KATHERINE TONKIN, ACTOR
Interview: Emily Wright | Photography: Bri Hammond
I first met Katherine Tonkin at an Election Day barbecue at a local Northcote park. Living within a couple of streets of one another, our paths continued to cross, before another member of the Nancybird team introduced us properly.
Kath is an actor and theatremaker, known for a smart body-of-work that includes appearances at Melbourne Theatre Company, Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, and Belvoir.
We spent a morning at the home that Kath shares with her husband Phil and son Jasper, chatting about the importance of storytelling, daily rituals, and being open to opportunity.
EW: How are you, Kath? How has your morning been?
KT: It’s been a bit of everything! It was good because we all had a good night’s sleep in the house, which always means you get off to a good start. But yeah, there was a meltdown … (laughs) there were sweet moments, and pretty sad moments.
EW: Yeah, meltdowns … is Jasper four?
KT: Yeah, in a few weeks. So, he’s really on that cusp of the world getting really big for him, and that comes with it’s own confusions. It’s exciting, but he’s craving the comfort of the known a lot.
EW: And what else has been keeping you busy lately?
KT: Well, at the moment I’m sort of in between projects. You’d think that would mean life was a bit simpler, but it actually becomes more complicated. Every week there’ll be something different: an audition, a voiceover, a reading for something. It’s kind of the messy time.
The next big project will be going to Perth to do a show at Black Swan Theatre Company, called Xenides the Musical, about Adriana Xenides.
Details from our Shirt Dress.
KT: Well, there’s four of us who will be her.
EW: At different stages of life?
KT: Well, it’s not a biopic approach. It’s really more this investigation into what it is to be a female in the entertainment industry, under the guise of looking at this woman who was an icon of her time. Her past and her history are quite interesting.
She was from a migrant family and became this Australian icon. She was a really intelligent woman as well – the whole setup on Wheel Of Fortune was her having to withstand various hosts bagging her, and she’s so razor sharp with her wit. I think that’s what was so fascinating for audiences, but it’s a pretty hideous format to suck the audience in …
KT: Clare Watson is directing it, and she’s someone I’ve known since undergrad days. We’ve worked together a lot.
We did a show called I Heart John McEnroe together a few years ago and it was a similar premise. It was these four actors who were all vying to be John McEnroe, and all of us were completely inappropriate casting – that was the examination of competition, under that guise. When we closed the show, I was two weeks away from my due date to give birth, and I was huge! Having to be angry as a pregnant woman - people found that really confronting to watch.
EW: And it was daily?
KT: Yes. Eight shows a week.
EW: Oh my god.
KT: When I found out I was pregnant and the timing of the season, I spoke to Clare and she just said “okay.” She’s fantastically adaptable to things like this, and supportive of making sure women can stay working.
On an industry level, too, there’s a lot of conversation at the moment about keeping pregnant or breastfeeding mothers in the industry, which has got really demanding hours and makes family life difficult.
EW: You obviously worked right up until you had Jasper?
KT: I worked almost directly afterwards as well - I did a show called Elektra / Orestes at Belvoir in Sydney. We did a two week development when he was three months old, and I was at that point of being like, “this is great!” because he was sleeping at that point. And, um, at six months, then it was really, really hard (laughs).
We all went to Sydney, and luckily my mum flew up for a while, and then my dad and stepmum, to be extra sets of hands. I had a great advocate in the director – a woman, again – she was really onboard with it straight away.
They built a little booth for me in one corner of the rehearsal room to duck away and breastfeed, and Phil took time out from what he was doing, so he was sort of sneaking in and out of the room and backstage. So it works, you know, but it takes a big personal toll – just the tiredness, and the performance energy that you have to maintain is so intense!
I think you just dip into deep reserves and, at the end, there’s inevitably a big crash. But it’s amazing what you can push through. I find that work nourishes me so much – it gives me energy back, so it feels like it’s healthier to try and make that work.
I was lucky that the company was so supportive. I know lots of other women with small kids who haven’t had support from theatre companies. I can’t help thinking that if men carried the babies, this stuff would have been worked out a long time ago.
