Peter Helliar is multi-tasking. He’s behind the wheel of a car, heading from his family home in Melbourne’s suburbs to Tullamarine Airport, and explaining the challenges he had in casting the lead female for his big screen debut ‘I Love You Too’.
He wanted a Rachel McAdams type for the romantic comedy he conceived in 2002. Someone attractive, who still had the warm girl next-door feel. Oh, and minus the million dollar fees commanded by the star of The Time Traveller’s Wife. After all, as producer of the film he’s spent years writing, Helliar was working with a mere $6 million budget.
‘We started auditioning in London and were keen on finding an English actor,” he says, referring to the lead role of Alice. “We found some great women, who have a bit of profile as well, but we couldn’t commit to any of them. For some reason, they weren’t quite right.”
Casting Alice was crucial. The character is an English tourist who falls in love with the emotionally stunted leading man. Jim (Brendan Cowell), a 30-something Peter Pan type who makes a living driving trains at a miniature railway station. He’s joined at the hip to his best mate, Blake (Helliar), who’s equally locked in a time warp consisting of boozing, one-night stands and a life lived in stasis.
After failing to find Alice in London, the casting search moved to Sydney and Melbourne, before landing in Hollywoood, these days awash with Australian starlets trying to crack the film industry’s equivalent of the Da Vinci code, as have Cate, Nicole, Toni and Rachel.
As part of the process, Holliar was sent a stack of photographs and biographies of potential leading ladies. Enter 270year0old, Sydney born Yvonne Strahovski who, for the past three years, has starred in the prime-time US TV series Chuck (aired in Australia on Fox8). If her headshots were impressive, a Google search proved a revelation for Helliar.
“I hadn’t heard of her.” says the comedian best known as Rove McManus” sidekick on Role Live. “I thought, she’s very attractive but she looks a bit young to be Alice. I’d never heard of Chuck, either, I looked at clips on Youtube and thought, she has wisdom beyond her years. There’s a wise soul in there, which is great, because I like the fact Alice is younger than Jim but more grown up.”
Strahovski was sent the script, read it and liked it. She was encouraged that Helliar was a cahoots with the folks at Princess Pictures, who were behind Summer Height High and We Can Be Heroes – she was a fan of both.
She sent an udition tape and subsequently screen tested with Cowell in L.A. Chemistry flowed and the rest should have been history but there was one last hurdle.
By now, Helliar’s crew had another high-profile Australian actor lined up, but he wanted Strahovski as Alice. Ultimately, a schedule conflict for the original actor meant she couldn’t take the role; and act of serendipity for Helliar. “Once we’d seen Yvonne, we had our hearts set on her,” he says.
It was a big call for someone about whom Helliar knew very little and it leads me to the obvious question: What sets Strahovski apart from every other actor trying to rise through the acting miasma of Hollywood?
Think Teresa Palmer (whose biggest break so far has been a role in the Adam Sandler movie Bedtime Stories), Mia Wasikowska (who garnered mixed reviews for Alice in Wonderland), Isabel Lucas (Transformers: Revernge of the Fallen and the upcoming Red Dawn) and journeyman actors Melissa George (Grey’s Anatomy and In Treatment).
It’s a question I ask Strahovski’s I Love You Too co-star Brendan Cowell, who knows a bit about Tinseltown breakthroughs himself, after dating the critically acclaimed Rose Byrne, the Sydney-born star of the US hit TV series Damages, alongside Glenn Close.
“You’ll get a chance if you’re incredibly pretty but the ones who work here are the ones who can match looks with talent,” he says of making it in Holywood, where he’s presently based. “You can’t get around for too long with just a pretty face; if they’re talented. It’s up to them to show they have the chops to hold a movie.”
Admitting Chuck isn’t exactly his type of show, Cowell had no idea who Strahovski was. “I couldn’t believe she was Australian, because I hadn’t seen her in Australia. I thought who is this girl?”
