At 28, Phoebe Tonkin is riding a career high. The Sydney native has just wrapped the final season of the long-running, hugely popular vampire saga The Originals and has quenched a desire to work again in Australia by scoring a plumb role in new SBS thriller Safe Harbour. She’ll follow that up by joining the cast of the upcoming fourth season of prestigious Showtime drama The Affair.
Tonkin first found local success when she was cast at 15 as teenage mermaid Cleo Sertori in popular children’s series H20: Just Add Water (2006-10), for which she was nominated for an AFI Best Lead Actress in a Television Drama award. She followed that with stints in primetime soaps Packed To The Rafters and Home And Away.
Despite such high-profile local credits, like most Australian actors that head overseas, Tonkin's success in Hollywood has been hard won. When she made the well-worn track to Hollywood to try her luck in pilot season, she found that, as much as she tried, she couldn’t (and wouldn’t) confirm to Tinseltown stereotype.
“I just wasn’t fitting into anything,” she told Elle Canada of the roles she was auditioning for. “I was so sick of going into all these auditions with my cleavage out, tight skinny jeans and big blown-out hair, which is the staple uniform.”
So when an audition came up for major TV player Kevin Williamson, creator of Dawson’s Creek and The Following, Tonkin took a chance, recalling, “I thought, ‘I’m just going to go into this one looking like me, all in black and with a bow in my hair.’”
The gambit worked, with Williamson casting her as sharp-tongued witch Faye Chamberlain in The Secret Circle (2011-12).
“Kevin was the first person to show me that I didn’t have to fit into someone’s idea of a particular type of girl,” says Tonkin. “I could be my own person, and someone would find that to be the right thing.”
While The Secret Circle drew a dedicated following and a nod for Tonkin from Variety as a new face to watch, it was cancelled after one season. But the Williamson connection was just beginning. In 2012, he and co-creator Julie Plec cast Tonkin in The Vampire Diaries in the role of ballsy, free-spirited werewolf Hayley Marshall. It was a relatively small role that would spin off into a major, breakout one in Plec’s The Originals.
In 2012, Tonkin told TV.com she was bemused at being cast as “badass” characters – a trend mirrored in big-budget local features Tomorrow, When The War Began (2010) and Bait (2012) – flying in the face of her “awkward” personality.
“I'm literally the most awkward, socially strange person,” she said. “And I always end up like, as you say, a badass? I think it's because I have dark hair and dark eyes. And kind of pointy, evil-looking eyebrows. Because I always get sent stuff like that. It's always the witch or the bitch. When really I just wear weird glasses and pyjamas all the time.”
After five seasons, The Originals is wrapping up, and while Tonkin is mourning the end, she’s also excited at the next chapter in her career, now bolstered by two hit TV series.
“It was a very emotional goodbye,” she told W Magazine. “I don’t think I’ve totally digested it. It has been a really big opportunity for me, and I am so grateful for the last five years, but also really excited to see what is next.”
Tonkin says starring in Safe Harbour has given her “the bug again to find smaller, interesting, edgier pieces” to work on.
In the highly charged thriller, she plays the gutsy Olivia on a sailing trip with friends (co-stars Ewen Leslie, Leeanna Walsman and Joel Jackson) when they come across some boat people in peril (Hazem Shammas, Nicole Chamoun). The incident sets of a pressure cooker trail of soul searching and recrimination as the ramifications of their actions play out.
It’s the type of project that’s a perfect fit for Tonkin as a vocal advocate for various social causes. (She became a Global Ambassador for Plan International in 2015.) While living in the US, she has used social media to take on some of the biggest issues the country is facing head on – police shootings of African Americans and President Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban among them.
"I never thought I was particularly politically opinionated or even had an interest in educating myself in politics in what’s going on in other countries that aren’t your own,” she told Harpers Bazaar early in 2017. “This year I really felt that I’ve found a voice.”
Tonkin has also been vocal on the issue of female body image and the scrutiny women in the spotlight face. She knows that scrutiny all too well as a sought after model – she’s worked with the likes of Smythson, Witchery, Matteau Swim, Glossier and Alfa Romeo, and modelled for magazines including ELLE Australia and Vogue Australia.
“It’s definitely the darker side [of fame],” she says. “I think it’s really irresponsible for those sites to focus on anyone’s body shape. I don’t like that I feel I have to be defensive. I really don’t even like being part of that conversation.”
It’s a tribute to Tonkin that with her success in the glamorous worlds of modelling and Hollywood, she’s keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground. On her Instagram account, she’s given herself the succinct moniker “Professional Cinderella”.
“Sometimes this life feels like that,” she says. “You do all these amazing things and you work on these incredible sets, you get to get all dressed up and you wear the crystal slippers, and then at midnight it all disappears. You go home and put your pyjamas on and it’s just... reality.”