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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Tilda Cobham-Hervey portrays feminist icon, Helen Reddy, in ‘I Am Woman’

I Am Woman is the inspiring story of singer Helen Reddy, who wrote and sang the song “I Am Woman” that became the anthem for the women's movement in the 1970s. 

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

After months of theater shutdowns and limited film releases, the thought of soon having an epic biopic grace our screens—particularly one that depicts the complexities of feminism and stardom—is thrilling, to say the least. But that’s exactly what audiences have to look forward to in the upcoming project, ‘I Am Woman,’ where Australian actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey gives an effortless performance as the feminist singer and icon, Helen Reddy.

The  film begins in 1966 when single-mother, Helen Reddy (Cobham-Hervey), leaves her old life in Australia for New York and stardom, only to find that the industry’s male gatekeepers don’t take her seriously.  Reddy finds an encouraging friend and ally in legendary rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald), who becomes her closest confidant.  When ambitious aspiring talent manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters) sweeps Helen off her feet, everything changes as he becomes both her husband and manager and relocates the family to California.

I Am Woman is the inspiring story of singer Helen Reddy, who wrote and sang the song “I Am Woman” that became the anthem for the women’s movement in the 1970s.  The film is a story of fearless ambition and passion, focused on the journey of a woman who smashed through the patriarchal norms of her time to become an international singing superstar.

Ahead of the film’s release, we spoke with star Tilda Cobham-Hervey about how she landed the project, the process of embodying Helen Reddy, and how the strong women in her life influenced how she approached the character. This interview has been condensed for clarity and readability.

Green Living: How did you get involved with, “I Am Woman?” How exactly did the role get on your radar?

Tilda Cobham-Hervey: I had got sent the script by my agents and I started reading it, and was just so taken by the story. I grew up knowing the song “I Am Woman,” but I didn’t know much – very shamefully – of her life. And it was such a joy to learn about her – I called my agent the next day and they set up a meeting with the director.

GL: What was your preparation process like ahead of taking on this role?

TCH: So, we were very lucky to have about five and a half weeks of rehearsal, which is very rare. In that time, we did a lot of hair and makeup tests and aging tests. Throughout that process, we started to build the physical world of Helen, and how I fit into that. And at the same time, I was doing hours of singing every morning. I was watching all of her interviews and copying her mannerisms, trying to capture the tone and the pace of her voice, and I had a few lessons with a movement coach and with a vocal coach.

GL: Did the hair, makeup and long rehearsal help you get comfortable in embodying her before any of the shootings even started?

TCH: Definitely! We did a few camera tests, and…it was incredibly daunting and strange getting sort of stuck in some of the past with the wardrobe or having different hairstyles. I had fake teeth and a fake chin, and kind of had to get used to all of that stuff. Originally, I was very nervous about that, because I felt like all of those sort of beats might get in the way and it might be really hard to remain authentic and try to make sure that I wasn’t distracted by all of those tricks. But once we sort of got past and got used to that, it was definitely helpful to start sort of being yourself in a new way. It really sort of gave me the freedom to explore and step out of myself a little bit more and lean a bit more into Helens world and her mindset.

GL: I know that a lot of actors will approach characters in biopics differently. Were you working pretty closely with Helen in crafting this character? Or did you try to keep her separate from the process?

TCH: The director spent a lot of time with Helen and her family, and they’ve been very involved in coming up with the script. But the director really felt that I shouldn’t meet Helen beforehand, and that we should save that until afterwards. And I think it’s because Helen’s at a very different stage in her life now. This movie is about such a particular time in her life and there’s so much footage of her online at this age, and it felt really important to sort of stay present within that time period. But that being said, by the end of the job, I’d idolized her so much and it was such a joy to finally get to meet her and just thank her for what she’s done for me personally in learning about her life.

GL: Did the scenes where you were performing come pretty naturally, or was it a process settling into that sort of on-stage confidence?

TCH: Oh, it was very much a process. [LAUGHS] I definitely did not have that kind of confidence that Helen had. So yes, it definitely took time and I look back at some of the early rehearsal videos, and they’re hilarious, just trying to take on someone else’s physicality and stuff. And Helen has such a particular way of moving and standing in her stage presence. I think it’s very unique. She was incredibly still and she really told a story when she sung. She remained very still, she didn’t ask for approval, and she was very confident in herself. So, that took a lot of trial and error.

Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

GL: I’ve read several interviews where Helen has said that the influence for so much of her work and her art, and specifically this song ‘I Am Woman,’ was based off of the women in her life. Were there any women in your life who similarly had that sort of impact that you wanted to reflect or embody in a sense, through this role?

TCH: What a great question! Yeah, she [Reddy] grew up with a lot of strong women and she always referenced them. And I think that it’s important to acknowledge that anyone that gets to a stage like Helen did, there’s a community of people who help you get there. In terms of me, I’m very lucky to have grown up around a lot of strong women as well. My mum’s a dancer, and I think through playing this role, it really made me think a lot more about how she managed to have a life as a full-time performer and raise a child. We were on the road a lot growing up, and I can see now how hard that would have been and I never felt like it was hard growing up for me. So you know, I can sort of admire that in a new way now. I have a great group of girls I went to primary school with and we’re also very close, and I really drew on them a lot. And the first woman to give me my first job on a film is director Sophie Hi. She’s a constant inspiration, a huge supporter of mine and yeah, she’s definitely a big part of, of my life and gives me confidence all the time.

GL: And finally, what is the biggest thing that you really hope audiences will take away from? I am woman?

TCH: Helen has been such a huge inspiration to me and learning about her life has been just like one of the greatest joys. For me that’s really–at the risk of sounding incredibly corny–she’s really deeply changed me. And she really challenged me and made me think about what I really want to do with my life and what sort of stories I want to tell. And I really hope that this movie can inspire other young women to sort of find their voice and to go after what they really believe in and follow their passion.

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