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From stage to television to film, Adelaide-born Sarah Snook is an actress in high demand. Her choices are proving as shrewd as they are diverse. By Steve Dow.

Sarah Snook talks Noël Coward and HBO

Sarah Snook
Credit: Sally Flegg

Her blackened soles pace a log felled by bushfire. As she grabs the branches, the foliage disintegrates. Her hair is auburn, as are the dried leaves. A butterfly with sepia wings crawls up a tree trunk, while Alice’s old white-headed mother waits at home, wistfully sipping champagne, too quintessentially English to have explained the existence of sex.

Noël Coward wrote in verse of this forest-wandering Alice as frequently freckled or soaked with rain, and actor Sarah Snook ratchets up her innocent dreams with a sensuous sensibility on screen.

Alice is an eight-minute film by Italian–Australian director Laura Scrivano, part of The Passion, an ongoing series of experimental short films starring Australian actors who read a text of their choosing. The first two films were shot in New York, and all are being premiered online.

Snook chose the Coward verse, Alice Is At It Again, composed in 1946, as an ode to Snook’s English-born maternal grandmother, Philippa Ward, and her great-aunt, Cynthia, both students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in the late 1920s. World War II, and respective migrations to New Zealand and South Africa, cut the sisters’ acting ambitions short.

The first Passion film, A Lovesong, starring Snook’s friend and frequent co-star Daniel Henshall reading T. S. Eliot’s 1915 poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, launched in December. Alice, starring Snook, launches this month, and it turns out Coward wrote perfectly for Snook, who is attracted to characters with motivations that can’t quite be pinned down: “As to whether or not / Her intentions were pure / Opinions were sharply divided.”

A little while ago Snook’s mother, Debbie, a carer to the elderly, talked to a client, a woman of 80, about Anna Ivin, the contemporary Australian tennis player Snook portrayed in the 2015 mini-series The Beautiful Lie, based on the 1870s Tolstoy classic Anna Karenina: a woman doomed by society’s morality for leaving her husband and child for another man.

The elderly woman felt sorry for Anna Ivin, but understood her. Some viewers of the series, far more racy than the 19th-century Russian original, may have been quicker to judge this character. “I like that people can’t quite make a decision,” says the Adelaide-born Snook, as she begins to pack her suitcases in her Melbourne home base for a trip to India. “They oscillate between opinions.”

When she was a teenager, Snook dressed up as a fairy, working at children’s parties. “I found so much joy in how kids can see the world,” she says, “and their perceptions.” It was a universe away from the film set on which actors’ whims are briskly fulfilled, such as in 2015’s Steve Jobs, in which Snook played former Apple publicist Andrea Cunningham, or her role as Lori Walls in the forthcoming The Glass Castle, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and based on the Jeannette Walls memoir, filming of which occupied Snook in Montreal from last June until August.

Snook cannot plan too far in advance, such are the growing demands of her career, so she booked the trip only the day before New Year’s Eve. Right up until June – and possibly beyond – HBO has the prerogative to green-light a series or to reject the pilot Snook shot late last year in New York for Succession, the story of a dynastic, dysfunctional family, headed by Brian Cox as the patriarch and co-starring Jeremy Strong, Kieran Culkin, Matthew Macfadyen and Nicholas Braun.

“There was only one of the main actors who was a permanent resident, who lived in New York. Everyone else was sort of flying in from elsewhere. We all felt the city had a bit of a shine to it still,” Snook laughs. “Actually, I don’t think New York ever loses its shine.”

She’s being philosophical about the chances of Succession being picked up. “If it goes, it goes, and if it doesn’t, it was a really great experience,” she says. “Working in New York City is a fortunate gift. I’m happy just to take that, if that’s all it was.”

In the middle of the year, Snook will turn 30. She will probably have a big party. “I suppose it’s always nice to take stock of what you’ve achieved, so that you’re not constantly feeling like you’re running up a hill, still not at the top or wherever you think you want to get to,” she says. “If you don’t look back every so often, you’re not going to see how far you’ve come.”

 

If she hadn’t succeeded in acting, Snook’s plan B had been to teach English. That ambition came from wanting to work with kids. The youngest of three daughters, Snook grew up reading lots of John Marsden’s books, on top of Enid Blyton tales, Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and stories her mother brought her about kids in Kashmir and Sarajevo.

When she was eight and nine, Snook would perform Little Red Riding Hood at home with her siblings – an “older, cool” sister, Rebecca, who today works in corporate membership and events for London’s Tate galleries, and her middle sister, Laura.

Snook tries to choose roles with integrity on which she hopes she will look back with pride, but perhaps her choice of roles against the grain was evident even then: Snook would cast herself as the wolf in Grandma’s clothing.

The wolf wasn’t morally ambiguous, Snook laughs. “No, he had a reason: he was hungry,” she says, then ponders: “Maybe he was just a lonely guy.”

