Why Teresa Palmer Was Always the First Choice to Play Michelle Payne in Ride Like a Girl

Rachel Griffiths and Michelle Payne tell E! News about bringing the Australian biopic to life

By Winsome Walker Sep 28, 2019 3:36 AMTags
Watch: What Teresa Palmer Got Right About Michelle Payne In "Ride Like A Girl"

In 2015, Michelle Payne defied the odds to become the first ever female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup.

When it came to telling Payne's extraordinary story in the biopic Ride Like a Girl, director Rachel Griffiths only had one actress in mind who could pull it off: Teresa Palmer.

"To me, there was only ever one girl that could play her," Griffiths told E! News. "[Michelle's] a cherished sister and she's a beloved daughter. You have all that, but then you have this tenacious, stubborn, killer athlete that in split decisions is taking risks in the most dangerous sport in the world. To find an actress that could convincingly cross between those two worlds was really a big call and Teresa just has both."

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In Ride Like a Girl, Palmer plays Payne from age 15 onwards as she chases her racing dream despite injuries, family tragedy and constant rejection. The Adelaide actress stars alongside Sam Neil, Brooke Satchwell, Magda Szubanski and Stevie Payne (the Cup winner's actual brother).

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Palmer meticulously studied all of Payne's interviews and races to pin down her personality and racing prowess. And, as Payne told E! News, all the homework paid off.

"I was so humbled that she said yes to playing me in the film. She absolutely nails every scene. It blows me away," the 33-year-old Victorian said. "She captured everything about me, even the way I walk."

The moment that rang true the most for Payne when watching the film?

"The getting up at 3am!" she laughed. "What really threw me back to the memories was standing outside the tower at Caulfield [Racecourse] trying to get a trackwork ride. I remember standing there, sometimes for five hours, and I'd ride one horse. The guys were getting thrown on and off—they'd ride 10, 12, 13 horses in the morning.

"When I watched the film, it brought back the memories of how stubborn I was to keep going back. I thought one day they might change their mind, and thankfully they did."

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Griffiths and Payne agree that one of the huge drawcards of Ride Like a Girl is strapper Stevie Payne, who plays himself in the film and steals every scene he's in.

"He's the best part," Payne gushed of her brother, who has Down syndrome. "He's so funny and he's so smart. We obviously adore him and everybody now who views this film will see him the same way we do."

Added Griffiths: "Stevie and Teresa are just beautiful together. She opened her heart to him so much, and vice versa. Did he get a little crush on her?" 

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The film was also a first for Griffiths, who made her debut as a director. After forging a career in the US with roles in Brothers & Sisters and Six Feet Under, the Melbourne-raised star returned to Australia on the lookout for stories to tell. 

"I did what many women did and I made family-friendly choices when my children were young, and directing did not fall into that category. It is all-consuming, it's a huge amount of responsibility. There are thousands of decisions," she said. "I guess I put that dream on ice. When I came back I was really hoping to make Australian stories. Once we found it and Michelle gave us the rights to her story, it's taken four years."

Ultimately, Griffiths hopes her film's message about determination and defying the odds will resonate with young women—and men, too.

"'Like a girl' has always been an insult. You go to any boys' school in Australia and you'll hear, ‘You throw like a girl,' or 'You run like a girl,' or 'You kick like a girl,'" she said. "We want to turn that around and say, ‘Like a girl' means winning."

Ride Like a Girl is in cinemas now.