When Sarah Snook walked onto the stage in January to collect the AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in a Television Drama, there was a flurry of whispers along the lines of: “Who’s that girl?” The young flame-haired actress in the spectacular red Lisa Ho gown certainly looked the part, taking to the podium of the Sydney Opera House with grace and humour; but many in the audience had missed her standout performance in the ABC telemovie Sisters of War where she played a spunky Australian nurse caught up in the World War II invasion of New Guinea by the Japanese. (Here’s our video interview with Snook in the media room just moments after she accepted the award.)
Careful observers might have recognised Snook from her work on Australian television (Blood Brothers, Spirited Season 2, Packed to the Rafters, All Saints) and from some brief scenes in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (she played Emily Browning’s disgruntled flatmate). Insiders also knew that Sarah Snook was the Australian actress who attracted international headlines when she was shortlisted for David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Nicknamed ‘the Australian Emma Stone’, the Adelaide-raised Snook ultimately lost out to Rooney Mara for the role, but the buzz around the protracted casting process put her name on the casting map. She’s just finished shooting her first lead role in a US feature, the horror/thriller Jessabelle directed by Kevin Greutert (Saw 3D).
Here in Australia, you can see Sarah Snook right now at a cinema near you, where she stars in the new biological clock comedy Not Suitable for Children. Snook plays ‘Stevie’, the friend and flatmate to Ryan Kwanten’s irresponsible party boy, ‘Jonah’. When Jonah discovers he’s about to become infertile due to testicular cancer treatment, he embarks on a mad quest to fulfil his dream of fatherhood. Written by Michael Lucas (Offspring) and directed by Peter Templeman (The Saviour), it’s sweet and funny, with genuine chemistry between the leads and a great soundtrack offsetting the youthful energy of an inner-city share-house in Sydney’s Newtown.
“The thing I most liked about this character was her sass,” says Snook on the phone from Sunset Boulevard, where she’s having a short holiday with her musician boyfriend, after shooting Jessabelle. “Stevie totally holds her own against the boys and I really responded to the feistiness in the material. There is that mix of sweetness and sexiness, which is very hard to play, actually – the light and dark of that.”
As Stevie, Snook plays a woman who’s adamant she doesn’t want children, while Ryan Kwanten plays a man who’s biological clock is ticking like a time bomb – an inversion of the stereotype where it’s the woman who’s desperate to reproduce, and the man who’s reluctant and commitment-phobic. Does Snook think this might be reflecting a cultural shift?
“I’m not sure it’s necessarily typical, or that it’s a trend,” she says, “but there’s definitely a male biological clock. We tend to focus on the female biological clock because it’s such a physical thing with physical limits. But I think it is definitely a concern for men to find a partner who is of the right age that they can start a family with.”
She agrees that it’s also true that there are ‘normal’ women who don’t want children. “I have a number of female friends who are not interested in having children. They’re happy to have a long term relationship with a partner, and to play a part in the lives of children within their circle, but they’re just not interested in having children themselves. For me, I want children myself. But for some women, they’re just not interested in that. Sometimes it’s an ethical choice, and sometimes it’s a personal one.”
The candid sex scenes in Not Suitable for Children are beautifully handled, but perhaps they were a little awkward to shoot. How did Snook cope with the filming of these? “Ah yeah….” She says with a laugh. “You know it’s an unusual situation to put yourself into and definitely there are insecurities. But Ryan Kwanten is probably one of the best people to do them with given that he’s done so many sex scenes with True Blood! His advice was to remember that it’s just a film and you’ve got to look after yourself and be comfortable with what you do.”
For a 24-year-old who’s only been out of NIDA for four years (she graduated in 2008) Snook seems remarkably grounded. She’s confident but not cocky; friendly and approachable, but careful with what she reveals. Asked about the Dragon Tattoo casting process she’s philosophical about the way it worked out.
“That was a whirlwind experience and at the time I didn’t realise what a big deal it was,” says Snook. “My name was thrown into a mix of relatively unknown actresses for the role. I did five auditions back in Australia and then got flown over to the States twice and did two screen tests for the director and the producers, including a chemistry test with Daniel Craig. When I got back to Australia I got the call to tell me I didn’t have the part, but I think I won really! There was definitely a lucky star involved in all of that in terms of getting my name out there.”
Also handy in getting her name ‘out there’ was the AACTA Award win. “I think winning an AACTA Award definitely does open doors, ” she says. “I really noticed the difference when I came over here in February after the Awards. It was not just a talking point, but it was really respected by the American casting agents.”
Asked whether it’s a daunting process auditioning in the US compared with Australia, Snook is again understated. “It’s slightly different. There’s the sheer volume of casting agents over here, so it’s harder to feel like you develop a personal rapport with someone. Also, there’s the fact that as an Australian, you’re an outsider and there’s always the question of whether the producers are willing to go that extra mile to get you a visa to work on their film.”
Obviously the producers of Jessabelle were keen enough to go that extra mile to have Snook on board for the two months it took to shoot the film, a shoot which she describes as “super fun”.
“It’s the funniest contradiction with horror films and tragedies,” she says. “They’re often the most fun to shoot because everything is so heightened and dramatic and scary that the best way to lighten things up is to just have a laugh. The set can be a very funny place to be. You get to fight ghosts and ghouls and get covered in slime and blood! I play a character who has been in a a pretty horrific crash and has lost the use of her legs, so she’s in a wheelchair for most of the film – which results in some very interesting blocking choices for many of the scenes. I think it will be out in April next year.”
Did she always want to be an actress? Snook laughs and says, “I’d like to say no, but I think to be honest, yes. I started doing it as a kid and had to decide if I wanted to do it as a hobby or a career, and I chose career.” The training at NIDA proved invaluable not just on a professional but on a personal level. “One of the most important things you learn in the first semester there is that even if you don’t end up becoming an actor, you’ll definitely end up becoming a better person. It’s true. You become a better human. You learn about the history of humans and how they express themselves. And even if you don’t use that in terms of a career or in a theatrical way, that’s a good education to have.”
As for what’s next, Snook is not sure, but doesn’t sound particularly concerned, either. “When you’re an actor it’s never as regular as 9 to 5 every day. When you are employed, you know that in just a few months’ time you’ll be unemployed again. It’s a very strange thing, but luckily I’ve had fairly steady work.”
Would she like to extend her reach beyond acting to other areas of filmmaking? “I’ve never really thought to explore directing, but if I had a director I could work with as a producer in a director/producer partnership, I’d consider that. In a lot of the work I’ve done, the producer has had more of a creative role, rather than just being about the money side, and I quite like that.”
And as for working in Australia or the US? She’s wisely keeping her options open. “We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of great stuff going on at home in Australia, and I want to be a part of that.”
Not Suitable for Children released in Australia on 12 July, 2012.
You may also be in interested in our our interview with Peter Templeman, director of Not Suitable for Children.