How We Do What We Do…Yvonne Strahovski with Marika Aubrey
Yvonne calls her story a ‘fairytale’, and indeed it is the stuff that drama school legend is built upon. Early in her career she went to the USA as an unknown Aussie actress to ‘take a few meetings’ and almost immediately landed the lead role of Sarah Walker on the NBC series Chuck.
Since then she has starred alongside just a few actors you might’ve heard of – Clive Owen, Robert De Niro, Seth Rogen, Barbara Streisand, Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy…the list goes on – as well as getting a huge amount of praise and attention for the role of Hannah McKay in the hugely adored Showtime series “Dexter”, and in a lead role on Broadway in The Lincoln Center production of Golden Boy (alongside Tony Shalhoub, for which she won a Theatre World Award).
So it was with great pride and pleasure I sat down to Skype this month with old friend and fellow Theatre Nepean alumni Yvonne Strahovski – so you can read first hand about her extraordinary fairytale story and a very full decade of working hard.
From Maroubra to Malibu
MA: You’ve been living and working in the USA for how long now?
YS: It’s been almost 7 years
MA: Wow, that’s SO long Vonnie!
YS: I know.
MA: Does it feel like home now? It would have to.
YS: It does. I mean, honestly, it’s been good to be working this whole time, but you pay the price with not having time off and not really knowing the city you live in. Now is the first time I’ve really had some down time. I’ve finally figured out my local hangouts…after 6 and a half years! So, it took me a while to really appreciate it. It can feel like a very nomadic lifestyle, especially when you’re working in television, and you travel to do films and bla bla bla. You’re never in the one spot, and you’re working 18 hour days…
MA: And it’s nuts.
YS: It’s nuts. But I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia since relocating here. The last four movies that I’ve shot have been in Melbourne: I Love You, Too, Matching Jack, Killer Elite, and I, Frankenstein.
MA: So you have some time now to just be Yvonne?
YS: I do. I really do. I just got back from surfing actually.
MA: You can take the girl out of Australia, but you can’t take Australia out of the girl…!
YS: But I’d never surfed before!
MA: Really?! You lived in Maroubra and never surfed?
YS: I know! I never surfed! Cause I’m scared of waves and sharks and so I’d never tried it and then finally a couple of weeks ago I went with a girlfriend. I couldn’t believe how much safer I felt with the board. For me, there’s a difference. I don’t feel so vulnerable in the water. So it was my 4th or 5th time today.
MA: Are you up?!
YS: Riding the waves!
YS: It’s dodgy, but I get up!
MA: You would look the part though – look at you! You look like the classic Malibu girl, right?!
YS: I know…blonde hair…
The Secret’s Out!
MA: We should probably talk about how we know each other… I mean, I guess most people don’t know that you trained at Nepean here in Western Sydney, Australia…? (Marika graduated from Theatre Nepean’s acting program in 2002, Yvonne in 2003).
YS: Um… I don’t know… I guess it’s on Wikipedia…! (laughter)
MA: That’s true. I did read your Wiki file the other day.
YS: Although some things are wrong in there
MA: It’s pretty specific though. I was impressed. Whoever wrote it knew stuff I wouldn’t of thought was in the public domain. They’d done a bit of homework.
YS: I don’t know… I didn’t actually grow up in Maroubra. That’s what everyone thinks – cause it’s on Wikipedia! This is my dirty secret… I’m actually… I was born and lived in Werrington Downs…! Right next to Penrith and right next to where we went to University!!
MA: Oh wow!
YS: Lived there for the first 5 years of my life, then we moved to Bass Hill.
MA: You just progressed your way up the M4 Motorway!
YS: Pretty much! Exactly! It was my parents’ dream to live by the ocean. So they started out west, where the houses were cheaper, where they could buy a house and pay it off and then we eventually move to ‘the bra’ (slang for Maroubra)
MA: But that’s what everyone who emigrated did. Same for my grandparents. So that’s your dirty big secret?! Ha!
