Exclusive Interview: Natalie Imbruglia & Doug Dearth on Underdogs

Natalie Imbruglia and the director of the new drama discuss sports movies and the past, present and future of her music career.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

At the end of April, the Newport Beach Film Festival featured screenings of the indie drama Underdogs, featuring recording artist Natalie Imbruglia in a supporting role. I was offered a joint interview with Imbruglia and director Doug Dearth, so I checked out the film. Now it won’t surprise you to hear that a movie called Underdogs is about a football team, but at the same time it is about an inventor (William Mapother) trying to sell his creation and fighting a big bad corporation over it. Imbruglia plays the town bartender who romances the football coach (D.B. Sweeney). To see the trailer for the movie we’re talking about, and find out more information about future screenings, visit underdogsthemovie.com.

CraveOnline: Natalie, you started in acting before you were even in music. Has this been a process of getting back into acting?

Natalie Imbruglia: It has. I moved out to Los Angeles a couple years ago and started studying with Ivana Chubbuck so in some ways it’s kind of back to where I started, but I’ve never done any formal training so it’s been good to do that and focus in on it.

How did you and Doug connect?

Natalie Imbruglia: Well, I read the script and absolutely loved it. And then I went in and read for him. Yeah, he liked it.

Doug Dearth: Yeah, our casting director actually suggested Natalie and I’m of course familiar with her as a singer/songwriter but I wanted to meet her. She came in like everybody else but really blew me away because she auditioned in a perfect midwestern American accent. Afterwards she’s like, “Can I talk normal now?” It kind of blew us all away that she not only had a wonderful audition but really just nailed a midwest Ohio bartender which isn’t an easy thing to do I would think if you’re from Australia. So we were thrilled and that’s how it all came about.

Was it always for the role of Michelle? Could it ever have been for another female character?

Doug Dearth: I always liked her for Michelle. Number one, she’s at least hopefully the romantic counterpart to our lead actor who’s played by D.B. Sweeney. I think so. That was always the strongest role. There was also a female role for the wife of the inventor but that’s a very quirky family. I just always felt Natalie’s a very gorgeous girl as well and I just thought it would be really nice to see this girl who had probably moved away from Ohio, had a marriage and maybe lived in New York and Chicago, and just sort of in her life decides to go home to her hometown roots. So I thought it was a really nice juxtaposition to see this really strong, beautiful woman who had come back and was just very content.

Natalie Imbruglia: Back to her roots. Come home to her roots, which I could relate to.

Was Michelle the perfect role for you?

Natalie Imbruglia: I really enjoyed her. We had such a great time shooting it and D.B. was fantastic to work with. Everyone was just so supportive. I just had a great experience. I didn’t know anything about American football when we started shooting. I was on set even in off days watching them shoot those scenes. I just love the heart of the film and it’s such an inspiring story about underdogs. I was just excited to be a part of it.

Is it kind of a cinema first that there are two underdogs at the same time?

Doug Dearth: I think so. That’s one thing I really loved about this story. Certainly football, in this particular movie, it’s I guess a symbol for the ultimate underdog but I think having it be about normal everyday people who are always trying to do the right thing and can’t get ahead and are just determined to follow their heart and believe. To finally see somebody come out on top, I thought it was something that a lot of people could relate to. I’m also from Ohio and towns like Ohio, steel towns or rubber towns, they’ve all been hit with this where manufacturing left. Entire cities were built around manufacturing plants and now they’re gone and people don’t know what to do with themselves. So yeah, I think so. I thought that’s what made it a little different than most of the other sports or football movies.

Natalie Imbruglia: I just loved the space heater story. That really touched me when I read the script the first time. It’s just really inspiring.

Yeah, I thought it set a precedent for two parallel underdog stories in the same movie.

Doug Dearth: Even audiences, it’s really great. When you edit these films, you try and find that balance. I wasn’t quite sure which story people would relate to the most, but people are really finding it very triumphant. With the economy the way it is these days and with people struggling, I think people just really relate to it so we’re really happy.

Natalie, were you an underdog in music?

Natalie Imbruglia: [Laughs] I’ve been an underdog in music, I’ve been an underdog in many different careers that I’ve had. Yeah, when I first started, I was known as an actor crossing over to music and it was not really a popular move at the time. I remember feeling like I had an uphill battle ahead of me. The stars aligned and I got lucky on my first single, but saying that, I remember being compared to people to criticize and all of that when I first started songwriting. I was on a soap opera and there were a lot of people on that soap trying to do music, some which were good and some which weren’t very good. At the time it wasn’t really a credible move so in some ways I was an underdog. It worked out in the end though.

Doug, were you casting against type in a lot of the roles? Like William Mapother as a shy father type and D.B. Sweeney as the lead?

Doug Dearth: Yeah, when you do these small independent movies, you don’t have a lot of money, you don’t have a lot of time. What you do is, a couple things: Number one, you hire very talented, experienced actors because they make me look good at the end of the day. But also, they show up, they’re ready. You only have two or three takes to nail a scene so you need people who can come in and really show up to be prepared and do the job. So I was smart enough from being from an acting background to know that I had to do that, and then the second thing is you try and make it interesting. When you add an independent financier who financed this and gave us a lot of creative freedom, as an actor I felt that that would be really fun to reach out to some people.

I also thought that’s how you draw talented actors to smaller projects. You offer them a role that they’re not offered very often, and they want to do it. I find that they want to challenge themselves and they want to show all sides of themselves as an actor. This, I thought, was a perfect arena for them to come out and really play and do something a little different. It helps a lot. I think they responded to that. Same with Natalie. Having her in this role, it’s a very subtle role. She’s a small town Ohio bartender and I just felt I wanted people to forget that Natalie was even a singer/songwriter, just really see her as this character and as an actress. It’s one of the reasons why we didn’t really choose to use her music in the film. I just really wanted people to forget and see her as an actress and see her as the character.

Natalie Imbruglia: I agree.