By REBECCA BARRY
When Kate Elliott and Dean O'Gorman signed up for the lead roles in a film about infidelity, it cost them their real-life romances.
The unfortunate irony occurred when New Zealand director Harry Sinclair cast them as self-obsessed, lustful 20-somethings in his feature film, Toy Love Elliott as Chlo, the mischievous seductress who sleeps with only unavailable men, and O'Gorman as Ben, the likeable philanderer who falls for her.
"My girlfriend would be like, 'You're doing what, today? With who?"' says O'Gorman. "And I'd get paid to lie in bed and have a pash."
"We're very method," Elliott winks.
"But when we had sex there was no chemistry, eh?"
"No. It was dead."
"Like sleeping with your brother."
Their wise-cracking rivalry was what convinced Sinclair and possibly their former partners that they'd make good lovers.
It also convinced those who saw the film at the prestigious Fantasporto Film Festival in Portugal, a prestigious event attracting 130,000 film-goers, to give Toy Love the Audience Award, and helped to sell the film to more than 21 countries at Cannes including the United States, where it will be released later this year.
"Kate and Dean just loved misbehaving," says Sinclair. "You could see the excitement when I asked them to do something shocking."
O'Gorman admits his favourite scene was telling a young dad he's not the father of his child.
"At the first screening you could see there are some really awkward moments for the audience," he says. "They weren't sure if they should laugh, and if they did laugh they felt bad about it."
His puppy dog good looks and comic sense of panic certainly make him a credible modern-day Casanova, albeit a self-centred one who makes some embarrassing errors.
"Ben has that tragic, ADD-type energy that's pretty consistent with real life. You go to a club and talk to someone for five minutes before they get distracted. Ben has that same frenetic energy."
O'Gorman now lives in Sydney but grew up on Auckland's North Shore, scoring acting parts since his teens in Little Hercules and Shortland Street and New Zealand feature films Bonjour, Timothy and Snakeskin.
Elliott, an elfin 21-year-old with a cutting wit and eye-lashes like Betty Boop may not be such a familiar face (other than parts in local dramas Street Legal and Cleopatra) but that looks set to change. Toy Love is her second film with Sinclair at 16 she starred in his short film, Pale Blue and she's just finished filming Kiwi horror flick The Locals and Fracture, a film based on a Maurice Gee novel.
Later this year she will fly to Berlin to work on a film about Katherine Mansfield.
"Even though it's supposed to be fun and entertaining, Chlo is actually quite a sad character," she says. "You could make a film based on Chlo alone but I think it would be a tragedy."
Doing a Sinclair film, she says, is something every fledgling New Zealand actor dreams of. Cast members of his previous films Danielle Cormack, Willa O'Neill, Karl Urban, Joel Tobeck have become established actors, Urban in particular in Lord of the Rings. But Toy Love isn't what most people will expect from the director, she says.
"It has an absurd comedic element," Sinclair agrees. "It's vaguely reminiscent of American screwball comedies."
But for all its bumbling, slapstick appeal, compared with Sinclair's first two feature films the awkward Topless Women Talk About Their Lives and the dream-like The Price of Milk, Toy Love has the darkest theme.
"Infidelity is all around us," he says, clasping his head in his hands for a few seconds, as if to scour his imagination for the right words.
"You certainly hear astonishing stories of people's behaviour. Here's this guy trying to manage his life with these two girlfriends and he's completely unaware of the effect it has on others. I think that's disturbingly realistic."
Sinclair's foray into film-making began in the mid-80s, as a writer and performer in The Front Lawn, a theatrical production with acclaimed rock musician Don McGlashan. He also co-founded Auckland's Watershed Theatre in 1990 with a group of performers including Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Michael Hurst and the Topp Twins. Since then, he's become just as well-known for his unique method of film-making as the films themselves. Casting and writing are more important than directing, he believes, and after carving out a basic, scriptless idea, he moulds the final story around his actors.
It's a process not everyone warms to, and his films have been criticised for having aimless narrative, problems with continuity and lack of thematic coherence.
During Topless Women, however, which won a NZ Film Award, Sinclair used a new situation to his advantage and wrote Danielle Cormack's surprise pregnancy into the storyline.
Similarly, Toy Love was filmed in the weekends and written during the week, a process which meant the cast went into scenes with freshly learned lines.
"Most film-making is about trying to control everything and having a very pre-conceived idea of what is going to go in the film," he says.
"I like to take advantage of changing circumstances. We'd change the script even on the day. If it's raining you can put that in rather than being upset that the weather's bad for two weeks when you're supposed to be shooting a sunny scene. I love that flexibility."
O'Gorman and Elliott agree that working with Sinclair meant expecting the unexpected.
"We were shooting this scene which was cut later. It was Friday night, driving down Queen St in a convertible BMW," says O'Gorman. "There were boy racers everywhere. Harry was getting the driver to get reactions from people. He'd lean out the window and go, 'Hey, call me a bastard! You'll be in the movie'."
Elliott: "He'd ring me up on Wednesday night and I'd be like, 'Oh no, it can't get worse than the masturbation scene last week'. And he'd say, 'We want you to take off your clothes and jump in the Mermaids [Auckland strip club] tank'. Or, 'You have to do a sex scene but don't worry because you get to wear pyjamas'."
The sex scenes, while not explicit, will be a challenge for some viewers, says Sinclair, after a characteristically long pause.
"The thing that bugs me about New Zealand is that anything cultural has to be serious and take itself seriously. We're too prudish. The spirit of Toy Love is a kind of irreverent, poking fun at stuffy people, then destroying the lives of stuffy people."
It's hard not to muse over the film's surreal moments: a voyeuristic stuffed cat; Chlo's strange obsession with Coco Pops, the latter an idea that came about on the day of the shoot.
"We don't build any sets," he says. "I like shooting in real places because it leads to surprising things happening. I like the idea of how you respond when you're having a tricky emotional moment and you go into Coco Pops mode.
"I don't really know where the cat came from. I guess I was connecting the ideas of childish behaviour. These are selfish people, toying with people's lives. It's also part of Chlo's fetishistic sex life."
"It's a pretty accurate representation of how people in their mid-20s live," O'Gorman adds. "The flats, the music they listen to, where they go out. You don't see a lot of New Zealand productions like that."
* Toy Love opens on Thursday.