Shake, rattle and roll

Natasha Bassett on dancing with Elvis’ ex-girlfriend Dixie Locke in preparation for her performance in Baz Luhrmann’s new biopic
By Ella Joyce | Film+TV | 14 July 2022
Photographer Doug Inglish

top by LOEWE SS22; shorts by CALVIN KLEIN SS22; shoes by DIOR SS22, socks stylist’s own

When Natasha Bassett made the move from Sydney to New York at eighteen to attend theatre school, she may have been naive, but ultimately she was fearless. Armed with ambition and dedication, that leap of faith is truly paying off. Having worked with legendary director duo the Coen Brothers and directing her own short film [Kite, 2013] mentored by Jane Campion, she is now set for a career-defining performance: starring alongside Austin Butler in Baz Lurhmann’s highly-anticipated biopic, Elvis, taking on the King of Rock ’n’ Roll’s first love, Dixie Locke. In preparation, Bassett had the privilege of travelling to Graceland and sharing a shake in legendary Memphis eatery – Marlowe’s – with the lady herself. 

top by LOEWE SS22; necklace, worn throughout by ANITA KO

Ella Joyce: Hi Natasha, how are you doing?
Natasha Bassett: I’m good thank you. I’ve just woken up in Malibu with my dog, I’m staying in a treehouse so I can’t complain at all.

EJ: That sounds dreamy.
NB: It really is dreamy, I wake up and feel like I haven’t actually woken up yet because I must still be dreaming. [laughs]

EJ: I want to rewind a little to when you first made the leap from Australia to the US, was that move always on the cards?
NB: I left Australia when I was eighteen to go to theatre school in New York and it was hilarious – I was so naive about what that process would look like. I just thought I would find a beautiful penthouse apartment on the first day of arrival and I’d be like Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City, walking down the street with my instant best friends, sipping lattes and finding a boyfriend, but I didn’t even really talk to the opposite sex at that point. I had a very rude awakening when I arrived and realised New York was a lot harder than I thought. But I really loved the theatre school I went to, David Mamet’s Atlantic Acting School. Then I ended up staying in New York for a year because I fell in love with it.

EJ: Is Malibu home now?
NB: I come here when I need a break from town, it’s so divine. The minute I reach a certain point on the highway, just past Santa Monica, it feels like all my worries melt away. Also, everything you worry about seems to become so much less important when you’re surrounded by nature, at least that’s how I am. I love to hike and I love to just be around trees. [laughs] The ocean soothes me, and my dog loves it, too.

EJ: In terms of the film industry, what differences have you found between Australia and America?
NB: When I first started looking at doing this professionally I was going back and forth between Australia and America as a teenager, and [in Australia] the culture supports a very modest way of being. You have to be like, “Oh I’m really bad at what I do,” because then everyone will think “Oh my gosh she must be amazing.” I think it’s similar in the UK.

“You have to sell yourself in America in a completely different way, I’ve found that transition very strange and rather unnatural for me.”

top by MISSONI SS22; hat stylist’s own

EJ: We’re very self-deprecating.
NB: Absolutely, the more self-deprecating you are, the better you probably are at what you do. But when I did that in America, I think they thought, “Wow she must be really bad at what she does.” [laughs] It’s a totally different mindset, and I had to learn to force myself to be a lot more confident than I was back then for people to believe I could do what I do. You have to sell yourself in America in a completely different way, I’ve found that transition very strange and rather unnatural for me.

EJ: Was it daunting for you as a teenager to move to a new country alone?
NB: It wasn’t daunting for me at all actually. The older you get, it becomes more difficult to make a big move like that because you develop a routine, you find a group of people you feel comfortable with. I had no fear and felt I had nothing to lose. New York was always where I wanted to be.

EJ: Did you always have your sights set on acting?
NB: Oh god, no. [laughs] I was so shy as a kid, almost to the point that I was mute, so when I started acting at around fourteen my family was really shocked. Weirdly, I was always better at maths than drama, right up until the end – my family certainly thought it was an odd and surprising choice. But they were always supportive. I got into theatre when I was fourteen and it completely changed my life because it taught me how to express myself. Had I not started theatre at that age, I don’t know how things would have been for me, it could’ve been very different. I think it’s great to do theatre regardless of what you want to do when you grow up [as it teaches you] how to relate to people.

EJ: What kind of stories or roles grab your attention?
NB: I like to always be challenged. I don’t want to receive a project and think, “This is going to be easy, I know exactly what to do.” A project ignites me when I read it and think, “I wonder how I would do this.” I like dark comedy a lot, the Coen brothers always end up being references for things I write and I was fortunate enough to work with them as well, but I love the way they have this unique ability to make the darkest stuff funny. Working with David Lynch has always been a dream of mine because he is so dark, he goes to the bottom of the ocean.


