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Bonjana Novakovic

The Face: Bonjana Novakovic

"IT'S so nice to be doing an interview in my tracksuit pants," says Bojana Novakovic, who has just finished filming three Hollywood movies back to back.

The actor permits herself just 15 minutes to get out of her tracky daks and into a little red dress for The Weekend Australian's photographer once she finishes this phone interview from her inner-Melbourne apartment.

You'd never guess that for the past few months she has been working alongside the likes of Mel Gibson and Will Smith in Hollywood, where even minor celebrities turn up to photo shoots trailing hairdressers, make-up artists, stylists and PR flacks.

If you haven't heard of Novakovic, a 27-year-old Serbian-Australian actor and theatre director, chances are you soon will. During the past 12 months, she has filmed significant roles in a horror flick Drag Me to Hell, political thriller Edge of Darkness and the just-released modern morality tale, Seven Pounds.

She also snared a lead role in the forthcoming Serbian film Skinning, an unsettling study of contemporary racism, as well as translating and directing two Serbian plays in Australia. Between assignments in Los Angeles, Boston and Belgrade, she found time to star in the second series of the Australian television drama, Satisfaction.

In spite of a fourth Hollywood job offer — she can't discuss the details of that film yet — Novakovic doesn't feel that she has broken into Tinseltown.

"It's mammoth, a monster, and I am just latching on to the tail end of it," she says. "I went there because I knew that to break into that world means you have more choices. I just want choices. It's not about making money and having a lot of friends in Hollywood, that's the last thing I want."

The most substantial of her Hollywood roles is in Edge of Darkness, an update of the highly regarded BBC miniseries of the same name (the movie will be released this year). In the film she portrays Emma Craven, daughter of a detective played by Mel Gibson. After Emma is murdered at his home, the detective uncovers his daughter's secret life as a militant environmental activist and is plunged into a shadowy world of corporate cover-up and government complicity.

Asked what it was like working with Gibson, Novakovic complains jokingly, "That's all I am asked!" She adds: "He's great to work with, because he's got the curiosity and attitude of a kid." Gibson's reputation was sullied in 2006 when he was caught drink driving and making anti-Semitic remarks, but his young co-star doesn't go there, focusing instead on how he would crack jokes on set one minute and hold her, "his dying daughter", in his arms the next.

As we speak, Novakovic is in rehearsal for a new production of Woyzeck, a classic play by 19th-century German playwright Georg Buchner, which opens at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre tonight. This production, directed by Michael Kantor, will boast a "gothic blues" score co-created by Nick Cave. Novakovic will play Marie, the protagonist's de facto wife.

Woyzeck is a soldier so impoverished he submits to bizarre medical experiments to support Marie and their child. As the experiments make her husband unstable, Marie gravitates towards another man, with disastrous consequences.

Novakovic says the play is open to interpretation; at one level it's about despair among the poor, but it also has an anti-war theme. "Someone (else) might see it as a play about a man going mad, an exploration in madness. Another person will see it as a play about an ordinary man who murders his mistress. And still others about how a woman ruins a man."

She plays another transgressive woman in Satisfaction, set in a high-class bordello in Melbourne and screening on pay-TV channel Showcase. Novakovic slips into the skin of Tippi, a prostitute who, with blonde plaits and knee-high socks, specialises in schoolgirl fantasies.

To research this role, she talked to sex workers, who assured her sex work was "just like acting".

"I see it (prostitution) as a valid profession that provides a service to people who need it," she says. She is taken aback, however, when I ask whether she could do it for a living, protesting: "That is way too big a question."

Small but feisty, girlishly pretty but blunt, Novakovic seems drawn to out-there roles: She was 15 when she played a rape and murder victim in the confronting Australian film Blackrock, based on a real rape and murder. In Skinning, she portrays a neo-Nazi responsible for a hate crime murder. She says her character is aggressive, racist and "relentlessly pursues being at the top of the Nazi punk social ladder. She does this mainly by bonking whoever is the head male."

Although she is not yet 30, Novakovic isvirtually a veteran of the theatre: she appeared in her first professional production when she was 12.

Five years earlier, her parents had emigrated to Australia from Serbia. She is grateful they have never objected to the roles she has taken on. "I don't know how I'd react if a 15-year-old daughter of mine was being raped by four guys in a movie," she quips drily.

She says her parents were more concerned about her hanging out in pubs and clubs with adult actors than the dark role she'd taken on. They were worried she'd get into trouble. Did she? "Of course, plenty of it!" she boasts with a knowing laugh.

In 2004 she won an AFI award for her portrayal of an Afghan refugee in the ABC miniseries, Marking Time. But this was no guarantee of work. It was a lack of film jobs here that drove her to uproot herself from Melbourne and give the US a shot. Novakovic admits there were aspects of the Hollywood system she "just couldn't handle. It was really not my cup of tea, doing weird cattle calls, auditions."

For all her nascent success in Hollywood, she rates as her most satisfying gig directing a Serbian play called Fake Porno last year for Ride On, a local theatre company she has set up.

This year Ride On will take Fake Porno to Brisbane. The play, which she translated, "deals with this underclass of Belgrade sleaze that has crept up since the civil war; petty criminals and wannabe gangsters and Americanised Barbie doll girls".

So is theatre her first love? "That's like asking me to choose which child I love the best," she replies.

Although her star is on the rise, Novakovic is far from starry-eyed about making it in Hollywood. Of working with the feted and famous, she says: "You get there on set and they're just another actor, and they need your help as much as you need theirs."

By Rosemary Neill
January 31, 2009
The Australian