Adelaide Clemens and Joseph Cross in "The Automatic Hate"

Adelaide Clemens has the most extraordinary gaze, a strength that’s put to good use in her latest film “The Automatic Hate,” in which she’s constantly asked to look through people to understand what’s going on in front of her as a young woman named Alexis. Having recently uncovered a cousin in the city named Davis (Joseph Cross) she was previously unaware of, Clemens’ ability to often say more with a glance than words ever could — as her character gets at the root of a deep divide within her family while discovering a deep connection, possibly an even romantic one, with Davis — allows for a drama that constantly pushes the envelope to be handled subtly and sympathetically. Yet lest you think that the simplicity with which the actress can convey such complicated emotions extends to the process of creating the performance on days without dialogue, you’d be wrong.

“People are like ‘Oh, it’s going to be an easy day’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s not,’” says Clemens, during a break from previews for the off-Broadway production of “Hold On to Me Darling,” which should take advantage of such multitudes inherent in the Australian-born actress, given it’s a new play from “Margaret” writer/director Kenneth Lonergan.

Not surprisingly, it was love at first sight for “The Automatic Hate” director Justin Lerner, who gave Clemens the role on which his otherwise unhinged film all hinged a day after seeing her audition tape. Perhaps it was an impulsive decision the part of himself and co-writer Katherine O’Brien, but as Lerner confided recently via e-mail they didn’t once regret it.

“Adelaide is hands down the most talented, ephemeral, magical, intuitive and magnetic actor I’ve ever worked with,” said Lerner. “In rooms that some actors, after months of work, can only peek into, she can dance around in them freely. Every day of shooting with her was an adventure in which I had no idea what would happen. Every take was unique, yet each time, completely genuine, nuanced, and wholly different than what I’d imagined while writing it. It was like I was watching someone else’s movie.”

Clemens’ ferocious turn as the free-spirited Alexis is indicative of “The Automatic Hate” as a whole, which finds a tinder box in the hills of upstate New York when Alexis brings Davis to back to her parents’ house, much to the dismay of her father (Ricky Jay). As in his previous film, the equally daring “Girlfriend,” Lerner pushes the story to deeply uncomfortable places not for provocation’s sake, but to understand and empathize with the limits and flaws of his all-too-human characters, doing so with such relish that an audience is just as likely to find themselves laughing hysterically as they are cringing at comparison to less extreme moral dilemmas they’ve faced in their own lives.

Such a tone might cause whiplash if it weren’t for the deft handling by such actors as Clemens, Cross, and Jay, among others in “The Automatic Hate”’s impressive cast, and shortly before the film rolls into theaters after premiering to much acclaim at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, Clemens spoke about how she invested herself in Alexis, her inability to repeat herself and tackling taboo subject matter.

Adelaide Clemens and Joseph Cross in "The Automatic Hate"How did you get interested in “The Automatic Hate”?

I really loved the role of Alexis. She was particularly weird to me and I loved the challenge of trying to make this character sympathetic. The way I initially came to comprehend the story, this is just one of the first monumental things that had happened in her life and I think Alexis got stuck. She picked up on the fact that something wasn’t quite right in her family history and she was self compelled to figure out what that was but she doesn’t know what she’s getting herself into and she has this curiosity about her. There were so many obstacles, like the taboo factor and her erratic behavior, but I just wanted to get inside her brain.

Was it intimidating at all to be dealing a taboo subject matter?

No. I’ve actually encountered the kissing cousins thing in a lot of literature. You read some Greek tragedies, you are going to run into it. Even the play that I’m working on right now, “Hold On to Me, Darling,” begins with that question. What was interesting to me was Justin Lerner comes from a psychology and biogenetics background, and he had a really interesting spin on it. Apparently, if you have someone who has the same DNA as you — for example, an estranged cousin who you haven’t been exposed to before the age of eight, you are inevitably going to be attracted to them and sexual attraction is in that equation too. It is a taboo in our culture, but in many other cultures, it’s not.

Justin has said that you picked out most, if not all of your character’s clothing right down to the shoes. Is that how you build a character?

I never thought I was like a method actor, and I wouldn’t call myself that, but costume is so important, especially shoes. I remember when I first met Justin, he was like, “I want her in denim hot shorts, a wife beater, a trucker hat and some cowboy boots.” And I was like, “Have you been to upstate New York? Have you been to any of those locations where they actually do work on a pig farm?” Because they are not going out there with expensive cowboy boots on. They are going in their Walmart-bought trainers. Obviously, [Alexis] has a unique sense of style and there is something about the skirts, and things like that, that made her more innocent and playful. I loved her doing that costume.

You mention the upstate New York setting, and because Justin’s films have such a sense of place, did being there actually inform the character?

It absolutely helped me. I’ve shot on location, quite a bit. Prior to “The Automatic Hate,” I’ve done about six films in similar locations, so I don’t know if it’s specifically on this film where I absorbed those ideas. Being in Oneonta was amazing. So beautiful. Just as much as the landscape, it’s also just being separated from your usual daily life, so you’re able to really plow into a role. You’re forced to spend a lot of time with the cast and crew and it really makes it like family. So safe and lovely. It was great shooting up there.

What was it like to have the Zima sisters and Ricky Jay around as your character’s family?

It was so cool! I love Ricky Jay so much! He’s the biggest sweetheart in the world. We had a lot of fun. They were just wonderful company. That was really the most important thing. If you can have a friendship or a relationship with an actor outside of the roles, what you’re going to put on film is going to be way more interesting and in depth. The thing with the sisters was just a riot. We were really lucky with that cast. Every day working with Joe was fantastic. He’s such a brilliant actor. You really never knew what was going to happen. It was just really exciting.

Justin was very complimentary of you, saying you were able to make every take unique. Do you actually change things up from take to take?

I didn’t try to, but I guess it just happens. Right now, the play [“Hold On to Me Darling”] every night is different, and my co-star is the same, but I can’t do the same thing twice. I’m not someone who can just regurgitate an exact performance, mainly because if I use all the same ideas, or if my character thinks exactly the same things that I just thought, the thought becomes stale and I don’t think that’s as exciting. If I don’t try to mimic myself exactly, what tends to happen is something more interesting comes to mind and sometimes it’s not exactly accurate to the story you are trying to tell, but that’s why it’s been helpful working with different directors and writers, and I’ve had a little bit of insight into the editing process, especially with “Rectify,” and you just never know what they’ll need. Sometimes I can paint a character as a villain, but they’ll need a moment of sympathy, and you never know when you’re shooting when that moment of sympathy or vulnerability will be required, so I like to give the director whatever they may need and trust that they’ll tell the story.

We’ve danced around it, but what’s it been like starring in a Kenneth Lonergan play these past few weeks?

It’s so good. We’re having a riot. I’m going to my matinee right now. Walking to work. Kenny is just a genius. We’ve probably done it, set up and run, a hundred times and we’re coming up to our sixteenth preview. We’re still getting re-writes and things like that, so there’s that challenge, but that’s always fun. Also, there’s parts of the script we’ve known very well for a while, and we’re discovering it has second and third meanings, so it’s like we’ll never completely comprehend this play, which keeps it exciting.

“The Automatic Hate” opens on March 11 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center before opening on March 18 in San Francisco at the 4 Star Theater and Chicago at the Facets Cinematheque. A full list of cities and dates can be found here.