Before she graduated from primary school, Snook’s year 6 teacher had instituted a set of awards: for maths, English, sport, and so on. Snook nabbed the Meryl Streep Drama Award for a diverse performance portfolio that ranged from creating dances for ABBA and Backstreet Boys songs with her best friend, Ali, to acting out Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, as well as entering various drama competitions.

Her parents were supportive of their youngest daughter’s teenage preoccupation with acting. She thought of the idea as a source of fun until her dad challenged her: hobby or career? She answered career, and pride made her stick to the decision. Their cautious backing would turn into full support on the display of success.

When she was 11, her parents separated. Her father, Ian, now lives in Perth, where he works in sales. “I don’t think it’s ever not going to have an impact, in some form, for any kid,” says Snook. “That’s part and parcel of life, I guess; it creates the blueprint for how you’re going to grow up, but that’s always alterable, you can always change that.”

At 18, Snook, who had attended St John’s Grammar in Belair and Scotch College in Mitcham, auditioned for the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney – and got a call two weeks before term started, saying she had won a place after another student dropped out.

“I was trying not to worry or stress too much until I arrived on the day, and then realised that what I had done could have been a terrible mistake,” she says. “Because, maybe they didn’t call me? Maybe it wasn’t them? Unfortunately, because it was so quick in the turnaround, the office admin hadn’t caught up, and so the person whose place that I had taken, her name was on the folders still. I was like: ‘Oh, yeah, I was right, I’m not meant to be here; turn around, get out of here.’ ”

Snook graduated from NIDA with an acting degree in 2008 – and spent much of the next 18 months waiting tables in cafes. “When you come out of drama school, you don’t really understand, even if you logically understand it, and cerebrally understand it, the emotional length of time,” Snook says, then laughs at her younger self. “Not working for even a month or two months, it feels sort of apocalyptic.”

The exception during this period was a role in a State Theatre Company of South Australia production of King Lear in Adelaide, in late 2009, in which Snook was excellent in her dual roles, wrote reviewer Murray Bramwell, “convincing as the artless Cordelia (and valiant as the bedizened Fool)”.

The breakthrough came in 2010, after being cast as one of two leads, Sister Lorna Whyte, in the telemovie Sisters of War, about an Australian army nurse and a Catholic nun who survived being prisoners of war on Papua New Guinea during World War II. “To see what everyone created together, to tell what was a very important and precious story of survival, that’s the reward,” she says. The role won her the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award for best lead actress in a television drama.

Around this time, she met her partner, musician Angus McDonald, a man she credits as an anchor and a reminder of reality and what’s important in life. “He’s an outstanding human being. I have a very strong friendship bond with him as well as a partner.” Snook is “not unmusical”. “I can sing and strum a bit on the guitar, but nothing of particular merit.”

Snook’s role in the 2014 Australian-made science fiction thriller Predestination, directed by the brothers Peter and Michael Spierig, got her noticed in the United States. Ethan Hawke is the big name in the film, but it’s Snook who is extraordinary, oscillating in this temporal time travel between the roles of Jane and John, the latter a transgender male who had been forced to undergo gender reassignment surgery against his will.

With the help of facial prosthesis, some voice coaching by Sydney-based teacher Gabrielle Rogers, and a little pitch bending in post-production, Snook speaks with a masculine bass and looks like – well, I was far from the first to think Leonardo DiCaprio, judging by the Google search results, but it was for her wholly original approach that Snook was lauded with another AACTA, as well as a Film Critics Circle of Australia Award and an Australian Film Critics Association nomination for best lead actress.

In 2015, Snook asked a friend in Melbourne to film her in a “self-tape” – the new way of auditioning internationally – to read for Hilde in Ibsen’s play The Master Builder. She won the role, opposite Ralph Fiennes and directed by Matthew Warchus, at the Old Vic theatre in London later that year. “Ralph was super-amazing. He changes things, night to night. It’s like, ‘Here, take my hand, let’s run.’ ”

By nature, Snook suggests, she is interested in an array of roles. “Once I’ve dipped my toe into, say, a period drama with The Secret River, it’s not that I wouldn’t go back, but it’s something I feel like I’ve explored. I want to tell a story in a different world.”

In Alice, to be launched at thepassionfilms.com this month, upstate New York substitutes for Noël Coward’s dear little English village, remote and obscure. It seems, judging by the landscape Snook traverses, that the first half of the short film has been shot in autumn and the second half in spring.

A trick of camera filters, perhaps? Snook laughs. “It was a fortunate find,” she says. “The forest had suffered a fire a year earlier. One side of the road was burnt, in auburn-autumnal colours, and the other side was green and lush.”

Snook calls this luck but, by design, seems drawn to fellow creatives adept at applying a modern touch to a classic tale: a knack for sharing passion, you might say.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 4, 2017 as "Snook the goods". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.