By RUSSELL BAILLIE



An infectious laugh comes spiralling down the line from an Olympic-fevered Sydney.



Mischievously, I've just asked Pia Miranda to compare her hit debut feature film, Looking For Alibrandi, with her old job, being part of the cast on that Aussie telly perennial Neighbours.



Specifically, what points out of 10 would she award each in the category "Depiction of real life in Oz"?

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"Oh, God. Gee, that's pretty obvious. Let's give Alibrandi a 10 because I love it and let's give Neighbours an eight."



Really?



"Okay, let's give it a six or seven. Yeah, Neighbours is pretty clean-cut. Nothing gets dirty, there's no big problems and everything can be solved by happy families — and a lot of us don't have happy families."



Josephine Alibrandi certainly does not.



The 17-year-old that Miranda plays in the coming-of-age story is the young-est of three generations of Alibrandi women.



Her old-world grandmother believes Josephine's mum (played by Greta Scacchi) has brought a curse on the Italian-Australian family for being an unmarried mother.



Meanwhile, Jose-phine also has to deal with the pressures of her final year at a snooty Sydney Catholic girls' school, where she's on a scholarship, as well as distractions of the heart.



Miranda says the Italian influence in her own upbringing wasn't as pronounced as her character's. But it helped her to understand the role better.



"As far as growing up an Italian, I definitely felt that I was going through a different experience to my friends whose parents had been brought up in Aus-tralia. So, yeah, with that inside me I could really relate to Josie's pain or joy."



The film, which is taken from Melina Marchetta's popular novel (apparently the most-stolen library book in Aus-tralian schools), proved an Australian box office hit to the tune of $A8 million ($10 million).



There are not many Neigh-bours alumni who have managed that sort of success on their first graduation to the big screen.



"I didn't suffer as much of a stigma of being on Neighbours as a lot of people because I was from the theatre. There is a certain respect you get from being a theatre actor and I didn't do much publicity so that was okay."



And those years of playing Karen Oldman on Neighbours actually helped Miranda to steel herself for the heavyweight role.



"It's fantastic training because I never forget my lines. After being on Neighbours you are so used to getting reels and reels of script, and you are used to working under heaps of pressure. So when I got to do Alibrandi I was so used to the pressure that ... I could concentrate on the work at hand."



That work was effectively to carry the film as she's in almost every scene. Though she admits to the occasional crisis of confidence.



"I was so excited about doing it, and just before we went to shoot I'm thinking, 'I can't do this.' I went through this complete psychosis because I had just been working so hard to prepare for it and then I think I relaxed for the weekend and thought, 'Oh, my God, I am going to fail and everyone is going to hate me."



"The director and producer said later that they were preparing for me to have a nervous breakdown, they were waiting for the day that I was going to have it — and I didn't have it. And then we stopped and I just collapsed for like six weeks. I just sat and watched TV and couldn't move, I was so tired.



"So I did have a semi-nervous breakdown."



And there was other weirdness. Like being in your mid-20s and having to put a school uniform on and go back to school.



"It was pretty odd. I went to the sister school of the school that we filmed in for a few years in Melbourne and I walked into the chapel — they smelled the same, they looked the same. It was so frightening. I was in a school uniform and it was 10 years later ... My friend said I was like Dorian Gray."



But now, Miranda is in no rush to do another film — she laughingly admits that she's been spoiled by the experience and the reception to her first film.



"I am not so ridiculously obsessed with being a movie star that I'm going to pick something just because it's a movie," she says.



Looking For Alibrandi screens at cinemas from September 28.