The pilgrimage to Los Angeles is a rite of passage for antipodean actors who fantasize about being the next Naomi Watts, Chris Hemsworth or Margot Robbie, but what actually happens when the genetically blessed sell their cars, give up their apartments, say goodbye to their significant others and head across the ocean in search of the American dream?
For many, it’s a soul-crushing exercise called “pilot season,” where thousands of talented (and not so talented) young things congregate in Hollywood for a punishing ride of audition after audition in the hope of landing a coveted role in a new TV show. Pilot season lasts around three months—the length of time the Visa Waiver Program allows ambitious Aussies to stay in the country. Fail to pick up a gig and you’re on the next flight home.
I first met Phoebe Tonkin, who cut her teeth starring in the kids’ show H2O: Just Add Water, at a dinner party in Australia. She had come straight from the set of the film Tomorrow When the War Began. It was just before she headed over to do her first pilot season, and she told me she was worried that casting directors needed to be able to categorize an actress—the wild girl, the sexy girl, the earthy girl, the quirky girl—and she wasn’t particularly any of those things. Tonkin recalls the conversation, nodding. “My biggest fear was that I was too ordinary.”
As Tonkin neared the end of her L.A. stint, the possibility that that could be true loomed large. “I’d been going for these shows where I was too young to play the doctor and too old to play someone’s daughter; I just wasn’t fitting into anything,” she says. Until her very last audition of the season. “I was so sick of going into all these auditions with my cleavage out, tight skinny jeans and big blown-out hair, which is the staple uniform. I thought, ‘I’m just going to go into this one looking like me, all in black and with a bow in my hair,’” she recalls.
The audition was with Kevin Williamson, the one-man teen-dream factory who created hit TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek and The Following. “Kevin was the first person to show me that I didn’t have to fit into someone’s idea of a particular type of girl,” she says. “I could be my own person, and someone would find that to be the right thing.” Just two days later, she was on a plane to Vancouver to film the fantasy drama The Secret Circle, and pilot season, for her at least, had a happy ending.
After The Secret Circle wrapped in 2012, Williamson cast Tonkin once again, this time as the werewolf/vampire hybrid Hayley Marshall on the hit teen drama The Vampire Diaries. While the part was minor, it eventually led to a starring role in Williamson’s popular supernatural spinoff series The Originals. Sitting across from her now, five years after that dinner party, it’s hard to imagine that Tonkin could ever be thought of as “ordinary.”
There are those huge anime-like eyes and cut-glass cheekbones; the heartthrob boyfriend, her former Vampire Diaries co-star Paul Wesley (“He’s my best friend. It’s such a fun time in my life right now; it’s nice to have someone to share all that with”); the new movie—Take Down, co-starring Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick—coming out this year; the 1.1 million Instagram followers; and the fact that, with that willowy frame, she has international fashion houses like Chanel courting her to wear their clothes.
Not to mention the fact that The Originals was recently renewed for a third season, making her that rare creature who is more famous in the United States than at home in Australia. That can’t feel all that ordinary, I comment.
Tonkin disagrees. “TV is a lot like having an office job: same crew, same people every day—it’s like a family,” she says. “I didn’t move here to be on a job for three months and then sit around reading scripts and drinking coffee in L.A. the rest of the time. The quality of TV is so great now, and you get to do what you love every day. It’s the closest thing to having a normal job.” In the normality stakes, it helps that The Originals is filmed in Atlanta. “I really love being there. As beautiful as L.A. is, it’s so fixated on this industry. It’s nice to be in the south, where people have other jobs and you don’t feel like you’re just talking about movies and directors all the time.”
As it turns out, Tonkin is the ultimate modern-day triple threat—actress/fashion darling/blogger—sharing a well-being website, Your Zen Life, with her best friend, Teresa Palmer. “Teresa and I were in L.A., and it felt like we were always hearing girls have all these conversations about weight loss and how they looked, and it was so boring. We really started to get interested in health and wellness as a way to take the pressure away from all that,” she explains. Could she be the next Gwyneth? “When we started it, we were both working less; we now realize that it’s kind of a full-time job,” says Tonkin. “We do want to grow it, but I’m careful because it’s easy for two actresses living in L.A. to talk about how great it is to have fresh juice every day but maybe not if you’re in some small town…. And I’m conscious of not talking too much about bodies because young girls are so malleable and they read things and take them out of context.”
Body image is a hot-button issue for Tonkin, who was recently criticized in the press for being too skinny. “It’s definitely the darker side [of fame],” she says. “I think it’s really irresponsible for those sites to focus on anyone’s body shape. I don’t like that I feel I have to be defensive. I really don’t even like being part of that conversation.”
When I ask whether it’s hard for someone as perennially nice as she is to shake off Internet trolls and negative press, Tonkin just shrugs. “I read an interview with Jennifer Lawrence where she said that when she’s getting her period, she’ll get a glass of wine and sit in front of the computer and type in ‘I hate Jennifer Lawrence’; I do that sometimes too,” she admits. “It’s like, ‘All right, come on, how many people are talking shit about me, I can take it….’” It’s the sort of psychological self-harm that is surprising for someone who seems to be so incredibly well adjusted. “It’s so self-destructive,” she agrees. “But I think we’re all realizing that women can be complicated and messy and they don’t have to be perfect. It’s just about balance.”
On social media, that balance is clear: Tonkin’s refreshing normalcy in person is equally as disarming on Instagram and Twitter. But how much social-media self-censoring goes for celebrities? “It can be hard,” she admits. “Someone puts a photo on Instagram and 20 minutes later it’s on the Daily Mail and being scrutinized. But I think my Instagram is pretty true to who I am; I’m not hiding anything. I definitely try not to put too much about my personal life, but the other side of that is that I’m 25, and sometimes I’m happy and I want to share photos in the same way that all my other friends who are at university or working in Sydney do.”
Her persistence in maintaining a level head in a not-so-ordinary world comes through loud and clear on her Instagram profile, where Tonkin calls herself “Professional Cinderella,” a term from one of her favourite movies, Girl, Interrupted. “Sometimes this life feels like that,” she says. “You do all these amazing things and you work on these incredible sets, you get to get all dressed up and you wear the crystal slippers, and then at midnight it all disappears. You go home and put your pyjamas on and it’s just…reality.”
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