Towards the end of Unjoo Moon’s I Am Woman, a retired Helen Reddy, played by a truly mesmerizing Tilda Cobham-Hervey, apprehensively agrees to attend a women’s rally in Washington, D.C. It’s 1989, and the singer/songwriter takes to the stage and delivers a rousing, heartfelt performance of the renowned title song that became an anthem for female empowerment in the 1970s. The reaction from the crowd is overwhelming to the artist. The audience enthusiastically sings along, madly cheering. Reddy is noticeably stunned. And humbled. Once again.
Humility was a recurring Reddy trait (in the film and in her real life), despite the artist’s incredible success. Newcomer Cobham-Hervey shares that attribute with the icon she portrays onscreen.
The Australian born thesp started out as a circus performer before stumbling into acting with the 2014 Sundance sensation, 52 Tuesdays. She has, to date, starred in a dozen film and TV projects including the 2018 action-thriller, Hotel Mumbai. I Am Woman, written by Emma Jensen and co-starring Evan Peters and Danielle Macdonald, can easily be seen as Cobham-Hervey’s breakthrough. It’s a rich, nuanced turn in a sometimes standard, but always absorbing biopic—in large part thanks to the lead’s enchanting performance.
The film chronicles the early life of the iconic Australian singer, Helen Reddy, and how her drive and ambition forged a career that pushed past patriarchal notions of what a singer should and could be.
Awards Daily chatted with Tilda Cobham-Hervey on the eve of the film’s release in the U.S.
Awards Daily: I want to congratulate you, It’s an amazing performance.
Tilda Cobham-Hervey: Thanks very much. Just off the bat and I’m already blushing.
AD: Can you tell me how you were cast in the role?
TC-H: I got sent the script one night by my agent with no warning or preamble. And I just started reading it not really thinking too much about it and got completely sucked into it. I was instantly obsessed. I, of course, knew the song, “I Am Woman,” and I knew Helen Reddy’s name but I very shamefully didn’t know a lot more about her—as I think is true of a lot of people of my generation. I really hope this film [changes] that.
She’s an extraordinary woman with such an amazing life. Then I sat down with the director for what was meant to be about an hour, and it ended up being about four and a half hours just fan-girling over Helen. I still didn’t really imagine myself in that role. I was 22 when I read the script, and this is playing a woman who ages from 24 to 48, has two children, is a seventies pop icon and a feminist icon. So, it began out of this curiosity and excitement about learning about this woman. Then I was lucky enough for them to give me a shot at playing her.
AD: It’s interesting because I see the performance as both an embodiment as well as what I call a Tilda-creation. How did you merge the two?
TC-H: That’s lovely. I’d never played a living person, a person we all love and admire and that everyone knows, so I felt like I really didn’t want it to be an impersonation. But I also wanted to make sure there were enough hooks in there that people could feel familiar with the version of Helen we’re telling. I think Helen has a very particular physicality, a very particular tone and rhythm to the way that she speaks and a very particular performance style. So I wanted to pick out parts of those things to try and give people an accurate way into her and her life. I was hoping that by doing a bit of that I was able to then find my own emotional connection to her and to the story and find what similarities we had and lean into those. And also lean into the parts of her that I really admire—her confidence and her bravery and quiet determination.
AD: I feel like that was accomplished with the singing as well.
TC-H: Well…it’s not my voice.
AD: It’s not?
TC-H: No. But I’m glad you thought it was! That’s great. I did a singing test. That was the only audition I did, actually. I just don’t sound anything like Helen. I’m not a professional singer, and Helen’s such an amazing singer. I felt like it was really important that…when people listen to her it really sounded close to her but also looks like it’s coming out of me. We did all these hilarious auditions with different artists and tried their voices coming out of me and I’d lip sync…and we stumbled upon this woman, Chelsea Cullen, who’s an Australian artist and we created the performances together. We were never in the same room, but she would record a track, then I would sing along to her version of the song and we’d come up with notes…And I sang live on the day and took singing lessons and breathing lessons so I looked like a singer. And then she recorded over the performances I did, to her timing track. So it was quite a detailed process.
AD: I’m assuming you did a lot of research. What was most helpful?
TC-H: Oh my gosh, I did a lot of research. I feel like I could open a museum about her now. There’s so much to learn and love about her. I started by reading her book and that was really helpful until it kind of wasn’t. The first part of the book was about the years that we explore and that was really helpful. I think she has a very different perspective on her life now and is at a very different stage in her life so I stopped reading at a point and went back to scrolling through all of the interviews we had of her and they were incredibly helpful to see how she responded to questions and the way she held herself. And then hearing people’s stories because that’s a public version of her and how she’s presented. And looking at the performances of her songs. All of that became very important…I could probably still do all of her interviews verbatim with all the physicality. I started by mimicking. And tried to pick up…the way she used her hands or her eyes or whatever it was and started trying to copy them and hoped that some of them stuck so that when we went in to do scenes that bits of that carried through.
AD: Did you watched Airport 1975, one of my guilty pleasures…
TC-H: I did, while researching for the film. It’s so enjoyable. So many clips in that are very excellent. It’s very fun. I grew up seeing her in Pete’s Dragon so I knew her from that…also, I got really obsessed with The Helen Reddy Show. What I love about Helen, and I say this with absolute love, maybe this is an Australian term but she’s a bit of a dag–she’s a bit dorky sometimes and she’s really funny and ready to have a joke on herself. Her sense of humor really got me. And you see that in all of her films and her TV work.
