Tessa James: Taking her time

Date

Steve Dow

Her red-carpet dreams are as strong as ever, but facing cancer at 23 has taught actor Tessa James there's no rush.

Tessa wears Zimmermann "Lavish Mirror" slip dress, $1950. Bec & Bridge "Dahlia" long-sleeved top, $170.

Tessa wears Zimmermann "Lavish Mirror" slip dress, $1950. Bec & Bridge "Dahlia" long-sleeved top, $170. Photo: Bec Parsons

Cancer could never blunt the ambition of Tessa James. Illness, however, has given the Melbourne-born, 25-year-old former Home and Away star a new sense of time and distance yet to trek. In February, James ran a half-marathon, a year clear of her last treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma.

She dreams of an Oscars' red carpet, of meeting her childhood idol Kate Winslet and contemporaries Brie Larson and Alicia Vikander.

But wearing a camel-coloured coat in the boardroom of her Sydney agent, with her hair cropped short and cradling a big bottle of water in the crook of her arm, there is no hurry.

Zimmermann "Adorn Metallic Plunge" dress, $1500.

Zimmermann "Adorn Metallic Plunge" dress, $1500. Photo: Bec Parsons

"I'm a very stubborn, narrow-minded person, I guess some people would say. When I see something I want, I go and get it. Anything's possible. [But] I'm not so much in a rush any more.

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"Everything these days is so quick: on Instagram, it's so now and in-your-face and you think people are just overnight successes," she snaps her fingers, "and that can be really hard for a lot of people, thinking, 'Why is it not happening?'

"That's one thing I'm really grateful for, from being not well: I really understand time. I know that what is meant to be for me will be, if I keep working hard. I focus on the controllables, because there is so much in life you can't control."

Michael Lo Sordo "A-line Mini" dress, $599.

Michael Lo Sordo "A-line Mini" dress, $599. Photo: Bec Parsons

James and her husband Nate Myles, who plays rugby league for the Manly Sea Eagles, keep a Los Angeles apartment and their home on Sydney's northern beaches, having last year moved from the Gold Coast after four years. But James's acting ambitions in LA have meant stretches apart from Myles while he plays football at home.

In August, James is set to run in Sydney's Sun-Herald City 2 Surf with her father, the former Richmond Tigers AFL player Stephen James.

Dashing up Rose Bay's "Heartbreak Hill" together will be a cinch, compared to what they've both been through.

Witchery top, $130. Romance Was Born skirt, $450. Witchery "Amal" mules, $200.

Witchery top, $130. Romance Was Born skirt, $450. Witchery "Amal" mules, $200. Photo: Bec Parsons

Stephen, 51, had been diagnosed about 18 months before Tessa, with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A faulty gene underlies her cancer, says James, but there's no proven link with the form of lymphoma her father, now in good health, has been through.

"My dad and I have very similar personalities" - driven, organised, James says - "and I feel maybe that has something to do with it, more so than genetics. It doesn't feel like a coincidence to me, that both of us weren't well."

Did cancer send her inside herself?

Bianca Spender jacket, $995, and pants, $525. Sarina Suriano earrings, $190.

Bianca Spender jacket, $995, and pants, $525. Sarina Suriano earrings, $190. Photo: Bec Parsons

"I hit a point where I didn't know what I was doing, why I was here, what was happening, where my life was going.

"I thought I knew. I was 23, and all this bad stuff was happening. I tried to spiritually find why."

At one point during her six months of chemotherapy, James had a panic attack and wanted to die.

"I got through it because I had to get through it," she says, the composure in her face momentarily dropping.

"What was the other option? To sit and feel sorry for myself? I think I had to hit that low point, to be in so much pain and so upset and so traumatised, to then have that sense of empowerment again: I can get through this."

Her resilience comes from both her parents, says Tessa. Her mother Charis posted an Instagram message earlier this year in honour of her "beautiful, resilient girl". At 50, Charis, who was laid low a dozen years ago with kidney disease, has returned to school to study interior architecture.

A few days later, Myles speaks of his wife after a morning's footy training.

"You watch someone have to inject stuff into themselves and it is literally taking them away," he says. "The toughest part is watching them go downhill. It's frightening. It hurts you, when they're hurting. You want to do it for them.

"I knew she was going to be back to 100 per cent, but when you're watching them barely able to walk out of chemo, you think: Why can't I do more?"

