s the best part about working with family?

GO: We never like grew up together, so I probably learned the most I’ve ever have about her. Miranda is such a great actress, she’s so dedicated to the character, everything’s so thought out and  she’s very, very smart, which I’ve always known. 

MC: You’ve also got another family project coming out next year, a documentary for Stan about your dad.

GO: It’s funny how I like ended up spending a year totally working with my family, but I guess the stars aligned that way. It’s been really interesting exploring the family history through all of these home videos. A lot of it is about the arts and culture scene back in the 70s and 80s, when my mom and dad were deep into that scene, so theres something kind of nostalgic about that and bringing back good memories been kid.

Gracie Otto
Gracie Otto with her dad, Barry Otto. (Credit: Getty)

MC: What did learn about your dad?

GO: I’ve learned a lot about him. He’s such a unique dad. He never said no to me. I remember when I went to my first premiere of Lord of the Rings when I was 17. I literally wore a piece of lingerie, and mom was like, ‘you can’t wear that.’ And dad replied, ‘She looks fantastic. She should wear what she wants.’ Although, now I look back at the photos and go, ‘Oh god!’

Seriously Red is in cinemas now. 

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