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On the rise: Bojana Novakovic, who has a key role in Edge of Darkness. Photo: Angela Wylie

Woman on the edge of a Hollywood breakthrough

Teetering on the brink of fame with her role in the upcoming Edge of Darkness, Bojana Novakovic is the latest in a long line of successful Australian acting exports.

AUSTRALIA has two constant, bountiful exports: iron ore and talented actors. If the former, via Port Hedland in Western Australia, is a simple matter of quantity, then the latter, thanks to institutions such as NIDA and our theatre companies, is concerned with quality.

For a comparatively small country, Australia produces a stream of thespians who, all too often, carve out an international reputation.

We do leading men (Russell Crowe, Eric Bana, Hugh Jackman), gifted chameleons (Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette) and idiosyncratic character actors (Heath Ledger, Geoffrey Rush); starlets and pretty boys not so much.

Sometimes it appears that the names change but the narrative stays the same: 2009 was the year of Ryan Kwanten, who managed to turn a stint on the Home and Away production line into a breakthrough role as oversexed zealot Jason Stackhouse in True Blood, the hit US gothic vampire television drama.

Another Home and Away graduate, Chris Hemsworth, is already in the box seat for 2011, playing the title role in the big-budget comic book adaptation Thor alongside Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins.

A month into 2010 and it's already clear that this year's wave will break three actors in Hollywood.

The first is Mia Wasikowska, the ethereal 20-year-old from Canberra, who will play an adult Alice to Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's forthcoming Alice in Wonderland. The second is Kodi Smit-McPhee, the preternaturally gifted child actor who crosses the hellish post-apocalyptic landscape of The Road with Viggo Mortensen.

The third is sitting on an ornate armchair at Spring Street's Windsor Hotel, legs tucked beneath her and a faded blue flannel shirt over a simple black dress to ward off a surprisingly chilly January morning in Melbourne.

The outfit is incongruous but functional, and that's what matters to Bojana Novakovic. She cares about getting the job — or jobs, she's a committed multi-tasker — done. Image, and competition, come a distant second.

"I was talking to an Australian actor and he was saying that there is no point in us being jealous of each other because we're all making that bridge wider and better," says the 28-year-old, who was born in Serbia and migrated to Australia with her family when she was seven.

"Let's just keep at it — it's good for all of us if one of us gets a job."

Bojana Novakovic has had several jobs over the past few years, but only now is the public starting to see them. Last year, she had a small role as a vengeful gypsy's granddaughter in Spider-Man director Sam Raimi's horror film, Drag Me to Hell, while on February 4 she has a pivotal supporting role in the contemporary thriller Edge of Darkness.

Novakovic plays scientific researcher Emma Craven, who returns home to her widowed father, Boston police homicide detective Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson), with a secret that she's unable to reveal before she's murdered in front of him. The movie, which marries paternal vengeance to national security issues, moves fast, with Emma as first the troubled catalyst and then the voice of stillness.

"When I got offered Edge of Darkness I also got offered another film with a much bigger role — a really big role — but it just wasn't what I wanted," recalls Novakovic. "This was the one I liked. It had something."

It's the ease with which Australian actors meet the challenges of the material that earns them Hollywood commissions. Smit-McPhee, for example, won the part of The Boy in The Road because his audition tape included a compelling take on a crucial scene where his father teaches him how to commit suicide in case he is captured by cannibals. He was the only 13-year-old filmmaker John Hillcoat saw who could both inhabit and then put aside such material.

The original Edge of Darkness was an award-winning British miniseries from 1985. The same director, Englishman Martin Campbell, did both notably distinct versions 25 years apart (in between he did two of the better Bond flicks, 1995's GoldenEye and 2006's Casino Royale), although with hindsight that was one of the less curious elements of the production.

Novakovic freely admits her first day on set was overwhelming. She had to shoot a crucial, dialogue-heavy scene with Gibson, who she realised was an Academy Award winner (best director for 1995's Braveheart). She looked around and saw screenwriter William Monahan, (best adapted screenplay for 2006's The Departed), then producer Graham King (best picture for The Departed).

"The whole thing felt huge," she sighs. "I was telling myself not to be superficial, but there's this huge fan blowing rain at us and all I can think about is the drought here. Too much was going on in my head — 1000 miles an hour stuff."

Once her professionalism kicked in and the process started, someone on set casually mentioned that no one was worried about her. The concern was Gibson, who was shooting his first feature film in six years after a tumultuous period that included making anti-Semitic remarks after a drink-driving arrest, a stint in rehab and separating from wife of 25 years, Robyn.

