It’s Tuesday night in Chinatown, the hustle-bustling Lower Manhattan enclave sandwiched between trendy Tribeca and the bar-filled Lower East Side. Here, ensconced in her new apartment, in her new city, newly 30-year-old Phoebe Tonkin, the girl with the anime eyes, is embarking on a new life of sorts.
It also happens to be where she’s stretched out talking to me for this interview. “I’ve always loved New York and wanted to live here,” she explains of quitting actors’ mecca Los Angeles after eight years. “I guess I’m more of a city girl.” Coinciding with the July 12 birthday that heralded her fourth decade of life, Tonkin’s choice of habitation means more than just a new postcode. In California, she lived with close friend and fellow Australian actor Bella Heathcote. In Manhattan, however, she lives alone in a typically compact but lovely apartment she intends to transform into a makeshift movie-editing suite throughout August. “There’s a lot of change, but it’s good change,” says Tonkin of her chic new digs, personal situation and career tangent.
In what’s probably her most daring professional move to date the (let’s be honest) really, really beautiful actor who famously began her career at age 16 on children’s television series H2O: Just Add Water has switched sides of the camera. Inspired partly by Mark Webber, the American actor-director husband of her best friend and fellow actor Teresa Palmer, and backed by impeccably connected Australian publicist-turned-film producer Jessica Carrera, Tonkin wrote and directed her first movie earlier this year, a short film titled Furlough starring Ryan Corr alongside rising stars Milly Alcock and Markella Kavenagh.
“I’d gone through a break-up last year and I wanted to branch out and explore other things, and [Furlough] felt like the perfect opportunity to do that,” she says of the low-budget labour of love that’s still in post-production. For now, she’s keeping her maiden script’s summary close to her chest (“It’s tricky to talk about without revealing too much”), but Tonkin is happy to confirm the directorial bug has bitten hard. “Mark is such a big inspiration for me,” she notes of Webber, who recently finished his fifth film, The Place of No Words, in which Tonkin cameos. “He really is just an artist who just wants to create and make films. I think the two of them [Webber and wife of five years, Palmer] just sit around talking about films and thinking of ideas for future films. They’re a real powerhouse.”
The love and admiration clearly runs in the other direction, too. On Tonkin’s 30th birthday, Palmer took to Instagram with a candid snap of them together, the caption below reading, “Happy birthday sissy and godmother to my children,” followed by heartfelt prose on what her three boys (including step-son Isaac) loved most about “Aunty Phoebe”. Equally close confidante Lara Worthington’s birthday Insta post accompanied a picture of the swimsuit-clad pair aboard a boat in Capri. “Happy day of birth my beautiful friend,” the model and beauty entrepreneur wrote. “Both my family and I couldn’t live without you! Most selfless human I know. We love you, especially Rocket and Racer.”
Phoebe laughs when I note this very public outpouring of love from her friends, which also included Heathcote and American actor Britt Robertson, via such a modern, digital method. Famously tight as the young Aussie acting collective in Hollywood may be, Tonkin has chosen her closest carefully. “I hope that I’m a pretty good judge of character, so I definitely surround myself with similar-minded [people] with similar morals.”
It was just before daybreak across Paris back in 2017 that a terribly jet-lagged Tonkin took the work phone call that changed everything. After almost five years of increasing fame on successful The Vampire Diaries spin-off series The Originals, she’d landed a grittier, homegrown role on four-part SBS series Safe Harbour, a psychological thriller about friends on a sailing holiday who encounter a boat overloaded with asylum seekers. So desperate was Tonkin for the part, she wrote a letter to director Glendyn Ivin professing her admiration for the storyline and its social undertones. It was the closest she’s ever come to begging for a role, and it worked. Ivin went on to win a Best Direction ACTAA Award for the series. Tonkin would never view her profession and its potential the same way again.
“[Safe Harbour] really changed my mental trajectory [around] filmmaking and [idea of] what being part of an incredible project was,” Tonkin reveals. “Working with Glendyn was such a life-changing experience for me. It just opened up so many different ideas of what this industry can be. It shifted everything for me.”
Her follow-up move was another Australian original production: Bloom. The critically acclaimed six-part series—which also starred Bryan Brown, Jacki Weaver and Ryan Corr (whom Tonkin later tapped for Furlough) and aired on streaming service Stan—has just been confirmed for a second season. Tonkin’s thrilled she’ll be back to shoot round two in October, but especially pleased she’ll be home for the Aussie summer.
Published August 14, 2019
by Rachel Sharp