Fate was obviously working her magic when Australian director Unjoo Moon sat next to 70’s pop crooner Helen Reddy at a dinner party back in 2013. The conversation that started inspired Moon to make a movie about the singer’s life. Now, about seven years later, fate has definitely played a hand in the production and release of her movie, I Am Woman. Telling the story of Helen Reddy’s start, her fight for equality in the music industry, her tumultuous marriage to manager Jeff Wald (Evan Peters), and her lasting friendship with rock writer Lillian Roxon (Danielle MacDonald), the film takes an intense and never before seen look at a forgotten feminist icon.
Playing our leading lady is up-and-coming actress Tilda Cobham Hervey, who like Moon, clearly put so much thought and passion into telling this story. I had the pleasure of chatting with both director and star about the inspiration and preparation it took to make this film and the long journey it took from last year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to this weekend’s at home release due to Covid-19.
What is your earliest memory of Helen Reddy’s music?
Unjoo Moon: I first met Helen at an award ceremony in Australia and in actually realizing that it was Helen Reddy, it took me back to my first memory of hearing the music. I was a pretty young child and I wasn’t old enough to buy an album or even to have gone to a concert. But I remember so clearly sitting in the back of the station wagon, the Volvo station wagon, and my mother and her friend were sitting in the front and Helen’s voice would come on the radio and they would wind down the windows of the car and let their hands move in the breeze and they both would sing along really loudly. It’s such a clear memory of how her music of that time, which was such a big change for women in the seventies. Women were learning about feminism and there were women going out to work for the first time and there were so many different things going on. But I do remember that whenever her music came on, it somehow seemed to make the women in my life just that much stronger and bolder, but that’s my first memory of what her music did.
Tilda Cobham-Hervey: I didn’t really know much about her before getting the role. I knew of the song and heard it growing up in Australia but I didn’t really know much. Once I read the script and found that there was so much joy in it, I wanted to play it. I really researched the film. I watched every YouTube interview and can still recite them by heart and carried that into scenes that we were doing. Yes. I studied those with a microscopic lens. I’ve looked through every single one of them and that was a real joy because they are all great and her performances as well. Of course, I studied those as well.
Unjoo, you mentioned that you first met her when you sat next to her at an awards dinner and she started talking about her life.
UM: Yeah, I had to really reel it out of her. Helen’s very private, I think she got bombarded with questions from me.
At what point do you make a decision that “Hey, I want to make a movie about this person?” Because I meet people all the time at parties and I don’t know if I want to hear more, so what makes you say go?
UM: Well, I’m like you, I can speak to a lot of people. I’m curious. I always want to know what people have to say and somebody’s always got a great story. Somebody’s always got something. I think that I was really struck that night by the scope and the depth of her career, which I didn’t realize. By the time dessert came around, initially, I was thinking this would be a really interesting documentary. And I ran home and I started watching her on The Helen Reddy Show where she hosted the midnight special on The Carol Burnett show. It’s like an amazing amount of videos out there, especially on YouTube. It’s such an evocative world still up on those videos. I kept thinking, “for a woman who has such global impact somebody must’ve already made a film on her.” I was really surprised to see that they hadn’t made a film about her. As I got to know her better, we’d go for walks on the beach, I’d have long conversations with her, I sort of started to realize that beyond the impact that she’d had with her music and breaking ground for women in the music industry, that her personal journey was really the thing that really struck me. The kind of choices she had to make as a woman and ultimately I could tell that that was the cinematic part of the movie. It was the journey that she goes on for herself would be a great movie. Then I had to really convince her that she should do the movie because it’s a scary thing to give your life rights away to a filmmaker. You don’t really have a lot of control over what they’re going to make ultimately. Her son, George Sommers, he was managing her and also supported the idea that I wanted to make a film. But when Helen agreed to do it, I do remember saying to Helen, “I’m not going to make a documentary. I’m not going to get everything right. I’m not going to get every word right. I’m not going to get every person in your life right. But the one thing I promise I will do is I will absolutely honor the spirit of who you are, what your life is and the impact that you’ve had on people.” So I guess in trying to really decide if you’re going to make a movie about someone, you just have to really feel that the story that you’re going to tell reaches an audience and it was definitely a story that I feel, as a woman, that I wanted to watch and I wanted to see.
What I love about the film is that it really embodies this idea that people are more than how they appear to be. Helen is more than just a housewife and a mom with a pretty voice and face. And Lillian is more than her size and her gender. And Jeff isn’t portrayed as like a bad guy, but as a whole person with very complex issues that affect other people. Talk to me about the importance of getting characterization right.
