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Reddy, steady, go: Tilda Cobham-Hervey on portraying an Australian icon

Tilda Cobham-Hervey in I Am Woman (2019)

Reddy, steady, go: Tilda Cobham-Hervey on portraying an Australian icon

Taking on the mantle of one of Australia’s iconic feminist singers was daunting for Tilda Cobham-Hervey, but it has proven to be a breakout performance that has Hollywood taking notice.

Reddy, steady, go: Tilda Cobham-Hervey on portraying an Australian icon

When an actor takes on the role of a non- fictional character, especially while that person is still alive, the pressure to ensure the performance remains authentic can be paralysing. If that role happens to be a national treasure and one of Australia’s most iconic women, Helen Reddy, the stakes are considerably higher. Reddy’s ‘70s hit, I Am Woman, made an indelible mark on the women’s liberation movement as an anthem for second-wave feminism and, fittingly, the song gives the film its title.

“To be completely honest, I was terrified about stepping into this role,” confesses Tilda Cobham- Hervey. “I said ‘yes’ without thinking too hard. Then I went through the process of realising, ‘I’m 23 years old and I’m going to play one of the most incredible feminists of our time, who led the way for women in the industry in terms of fighting for their rights. It was an amazing moment to get to the end of the shoot and realise, ‘I didn’t get fired!’” she laughs. “It was a shock.”

This soft-spoken, Adelaide-born young woman is not yet a household name, though her breakout performance in this ambitious biopic suggests hers is a name Hollywood won’t soon forget. Indeed, studio heavyweights are already falling over themselves to meet ‘the latest Aussie export’, and with glowing reviews to back up the hype, Cobham-Hervey’s performance is most definitely a tour de force. She says, laughing again, but nervously, “I try very hard not to listen to that too much.”

Speaking on the phone from her adopted home of Los Angeles, where she’s lived for the past three years with actor and Hotel Mumbai co-star Dev Patel, Cobham-Hervey is a long way from home, both geographically and metaphorically. “The idea of Hollywood versus the reality is extremely different. I think that Hollywood is a strange idea. It’s very glamorised, but the reality is that it’s hard work. I don’t think anyone’s life is as shiny as it looks in magazines,” she says. “I do love Adelaide. We all pretend to pay Adelaide out, but I love it so much and I get back there whenever I can. I miss it a lot right now, actually.”

While we’re experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be some time before she’s able to return home for a visit. “What a strange world we all live in now,” she muses. Is she one for being productive during this lockdown, or does she veer towards vegging out on the couch, TV remote in hand? “I’d say I am a definite mix of both. Pyjamas are just daytime clothing now, but I have been really loving using this time to write a script. I’ve been adapting a book, which has been lovely to focus on.”

Although many actors fancy themselves writers and directors, in Cobham-Hervey’s case, she’s already an accomplished writer-director. In 2018, she won the prestigious Crystal Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival for Best Short Film for her movie, A Field Guide to Being a 12-Year-Old Girl. Her latest project is an animated film she wrote with Patel. “It’s called Love Rusky, about a tiny little hamster, and it’s being animated right now in Australia,” she says, enthusiastically.

Her trajectory from Adelaide to Hollywood has not followed the traditional route taken by many of her peers. She is not from the unofficial launching pads of Neighbours or Home and Away, but instead found acting through the circus, of all things.

From the age of nine, she trained and performed for seven years in Adelaide-based circus troupe, Cirkidz. “There were no leotards or animals; it was circus theatre,” she explains. Then, at 14, she co-founded a circus group called Gravity & Other Myths, which won the Best Circus award at the Adelaide and Melbourne Fringe festivals in 2010 and 2011, respectively. She also performed with Force Majeure in The Age I’m In, which toured internationally. “I’m still learning to say ‘I’m an actor’ out loud,” she admits. “For years, I couldn’t write that on a form. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to say it.”

Now 25, she recalls her first trip to Los Angeles, in 2014. “I had just been in a film that had premiered at Sundance [Film Festival], called 52 Tuesdays.” She explains the title: “We shot every Tuesday, only on Tuesdays, for a year. It had been a mistake that I ended up in that film. I never really thought I was going to be an actor.”

How on Earth does someone ‘accidentally’ star in a movie? “Well, I went along to the audition because there was a theatre maker called Daisy Brown running it, and I wanted to hang out with her. When they offered me the part, I spent the next month going, ‘You’ve made a really big mistake!’” Self-deprecating to a fault, she continues, “And even after that film, I went back on the road with the circus, travelled for another three months and never really thought the film was going to go anywhere.

“It was a very surreal experience being thrust into the festival scene at Sundance. You’re around all these incredible actors and they’re watching your face on a screen. It was quite absurd, even just sitting in offices with people talking to me about being an actor.” She breaks into laughter, “I remember calling my brother in Australia, who was probably 10 at the time, and telling him about [meetings with agents]. For years he thought that ‘agent’ meant that I had a secret agent. That time was peculiar; I was just not ready for what the industry was or what being an actor meant. I didn’t know about auditioning or much about the film industry at all.”

