It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since I sat down and chatted with I Am Woman director Unjoo Moon and her terrific lead actors Tilda Cobham-Hervey, Evan Peters and Danielle Macdonald. It was the first day of the Toronto International Film Festival, my first junket interview at that year’s fest, and they could not have been lovelier. In the uplifting film based on singer-songwriter-activist-actress Helen Reddy’s rise to fame in the late 1960s, Cobham-Hervey really immerses herself extraordinarily into the role of Reddy, while Peters and Macdonald shine in their portrayals of real-life figures Jeff Wald (Reddy’s agent and, later, husband) and iconic journalist Lilian Roxon, respectively. The group gave me lots of fascinating tidbits about the making of the film and the following is an edited and condensed version of our sit-down conversation.
Brief Take: What did you like best about working with each other?
Danielle Macdonald: Ooh. We haven’t had that question! [giggles]
Evan Peters: Where do I start?
Tilda Cobham-Hervey: Too many things. It was such a beautiful collaboration, you know? It felt like we really all worked together to tell this story and I don’t think you always get that experience in making a film.
Unjoo Moon: Apart from the extraordinary talent that you all have, I just want to reiterate the collaboration part. What was really beautiful about working with you all, for me, was that we could step into it and stretch the boundaries. Walking onto set and being able to push certain scenes…there were quite a lot of scenes, especially with the two of you [motioning to Tilda and Evan], where you took it to a really great improvisational level, I mean I loved that.
EP: Thank you for letting us do that, by the way.
UM: It really brought a beautiful authenticity to the film. I just keep thinking about the scene where Helen is ringing the radio stations. Remember we struggled and struggled?
TC-H: I really got the giggles in that scene, for real.
BT: With the Southern accent?
TC-H: Yeah! [giggles]
UM: We were struggling with that scene initially, remember?
EP: We were scared to shoot it.
TC-H: We were!
UM: It was feeling weird and then we found a really great groove with it. Evan was able to take it to a point where he was able to teach her how to do an American accent.
TC-H: Thank you for that.
DM: And we all got along, which was really nice. That’s always very helpful. But it was really cool because before we started shooting, I spent time with Unjoo to go through the character and figure out exactly who she is because there was very limited video footage. Well actually, no video footage on Lilian Roxon, but there were photographs and some audio from talk shows, but it was harder to find with little bits and pieces, so it was great getting to explore that with your director. Getting that time is sometimes rare. And then Tilda and I would go and hang out and get to know each other as people, which I always feel is very important. Evan and I had two scenes together, we’re barely in it together. [laughs]
EP: But they were fun!
DM: We got to have fun, no pressure.
EP: Yeah, you’re just having fun in New York City as a friend?
DM: Yeah, because we’re fighting over Helen. But it was fun doing that a little bit.
EP: It was.
UM: And all in Australia.
DM: Yeah, it was the first time shooting in my hometown, so that was very cool.
TC-H: I remember that day we were shooting outside and we had to keep stopping because there were all these kookaburras.
DM: I remember you being like “what is that?? what is that noise?”.
BT: You must have felt a sense of responsibility in playing these iconic real life people, some of whom are still alive. Tell me about your research process? Danielle, you already touched upon what you put into making your portrayal of Lilian as authentic as possible.
EP: I met with Jeff Wald and that was amazing. Every time I called him, he would talk for probably two hours. You couldn’t get on the call for like ten minutes, he’d just keep talking, which was perfect. Yeah, it was awesome! He was very open and very honest and welcoming. He had me over for dinner, I got to meet his family. I went over there several times! We got a manicure/pedicure because he gets one every week religiously. And yeah, we ate a lot and I got to see him the way that he is. I mean he knows everybody! Even at the laundromat, he would come in and just be joking around, like “hey, Suzie! How are ya?”. It was crazy how much of a character he was. I was expecting maybe a little more toned down but he was right there. If anything, I underplay it a little bit, which is crazy to say.
BT: Has he seen the film?
UM: Yes, he has. He loved it. I think he’s just so chuffed that Evan played him.
UM: He just can’t believe that he got so lucky, I think.
EP: That’s great.
UM: Evan did an incredible portrayal of Jeff and a very honest portrayal of Jeff, because I think you captured both sides of him. The intensity, the volatility, those darker sides of him, but he also brought an incredible charm and an understanding of why Helen was in love with Jeff.
EP: Thanks, Unjoo. Thank you.
TC-H: With Helen, it was a really big process of research for me. We went about it a different way, and we both spoke about this, that I was going to meet Helen after the film. But there was so much footage of her and so many interviews to look at, so I had a great amount of material. And also, this was focused on a very particular time period in Helen’s life, so it was really important to stay within that experience of her. We did a lot of different things. I first started off by reading everything that I could about her, watching every interview, studying every movement of hers. I spent a long time focusing on the physicality of how she moved, how she spoke. Even though she’s Australian, she has a very particular voice and a very particular pattern to the way that she speaks. And then of course there’s the aging process too and I really wanted to make sure I could capture that in terms of physicality and vocally and track that along the way. I’m so grateful, and we’ve spoken at the beginning, I was never sure if I was going to go all the way through when we first met, like take the story the whole way through, but we decided to in the end and I’m so grateful for that. It was an extraordinary experience to be able to tell that whole story, and also to have a break from being a nervous 24 year-old. She was this worldly, wise woman, that was so amazing. But yeah, I did heaps of different research, heaps of everything, really. I could really start a museum about Helen now, I’m really so in love with her. She inspired me so much.
