JULIA Blake is sucking in her cheeks, impressively rearranging her jaw and lips to make it look like she has no teeth. She is, after all, an actor and is used to pretending. She is 76 - she seems a decade younger - has excellent teeth and has been studying the older women in her suburb to enhance her newest role: playing a 91-year-old.
Vera, the character in Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles, does not conform to cliches (nor does Blake): she is neither a dodderer nor a crone; neither cranky nor ''sprightly''. She is, rather, a complex, strong and nuanced character with a surprising and unusual history. While Vera might have the occasional senior's moment - ''whadyacallit'' is uttered regularly - and she has some dexterity issues, she is an authentic, complete character. Blake is loving inhabiting her for the Red Stitch production.
Trouncing the stereotype that there are few roles for older women actors, Blake is having a busy career, appearing in diverse local and international films (from Last Dance to X-Men Origins: Wolverine), in television (from Bed of Roses to Winners & Losers), and especially in theatre (from National Interest to The Aunt's Story).
This, though, is Blake's first performance for the acclaimed Red Stitch, and she says the scale and passion of the production reminds her of her early days in theatre 50 years ago - fresh, vibrant, and creative. To be playing an older woman, though, is a challenge, especially in the physicality of the role, because she is being careful to not fall into the trap of doing a ''generic old lady''.
''I love the obsessive journey of understanding this woman and creating her,'' she says, having thrown herself into the character, practising the physical dimensions - such as the scene where Vera appears without her dentures - in her bathroom mirror at home.
Blake adores Herzog's ability to subtly intertwine drama and humour in 4000 Miles, along with its background of narrative threads and its richness of characters - even though it is, in essence, carried by Vera and her 21-year-old grandson Leo (played by Tim Ross), who together explore tragedy, love and compassion.
''In contrast with this woman who's always had so much certainty, believing in a cause and getting in there, Leo is very much a product of today's world, from an affluent family, and he is much more directionless,'' Blake says. ''I love that he is making this journey all across America on a bicycle, putting himself through this to find himself in some way - and then he turns up in the early hours of the morning at his grandmother's home. I love the mix of these two characters, that his journey in life is just starting and he doesn't know what it will be - and her journey, which she is so certain about, which has meant so much to her, is almost over.''
In between are some young female characters whom Blake describes as endearing and funny, but serious and sincere, too. Are they irritating in their naivety? No, she says. ''I have got past the age of irritation; life is much easier than you might choose to make it.''
As part of her preparation, Blake has been drawing on an experience she had four years ago when visiting an aunt in England, in her 90s, whom she had not seen in many years but whose voice on the phone had always been strong and emphatic.
''When I arrived, I was totally unprepared,'' she says. ''She had shrunk and lost six inches [15 centimetres], and she was physically directionless.
''But she had a strong sense of self - assertively so - and I can see a lot of her in this character. I was so fascinated in comparing her with the woman I had known for so long; the change was incredible.''
Crucially, though, Blake sees her aunt and Vera as forceful women who have been powerful in their lives, with their determination and sense of self giving them strength as they endure the unavoidable impotence that comes with great age, as the body starts to decline.
''This play is so well crafted,'' she says. ''The characters are so clear … almost as if they've been done with tiny little chisels.'' Similar, surely, to Blake's own deft handling of her craft.
■ 4000 Miles is at Red Stitch Actors Theatre from February 8-March 9. redstitch.net