October 9, 2015
THE light dusting of freckles on Sarah Snook’s creamy arms is a sign she and the sun are not faithful companions.
Born and raised in Adelaide, the weather is only one of the reasons the actor has recently decided to settle in Melbourne.
“Sydney is more of a beach city, which is good, but I’m not really a beach person,” Snook says.
“Ever since my older, cool sister moved here when she was 18, Melbourne has always been the place where the hip adults lived.”
Melbourne’s charm seduced her all over again last year when she spent most of the year here filming her new ABC six-part drama, The Beautiful Lie, based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
“I fell in love with Melbourne and realised that I didn’t need to just live in one city any more for work so could live in any city and if I was to choose one, it would be Melbourne,” she says.
“I grew up in Adelaide and it’s similar to Melbourne. A lot of people, when they want to leave Adelaide, go to Melbourne or Sydney but more come to Melbourne. A lot of my friends live here.”
She has settled in Brunswick and is trying to look nondescript the day we meet, wearing Melbourne laneway chic — a bicycle print cotton shirt, dark tight jeans and a navy trench — but her strawberry blonde hair, pale skin and catching blue eyes are only some of the reasons she is impossible to ignore.
She has the same effect on screen, glowing with talent, a distinctive face and that something extra that can only be described as calm self-assurance.
Snook is 27 and is the most exciting actor of the moment.
Presently, she has three big projects on release, Oddball,The Dressmaker and The Beautiful Lie.
They could not be more different, switching from comedy to period drama to contemporary drama.
She dances between them all while preparing for a season at the Old Vic in London in December, starring with Ralph Fiennes in Ibsen’s Master Builder.
The time is right for her to do theatre again. She is feeling slightly overwhelmed, somewhere between the precipice and the landing but she thinks that is the permanent state of being for a working actor.
“I wonder if there is ever a precipice or just a constant feeling of dancing on the edge,” she says.
“I’m very aware that I could be jumping off to fly but I could also be jumping to the rocks below. I look at someone like Hugo Weaving, who has certainly made it but maybe he is still in a state of mind where he has not come to what he wants yet. When you value what you do, you’re never quite satisfied.”
The sense of teetering that has become a normal part of Snook’s life as an actor may explain her extraordinary performance as Anna in The Beautiful Lie. Playing the greatest heroine in literature, albeit a contemporary version, must also be the greatest challenge and honour for an actor.
Snook hadn’t read Tolstoy’s masterpiece until she started absorbing The Beautiful Lie script.
“It was interesting reading them in tandem. Knowing what was coming enriched the experience of reading the script for me because, by knowing the story, you are getting everything you need off the page,” she says.
“There was a great sense of how humans just don’t change.”
Anna is portrayed as an essentially happy woman before she meets Vronsky. It is in meeting him that she views a world she didn’t know existed and Snook gradually conveys that dual sense of loss and liberation.
“We wanted to try to look at why Anna does what she does,” she says. “So much in the book seems inevitable but for us it was just that magic thing that happens. It’s not like she has a bad relationship with her partner but also not that they were right together necessarily.
“It’s a Tolstoy novel but the backstory we came up with is that they were both ex-tennis superstars. She was good but not as amazing as he was.
“She was the younger one and they got together, so there was a media stream of the power couple getting together (when her character was) a young 20-year-old. You don’t really know what you want at that age, you hope you marry the right person but maybe you don’t. You can have all the amazing things in your life — kid, life, career — but it doesn’t necessarily make you happy.”
It’s a role that will get everyone talking about Snook when it goes to air on October 18. Viewers should find her thoroughly captivating.
The concept of fame is something she is being forced to consider of late, describing it as a sense of otherness and a breach between two worlds. It is unsettling, more than disturbing.
“It’s a strange thing to feel like you know someone because you have known their character or seen them on film or TV. You feel they have watched your soul but you don’t know them and they don’t know you.”
She recounts an incident at the recent red carpet premiere of Oddball, where an 11-year-old girl tapped her on the shoulder and asked if she was famous.
The fact she had to ask suggested she wasn’t, which confused the girl because then she couldn’t explain her appearance on the red carpet.
“If I had said I was famous, she would have taken the photo but, having said I wasn’t famous, she no longer wanted to take the photo,” Snook says.
“There is a strange ownership people feel towards you. It’s nice when people appreciate your work but to try to take someone’s photo you don’t know is weird. It’s also strange to me that fame is achieved without achievement.”
Snook’s career, though, has been a series of achievements since graduating from NIDA in 2008 and performing award-winning roles in Sisters of War, Not Suitable for Children and The Secret River.
Last year, Hollywood star Ethan Hawke, who starred in Predestination alongside Snook raved about her.
“Sarah Snook’s performance is one of the most incredible I’ve been part of,” Hawke said.
“I really want people to see the film to experience what an incredible performance this is. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.”
Just two years out of NIDA she was one of three actors who made it to the final leg of auditions for the Hollywood adaptation of the Stieg Larsson thriller, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.
The producers were so protective of the script she auditioned with a poem — an aggressive, man-hating feminist poem — and she ended the audition by saying to her camera “screw you for making me do this, I hate self-tapes”. It worked and she got one call-back after another. When Daniel Craig was cast, the producers wanted her for a “chemistry test”.
“They do that, yeah, to see if you get along, and they did do one of the scenes that was making out,” Snook laughs.
“And I was sick at the time and I didn’t want to be the girl that got Daniel Craig sick so I was kind of not kissing him but … I guess it cost me the role.”
Not that she minds. Even then she sensed she wasn’t ready.
“I had no idea what was going on. Most of the time I was just flying by the seat of my pants, trying to prepare and do the best job but with no wealth of experience to draw on and to get me further or understand how it works.”
While her family is not professionally artistic, her grandmother, an actor, was the first person to set up Shakespeare in the Park in New Zealand when she migrated from the UK.
Snook’s great-aunt was also an actor. Her two elder sisters may not be artistic either but the whole family has been entirely supportive of what she describes as an innate love of pretending to be someone else.
She is not that type of brash, outspoken actor, though, as much as she enjoys entering imaginary worlds. It is hard to imagine her being the scene-stealing performer at dinner parties — the one holding the floor, speaking in a Polish accent and telling jokes.
“I did all the after dinner shows as a child that my parents had to endure. I was ‘that’ kid but I don’t think I realised it could be a job. I was not one of those people who said, ‘I’m going to be an actor.’ I just liked pretending to be other people.
“It seemed like a preposterous thing to do as a job but it was also the thing I have always done and also the thing I chose to do, which I think is important. It was a choice.
“Sometimes it’s really weird and I think the switch will be flicked off at some time and someone will say, ‘That is not a job.’
“It’s so important for a sense of quality of life to love what you do but you can love what you do and not make much money, endure rejection and all the other things that come with it.”
There is a permanent glint in her eyes, where the little girl wanting to entertain shines through, but starry egos are not part of Snook’s personality. She is critical of that part of her industry where people use their fame to take advantage. Her sensitivity and self-awareness would always protect her from that path.
She speaks highly of the people in her life, including her partner. He is not an actor but she describes him as her anchor. She has dated actors before and can see the benefits but also appreciates a partner who brings his own life experience and career to their relationship, offering her objectivity, which is a great support to anyone working in a creative industry.
“I find anyone I meet who is great at their job or following their passion and engaging in life around them inspiring,” she says.“ I look up to a lot of people and most of them are my friends.”
The Beautiful Lie, ABC, premieres October 18, 8.30pm.