UM: It was really helpful that I spent a lot of time with Helen and Jeff and that I got to speak with members of the family as well. Jeff is a really good case in point of somebody who could have just been the typical bad guy in the movie. When we first got the script, we really wanted to make sure that the story was told from Helen’s point of view, so I actually didn’t go and meet Jeff, but about a year into writing the script, I got a phone call from him. Well, I didn’t get it from him. I was just told that I had to go and have lunch with him. I arrived at one o’clock and I was a little nervous as well. I had already heard sort of terrible stories about Jeff Wald and every time I sort of mentioned him in LA, people would say, “Oh my God, you’re making a film about Helen Reddy? Well, I’ve got a Jeff Wald story to tell you.” It was always some horrific story about him shouting at somebody or threatening to rip heads off. So I was kind of horrified to go meet him. A little apprehensive, I turned up at one o’clock and I actually didn’t leave that table till seven o’clock at night. I found him to be really the most charismatic, fascinating, engaging person to speak with but, he’s also very difficult. He’s very determined and incredibly pushy. So I saw both sides with him. And I think it’s just really important to me, that the characters in the movie, you’re really seeing them through Helen’s eyes. So if Jeff is just purely the villain, then you don’t understand why Helen is in love with him and why she stays with him. You need to see why she really has loved this man and why they were such a great team together at one point. That’s the thing with Lillian too. You really see Lillian through Helen’s eyes and Lillian Roxon is not going to be the person that maybe Lillian’s friends remember in real life, but that is definitely the way Helen saw her. I think that you wanted that complexity in the characters because it sort of feeds back on your central character, it feeds back on the way you see Helen.
TCH: Yeah, I really agree with you. And we were all really fighting for that. It’s really important. I think everyone is many different things. I think particularly when you’re telling a story of a person we all know and love, a famous person, we all have these ideas about them. It felt really important to try and find…yes, it was easy to sort of look at her on-stage performances or the interviews she did and go “Oh, she’s this great outspoken, feminist and super strong and had it all sorted. I think what was the really interesting part for us was to find her vulnerability and the fear she had and the complex relationship she had with Jeff and how she could be this really strong woman one moment, but then sort of live in a marriage that wasn’t always so feminist. You know he controlled all of her finances. I guess she was still a woman of that the time, to have those sort of two things work together, I found very interesting. And making sure that sometimes it was a bit messy. Like she wasn’t always perfect. Sometimes she made mistakes. Sometimes she was annoying. Sometimes, you know, she got things wrong and I think it’s really important to see women in that way as well, because not everything is perfect all the time. I think Evan did an incredible job Jeff’s character. Like you were saying, in some ways you could see him being quite the villain in the story, but you know, of course everyone is much more complex than that. There was great love between them and they were a great team. He’s so charming and energetic, and you can really see the pool of why they were together as well.
Absolutely. I thought it was so funny when you are in the conference room and Chris Parnell is sitting there , playing a record executive, talking to you saying, “Oh, the song [‘I Am Woman’] sounds really angry.” Coming from a modern perspective, like that song doesn’t sound very angry. Like there’s a very sincere, emotional aura about it you know, In my teens, I was very much into the riot girl movement, which is the complete opposite of Helen Reddy. So to show this perspective that the queen of housewife rock had such a scary impact is so funny to me
TCH: Completely! I found that so fascinating too. And it was funny doing that scene with Chris because Unjoo had to keep telling him, “You need to be a bit meaner to her. And they were like, “What do you mean? We can’t say that!” And she would say, “Well, they all did say that!” Thank God we live in a different world now. The fact that they thought that it was angry and man-hating, and really it’s a very gentle song. It really says nothing about men. She’s just saying that as a woman, she feels her strength and her power, and the idea of a woman having power was so threatening. I found that really fascinating that just because a woman has power, it felt like it took away from men or their position. There’s one amazing youtube interview, that I became obsessed with that I think is still online where a man is sort of talking about her song and talking about the fact that it’s man-hating and saying that all of the things she listed aren’t womanly, like “you’re strong and you are empowered” and all of things, and she’s just going, “Well, why can’t we just be talking about human qualities?” And she always brought up, “Wouldn’t it be lovely to have the tender man or the vulnerable man? ” What I always loved about Helen’s experience with feminism is it felt very inclusive of men, women, the LGBTQIA+ community. I think she was always fighting for everyone.
She was an intersectional feminist before that was a term.
TCH: Yeah, exactly. I really feel that. I really felt that deeply in her interviews, you really get that sense. I found that brilliant.
Tilda, last year you brilliantly played Melinda in Burn. I absolutely love your performance in that.
TCH: Oh my God, you saw that?
I reviewed it! I loved it. I thought that you were a star in the making! That’s part of the reason why I really wanted to review this one, is to see what you could do. And I wasn’t disappointed.
TCH: That’s so kind. It’s a very different role!
She is very different. She’s the complete opposite of Helen, though what I do like is that they both kind of explore what womanhood means. Yes, Melinda does it in a very like psychosexual way but I was wondering, what is your process for preparing to play a character in general and what lessons have you learned from both playing Helen and Melinda?
