“There are a lot of American movies about soldiers that have come back from the war and we do forget that there are a lot of Australians that also came back and are dealing with the effects of PTSD,” Phoebe Tonkin tells me of her new Stan Original Film Transfusion.
The local legend plays a pivotal role in yet another Stan OG after previously playing Gwen in both seasons of Stan’s award-winning series Bloom.
In her latest role, Phoebe portrays the deceased wife of a troubled veteran (played by Sam Worthington) suffering from trauma and PTSD after retiring from the Special Air Service regiment (SAS) of the Australian Army.
The film stars Phoebe and Sam along with Matt Nable who also serves as writer and director.
Before the film lands on Stan on January 20, I jumped on a Zoom chat with Phoebe to discuss the “powerful, beautiful and tragic” new film along with method acting, her friendship with Lara Worthington and filming Down Under.
Hey Phoebe! So great to chat to you again. Transfusion is such a heavy movie, what drew you to this project?
Hey! I thought it was a really interesting portrayal of grief and pain. I thought it was a unique Australian story, seeing this very strong male figure be really, really vulnerable. And I think that vulnerability is incredibly powerful and not necessarily always seen, especially in Australian cinema.
I was drawn to playing Justine because I thought the idea of this great loss and the pain and guilt that then trickled down into both my husband and my son was really powerful. And I just was really excited to work with Matt Nable. I think he’s incredibly talented as an actor. I think his performance in this is extraordinary, as is Sam Worthington’s.
What is your process like when selecting roles? What do you look out for in a script?
I’m always character-driven, first and foremost. But sometimes, for example, this project, I was just excited to be part of it to help support the telling of this story. I was excited to see this different type of Australian drama, this more emotional, Australian tale. But usually I like to play characters that I haven’t necessarily played before. I also love playing a character that on paper doesn’t seem like I would be the “right fit” for, whatever that means. My dream would be someone watching something and go “Is that Phoebe?” And not really necessarily put two and two together straight away.
I’ve gone through a lot of different hair colours this year because of exactly that. I was blonde and I had these blonde streaks while I’ve been doing Boy Swallows Universe where I play Frankie Bell, an ex-heroin addict who was a beautiful mother.
And so I definitely love roles where I really can disappear into them both physically and emotionally and really go on a journey and Transfusion was no different. I loved the idea that when Justine was alive she was this rock and this source of support for her husband, and then that continued even after she died.
I feel like you’re going to love this: I was recently watching Safe Harbour with a friend and she said “Is that Phoebe Tonkin!?” and I said “Yep!”
Yay! I love that.
Mission accomplished there.
I really like what you said earlier about how we don’t often see these kinds of emotional tales told from a male’s perspective. And you could chalk it up to a lot of things, you could say maybe it’s a toxic masculinity thing in that some men might not want to see another man’s emotional journey. So I do like that it’s being told from this angle because a lot of men who go to war come back with some kind of trauma and that’s not explored very much.
You’re right! We see a lot of motherly grief and motherly love and I thought this was a beautiful portrayal of the lengths a father would go to to support his son. It’s really beautiful.
The themes in this film are so heavy and full-on, is there anything you do on set to lighten the mood and extract yourself from those emotions?
I feel like I’m pretty good at being able to turn it on and off. Maybe when I was a younger actress I’d like live in those feelings and live in that sadness and that heaviness. But as I’ve gotten older, it’s just not healthy for me to live in that the whole time.
But in terms of things I actually do, I usually find a piece of music that I listen to. There was a Nils Frahm piece of music that I listened to non-stop when I was playing this role and I shared it with Matt Nable ‘cos I felt like even just the connection to it was able to get me in that headspace. I know a lot of actresses or actors do so much prep work so that by the time they’re on set, they are able to just grab what they’ve worked on in their prep and that’s sort of how I work as well.
So being able to listen to a piece of music that takes me back to the journals that I had written while listening to that music, the thoughts that I’d had while listening to that piece of music. That’s what I do on most jobs.
I feel like in the last few years we’ve started to look at method acting and think “Is that really healthy?” There are some method actors, I won’t name names, who tend to take it too far and it’s a little alarming.
I’m very conscious of how my body works and it’s a very strange thing for actors to put their bodies through trauma, sometimes for a long length of time. I’m on a TV show right now and we’re filming for nearly six months and to kind of mimic trauma for that amount of time will ultimately have effects on your physical body.
And so being able to find boundaries and tools to be able to compartmentalise those feelings is really healthy, because I can’t go to bed at night with those feelings and those memories and those ideas of death and pain and sadness and trauma. I just can’t.
And you don’t want those feelings to override your own, right?
Filming took place locally in Maroubra, NSW. What was that like for you?
It was cool! It was during Sydney’s lockdown so my mum would drive me to work, I had a letter for in case I got stopped by the COVID police. I think everyone felt really fortunate that we were able to keep that movie going and we only filmed a few weeks in that lockdown. It was a bit surreal.
But because I was so close with Lara Worthington, I was able to kind of keep my bubble very small. So really I was only seeing my mum, and then Sam, Lara, and their kids. So it created this very intimate environment and I felt fortunate that by being able to see my co-star Sam, I was also able to see my one of my best friends.
Oh amazing, that must have been a great distraction from the abject chaos happening in the world at the time.
Yeah, and again, we knew that there was so much happening around us so everyone felt very lucky and privileged that we were able to keep going. And obviously we had very serious COVID protocols on set.
But it was pretty surreal because usually on a movie when the subject matter is quite heavy, after work, you go out and have dinner and socialise. But I was just waking up, going to work, coming home, just seeing my mum not leaving my parameters, because I couldn’t. So I did really live in that headspace for that duration.
Do you prefer filming projects in Australia or overseas? I recently interviewed Chris Hemsworth and he was saying how nowadays he likes to select projects that are close to home. What are your thoughts on that?
Yes and no. But I’ve also had really great experiences shooting in the States. I’ve been really lucky in that sense. But there is something really nice about how it’s just so familiar in Australia. Like, the other day on set, we got mango Weis bars and we were sitting on set eating them and there’s just something about the fact that I know what I can get from my local 7-Eleven. It just feels really familiar. And also when I was filming in Sydney, being able to be close to family is just such a luxury that I don’t get that often.
And also I think the mentality on Australian sets is just so positive, everyone really wants to be there. Everyone’s passionate about the reasons why they’re there. So it just feels unanimously like everyone’s there to make an amazing film and have a good time.
Absolutely! Thank you so much for the chat Phoebe, it’s always a pleasure.
You too, bye!