Evan Peters and Tilda Cobham-Hervey in I Am Woman (2019)

As a veritable deer caught in the headlights, who was the first person she was starstruck by? “Oh, I grew up loving Flight of the Conchords and I got to meet Jemaine Clement at Sundance. I turned bright red. I had such a crush on him!”

Although she didn’t intend to become an actor, it’s not surprising she became a performer. Her mother, Roz Hervey, is a dance instructor and former dancer, and her father, Geoff Cobham, is a lighting and set designer. “My parents are creatives and I grew up in the backstages of theatres and was on the road a lot. I don’t actually quite know what a life outside of uncertainty between jobs and becoming a performer is like. The idea of having a nine-to-five job is probably more unusual to me from my personal experience.”

Given her parents’ background and her unusual name, is it safe to assume she was named after the glorious and audacious Tilda Swinton?

“Yes, it was from her performance in [1992 film] Orlando. I had the amazing privilege of meeting her about a year and a half ago,” she says. “I very awkwardly announced to her that I was named after her, which I think she found quite strange. And yes, I love Orlando, but I have to admit, when I first found out I was named after her, the first movie I saw her in was The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, in which she is playing that terrifying, horrifying White Witch. I spent about a week not talking to my parents, going, ‘How could you name me after someone who is so mean?’ But now I am very happy for it.”

Cobham-Hervey had a pivotal role in the electrifying 2018 drama Hotel Mumbai, based on the true story of the 2008 Mumbai attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. She plays a nanny who spends almost every frame of the film holding a six-month-old baby. I ask if the experience put her off motherhood forever, or ignited a maternal instinct. Already adept at sidestepping questions of a personal nature, she says, “Oh, I loved hanging out with the baby, it was such a great part of that filming experience. It was stressful and the film is quite traumatic, so it felt quite intense holding this beautiful young child who has no idea what’s going on. There are gunshot noises going off and it really made you understand what it would be like to be in an experience like that with a child. It was confronting even acting that out with such an innocent co-star. So, it taught me a lot about responding to the moment and being present.”

It was, of course, on that fateful set where she would meet her future boyfriend, Patel. Unsurprisingly, this is not a subject on which she wants to elaborate, at least not in any substantial way. Does Patel feel like an honorary Australian by now? “I think with the films he’s done there now [including the 2016 drama Lion], I think he is practically an Australian citizen, yes. I think he’s allowed [to feel that way] now.” But has she managed to convert the London-born actor from Marmite to Vegemite? “He’s tried Vegemite, but he’s staying with Marmite, which I’m really not a fan of,” she laughs. “I think we’ve equalled out there.”

Circling back to the subject at hand, I Am Woman, Cobham-Hervey inhabits Reddy from the ages of 24 to 48. An integral scene that stands out sees the music star-in-the-making being told she is ‘too housewife-ish’ and not edgy enough to succeed. I wondered whether Cobham-Hervey has yet been told to change anything about herself. “I think, for women, whether you are in the entertainment industry or not, there is just so much messaging about what a woman is supposed to be. And I don’t think that’s changed so much over the years, as much as I wish it had. This film taught me to get better at ignoring that.”

Set in the 70s, the film also reminds us that many old-school attitudes steadfastly remain – notably the alarming fact that, in the US, the Equal Rights Amendment has never been ratified. “I think about that a lot. It’s quite absurd, isn’t it? I think this film really put me on my own journey of discovering how I fit within the feminist movement, and my place as a woman in the world. I hope this movie helps to make people vote and makes people consider how they vote,” she says. “I Am Woman taught me how much further we have to go and how far we’ve come. Helen was one of the first women in America to get her name on a bank card – that just seems so obscure to me, that fact just doesn’t seem possible.”

In preparing for the role, Cobham- Hervey studied Reddy for the best part of a year, but she and her director, Unjoo Moon – making her debut feature – decided it wasn’t necessary to meet her. “Helen is in a very different place in her life now and I’m fortunate to have had so much amazing footage of her and her family, so I developed the performance that way.”

Now that the film is out, and she’s garnered rave reviews, the litmus test remains just one person’s opinion. “Yes, she has seen it!” says Cobham- Hervey, referring to Reddy, now 78. “I don’t think I will ever be as nervous as knowing she was watching it. I wasn’t there, but from all reports, she enjoyed it.” She pauses. “It means the world to me. As an actor, your job is to fall in love with your character, and with Helen, I fell in love with her so much. She became my personal hero. She’s so extraordinary, and the gift of getting to learn about her life is something I will take with me everywhere. Looking back, I’m so grateful for the experience. It’s deeply changed how I think about the world and my place in it.”

Stan Original Film I Am Woman is available in Australia on Stan; and is in New Zealand cinemas in November, 2020.

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