Sarah Snook: 'I've not quite done my time yet'

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Erin O'Dwyer

Sarah Snook photographed for Sunday Life by Hugh Stewart.
Images are available for ongoing use by Fairfax media but no ...

Sarah Snook photographed for Sunday Life by Hugh Stewart. Images are available for ongoing use by Fairfax media but no syndication. SL - sept 20 Photo: Hugh Stewart

In the blooming spring garden of a Bondi terrace, Australian actor Sarah Snook is talking about fame. Not the kind reserved for her heroes – those grandes dames of the silver screen, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench – but the kind of slow-blossoming renown that comes with a promise: Sarah Snook is an actor to watch.

"I wonder if they'll get sick of watching," laughs the 28-year-old, who has been described as everything from the "next Cate Blanchett" to the "next Leonardo DiCaprio".

"The amount of times I leave the house in my very daggy woollen jumpers, no make-up and I haven't brushed my hair in three days. I don't care, it's who I am, but there is a tiny thought in my head: 'What would it be like to be photographed like this?' "

The "one to watch" tag has stuck to Snook ever since she was short-listed, fresh out of NIDA, for the lead role in the English-language film version of Stieg Larsson's phenomenally successful novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

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In the end, the role went to New Yorker Rooney Mara. But Snook was flown to LA for screen tests with the film's star, Daniel Craig, and in the process caught the eye of influential Hollywood producer Scott Rudin.

It's partly thanks to Rudin's strong backing that Snook has become the go-to girl of the moment. In October, she'll be seen alongside Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet in Steve Jobs, the biopic about the late Apple co-founder, and again with Winslet in director Jocelyn Moorhouse's highly anticipated The Dressmaker. Then she heads to the UK, where she starts rehearsals at the iconic Old Vic theatre, playing in Ibsen's The Master Builder opposite Ralph Fiennes.

Matthew Warchus, the Old Vic's new artistic director, recently described her as "a remarkable actress", her talent as good as Judi Dench and Judy Davis rolled into one. And his decision to cast her in The Master Builder? To "give Ralph a run for his money".

Snook's resumé reads like a game of snakes and ladders. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo audition – advance. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo rejection – retreat. Title role in TV pilot Clementine after her first LA screen test – advance. Clementine dumped – retreat.

Missing out on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a blow, she says, but only briefly. "I said at the time I didn't feel I was ready for it physically or mentally and I wasn't confident in who I was as a person," Snook says. "I feel like doors will forever open and close, so just get on the turntable."

Being cast in a stage play with Ralph Fiennes is still sinking in. It comes close to trumping her equal billing with another '90s heartthrob, Ethan Hawke, in the 2014 film Predestination. (Hawke described her work in the film as "incredible", saying at the time: "I have never been a part of a performance that has been better than this.") For Snook, Fiennes and Hawke represent "childhood markers of 'wow'," she says. "They had both reached a pinnacle of success at an age where I was suddenly aware of who actors and actresses were."

The Dressmaker is the latest ladder in Snook's career. "She was so brilliant and funny in the [audition] room that I wanted to start working with her immediately," says Jocelyn Moorhouse. "She's one of those unique, one-in-a-million talents. "She's just got so much potential. She's creative, funny and she has the most expressive ways of putting her character on screen."

Snook describes her first day on set – which began with her only scene with both Winslet and Judy Davis – as terrifying. "It was like the first day of school," she says. "I was thinking, 'Oh God, I've really got to really bring it today.' Luckily, my character had to be awkward and nervous."

Sarah Snook grew up in Adelaide, the youngest of three girls. Her parents separated and she won a drama scholarship to the prestigious Scotch College, where she did drama classes three nights a week. She was 18 when she moved to Sydney for NIDA but her family could not afford to support her, and she did not qualify for government support.

She worked nights at the Vibe Hotel and on weekends as a fairy at children's parties. It gives her a strange comfort to think that someone will one day look at their childhood album and recognise the girl in the fairy costume. "Oh my God, I know her," she deadpans. "That's the fairy who's on Home and Away!" She is proud of putting herself through uni, but it was a difficult time and the scars linger. "I spend an unconscionable amount of money on food, then I look at a pair of shoes for $50 and think, 'Oh, I don't think so, that's too much. I'll buy the $2 thongs over there.' "

NIDA underpinned her passion for technique. She still recalls a voice teacher who advised that the emotions are held in the open-mouthed vowels of words. "So if there is a line you're meant to cry on," says Snook, "a good way to approach it is to say all the vowels in a sentence, removing all the consonants, then putting them back in."

Her NIDA buddy, actor Josh McConville, says Snook's daring choice of roles sets her apart. "Bold, risky characters require absolute technique and precision," he says. "This is the most exciting thing about her."

All morning, Snook has been sliding into a series of stunning dresses for our photo shoot. Luminously beautiful, the embodiment of a Hollywood star, she wears each one like a second skin. For our interview, she changes back into a tangerine T-shirt and comfy draped pants, and munches a salmon sandwich. There's nothing of the diva about her; only a slight sense that she would rather be elsewhere – honing her craft, not talking about it.

I meet her fresh from watching her latest film, the children's comedy Oddball – a feel-good true story about a colony of little penguins saved from a fox attack by a farmer's dog. She is utterly arresting on screen, even as a park ranger in khaki dungarees and steel-capped boots. I'm curious: why this role, in between so many more notable productions? Snook points to advice from her friend and fellow actor Mykelti Williamson, with whom she worked on the pilot for Clementine. "He said, 'Don't break the flow,' " she says. "Which I take to mean, 'Don't get in the way of yourself, don't over-think things.' I did it because it was there."

Her dream run in cinema has been bookended by two ABC miniseries. In the adaptation of Kate Grenville's novel, The Secret River, she played convict woman Sal Thornhill; still to come is The Beautiful Lie, based on Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and set in Melbourne. Friends and family keep her down to earth, as does her partner of five years, Angus McDonald.

The couple live together in Melbourne, where McDonald is a university research manager and musician. "He's been a solid anchor and a reminder of what is reality and what is important in life," Snook says. Only a year ago, Snook told an interviewer she worried about being recognised on the street. "That [fame] kind of terrifies me," she said at the time. "Particularly if the idea is to be an actor and tell stories about real life, or even imagined life ... If you can't interact with people, then where do you begin?"

Today she is relaxed, circumspect; she continues to catch public transport, her relationships are intact. And her attitude to fame seems to be changing. "You can't do what I do and hope people enjoy it – and if they do, say, 'go away,' " she shrugs. "It's something that's par for the course."

It's as if somehow Snook needs to atone for her success, put her fame in a box until she's ready to open it. "I do feel I skipped a few steps," she says earnestly. "A number of my extremely talented colleagues from drama school have been given slightly different opportunities. It's not that they won't get their bigger moments of luck, but I feel like I've not quite done my time yet."

Then the photographer picks up his camera and Snook is back on set, smiling; leaving only the thinnest wisp of her ethereal presence behind her. 

Oddball is in cinemas now.