EJ: And then he’ll flip everything on its head in the blink of an eye. Working with people like the Coen Brothers and Jane Campion, you must be constantly learning from them – do you find yourself picking up gems of information along the way?
NB: I’ve certainly learned things on every project I’ve done, there is always a kernel of truth that is dispensed in some way. A big takeaway came from Jane Campion, who mentored the short film I wrote and directed back in Australia when I was a teenager. The day before filming I was so stressed, I had all these things to do and think about, and I asked for Jane’s advice on how to deal with it all. She told me to go to the nail salon and get a manicure. I laughed and said, “Jane, I’ve never had a manicure in my life.” I don’t know if I ended up going to get a manicure, but I did do something that took my mind off it… read a book for an hour or something. That little sentiment has stuck with me, because it made me realise when you have something taking up your mind, it’s really important to walk away from it. Sometimes that’s when the best things happen. It’s the same for my writing, I can be so immersed in a world and become obsessive about it, but the minute I go for a walk or leave it for a day I’ll come back with so many more ideas. Or I’ll suddenly know how to fix a scene that wasn’t working because I’ve given space to let it breathe for new ideas to channel through. When I wrote my TV show in New York, I mostly wrote it on the subway – even if I didn’t have to go anywhere I loved immersing myself in the character. She was pretty zany and definitely an oddball. I’d wear these fluorescent sparkly rainbow sneakers and hop on the subway with my notepad and pen to write scenes. Somehow being in a little tube surrounded by strangers enabled me to pick up on some elements of my story. I’d go for runs around Central Park too, that’s another place I’d always get ideas.

EJ: Are you looking to explore writing and directing further?
NB: Definitely, I’ve always wanted to write and direct. When I started doing theatre at fourteen we would write our own plays and we’d do things like Shakespeare festivals, all this nerdy stuff but it made me excited about life. I held onto it and I’ve been writing ever since. I find that writing supports my acting and vice-versa.

EJ: How do you think having experience behind the camera informs the way you act?
NB: It gives you more of an understanding of the story you’re telling and why you’re telling it. The motivation for each action you’re taking as a character becomes so much clearer when you look at it from a writer’s point of view. Acting also helps with writing because you can end up in a subway in sparkly sneakers thinking you’re the character and writing it that way. [laughs] It helps you let go of those barriers you would normally have between a character and yourself – you can let that character speak through you more.

EJ: I hope you’ve still got those sparkly sneakers. [both laugh]
NB: I do! I got them in deep, deep Brooklyn for 30 bucks and I think it’s the greatest investment I’ve ever made. They were also platforms. I think the reason I love them so much is they remind me of sneakers I had as a kid, they were a huge fad when I was growing up. The platforms used to light up every time you took a step and every Christmas they were at the top of my wish list.

“There is so much more of a responsibility when you’re playing a fictional character, in a weird way there can be less freedom because you’re constrained by their specific mannerisms and the way they would conduct themselves…”

bra and cardigan both by LANVIN SS22

EJ: Let’s chat Elvis. I can’t wait to watch it, what can you tell us so far?
NB: I can tell you that I had the most incredible time filming and preparing for it. I had the fortune of meeting Dixie [Locke] who I play in the movie, I did a research trip to Graceland which was really just an excuse to go to Memphis and see all things Elvis. When I was there the lovely ladies who were taking me around Graceland asked, [puts on a Southern accent] “Do y’all want to meet Dixie?” So I said, “Yeah!” I just called her up on the phone and asked to take her to dinner and she said “Sure.” We met up at this diner called Marlowe’s which feels like it’s been there as long as Memphis has existed, and there was Elvis paraphernalia everywhere. We sat down for dinner and she asked, “So who are you playing in the movie?” and I said, “You!” I just thought it was so lovely and sweet that she’d agreed to meet with me not really knowing why.

EJ: That’s amazing.
NB: She is the most adorable woman, she’s cheeky and funny. I love her so much. It was really an honour to be able to meet someone I was [playing] and feel the essence of who they are, it was really surreal. Particularly because as she was telling me these stories about her time with Elvis he was singing Suspicious Minds on a TV right behind her, I was practically pinching myself.

EJ: I love hearing about how people prepare for roles when they’re taking on real-life people and very few have a story as surreal as that.
NB: There is so much more of a responsibility when you’re playing a fictional character, in a weird way there can be less freedom because you’re constrained by their specific mannerisms and the way they would conduct themselves in their lives. It’s a very different approach when playing a non-fictional character, you immerse yourself in interviews, listen to them, watch their videos constantly, it becomes a really rewarding experience when you feel like you can tap into who they really are. That’s what I did with Dixie, I played this one interview I found online where she talks about their courtship and their first date, it’s so sweet. I actually memorised a little monologue from it and I would say it in my trailer on set every time before I went to do a scene because it would get me into character, in her very thick Southern accent. [laughs]

EJ: Was it tricky morphing into that accent?
NB: For Australians it’s actually easier to do a Southern accent than it is a general American one because our vowel placement is very similar, it’s further in the back of the mouth. That’s why it can be easier for Brits to do an American accent because their vowel placement is much more forward. But I had practice because I did weird things as a kid, I would always put on accents and pretend I was from America. When I was about eight years old I had family living in Melbourne which is about an hour’s flight from Sydney where I grew up and I would take planes on my own being what we call in Australia an ‘unaccompanied minor’. I thought I was so grown up and so cool having my parents drop me off at the airport and then walking through the airport thinking I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. You’d end up sitting in the very back row of the plane next to the other unaccompanied minors and my favourite part about taking these trips was getting to create different characters, because I’d become best friends with these people on the plane. I knew I’d never see them again so I loved making up different characters and then getting off the plane saying, “Goodbye.” It’d be awkward if we met on the returning flight and I’d forgotten which character I was playing [laughs].

top by MISSONI SS22

Interview originally published in the HERO Summer Zine 6. 

hair ROB TALTY at FORWARD ARTISTS using R&CO; make-up DIANE DE SILVA at FORWARD ARTISTS using WESTMAN ATELIER; photo assistant RYAN MORAGA; fashion assistant GABRIELLE RAM; production assistant DENISE SOLIS


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