TCH: Great question! I think the process always changes a little bit depending on the people making it. And I always take the cues from the director and the team. But I love preparing, I’m probably always a little bit too over-prepared! I think that something I’ve thought about a lot recently, trying not to do so much and really be open to the moment a bit more. I think I just really love it. I grew up doing theater and I’ve always loved the rehearsal and the exploring that comes with it. On film, you often only get a few takes, so you don’t get a lot of time off to play with all the ways you could do a scene or explore a moment. In terms of prep, first I often start by researching as much as I can. Of course, that can only be so effective, one of them is fictional and one is real, but trying to really understand that person. So I often try and write a bit about the backstory of their life, so with Helen, I just researched about her early years. With Burn, I really tried to come up with how she became the person she was. I think the more you can emphasize with that person or understand the reasons behind why they do the things they do, the easier it is to play them. Whether you believe that that’s the right thing to do or not, is a very different question, but trying to understand how these people they become. I think he’s really helpful. I think in both of these films, I really enjoyed exploring physicality. I think that’s something I’ve been starting to explore a bit more, how people manifest emotions physically. In Burn, it was very much about being very inward and like how you’re gonna play this person who’s made very some difficult decisions that aren’t necessarily morally correct: how they believe that and why would someone do that and how do you get inside that person so that you truly believe the exact right thing that you should be doing? With Helen, I think it was so much about just learning as much as I could about her life and really trying to imagine what it would have been like to be in that position. Cause I think we get so much of her life. It’s easy to look at people in the public eye and have this idea about who they are. It just felt very important to really try and get to the truth of who people are behind closed doors. And I think that just happens from as much research as possible. I guess it’s just class in empathy, isn’t it? Trying to emphasize with that experience and imagining what you would do in that situation. Yeah, it always a bit different. I always loved exploring physicality and vocal quality. They’re very different those two.
It’s been almost a year to the day since I am Woman premiered at TIFF. A lot has happened in that time politically obviously, including Virginia becoming the 38th state, the last one needed to ratify the ERA, in January. Has the meaning of the film changed for you from when you were filming, to when it premiered last year, to now seeing it with an Australian audience?
UM: When we first started writing the script, [Producer Rosemary Blight] and I used to say to each other, “How amazing! We are going to be releasing this film when there’s going to be the first female president in America. It’s going to be amazing because people will say, ‘Oh, what a long way women have come with this movie,'” but of course that didn’t happen. The world has changed a lot since then. The women’s March had started happening and the Me Too movement started happening. We made our movie and we premiered at the Toronto Film Festival to a huge audience and it felt so relevant than at that moment as well, because of the women’s marches and because the Me Too movement had happened. The relevancies of those movements really helped women and the world see that even with the great strides that have happened, that there was still more work to be done. A movie like this can inspire women to think about the work that needs to be done. But what happened on top of that, as we’re getting ready to release the film, we got completely sideswiped by this pandemic, that shut down cinemas around the world. We had to really rethink the strategy of how to release this movie. A lot of people wanted it to release it next year, but I’m glad that my whole team really decided to release it now. Even though this movie was really designed to be watched on the big screen and works beautifully in a shared audience environment because people will cry together and sing together. You know, we have to really think about what’s happening in the world right now and I think it’s a really good time for an uplifting story like this. For people who are at home together just with their family, to be able to watch it in a family environment, a mother and a daughter, if you’re lucky you get to watch with your grandmother, mothers with their sons. I mean, I think it’s a good, great film for sons to watch as well. For me, as the scope of the pandemic just becomes more apparent, it just felt more important to get this message out there. Right now I think there are some really big choices that have to be made in the world on many, many different levels. Especially because of the election coming up in America, I hope in some way, our film will help in its own way, inspire and empower people, especially women to make really good choices for themselves.
TCH: Look, I know when they started developing the film, it was sort of before the #Metoo movement. So when I became attached to the film, the Me Too movement was very much beginning and happening. One of the first things Unjoo and I did together was actually go to the Women’s March in LA. So I think it started at that time. It’s weird to say that a film based in the seventies is still extremely relevant today, but it is. I think a lot of what Helen was fighting for, we’re still fighting for. I think we’ve come a long way, but there’s definitely still more to be done. I think it’s so important to look back at all the women that came before us and really celebrate And I just thank them for all the work they did. We live in this world where I think that it’s very easy to take for granted a lot of the things we have now. It’s really great to look back and it gave me a much greater sense of what has happened, what has changed over the last 50 years and made me think a lot more about what we dream to change in the future. That definitely made me stand up and start speaking out and really fighting for things I believed in. It’s such a tragic thing that’s happened the world and there’s so much sadness. I think the one thing I hope that could come out of this is that we pause for a moment to kind of reflect and think about the past and what we hope for the future. I think the only way we’re going to get through this is through empathy and compassion for other people. And I think with things like the Black Lives Matter movement, people still have to get on the street and march for basically quality and safety and respect. And I think the same thing still happens in Britain regarding gender. I think with this upcoming election, it sort of brought all of these issues to a head. Things like the Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t been passed into the Constitution. I really hope that, at this time, all people consider things like that when they’re making these choices. Unjoo was saying just the other day that it will be such a joy to be able to change the last title card of the film to “The Equal Rights Amendment has been passed.”