It was New Year’s Day last year, when actress Phoebe Tonkin set herself a very specific career goal. “I wanted to work in Australia on a project with a social conscience, and with extreme beauty maestro [director] Glendyn Ivin.”
Just a few months later, at 5am in Paris, a very jet-lagged Phoebe answered the phone to hear she’d booked a lead role in Safe Harbour, the new SBS drama about asylum seekers directed by Ivin. It was a job that “perfectly encompassed” that New Year ambition. “Manifest away my friends, and don’t be ashamed to dream, there’s still some witch left in all of us,” the 28-year-old told her 4½ million Instagram followers.
A psychological thriller, Safe Harbour couldn’t be more different from The Originals, the American vampire series Phoebe has spent the last five years filming in Atlanta. And it’s a world away from H20: Just Add Water, the Channel Ten kids show that first brought Phoebe to the attention of audiences – and for which she’s probably still best known here.
Phoebe is now counting on Safe Harbour to transform perceptions of her, so she can break out of her fantasy-character niche and firmly establish herself as a serious actor at home and abroad. “I have high hopes that this show will reintroduce me, especially into the Australian industry, as a different actress than maybe I was expected to be,” she tells me, curled up in jeans and a black cardigan in an inner-Sydney studio, her hair still damp and her face free of make-up. “I’ve been really dying to work in Australia for a very long time.”
Safe Harbour is an expression of Phoebe’s deeper, political self – yet on the surface she appears very much an It Girl. She grew up in Mosman, on Sydney’s lower north shore, and attended exclusive all girls’ school Queenwood, swimming at Balmoral Beach across the road every morning. Her mother ran the local toy store and her dad has his own travel business. Her younger sister, Abby, works in finance and lives in New York.
While Phoebe says the Tonkin family are “brainy and nerdy” rather than creative types, they are serious movie buffs. A childhood ritual was heading to the cinema together every Thursday night to see the latest release. “I grew up feeling like the cinema was a really special experience [but] I was kind of like the black sheep, the fact that I actually went into the industry,” she says.
Capitalising on her super-fine bone structure, pronounced pout and leggy gait, Phoebe has a well-developed side hustle as a model: she’s an ambassador for Chanel, and has starred in advertising campaigns for the likes of Aussie swimwear brand Matteau and LA denim label Frame. Yet she confesses she was self-conscious growing up. “I was shy, I was always just a little aw-w-w-kward,” she says slowly, drawing out the adjective. “I’m probably still awkward.”
She found a respite from these feelings in acting, joining Australian Theatre for Young People at 12, where she met a bunch of like-minded teens. “Acting felt like something that was my own, it was like this secret community of other quirky kids that I could spend time with over the holidays and after school. It was this really nice escape for me.”
Someone suggested to Phoebe’s mother that she get an agent, which quickly led to an audition for Home and Away. Phoebe missed out on that part, but landed the next – playing Cleo, a teenage girl who turns into a mermaid, on H20. “I didn’t have too long to decide what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she laughs.
Phoebe had just turned 16 when she she got the role and within a week she had quit school and was on set on the Gold Coast. Three seasons of H20 led to her film debut in the screen adaptation of John Marsden’s young adult novel Tomorrow, When the War Began. Phoebe then moved to LA in her early 20s to chance her luck at pilot season, and quickly scored a role in The Secret Circle, playing a young witch. She was hailed the breakout star of the show, and subsequently cast as a secret werewolf in The Vampire Diaries, before taking a lead part in its spin-off, The Originals.