It was around the age of 11 that something clicked in Phoebe Tonkin, Australian actor, model and bona fide superstar in the eyes of anyone under 30. Shy and withdrawn, she nonetheless had her sights set on becoming a journalist when she grew up.
But, somewhat ironically, there was something about the stage that allured her. Already trained as a dancer, taking classes from the age of four, it was now the world of drama that drew her interest with courses at Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) in her Sydney hometown.
“I never wanted to be an actor,” Tonkin tells Stellar. “I just wanted to tell stories.” Even today, she says, “If there is any outlet where I can do that, then I will find any way to be creative.”
Take her Instagram account, where the actor and activist – she is a passionate feminist and staunch environmentalist – shares with her 5.4 million followers as many photographs of herself and her friends as she does news and updates about the causes that matter to her most.
“When you look at Instagram as a platform to reach people, it’s a little like having a newspaper,” she explains. “I use the opportunity to share information or direct people to some charity or organisation. It would feel very strange to have that level of responsibility and not use it for a good purpose.”
Tonkin’s acting career took off just a few years after she enrolled in those ATYP courses. When she was 15, she landed a lead role in Network 10’s mermaid fantasy series H20: Just Add Water and that ultimately proved to be a springboard for her move to the United States, where she starred in teenage TV drama The Vampire Diaries and its spin-off, The Originals.
Projects bring her home on a regular basis, and she was in Australia earlier this year – including for a fashion shoot with Stellar at a rural property outside of Adelaide.
The bushfire crisis that dominated the beginning of 2020 proved especially hard to ignore. “Being back home over the summer was incredibly emotional, but also inspiring,” she says upon reflection.
“It’s quite outstanding how much money we’ve raised in that short amount of time and seeing how people genuinely want to help and support each other. If [the tragedy] has shown us anything, it’s that we are still a supportive, collaborative country. I’m excited to show another side of Australia right now. That we are still going strong.”
And if Tonkin felt a swell of pride as she watched the country come together in support of those who needed it most, she was also more than happy to say yes when the iconic Australian brand R.M. Williams tapped her to be its first-ever female ambassador.
She hopes her association with them will also help as the country works to change its international narrative following a turbulent summer.
“I mean, I used to wear teeny-tiny R.M. Williams boots when I was really little on our family farm,” Tonkin says. “I’ve grown up knowing the brand. So I’m really excited and honoured to be a part of an iconic piece of Australian identity.”
It helps that the line has a reputation for durability – particularly since Tonkin, who has also held a brand ambassador role with Chanel for the past two years, aims to live as sustainably as she can.
“I’ve never been someone who loves to own a lot of things,” she says. “I’m someone who travels so often that I physically can’t. When I do choose to buy something, I don’t want to replace it. I want to have things that last.”
And R.M. Williams boots, she says, “are made to last. They are made to travel and explore in, and there is something really strong about them.”
“I’ve heard stories about how people have sent their boots back 45 years later to be resoled or reheeled. That’s an amazing type of recyclability instead of just buying more,” she says. “I hope to pass on my R.M. Williams boots to my kids, and I know they will be around then.”
In any event, Tonkin already has a head start as a poster child for Australia. Along with the likes of Margot Robbie, Teresa Palmer and Lara Worthington, she has been anointed by the media as one of the “It girls” who are the millennial answer to Nicole, Cate and Toni’s “gumleaf mafia” of the mid-to-late ’90s.
And while Tonkin doesn’t necessarily see that as a bad thing, she does want to point out that not all of her friends got their start on Home And Away or Neighbours.
“I actually try to not have too many Australian friends when I’m in the States,” says Tonkin (who did, in fact, have a seven-episode role on Home And Away as a goth pet-shop owner).
“But having a bunch of Australian actress friends was important to me, especially when I was starting out, to help you get around. Because you don’t know anyone. You don’t know how to get a licence or how to find a gynaecologist. I’m just lucky they are still in my life.”
She has been working more steadily in Australia in the past couple of years, taking a key role on the SBS mini-series Safe Harbour and continuing to work on the Stan series Bloom (which returns next month) alongside Jacki Weaver and Bryan Brown.
But, she tells Stellar, she had to back herself to get here. “Starting on a kids’ show made it hard to be taken seriously as an adult. I think in Australia it’s a bit harder to convince casting directors that I’m 30 now…”
Which may be why she has chosen to get behind the camera as well. Last year, Tonkin wrote and directed Furlough, her first short film, partly inspired by her good pal Palmer’s actor/director husband Mark Webber.
“I see her carving a name for herself behind the camera as one of the industry’s most interesting filmmakers,” Palmer tells Stellar.
“She has an eye for the medium and has a wealth of experiences to pull from to forge meaningful stories that find an audience.”
As for Tonkin, she is just happy to keep playing pupil – and says she is aware that while from the outside it may seem she has hit her stride, there is still plenty to learn. “I would like to think I’m a good daughter, a good employee, a good sister and a good friend.”
But, she is also very happy to admit, “I think any 30-year-old woman is still figuring things out.”