Myles says his wife is now less materialistic than before. "She knows what means a lot to her: friends, family. She's a little bit more balanced."

Last September, James spent a couple of days in Shepparton in country Victoria, filming a small role in Spin Out, a bachelors-and-spinsters-ball comedy co-directed by comedian Tim Ferguson. The film is set to be released in September.

She also filmed a role as Jennifer Montana in the comedy about life's lessons. You're Gonna Miss Me, directed by Dustin Rikert.

James spent the first half of the year in Los Angeles, but has returned to Sydney for the time being. She has been working on her "acting muscle" - going for auditions, taking acting classes and training, and attending masterclasses conducted by travelling US acting coach Larry Moss who has worked with the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio.

"As an actor, the reality is you're not working constantly, and as a creative person I need to be around things that inspire me, whether that's theatre or fashion or art," she says. "It's important to keep your eyes and heart open."

Born on April 17, 1991, Tessa James grew up with her sister, Candy, five years younger, at Park Orchards, 23 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. The family later moved to Hawthorn, where her parents still live.

Her father's AFL career, from 1985-'90, was over by the time Tessa was born but she has vivid memories of seeing him play in the amateur league for Bulleen Templestowe: the smell of freshly cut grass and sports-massage balm are still evocative for her.

James was a "real tomboy" who played Aussie rules herself during primary school. "I realise now how lucky I've been to have such a close-knit, solid family," she says. "They worked hard and allowed us to be exactly who we wanted to be."

James was acting, singing and dancing in ensembles from age four. "It was probably about getting attention. My mum was like, 'Oh gosh, can you do something with that energy?' "

At 13, she asked her parents if she could take acting courses in LA, so without hesitation her father took her to undergo intensive study in the San Fernando Valley for a week.

Her energy has never dissipated.

"My husband says it now: the only time that I look peaceful is when I'm asleep. Even then, you can see my mind going. I think I get that from my dad."

Myles concurs: "I don't even think she relaxes when she sleeps, mate. She's a bull at a gate.

"The worst thing for Tess is to not have something to do. I've got to play on weekends, but Tess needs to relax a little bit more."

At 14, James won the role of Anne Baxter, a blind character, in Neighbours. Later, she auditioned for the part of Nicole Franklin on Home and Away - and was turned down.

"I think I was too sexy, or something. I didn't quite nail it. I was devastated."

Then she was called back for a re-test and got the gig: "I'd finished year 11, and had to move to Sydney." At the age of 16, going on 17, she was living largely on her own for the first time.

In late 2009, she met Myles through a girlfriend who was dating one of his team mates. Four months later, while holidaying out bush with her family, she received a text from him: "Let me know if you want to catch up."

Dropped home in Sydney that sweltering hot summer's night, she messaged him back. He suggested a swim, picked her up, and by midnight they were taking a dip at North Bondi.

"I thought I didn't have a chance," says Myles. "When she replied to the text, I was shocked.

"She had long blonde hair and her eyes stood out like - you won't be able to write 'like tits on a bull', but they just stood out, mate. They're like a light blue. They can change a little bit. Sometimes they can be really piercing."

Says James, "He makes me feel like a better person, and strong, like I can do anything and be anybody I want.

I really feel and know how much he loves me, especially now we have such a strong, unbreakable bond. We've been through so much for such a young couple."

Myles concurs, saying his wife "gave me another set of eyes outside of the world I was in. She's honest - the filter from thinking to saying is not really there for her."

Eighteen months since being given the all-clear by her doctors, James is health-conscious, balancing running with Pilates, meditation - "just my own that I make up" - organic food and check-ups every three months.

Her doctors tell her not to monitor herself every morning and remind her that she's young, that she can do whatever she wants. Does that include raising a family?

"There's no plan. I'm young, my husband's not so young," James laughs. (Myles is 31.) "Whatever in that space is meant to happen, will happen."

"We're both from very family-oriented, loving families," says Myles. "We're very excited to do that. We don't have a plan, timing-wise, but we'll wait and see."

But they're both ambitious, too, so surely that will requires compromises.

"It's not easy," admits Myles. "For either side of the relationship to aspire to go bigger and better, in a lot of ways you have to be selfish. And that can be a bad little ingredient in a relationship.

"It's difficult - there are a lot of sacrifices people wouldn't know about - but it's very rewarding. We're both selfish, but we make it work."

Says James, "Life can change tomorrow; we don't know where we could be. We dream of living all around the world. We're huge dreamers."