EW: Yeah, it wouldn’t be seen as an extra – it would just be accepted!
KT: But then, there’s a lot of high profile stuff with the #MeToo movement about how we protect people in the industry, and make things better.
There’s some really strong voices that are being heard at the moment, which is really great, but there’s a lot of voices that aren’t being heard too. So there’s still a long way to go, and then there’s the whole conversation around more diverse casting. It’s a bit of a time of reckoning.
It’s good that these conversations are being had and, on one level, there’s a lot of change happening. But on another level, the people who hold the keys to network television or things like that … that’s gonna be a long, slow process to change. But it’s so important in advertising, or television and theatre. It’s what we see in front of us that becomes our norm.
L: Kath wears our Dolman Top in Parsley Bay and Kimono Cardi in Sage. R: Our Marion Bag in Almond.
KT: Not at all! My parents are both from the medical world, but are both deep thinkers. They didn’t consciously expose us a lot to the arts, but I do feel like it was a part of our world.
I was one of those kids who was constantly making up plays, and always oscillating between extrovert and introvert, which I think I’ve continued to do. But I think a lot of performers are the same – internal thinkers at certain points, and then have this alter ego that can just sort of step forward.
EW: And you studied English and philosophy before acting school. Has that informed your acting practice?
KT: Yeah, absolutely! I think there’s so many facets to the acting world, but the parts that I’ve gravitated towards have been more experimental, hybrid and cross-artform. I feel like that side of the theatre is just full of poets and philosophers who are working in 3D!
So many times I sit back and can’t believe that this is my job. The richness of conversation and investigation that happens around the ideas within a production - that depth of thought is a key thing that’s hooked me in.
I did have a moment of reckoning about whether I really wanted to be an actor. There are parts of the industry that perpetuate ideals that I so firmly disagree with, and I felt like I was advocating for it just by being in it. But there are so many different types of work being made, and I just had to trust that likeminded people gravitate towards likeminded people, and they will value the things that are unique about you.
It’s more about the human exchange for me, and I think that allows for a longer conversation artistically, and sometimes that approach comes at a financial cost (laughs). But that’s okay, I’m much happier that way.
EW: On another note, what’s your approach to personal style?
KT: I think it feels different on different days. Sometimes I feel that its very much just dressing for the needs of the day – I might actually be playing four different people!
But it’s an important ritual each day, and I enjoy engaging with that decision. I particularly enjoy engaging with local designers. I feel that they’re such an interesting reflection of now and the city I live in. You feel like you’re part of a conversation.
EW: Yep, totally.
KT: I remember one of my lecturers who became a really special friend – Gillian Jones, who’s an amazing actor. She said that being a creative person is a way of being in the world. It makes sense to me that your whole world is a creative dialogue, in a particular way.
The ebbs and flows are sort of a natural part of the job, so if you have a way to have artistic expression that goes beyond when somebody says you can, then it’s healthier. And that can become your everyday things.
Kath at a local park. Kath wears our Dolman Top in Archway, Kimono Cardi in Sienna and Marion Pant in Ink Stripe.
KT: I’m a bit of a sucker for them. There there are so many little rituals about the theatre that I love. And then having that in the home is lovely as well.
EW: What’s a theatre ritual?
KT: Well, people have all sorts of their own strange personal things that they do. But even like, you know, for me the moment of the lights going down –
EW: Ah, yep!
KT: And an audience saying collectively, “Yes, I’m willing to go on this journey.” Even something as simple as bowing at the end! All those little things are just social conventions, but they’re little rituals that I think are harder and harder to come by. I think you can have that in your home, and I find it soothing in a strange way.
EW: I guess when you aren’t working in one place, finding those routines or common things is a way to stabilise?
KT: Yeah, there’s never one workplace, there’s never one set of colleagues, it’s constantly changing. So I guess that’s why that stuff becomes something that you lean on more.
Before a show, I might do yoga, or meditate for a while. The act of putting on make-up and a costume – there’s a process with that, that can be slapdash or it can be engaged with. And I like the latter.
