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Caren Pistorius can only describe her experience on “Unhinged” as wonderful but “surreal.” The actor was working at a fabric store in Sydney when she got the call to audition for the road rage thriller starring Russell Crowe.

Within hours, she found herself in New Orleans for a screen test. She ended up staying in the city as she quickly landed the role, and the film began shooting a week later. Although she’s appeared in films like “Slow West” and “The Light Between Oceans,” “Unhinged” marks her first feature film leading role.

And now there’s another twist for Pistorius. Her movie is one of the first to make its way back into American theaters as they begin to open across the country this week (it opened in Germany July 16.) In the film, directed by Derrick Borte, Pistorius’ single mother Rachel finds herself and her son terrorized by Crowe’s mentally unstable Tom after she honks at him and refuses to apologize.

Currently, Pistorius is far away from such a fraught world, back home in New Zealand, where her family emigrated from South Africa when she was 12. “I’m in a safe place in the middle of nowhere surrounded by ocean, trees, mountains, cows, dogs and nature,” she reveals. “So I’m very lucky.”

How does it feel to be one of the first movies back in American theaters since the pandemic? Or do you even think about that?

I probably wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t been told that by so many people. (Laughs) I’d probably forget and move on. But so much of this is new, even if you took the pandemic out of the situation – it’s a new experience being involved in a studio film, playing one of the leads. Add the world we’re in on top of all that and it’s very surreal. It’s sometimes hard to find the relevance in what you’re doing, but I think films and the movie theater to me have always been such an important place. To experience something like that with a collective group is a really special thing. I hope people can enjoy it.

This movie is a case of road rage gone horribly awry; in many ways, it feels all too believable.

That’s kind of what interested me in the part. There is an element of reality in it. The film takes it to a whole other level and a place hopefully nobody ever has to experience, but it’s fascinating that so many of us have experienced something like this.

How did the role come to you; was it a traditional audition?

Very normal! I was in Sydney at the time and filmed the audition in my bedroom and sent it off. I almost didn’t send it off because I was so embarrassed!

Why were you embarrassed?

I had to mime driving and I thought I did such a terrible job; I felt I wasn’t very natural and was having all sorts of neurotic thoughts, which is typical for me. But I sent it in and then I went off to my day job — I had a part time job in a fabric store. The following day, I’d missed a bunch of calls from my agent so she popped into the store saying, “They want you fly into New Orleans tomorrow to read with Russell!” And a week after that we started shooting. It was an incredibly fast turnaround.

So you read with Russell before you got the part?
Exactly. I flew in right after I heard they wanted me to go. It was a 30-hour journey, I had no sleep and I had new sides coming through. I landed in New Orleans, I think I had an hour nap. And when my driver picked me up at one point I said, “Can you just keep driving, I don’t know if I can do this!” He just kept driving until I kind of gathered myself. I knew I could only run so far. So I went up and Derrick and Russell were in the room and it was all very nice. Russell and I chatted about New Zealand and did some scenes. I walked away and thought, “Well, I’m going home tomorrow.”

How did you find out you got the part?
It’s funny. I went out that night, the driver showed me around. I met one of his friends and said, “I’m not getting this part.” She said, “You know what? Just ask the town. Trust me, she has a funny way of delivering.” I kind of laughed at that but that night I thought, what have I got to lose? I didn’t want to be rude, I’m in the south and manners are really important. So I said, “Ma’am, will you have me?” I thought it was ridiculous and drifted off to sleep. And the next morning I woke up to a call from Derrick and got the news.

Crowe’s character is so terrifying, was it every intense on set?

That’s the magic of editing. We hardly really even had scenes together! A lot of the time I was on my own or with Gabriel Bateman, who played my son. Even in the scenes where we’re on the phone, we were having reception problems so a lot of the times the script supervisor would read the lines to me. And he was a sweetheart and I’m supposed to pretend to be scared of him! The magic of moviemaking.

What did end up being the biggest challenge?

I think being stuck in a car for 90% of filming with no air conditioning. It sounds so boring and trivial, but it was the shoulder of the hurricane season and would get incredibly hot. The AC was broken in some cars or for sound reasons we couldn’t have it running. The thermometer in the car read 140 sometimes. They wanted me to be sweating but it was so hot in the car that at the end, they were actually trying to stop me from sweating.

After filming, did you ever go back to your job at the fabric store?

No I didn’t, but I would! I really loved the job. And when I was in New Zealand before that, I worked in another fabric store and loved it. I enjoy being around people and not sure how much longer I’ll be able to do that. I was also working at a pottery studio as well. I hope I can keep dabbling in between jobs.