YS: That’s it. And I’ve never actually mentioned that in any sort of interview or anything-
MA: Oh god! What an exclusive!
YS: Breaking news!
YS: She’s a real westie!
MA: She’s a real westie!
A Fairytale Story
MA: How did your training prep you for this amazing career that you are now enjoying?
YS: Good ‘ol Nepean. Um… I mean, we did ALOT of theatre training in that degree. That degree was predominantly stage based, which are incredibly important skills to have…even though I do think camera/film versus theatre are two very different beasts.
MA: Did you feel like you hadn’t done enough screen training?
YS: Yeah, I guess…it felt like we only did a few weeks…?
MA: One term if I recall…
YS: So, if I’m honest, I think we weren’t too prepared for the camera world when we graduated, even though most of our castings and auditions and things were for camera – TV commercials and guest roles on TV. It was more like I hit the ground running and learnt on the job in a way.
YS: Especially when you suddenly get cast in a role on television-
MA: Well, not just any role, in any television…It was a pretty big deal lead role in America!
YS: Yeah…yeah, that was… (laughter)
MA: So, how bout you tell people how that actually happened?
YS: I call it my fairytale story.
MA: It SO is though! It’s amazing.
YS: Yeah. In a nutshell, straight after high school I went to Nepean, then I worked professionally in Australia for 3 years before I got the lead role in Chuck. Which I actually auditioned for in Sydney-
MA: So how did that come about? Did your agent here in Sydney have the nous to put you forward for it?
YS: Well, I went to the states for a two-week trip with a bunch of people that I knew at the time that were visiting America to take meetings, and I sort of jumped on the band wagon. And my agent encouraged me to do that. She had visited a week before me, so she pitched me around to some people that she knew. I had 5 meetings with managers and I got rejected from all of them except one – and they are still my managers today.
MA: Wow! Was LA always the plan for you? Like, when we did that tiny little co-op play a decade ago (in Marrickville’s Pact Theatre) were you sitting there thinking, ‘one day I shall move to America!’
YS: It was part of the plan, but never that early. The way the whole thing unfolded was…I guess the stars were aligned or something. The timing was amazing and everything worked out. But I always thought ‘oh maybe I’ll go in a few years’. I just never thought it would happen that quickly.
YS: And then lo and behold suddenly I’m living here. I remember I had a return ticket booked because I was only going to come here for two months for pilot season. And then the next day I had a meeting with the creators of Chuck. And the next day I got the role and that was it. I remember leaving the gates of NBC, and calling my Mum and Dad in Australia and saying, ‘oh, I don’t think I’m coming home yet…’ And I never did use that return ticket. Ever. That was it. I should have kept it! I wish I had it. I wish I’d framed it or something.
MA: Yeah. That would be poetic. A moment. To have that ticket.
YS: Maybe I’ll draw one…! In memory…
MA: RIP return ticket… Well, you don’t need it. You have your life there now. And you’re finding your places in your neighbourhood finally!
MA: Your guest role on Sea Patrol replayed here recently by the way.
YS: Oh no! I feel like I look like a 12 year old in an FBI uniform.
MA: How funny. What a small world. That you would shoot a role alongside Lisa McCune in Sea Patrol who I would later work with in South Pacific directed by Bartlett Sher – who recently directed you on Broadway! Um, what are the odds of that?!
YS: It’s a very small world.
MA: Did you guys (Bart and Yvonne) chat about Lisa – having both worked with her?
YS: Actually no… I just kept talking about you! I kept talking about our connection.
(Marika burst into laughter)
MA: Ah…You probably should’ve gone for the bigger fish there Vonnie!
YS: I don’t know! I was overwhelmed in New York. Doing a Broadway play.
MA: Was that an amazing return? Given that you had trained predominantly in theatre? Was that always the plan – to go back to theatre?
