Back in the early ’80s, Rachel Ward was a big-screen sex symbol. Today, she’s far happier behind the camera, as the acclaimed Beautiful Kate proves.

There are only so many avenues open to a big-screen sex kitten as the years go by.

You can, like Susan Sarandon or Charlotte Rampling, let the world know that the older a woman gets, the sexier she can become. Or you could follow Meryl Streep’s example, and become one of the greatest actors of your generation. Then again, you could simply take the Brigitte Bardot route, and go bonkers.

“It’s a tough call, isn’t it?” laughs Rachel Ward, Richard Chamberlain’s beloved in the 1983 TV mini-series The Thorn Birds, the femme fatale in 1982’s noir spoof Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and Jeff Bridge’s object of desire in 1984’s Against All Odds. “I just thought, well, the roles are getting less and less interesting, so, why not go and do something more constructive with your life?”

Indeed. So, Rachel Ward went off to university, having skipped it the first time round, with plans to become a writer. Moving to Australia – home of her husband (of 17 years now), actor Bryan Brown – helped Ward to start over, being a country where the ratio of women to men in the directing business isn’t quite so depressing. Becoming a mentor in one of her three kid’s school, the idea of entering Tropfest – the world’s largest short film festival – saw Rachel hooking up with other mums connected to the film industry to make a 7-minute film. And suddenly, she was back in the game.

Somewhere between Festen and The Sullivans (but, in a good way), Beautiful Kate is adapted from Newton Thornburg’s novel, and it tells the story of fortysomething writer Ned (Ben Mendelsohn) as he reluctantly returns to his old family farmstead to visit his dying father (Bryan Brown). Bringing along the fiery beauty Toni (Maeve Dermody) is the least of Ned’s worries as he struggles to come to terms with the past. A past that included a dangerous infatuation with his twin sister, Kate (Sophie Lowe), her death years ago in a car crash, and the suicide of their brother, Cliff (Josh McFarlane), that same night, hiding a world of deceit, lust and pain.

PAUL BYRNE: Your film debuted at the Sydney Film Festival in June last year, and has gone on to enjoy some pretty ecstatic reviews. Were you expecting such a positive reception?

RACHEL WARD: You never expect a positive reception, but you always hope for one. And you certainly know when you deserve one, and I did feel that we had done a good job here. I think the actors are incredible, I think the story was beautiful, and I felt confident going in and coming out. So, yeah, I certainly believed we had done something special, something worthwhile, and when others agreed with us, that was something of a relief.

Australia has been good to you. Your two short films, The Big House and Martha’s New Coat, have picked up buckets of awards, Jan Williamson’s portrait of you won the Packing Room Prize in 2003, and you’ve been made a Member of the Order Of Australia, for your sterling work raising awareness in regard to at-risk children, and for your support for the film and television industry there. You’re staying then?

I think so [laughs]. I think being born in England is a big part of who I am, but living in Australia has given me a confidence I’ve never had before. There’s a creative energy there that’s encouraged at every corner, and the film industry doesn’t just see women in red bathing suits. I think that’s why I’ve flourished there, because I had grown so wary of being cast in a certain light. And that’s why I had decided to give up acting. To find that there’s this huge, beautiful country that welcomes women’s voices too, well, that has been the making of me, in many ways.

You were voted one of the most beautiful women in the United States back in 1983 – do you ever miss that red bathing suit?

These days, I can wear it whenever I feel like it – that’s the difference. I don’t think I can say that I miss it, because I’m truly happier now. I enjoyed my time then, and I’m glad I had those experiences, but life is so much sweeter now. I don’t think I’d ever want to go back to those days…

Going back to college, after being a big movie star – that must have been a little surreal? Sort of 21 Jump Street, without the undercover work…

Yeah, but being an actor is all about learning, and it felt right, it felt good. It had always bothered me, that I hadn’t gone to university after I finished school, and I knew this would be time better spent than waiting around for a walk-on part in some movie that meant very little to me. I think I knew then that I needed to head in a different direction, and this was just the first step.

So, was there a sense of ripping it up and starting again?

There was, but that’s something every actor does. Even John Wayne had to reinvent himself as he got older, and he pretty much played the same guy for most of his career. I got a degree in communications, and started writing. I felt I was getting out of the film industry completely at that point in my life. But then, I started writing scripts.

So, just when you thought you were out, the film industry dragged you back in again…

Yeah, it kinda snuck up on me. I had my heart set on becoming a novelist, but soon found out that I didn’t really have a novel in me. It was the dialogue that worked, and that’s something that works best on screen. I think that came naturally because that’s the world I knew.

It’s a big step, getting behind the camera and directing too. Was there a motivation there? A need not to see your beloved script become someone else’s vision?

It would have been partly that – every writer would love to think that the script they wrote is the film that ends up on the screen – but it was also, again, a degree of chance. I had never had a woman direct me, and that always bothered me somewhat. I think the male vision meant that the roles I played were often merely male visions of a woman, and that can be fun in some circumstances – such as in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid – but it can also be very, very limiting. You end up merely a fantasy ideal, with no real depth of character at all.

One of the greatest thrills with adapting Beautiful Kate was the fact that it wasn’t just about one great female character but three. To come from the other side of the camera, where one director told me that he only wanted women in his films that were either on their back or dead, well, it was a good feeling to kick against that here.

There’s been an upsurge in female directors in recent years, with the great Kathryn Bigelow, of course, winning Best Director for last year’s The Hurt Locker. Why do you think directing has long been a man’s world?

I think it has a lot to do with genre. Men are attracted to the big bang movies – the special effects, the thrills and spills, car chases, whatever; stuff that works in the multiplex world – whereas women tend to be more interested in people. Kathryn being a wonderful exception. I said this recently, but, women tend to be interested in what makes a character tick, whereas men tend to be interested in what makes a bomb tick. Kathryn excepted, of course.

Words – Paul Byrne

Beautiful Kate is now showing at the IFI