"It was our first day shooting, after one rehearsal and we're meant to look like we've been father and daughter for 24 years," says Novakovic. "Mel was shitting himself as much as I was. In fact, I was told that he was shitting himself more than I was, that he was really frightened, although I didn't believe them."

Novakovic has nothing but praise for her co-star, who was one of the first Australian actors to be snatched up by Hollywood 30 years ago. At one stage she lay on the floor for six hours, not moving lest she ruin the continuity of the fake blood, as she and Gibson filmed her death scene.

"He jokes around a lot, which I can now see is really healthy, although I found it hard to understand at the time because I was being a very serious person," admits Novakovic, who has a healthy streak of self-deprecation. "It's an amazing way of focusing, because he takes attention off your fear and puts it on to a punchline."

Robert De Niro was meant to be a co-star as well, but he arrived on set and then, reportedly after a disagreement with Campbell, departed, never to return. English actor Ray Winstone took his part as a security services officer.

"It's a different business at that level," observes Novakovic. "Drama should stay on the stage and screen."

She missed De Niro's brief arc because she flew back to Sydney from Boston three times so she could direct Family Stories, a Serbian play she translated for Ride On Theatre, a fringe company with which she is an artistic director. As with Cate Blanchett and the Sydney Theatre Company, Novakovic draws creative satisfaction from the stage, as opposed to stewing over her film career; her arrival on the Edge of Darkness set was put back a day because she had to help Ride On load out after a Melbourne season in Northcote.

Achievement and varied experience, not status, matter to her. "There will always be someone better, someone wealthier, someone with a better role, someone who has adopted more children," she says.

Novakovic's sense of self-acceptance stems from spending much of 2008 and 2009 in Los Angeles. Her previous Australian credits — the low-budget crime thriller Solo and a season of the Foxtel sex worker drama Satisfaction — didn't open many doors in LA, but she promised herself she would stick at it for three months.

Perseverance and a willingness to acclimatise are shared characteristics of the Australian actor diaspora — Naomi Watts famously endured almost a decade on Hollywood's fringe before she got David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. Novakovic found herself with nowhere to live, $80 to her name and an email from her boyfriend in Australia breaking up with her.

Then, in 2008, she auditioned for a supporting role in a film that she is too diplomatic to name but which went on to become one of 2009's biggest blockbusters. The part called for a "six-foot-three blonde Russian Playboy model", recalls Novakovic.

She turned a bimbo part into a comedic role, improvising dialogue. The producers were so impressed they spent six weeks trying to hire a famous comedic actress to play the retooled part. When that failed they came back to Novakovic, but financiers wouldn't sign off. Novakovic was told she had the role, and then that she didn't. She hasn't seen the finished film, although the character appears to bear her influence, but getting close enough was what she needed.

The tide turned, and even when she shot scenes for the Will Smith melodrama Seven Pounds that were cut in post-production due to story difficulties, she had self-belief without the attendant ego.

"There are people who want to get famous, who want to look good, who want their photo taken for a magazine — Los Angeles is the place to go for that. There are a lot of those people pursuing fame for fame's sake," she points out.

"But if I did a film for the hope of being famous, then I'd probably just spend every day thinking about how I should be painting sets for Ride On."

Novakovic now divides her time between creative hubs. There is theatre work in Melbourne (she is about to workshop a play she wrote at the Malthouse), low-budget features in Belgrade (for her last performance, in Skinning, she played a murderous neo-Nazi), and studio films in Los Angeles (her next film is supernatural thriller Devil). She keeps a suitcase in various cities now, storage space elsewhere.

"Success in Hollywood doesn't make you any better than you were. It just breeds a lot more choice," reasons Novakovic. Her contemporaries would agree: Mia Wasikowska is currently working on Gus Van Sant's next feature, while Kodi Smit-McPhee will play the male lead in the American remake of the acclaimed Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In.

As she sits in her chair, no hint of an entourage, Novakovic flexes her tattooed arms and pushes herself up, balancing on the chair arms as if she is about to take off. Career-wise she just might, having learnt, as numerous others have before her, to take Hollywood as it is and deal with all it has to offer on her own terms.

"It is weird that something depends on a look or your demeanour in front of a camera, but that's film," she says. "It's not for me to limit myself any more, that's for other people to do."

By Craig Mathieson
January 31, 2010
The Age