Dolly Parton loved it’: Gracie Otto on her film Seriously Red and the success of Heartbreak High

Gracie Otto is sitting cross-legged on the floor against a white wall, she is wearing denim jeans and a denim jacket

Gracie Otto’s new film Seriously Red opens in Australian cinemas on 24 November. Photograph: Jake Terrey

The Australian director’s film about a Parton impersonator has already won over fans – including the queen of country herself


“The Guardian, Amerie! The Guardian – I just got off the phone with the Guardian!” As soon as our call is connected, Australian director Gracie Otto is immediately quoting from the Netflix reboot of Heartbreak High, on which she worked as director.

“Did you see the TikTok where someone from the Guardian pretended to call Woodsy up?” Otto laughs. “It’s quite funny.”

Otto is having quite the year. We speak a few days after Heartbreak High received eight Aacta nominations, including Otto for best director. The show spent weeks on Netflix’s top 10 in Australia, and reached the top 10 in more than 43 countries, making it a certified global hit.

“We are so excited … a lot of different people from different generations and walks of life have texted me [about the show],” Otto says. “Who would have thought the asexual eshay would be making headlines around the world?”

In March, Otto flew to SXSW festival in Austin for the worldwide premiere of her latest film, Seriously Red. It stars Krew Boylan (also the film’s writer) as Red, a rambunctious and misguided woman who is at a crossroads in her life. After being fired from her beige real estate job, Red finds her calling in being a Dolly Parton impersonator – along the way meeting Elvis (Rose Byrne) and Kenny Rogers (Daniel Webber) impersonators.

There is always a bit of worry about whether Australian films will translate overseas, particularly in the US. Americans are hard to read, Otto says. “They would say ‘Oh, that’s funny’ but they wouldn’t really laugh. And then at the end of the film, doing the Q&A, everyone’s wearing a mask, so I can’t see anyone smiling … [but] people were saying really nice things.” Otto didn’t need to worry. The film – which also features Celeste Barber and Bobby Canavale – charmed audiences and critics. The most important review, however, came in a tweet.

“We were in this giant bus going to the premiere when Jess [Carrera, the film’s producer] called out, ‘Oh my god! Dolly just tweeted!’” Otto says.

“I just loved #SeriouslyRed!” the queen of country wrote. “The film is a wonderful tribute to being the best version of yourself.”

“That was exciting,” Otto says. “Jess, Daniel and Krew got to meet Dolly two days later, but I was back in Tasmania filming so I missed out … but she had seen the film, and you could tell she loved the story.”

Seriously Red is essentially a love letter to Parton; Otto admires Parton’s ability to be unapologetically herself. “I think that’s the thing about Dolly Parton – she is universal and anyone can relate to her,” she says. “So why not have an Australian whose hero is Dolly Parton?”

Parton famously said: “Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.” Otto grew up in the film industry – she is the daughter of actor Barry Otto and sister of actor Miranda Otto – and had a love for US and European cinema from a young age: “As soon as I finished high school I was like, ‘Oh my god, the world!’ I wanted to go out and explore.”

Gracie Otto is sitting in a metal chair, she is wearing denim jeans, a denim jacket and black boots

‘Kath & Kim is a work of art and genius.’ Photograph: Jake Terry

She lived and worked in the US for many years, at first trying her luck at acting, before discovering documentary and direction. In 2013, she released her first feature documentary, The Last Impresario – a dive into the life of famed film and theatre producer Michael White that featured interviews with John Waters, Yoko Ono and Kate Moss. Eager to work, she would pick up any directing gig she could: shorts, fashion films or television ads. Then in 2017 she returned to Australia to film a commercial for underwear brand Bonds in Coober Pedy. The trip was a turning point.

“I remember feeling in touch with being Australian, and then being interested all of a sudden in Australian cinema … I relate to being an Australian more than I relate to being an American,” she says.

What she had once shunned or cringed at growing up, she now appreciated for being special and uniquely Australian. Take Kath & Kim: “Like, as a kid, I didn’t understand Kath & Kim because it was so kitsch to me, whereas now I think it’s a work of art and genius,” she says.

Krew Boylan and Gracie Otto on the set of Seriously Red

Krew Boylan and Gracie Otto on the set of Seriously Red. Photograph: Roadshow

Otto’s appreciation for Australian classics is clear in the credits for Seriously Red; the film’s production designer, Penny Southgate, was a production designer on Kath & Kim, while costume designer Tim Chappel worked on The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Talking about Parton is all well and good (“She’s Dolly Parton, what else could you say?”), but Otto truly comes alive when she talks about who she works with in Australia. Seriously Red is the first feature film from Dollhouse Pictures, an all-female production company founded by Otto, Byrne, Boylan, Carrera and Bafta-winning director Shannon Murphy. And Otto has just wrapped filming The Clearing, an upcoming drama about a cult starring her her sister Miranda. “All of us in the family aren’t big emotional people or huggers, but I said to her, ‘Hey Miranda … you are the best actor I’ve ever worked with’ – and I actually meant it,” she says.

  • Seriously Red is in cinemas around Australia from 24 November

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