How Jean Batten taught actress Kate Elliott 'the price of success'

Flying seemed like fun at first, but soon enough Kate Elliott found herself in a state where she'd "never felt worse in my whole life".

The actress took up flight training as soon as she was cast to play Kiwi heroine Jean Batten.

Describing herself as adventurous and brave, Elliott - incapable of doing things by half - wanted to know first hand what the Kiwi legend would have seen, felt and done while in the sky.

"So we get up there and I'm like, 'this is f*****g awesome'. We did the flips and everything and I was fine ... but then we were flying back and the Gs just hit me all of a sudden and I've never felt worse in my whole life," Elliott recalls.

"I've never had that internal feeling which was - yeah, nauseous, but also just incredibly tired and your vision is all out of it and I was like, 'this is a completely new physical experience for me' and it lasted four or five hours."

Kate Elliott as Jean Batten for the TV Movie Jean. Photo / Supplied
Kate Elliott as Jean Batten for the TV Movie Jean. Photo / Supplied


She drove herself home afterwards and has no memory of the trip or making it home - "I was on another planet".

But, it's the kind of thing you can only truly know by experiencing it first hand, and from that Elliott learned everything from where the controls were to how they felt to use, how much force was needed to pull up the plane, how the vibrations could make her hands go numb, how lonely it could be up there.

She learned everything Jean - who is always affectionately referred to only by her first name - would've felt.

"There's this funny kind of aviatrix idea that this was kind of a glamorous time, and there was nothing glamorous about it. To me, it's like doing MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) or something. It's just you, the plane and just dirt and grit and sweat and blood and fear, and it feels like the equivalent these days would be like cage fighting," says Elliott.

"It shapes you as a person as well, because you are alone up there for long periods of time, just you and some meat tablets."

Kate Elliott doesn't do things by halves - much like Jean. Photo / Doug Sherring
Kate Elliott doesn't do things by halves - much like Jean. Photo / Doug Sherring


Yes, meat tablets. Because Jean didn't take food up. She didn't even take safety equipment - "she wanted to be the fastest".

"She did take a dress with her though, and some stockings. But then; is that a story or did that actually happen?"

There are - somewhat famously - records of Jean flying with a white silk dress so she could look glam on arrival, but if there's anything Elliott's learned from her time playing the icon, it's that nothing can be taken at face value.

"That's exactly the kind of thing that Jean would've liked to portray, but then she's only ever seen in that white flying suit, you know?"

Kate says no one will ever really know the real Jean Batten. Photo / Supplied
Kate says no one will ever really know the real Jean Batten. Photo / Supplied


For Elliott, every character she plays is a way for her to "explore a lesson".

She threw herself into flying lessons, spent her time around set getting into character and learning how her character interacted with every other character in the film, and when she wasn't doing either of those two things she was reading up on Jean's life.

She plays Jean at the peak of her success following her solo flights between Australia and England and embarking on her England to New Zealand flight. But the story also covers her "fall from grace" soon after, during which she faded out of the public eye, instead becoming reclusive, living and travelling with her mother.

"Jean had quite a lonely existence, she didn't fit in, she was an outsider - this is my take on her, at least - and she lost people who were really close to her one after another, and her relationship with her mother was the only one that sort of stuck," says Elliott.

Kate Elliott bears a striking resemblance to the Kiwi icon. Photos / Supplied
Kate Elliott bears a striking resemblance to the Kiwi icon. Photos / Supplied


"So I guess the lesson I took from Jean is: What is the price of your success? She gained all this recognition and achieved what she wanted to do, but she lost everything in doing so."

She says she encountered the same thing while playing Katherine Mansfield - first, in An Indiscreet Journey and more recently in Bliss.

"You know, you have this unbelievable, direct focus on this one thing which means everything to you and everything else falls by the wayside, but there's always this price to pay," she says.

"There's a certain thing which these highly ambitious people have - they don't have a lot of balance. So you know, it's not a fluff piece. It's an exploration into the mind of a sportsman."

Kate Elliott as Katherine Mansfield in Bliss. Photo / supplied
Kate Elliott as Katherine Mansfield in Bliss. Photo / supplied


Jean's story is such that Elliott had previously heard many people say, "no one's going to touch the Jean story", because many of the biographies - "which are all written by men, by the way" - describe her as "gold-digging, money-grabbing, promiscuous", says Elliott.

"But nah, she just did what she needed to do to win in that time. I'm always quite protective over these babes, because they become a part of you so much - I don't see anyone as being wholly bad or wholly good, I don't think those people exist."

But Jean didn't help matters much, as Elliott says even her diaries and personal accounts of her success were just a public front.

"What surprised me is that nobody will ever know the real Jean, because she designed it that way. She was quite reclusive. A lot of it is reading between the lines," says Elliott.

Kate Elliott as Jean Batten. Photo / Supplied
Kate Elliott as Jean Batten. Photo / Supplied

But despite that, Elliott probably knows Jean better than most at this point.

As well as the research, the style of filming saw the crew doing a lot of rolling takes, in which Elliott stayed in character the whole way through.

"The whole set would just remain quiet rather than going back to square one so you, as an actor, were able to give it everything and stay right in there, which is horrible and terrifying, but great.

"And I don't have a half button, I can't do these things in halves. It's all in - heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, lose your mind - there is nothing but this for as long as I need to do it, and I've always been like that and I don't know any other way to do it," says Elliott.

Kate shares a similar focus to the Kiwi icons she's played, but not without balance. Photo / Supplied.
Kate shares a similar focus to the Kiwi icons she's played, but not without balance. Photo / Supplied.

In this way, she's not entirely unlike the "crazy historical babes" she plays.

But all she wants is to tell Jean's story - the whole story, not just what's in the biographies - and do it justice, even if it's not always pretty.

"What I think people will take away from this whole thing is just, seeing what she sacrificed in order to achieve great things and put New Zealand on the map, and she became a national hero because of it. But you know, with every great success, there is great sacrifice as well.

"She's human, she's not infallible, but nobody is."

Jean airs on TVNZ 1 this Sunday, October 23 at 8.30pm.

- Weekend magazine

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