Because there are days where you just don’t feel like it – like, we all have those days where you just don’t feel like leaving the house, but maybe your job requires you to get up in front of 500 people and be entertaining!
EW: Oh my god.
KT: But they’re the weird sorts of invisible skills of a performer that you don’t get taught.
EW: I feel that sometimes about being creative – when I need to be, I’ve got to turn it on in that moment. It’s like, “right, you’ve got today as a design day”, and I’ve just gotta come out with some stuff. And it may not suit –
KT: "But the inspiration’s not here!"
EW: Yeah! But I’ve just got to find it.
KT: And do you find that if you just start, it comes?
EW: Yeah, like, something comes out. I think I can get through it by just starting, and you do just get on a little tangent and it starts happening. Just pushing through it is the key.
L: Kath wears our Shirt Dress in Daisy with our Mary Jane in Dark Chocolate. R: Kath and Jasper enjoy a tender moment.
KT: I think … I think both Phil and I, given what we do, we’re very used to unknowns and chaos, which is super-helpful going into parenting. And being able to be silly and enter imaginative worlds isn’t foreign territory to us.
EW: That would actually be very fun for a kid!
KT: Well, Jasper loves books and stories, and it’s not really been anything we’ve shoved down his throats, except that we get excited when we enter into that with him. I guess he’s naturally picked up on an excitement around storytelling.
One way I’ve tried, when he’s not wanting me to go to work or whatever, it helps for me to bring him in so he knows where I’m going and who I’m working with. So he does come into the theatres quite a lot and, by and large, really open, warm, gregarious people populate that world.
And kids feel what you’re passionate about, and that already sort of gives a certain glow to something, I think, where they might go, “this is great, mum lights up when she talks about that.”
He has a very sketchy idea of what we do – he’s sort of seen bits and bobs, but most of what we do is very not-child-friendly. But there’s a classic joke for actors, where you don’t want your child to become an actor because you know how precarious and difficult the lifestyle is.
EW: Do you have hopes for Jasper’s future as he grows up?
KT: I’ve never had to articulate it before! But, I really hope he grows up with really healthy self-respect. And it’s funny, raising a child in this time where it feels like the notion of how you curate yourself is so heightened. You can almost choose your friends and your lovers by statistics these days – the whole online thing. So I just really hope that he grows up with a really strong value within himself. I feel incredibly lucky to have found something that I’m so passionate about to make my life, and I hope that for him.
EW: What are you most looking forward to this year – and next year?
KT: Well, the family’s going to Perth for this job, so I’m looking forward to spending time there, cause that’s where Phil’s family is from, and for Jasper to connect with family over there. Then we’ve got two weeks off where we’ll be in Perth. There’ll be no option but just to have a holiday as a family together. So I’m really looking forward to that.
EW: So you’re there for a couple of months?
KT: Yeah. And then I’ve got some lovely theatre projects next year … So that feels like it’ll be here in a second next year. Something in Melbourne, and something in Sydney, so … a bit of moving around again.
EW: It’s great that you’ve got a few things lined up – or maybe that’s normal?
KT: It happens more in theatre, because people want to put out a brochure of a season, so you kind of can get locked into work a fair way out. But things that are on screen are very last minute usually – that’s when your life can be changing in a week quite dramatically.
The trick is not to panic when you’re unemployed because that’s when opportunity can come your way. Sometimes being available is a very good thing. But you only learn that after a few years of seeing the patterns of just trusting that things will fall into place.
It’s nice to have a bit of both, because I think if you’ve got some things locked in, there’s a bit of an anchor mentally. But if you’ve got a pre-booked full year, that can be –
EW: – a bit intense?
KT: Yeah. You need the space for new projects to come in. And some of the years where I’ve had nothing lined up have been the most wonderfully exciting years of new projects or things that you never thought were going to happen come your way. So it’s just the mental game of staying calm, not panicking.
Katherine Tonkin appears in Xenides at Perth's Black Swan Theatre Company from 25 Oct - 11 Nov. Next year, see Kath in Così at Melbourne Theatre Company from 30 Apr - 8 Jun, and Sydney Theatre Company from 1 Nov - 14 Dec.