YS: No! The plan was never to return to the theatre. Because it had been so long. It had been 7 years. Since Kieslowski’s Neck [an independent Sydney production Yvonne produced and starred in alongside her theatrical partner at the time, Ona Nurkkala – yet another Nepean actress]. So I thought, ‘there is NO way I can do theatre now. I’ve been on camera so long now and it’s so different. I don’t think I could have the balls to get up on stage ever again, let alone Broadway debut’…so when that came along I thought, ‘oh, I’ll just go along for the audition and see if I can even get up in front of a director, in a room, and do the theatre thing again’.
YS: I was SO INCREDIBLY NERVOUS. So incredibly nervous. And I remember Bart [Bartlett Sher, The Tony Award winning director of Golden Boy, South Pacific, Light in the Piazza – among many…] didn’t say ANYTHING to me. And I’d been warned in the waiting room by the other actresses I was talking to, that he was ‘great, really talkative…he’ll give you so much direction, and so much to work with!’ And I went in, and did my audition, and he said nothing!
YS: And so I thought, ‘oh no. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t do theatre now. It’s over.’
YS: Lo and behold, I got the part. It all worked out.
MA: Yeah it did! I love it…You are like, ‘maybe I’ll do some theatre’, but not just a little co-op to reacquaint yourself – Broadway in fact!
YS: Yes. It was amazing. Amazing. And we had people in the audience like Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks. Just amazing.
MA: Do you have lots of ‘pinch me’ moments now?
YS: I do. They’re very random. It’s not often that things slow down here. So I do have those moments. It’s usually in the car, on Santa Monica Boulevard-
MA: Like the Sheryl Crow song?
YS: I was going to say Katy Perry!
YS: When she sings ‘Firework’!!
(more and more laughter)
MA: That’s your ‘pinch me’ song?!?! For your amazing life!! That’s incredible. Ha! I love that.
A Marathon vs. A Sprint
YS: What are you doing with the rest of your day?
MA: I’m actually starting back at South Pacific today.
YS: How did you find the whole long run thing? This is my question, especially for people in musical theatre, because people can be in the same show for 6 years here!
MA: I know…How?!
YS: I don’t understand that. I just don’t understand it. It’s so amazing to me.
MA: I don’t think I could do that long. That’s- (exhales) – that’s hard.
YS: What’s your longest?
MA: South Pacific is the longest run I’ve done and it’s only 5 or 6 months. It’s really short compared to shows like Wicked and Jersey Boys – they’ve gone for years.
MA: Yeah, but this season is also only a few months. And last time I went on for Kate Ceberano, which kept me on my toes!
YS: Oh my gosh! Understudying – that’s a whole other thing.
MA: I never did it before South Pacific. I don’t know that I would call it my strength…Like, I look at other actors who have been swings and they just are able to, like, just do it. And I’m not like that really. I’m painfully nerdy in my prep and my homework, and I just don’t know that I would be very good at doing that. I really love the time on the floor to play and settle things in my body. I love being directed. And it would scare me to go on at short notice like that. Going on the first time for Kate scared the living shit out of me.
YS: That’s incredible that you’ve done that. Like that’s so…There were a couple of times during Golden Boy that one of our understudies had to go on for Tony Shalhoub, and I just couldn’t comprehend…that was a 3 hour play…I just don’t understand how you can play a role, have it in the back of your head and literally half an hour before the show – ‘Tony’s really sick. You’re going on!’ –
MA: It’s poo and vomit at the same time. But then you do it, and it’s the scariest thing in the world but then it’s fun. And I don’t know about your colleagues’ experience on Broadway, but when they announced the ‘indisposition’ of Kate to the audiences here, it got a huge groan. I would be in the dressing room, and you hear that groan over the speaker. And you’re sitting there trying to convince yourself that you can be a Tonkinese islander woman, which is (laughter)…kinda a bit of a stretch…you know for ME to believe, much less the 1500 people who are paying $120 bucks each! This is not drama school anymore! So it’s kinda weird and scary. But then, you feel like you can do anything afterwards.
