Tilda Cobham-Hervey on playing Helen Reddy, an icon who sparked a movement

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Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen Reddy
Lisa Tomasetti

“I am woman, hear me roar”—those lines from Helen Reddy’s breakout hit decades ago still resonate in many feminist rallies, walks and continuous movements. That exact fierce timelessness is also what is explored in director Unjoo Moon’s biopic about the Australian Songstress, “I Am Woman.” The film examines the incredible life that Helen Reddy led, one that inspired a movement and paved the way for many female artists who came after the fact. What’s delightfully curious about this film though is not the storyline or the many musical numbers (which all showcase a Reddy classic), but it’s the casting. Playing 48-year-old Helen Reddy is 24-year-old Australian native Tilda Cobham-Hervey, and if playing someone twenty years her senior didn’t already make her nervous, playing an icon surely would.

Cobham-Hervey sat down with Metro to discuss why she took on such a challenging role, what she likes about Helen Reddy and dive into more on how she began to discover more about herself by playing someone else.

What was it about this particular role or movie that made you want to sign on with this project? 

When I first got sent the script I didn’t know a lot about Helen’s life, but as soon as I started reading I just became completely shocked that a movie hasn’t been made about her already. She’s had such an extraordinary life that it just felt really important to tell her story. After reading the script I went into a complete rabbit hole in the internet of sort of looking at all of her performances and clips from “The Helen Reddy Show” and the “The Carol Burnett Show” —she’s just such an intoxicating performer and I was really fascinated to just keep learning about her. So, I guess it started with just a lot of curiosity about her and her life and how I didn’t know her story being one of the first sort of trailblazing Australian women to sort of to move over to America and make it.

Lisa Tomasetti

As you did begin to dive deep more and learn about her, in your eyes what do you like about her? Who do you see Helen Reddy as?

I like so much about Helen. In some ways, I fell in love with her, but it also became even more daunting then to step into her shoes. I think I’m incredibly inspired by her quiet determination and her confidence, she is such an authentic artist and she never lost her sense of self. She is very true to herself and she’s finally got this record deal after working so hard, and she was looking for a song to sing on it that would sort of represent her —but she couldn’t find one that represented her and her womanhood. She sort of goes off with the movement and starts learning and she ended up writing her own song, and I find that really inspiring— that sort of go and out and do it yourself [attitude.] I feel like we’re seeing that a bit more in the industry now, but at the time that was a very hard thing to do. 

What did you do to prepare for the performance scenes as Helen Reddy on stage and singing? 

We were very lucky to have some rehearsal time, because often on a film you don’t get that. So, in that time I worked with a breathing coach and a singing coach and I had a few classes with a movement teacher and a voice coach because her speaking voice is very different. When you’re playing a real person who everyone knows and loves it’s really important to find somebody just that people can identify with. I feel like she has a very direct physicality and of course a direct performance style and voice, so trying to capture all of those things, we did as much as we could. It started off as a kind of mimicry I guess by watching her performances and trying to copy them. Then of course, the process comes with trying to find how those pieces naturally fit with you and trying to take them out of the mimicry or an impersonation and sort of get more into finding the collaboration between yourself and Helen. But a lot of the performances were directly inspired by performances she had done that we then sort of heightened or adapted to where we were emotionally in the story because where the songs are placed in the film sort of help the emotional arc of the story. 

Tony Mott

Do any of the performances from the film stand out to you? 

“I Am Woman” is such an inspiring song, but I also had a lot of fun with “Angie Baby”, that song was really enjoyable. 

Playing someone 20 years older than you and someone who is an icon, were you nervous from the start? 

Completely, it was terrifying. I actually got the role when I was 22 and we shot the film [later], so I was 24 playing a 48-year-old. It’s extremely daunting to know I have to play a woman who ages from 24 to 48, is a 70s a pop star, a feminist icon and has two children—that stage of my life I could hardly imagine that it would be possible. I’m just very grateful for the director Unjoo for believing I could do this, because at that stage I really didn’t think I could. We did some really early aging tricks and that was the bit I was really nervous about. I was worried about these things that might get in the way or might not be authentic, and I think for me, it was really important that it felt as true and based in reality and you just believed what was on screen. Once we did sort of the early aging tricks [though], that became my favorite part of the film experience actually. It was a really lovely thing to explore physically and to take a break from being a nervous 23-year-old and sort of step into the shoes of this worldly older woman. I think she became more herself in age like we all do, and it was really lovely to be able to take that story the whole way through. As for people who are her fans and love her, it is really terrifying to be stepping into those shoes knowing you want to do her justice and all the people who grew up loving her justice as well. That still scares me now. 

Overall what do you hope audiences take away from the film? 

I learned such a huge amount about myself through playing this role. I think it’s such an inspiring story, Helen’s story is incredibly hopeful and it shows what you can do when you really put your mind to something. She was so passionate and driven and her confidence and bravery for speaking out about and telling her own story of womanhood and making sure she was as true to herself as possible ended up becoming universal. Her speaking up became sort of the unofficial anthem of the women’s movement, and I found that incredibly inspiring and I hope that young women and all people watching will be inspired to stand up and speak. I think we can all learn a lot from her. 

Lisa Tomasetti

‘I Am Woman’ will be released in theaters and On Demand Sept. 11th