AD: You had some strong scenes with Evan Peters (who plays Helen’s manager and husband, Jeff Wald). What was your process like?
TC-H: I feel like I always think I have a process and then you get onto the set and it’s just different every time. I think it’s all about the collaboration with the people. When doing other work, I love a plan. I love to know what’s going to happen and have an idea of how I want to do things. But what was great about this is Evan works very differently. He was just so in the moment. It was just great to actually get the chance to improvise and really explore…Evan is an extraordinary performer and I just feel so lucky to have had the chance to work with him. He brings so much to set…I really believed everything that came out of his mouth so it’s much easier to respond to. It was crazy. I only met him two days before we started filming. And we had zero rehearsal and we had to create this 20-year marriage. We were not shooting in [chronological] order. Some of the last scenes we shot really early on. And often we’d go between four time [periods] in a day so I’d start at 24 and then go to 36 and then 48 and back to 24 in one day. Trying to track her emotions during that time and how their marriage changed was definitely tricky.
AD: The song “I Am Woman” became an anthem. Being of a different generation, what does the women’s movement mean to you now?
TC-H: I think throughout making this film my experience really shifted. By learning about Helen’s story and all the women that came before me, I have so much more respect and I am so much more grateful for the things I can take for granted today. For example, in the film Helen is one of the first women in America to get her own name on a bank card, which when I first heard that I thought, that is absurd. And that wasn’t very long ago and that’s something I would never think about being an issue in this day and age. I feel grateful for the work that had been done before I was born and it really pushed me to think about what more I can do today. I think Helen was so brave. She was having a lot of the conversations that we’re still having today, in a time when it was a lot harder and I really hope it helps galvanize and inspire the next generation of women to go out and keep fighting for what they believe in and using their voices and following their passions.
AD: Do you know if Helen has seen the film and, if so, what her reaction was?
TC-H: Yes, she’s seen the film. I was very lucky that no one told me she was seeing it or when she was seeing it. I just got a call out of the blue from the director: “We just screened the film for Helen.” My heart just stopped. [laughs] But she really enjoyed it, and her family really enjoyed it. That meant the world…having her blessing is all we could ask for. She watched and sang along to all the songs. I wasn’t in the screening room, but I heard this. She was very involved with all of the characters and what was going on.
At one point, the director said—she was sitting right behind her—and Helen screamed out, “No!” Unjoo was like, ‘Oh my gosh! We’ve ruined it! She hates it!’ But she was just responding to something that was happening in the movie that she was surprised by and couldn’t believe! [Laughs] And, at the end, she read out all of the end cards in the film and when it got to the last card at the Equal Rights Amendment not being passed, she burst into tears and hugged her family. From all reports, everyone was saying she was really moved by the impact she’d had on the world. So that was really lovely to hear because sometimes it’s hard to know if these great people we all admire know how much they mean to other people. So that was special.
AD: I feel this is a breakout performance. What would awards attention mean to you at this stage in your career?
TC-H: Oh my gosh! That’s never crossed my mind. [Laughs] I was just so lucky to have been in this movie. I really can’t believe it. I’m still shocked someone let me do this. Every day I was waiting to be told that it was a trick and I had to go home! I mean, that would be amazing. I can’t imagine it, but it would be amazing.
AD: You started as a circus performer. When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
TC-H: It took me a very long time–only in the last year or two have I started writing, “actor” on a form. When you come into America, you have to write a profession. I’m still learning to embrace that I’m allowed to call that my job. I started in a circus at age nine, and I was always fascinated by performance. I sort of fell into my first movie. I went to an audition because I was really interested in the filmmaker and the person running the audition who was this great theatremaker. At that stage, I was making a lot of very dorky one-woman shows in my bedroom, and I was obsessed with Miranda July and wanted to make wacky art pieces.
I went along to this audition that was for a role in a film called 52 Tuesdays. They were asking for a girl who was 16 and really fierce and sexually aware. At that stage, I’d never kissed a boy, couldn’t say a swear word without going bright red. So I went along to the audition knowing I’m definitely not getting this but just really excited to do a workshop with these people. Then they offered me the part. That film was very unusual. We shot it every Tuesday, only on Tuesdays, for a year. There was no script. We got the scenes for the next week, when we finished filming on that Tuesday. It was very odd.
After doing that, I went back to the circus, and I was like that was a weird thing that happened but I’m not an actor. Then we did a three-month tour around Australia with the circus and the film got into Sundance, and I went over there and people were like, ‘Hey we’d love to be your agent.’ I was like, ‘What’s an agent?’ [Laughs] For years my brother thought I had secret agents, which is so excellent. It was all very new to all of us. So I did some films, but I was always still a bit nervous. I hadn’t trained. I still feel like that. There’s so much still to learn. I’m interested in doing lots of other things, too. I’m interested in the production side of things and all the jobs that go into making a film. So, in the last few years I’ve started calling myself an actor. It took a while.
I Am Woman opens in theaters and on demand on September 11.