Emily Browning on the misery of shooting ‘Pompeii’

The first time I met Emily Browning was in an alley behind the original Alamo Drafthouse. She was sixteen at the time, playing younger for “Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events,” and I was about to do a Q&A onstage at Butt-Numb-A-Thon with her and her co-star Liam Aiken. The two of them seemed a little bit overwhelmed from the trip in with the Paramount reps, and I think they were just about to kick off the international publicity jaunt for the film, something that was a different level of intensity that either of them had experienced before. We spent about ten minutes talking before we walked up the back stairs and onto the stage of the Drafthouse, and they both ended up doing great.

Browning was a seasoned pro by that point, though. She’s been working in front of the camera since she was nine or ten years old on TV and in movies, and “Snicket” was the movie that was supposed to launch her to a new level of awareness. The film wasn’t a monster hit, though, even with Paramount and Dreamworks pushing to try to make it into a “Harry Potter” style event. When I was chatting with her off-camera at the recent press day for Paul Anderson’s “Pompeii,” in which she plays the romantic lead opposite Kit Harrington, we talked about how they pretty much had to make the call the split second the first film came out to decide if they would make the rest of the books into films or not. Like “Potter,” they would have had to shoot quickly to make sure the kids didn’t age out of the series completely before they wrapped it up. It might have helped that they condensed three books from the series into that first film, but Brad Silberling’s very stylized take on the books just didn’t click with the mainstream, and it ended up being one of the one-and-done potential franchises that often happen.

The relative failure of that film may have been a good thing. She got to grow up a bit away from the camera’s eye, so when she appeared in “The Uninvited” and then, a few years later, in “Sucker Punch,” she was basically a different person. Browning is ethereal and striking and very petite. There’s a reason she was the face they chose for a very significant cameo in “The Host,” and it’s because there’s something otherworldly about her.

She still comes across as very young in person. She’s bright and mature, but delicate, and it has been startling to see her jump into movies like the explicit “Sleeping Beauty” or the harrowing “Magic Magic”. It made it clear that she is willing to tackle challenging material, while “Pompeii” seems like a bid to cast her in something overtly commercial. We discussed the crazy physical conditions on the set of the film, where they pretty much spend half the movie covered in ash. Since it’s a 3D movie, that is all practical ash, allowing it to drift off the screen, and it looks like a miserable shoot.

She seems to have a great sense of humor about it, and about the wildly over-the-top performance that Kiefer Sutherland gives as the bad guy of the movie. Browning’s still struggling to really define her identity as a performer, but she’s young, and she’s starting to make real headway. It’s up to directors to figure out how to best utilize her innate daring and her striking appearance, and when she gets the right role, I’m willing to bet she rips it up.

“Popeii” opens on Friday.