YS: Totally! You must! Because that is so scary to get up there and do that!
Did You Know You’re That Girl From Dexter?
MA: Given that you once had your own theatre company, would you ever make your own work again? Would you want to play in that world again or do you feel like you have stretched that muscle?
YS: Definitely. That’s definitely something to do here. So many people that I know are writing their own series, pitching them to networks…so who knows? I would definitely want to do something like that in the future. I don’t know exactly what, because right now I’m focussing on film stuff, more than TV stuff. I feel a bit spoilt, because I did have such an amazing experience on Broadway… Such amazing writing. And amazing writing on the last TV thing I did, which was Dexter. The scripts were superb.
MA: (Feigning boredom) Yeah…Dexter’s alright….
MA: Do you know, my poor husband – who photographs quite a few famous people on a regular basis and rarely gets flustered – he got nervous around you…! Because he met me well after our Nepean years, and so, you’re just sort of ‘Vonnie’ for me, and then there is a weird parallel universe where you’re also that girl from Dexter… but for my husband, you are that girl from his favourite TV show. And when we caught up with you for a drink earlier this year, I took him aside and was kinda like, ‘um! Why are you being weird?!’ and he was like, ‘I don’t know what to say!’ It was pretty funny. For me. I laughed.
YS: Aw! It’s funny isn’t it? There is that fine line. You are who you are, and so many people from your past know you for you – and all of the grossness that you are! That I am! My Nepean ways and all that stuff. You go on and do fun things and then people know you only for those things and think you’re very…classy.
(both dissolve into laughter)
MA: I know that after so long, the environment with Chuck would’ve felt like family, especially as a founding focal cast member. What was it like entering the world of an already established and HUGELY loved and acclaimed series like Dexter?
YS: It was amazing to get that job. I feel pretty lucky to be part of such an epic storyline. Almost little bit a part of television history, because it is so critically acclaimed, and they’re so amazing. I mean everyday I was inspired by Michael (C. Hall) and Jennifer (Carpenter). I mean I worked with Michael mostly and he’s phenomenal! As is Jennifer.
MA: It upsets me deeply that she doesn’t have an Emmy Award.
YS: I know! It upsets me deeply too!
MA: How does that happen?!
YS: She’s absolutely phenomenal. I don’t understand it either. I think I tweeted once: ‘I’ll eat my underwear if she doesn’t get an Emmy nomination!’
YS: She should.
MA: And to be part of – am I right in saying that Season 8 is the final FINAL season ever of Dexter? That’s special to be part of.
YS: Yes, very.
[and then we talked about stuff that I shall censor for your own good dear reader, in case you are a fan of ‘Dexter’ and need to be protected from behind-the-scenes insight that may give you clues as to what Hannah McKay may or may not be up to in the highly anticipated Season 8 storyline– you’re welcome ;p]
TV – tick! Film – tick! Broadway – tick! Now what?!
MA: So film is the big focus point for now?
YS: I think so. For now. Film and television. But everything is case by case. It’s more about character. I don’t want to play another CIA Agent or-
MA: Serial killer…?!
YS: Yeah! I want to keep mixing it up. That’s the fun of it I think, for an actor. You get to be so many different people in a lifetime.
YS: That’s what I love about it.
MA: One last question – What would you say to other actors, particularly aspiring or younger actors who would wish to enjoy even a little of the career that you have so far beautifully constructed. What advise would you give to them?
YS: Work hard. And it will pay off… I mean… It’s hard work. You gotta really love it. But if you wanna do it, then 100%. Go in guns blazing. And make it happen. That’s what I would say. Because there are a lot of people trying to do that same thing. And the competition never dies. There’s always someone else out there…so pursue it and love it love it love it, and do it, do it, do it.