It’s a question we all might well ask – at least those who haven’t tuned into Chuck, which recently finished shooting its third series.
Yvonne Strzechowski (she changed her surname to the phonetic spelling at the request of one of her American producers) was born in Sydney in 1982, to Polish immigrants. She was a natural performer, who entertained the family at an early age. “We have home videos from when I was young, of me making up documentaries, making friends perform and writing fake commercials. I’ve had it in me from day one,” she says.
As a teenager, she took part in school musicals while studying drama. After high school, she enrolled in a three year Bachelor of Arts course at the University of Western Sydney, where she graduated with a degree in performance from Theatre Nepean. “It all fell into place and it was something I loved doing,” she says.
Her first paid gig was a Pepsi commercial in 2004 (“jumping up and down on a bed, wearing knee-high socks, screaming that I’d won something“) and a string of TV ads followed. She worked solidly in Australis for three years, predominantly in the now defunct drama Headland, plus episodes of Sea Patrol.
At 25, Strahovski chanced her luck in Hollywood’s competitive ‘pilot season’, at the suggestion of fellow Aussie actors, including Sam Worthington. It turned out she was in the right place at the right time and scored three auditions, including one for and action-comedy for NBC called ‘Chuck’. “It was a bit of a whirlwind, how it all happened. I wasn’t planning on coming here and then at the last minute, I jumped on a plane with a bunch of friends,” she says with genuine enthusiasm that hasn’t worn three years later.
“The next thing I knew, I was in meetings and testing for Chuck. By the end of my first week here, I had the job.”
She moved to LA with a mix of excitement and terror, knowing she was jumping in the deep end of the American TV industry and would have to navigate a monumental learning curve if she were to survive. The fairytale aspect of her US debut isn’t lost on her, either.
“It was crazy. I know it doesn’t happen that way very often and i was lucky. But that’s just how it was for me. After that, I had to start a life. I didn’t have anything with me except a suitcase of clothes. You have to find a place to live, find a car, buy a mattress and made new friends. It’s taken me three years to finally settle in, I think, because of the hours I work.”
Was she ever lonely? “There were a couple of days where I had my moments. I didn’t really have any friends here, so I ended up ringing friends back home, going, “Oh my God, what’s going on?” But once we started shooting Chuck, I didn’t have time to be lonely or scared. You just run with what’s happening in your life and hope for the best.”
Strahovski put in regular 15-hours days on Chuck, often starting at 4:30am in half and make-up. The grueling schedule allowed for no rehearsals or repeat takes. It was the perfect training ground for the young actor.
There’s no doubt Strahovski, who’s blessed by the good looks that have earned her the nickname ‘Strahovski’, was lucky. But if you subscribe to the views of people such as Cowell and Helliar, she has the talent to back it up. What, though, made her think she’d be any different to her peers who were also trying to land their big breaks?
“I was talking to a casting director the other day and asked, ‘What makes Aussies different to other who audition?‘ She said that, generally, Aussies take acting more seriously and approach at more as a craft, as an art. They’re well studied and know their stuff.
‘I guess we’re very prepared and they love that we take it seriously. Most of us have come from Nepean, NIDA or the VCA [Victorian College of the Arts], and we’ve studied it inside out for three years straight.
“I think the problem is that a lot of people think, I look great, I’ll be good for that, but they don’t study the craft. If you’re genuinely passionate, you never stop learning.”
Cowell believes that, among her peers, Strahovski has what it takes. The veteran writer (eight plays, a television series and a movie) and actor (Love My Way, Beneath Hill 60) puts her success down to her apprenticeship on Chuck.
“She has more workable takes than me, because of the amount of fast-moving TV she’s done. She has to do so many things a day, she’s become a professional,” he says. “She’s good at what she does and working in high-speed US television turns you into a machine. She just hits every mark and also has a great sense of comedy.”
Helliar has a slightly different view: “When you combine beauty with that earthiness, that’s really powesful.”
Sunday Magazine, 2010.