BT: The costumes in the film are just so incredible. Tell me about working with costume designer Emily Seresin, and was there a point where you got into a certain costume and felt really part of the time period?
DM: This is so weird, too much information, guys, but they put me in a bra that really made me feel like I was in that time period. That’s really random but it was made to be one of the more…it was one of those old school ones.
TC-H: It was one of those 1950s ones, yeah.
DM: It was like “this feels different”.
UM: Underwear has really changed a lot.
DM: And then I’d put on the clothes and it’s like “oh, it sits like it should, back in that day”. This is really bizarre, but yes, it really did affect me.
TC-H: I had a lot of fun. There were a lot of costume changes. We spent hours and hours trying on clothes. And what was incredible was that she had this extraordinary team, and a lot of them were made for this film, the costumes. So we got to recreate some of her looks pretty exactly, and that really helped me find the character. I mean hair and makeup and costumes, I really felt like we built her together, and that was amazing. Talking about the shoes, there’s a particular way that you walk in these massive wedge heels.
UM: But I think your performance, and where we were going to take Helen, really shaped the wardrobe. There were certain scenes where we knew we needed very specific things for the way that Tilda was going to move, you know there was even one moment where we had this outfit that was completely made, and then we looked at it and decided that we couldn’t have it in that moment because Tilda needed so much movement. She needed to be free and not so restrained in that costume, so I think a lot of what we discussed about the performance really helped share the wardrobe in the end.
TC-H: And that’s what was so great is that we spent a lot of time playing and discovering Helen. We did so much writing of backstories and talking about everything, but then we got to go into those meetings with costume and makeup and go “this is what we need to encapsulate in this scene” or “in this ’80s she wore a lot of this colour or eyeshadow”, like we really all got to craft it together and that was really nice. It was collaborative on every side.
BT: Did you have a favourite scene to shoot?
UM: I have to say that the two scenes that really stand out for me, in terms of the way we were working on set, was the finale scene where Helen comes to see you [to Danielle]. I was so touched and moved by that conversation. I knew we had really got that scene because when I was watching these two, I wasn’t watching just the film, I was watching this beautiful organic performance and had these tears on set. I knew that scene very, very well, when she just can’t say goodbye to Lilian, and she’s standing at the door, and Lilian is standing at the desk, and the two of them can’t talk to each other. I just thought it was really powerful and beautiful. [to Tilda and Danielle] You guys did such an amazing job on that. And then for Helen and Jeff, it’s what I call the “Coke on the carpet scene”. [laughs]
EP: Oh yeah.
UM: It was a really interesting day, I thought, in the way we shot it and what you both brought to the performance. They improvised moments within it and I just remember that when we finished shooting it, we all looked at each other and then hugged each other.
EP: That’s true.
UM: It was a really great moment.
TC-H: It was wild to live a twenty year marriage in thirty days, isn’t it?
EP: That’s true.
TC-H: It was a whirlwind. It was intense.
TC-H: Yeah. There were a lot of amazing moments from that set. There were so many fun scenes.
EP: I liked the highest highs.
TC-H: The first meeting scene, I giggled so badly that day.
EP: Yeah, that was really fun.
TC-H: And I loved singing ‘Angie Baby’, that was my favourite performance to do.
DM: I took a tumble on one of the days, which was really funny.
TC-H: Oh my gosh, that was so funny.
DM: I can’t help but remember that because I’m like talking on the phone and there’s a mess, and I’m bringing the phone cord with me. The phone got stuck, I slipped backwards, it was comical! I saved myself, that was the thing. I started slipping and then I saved myself, and then I kept slipping, and everyone was just breathless, and then it never ended, and then it did end. Then we all watched the playback and we were all just dying laughing.
TC-H: I was in a sound booth and all I could do was hear it and it was so amazing to just hear the audio. It was quite extraordinary.
UM: [to Danielle] You really saved yourself on that day.
DM: I’m so clumsy that I have to know how to save myself.
TC-H: The full thing was two minutes, just the recovery of it.
DM: It was like it kept going because there were pieces everywhere, so I would just keep flipping. Watching the play back was…
EP: It was a joy. It was great.
DM: I think I still have it. I recorded the play back.
EP: I want to watch that.
DM: I will show you after.
BT: Do you have a song that makes you feel invincible?
TC-H: ‘I Am Woman’! [laughs]
UM: And for me, right now, we have an original song in the film as well.
UM: It’s called ‘Revolution’. For me, part of the movie is about generations of women as well. So in the movie we have Helen and her daughter, and in the actual film we have Helen’s real granddaughter sing a song in the film, and she sings the last song, which is ‘Revolution’. Every time I hear it, I think it really encapsulates and takes ‘I Am Woman’ and the message of ‘I Am Woman’ to what it is today. It starts off talking ‘we are mothers, we are daughters’, and it ends up talking about ‘here comes the revolution’. So yeah, I really love that song.
DM: Tilda and I listened to that in the scene but generally we were just…
TC-H: …we were bawling our eyes out.
DM: We were just crying. Just saying “this is really beautiful”. I keep asking for a copy of it because I just want to be able to listen to it in my down time.
UM: I have to send you the final version.
DM: Yeah, you have to send it to me.
UM: We only just finished it.
DM: I want to add it to my playlist. It’s beautiful.
I Am Woman is now available on Digital and On Demand