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Jess Tovey on Home and Away, Hollywood, tattoos and maturity

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JESSICA Tovey has a lot of growing up to do. This isn't based on idle gossip or some tacky scandal involving leaked naked pics. Quite the contrary: the 24-year-old actor has just said so herself.

“I look back at what I was like two years ago,” she says, “and I marvel at how much I’ve changed.”

Today, as she vamps it up for our photoshoot, she’s miles away from the fresh-faced teen who was loved by millions as the cheeky but troubled Belle on Home and Away. She tilts her head, swivels her body and gives the photographer a smouldering gaze that would make Miranda Kerr wilt with envy.

“I was a bit nervous,” she confides later, over a Diet Coke at the local pub. “I’m not used to doing shoots in outfits like that. But usually it’s mind over matter with that kind of stuff. You put on those clothes and you’re beautiful and sexy. And why is it bad to feel good about yourself?”

It’s a wise way to look at it, which is a bit of a surprise. Watching Tovey in action, several words sprang to mind: professional, relaxed, happy, sweet, pretty and friendly. "Wise" wasn’t one of them - not at first. But talking to her, the concept pops up again and again.

Tovey is a refreshing antidote to the perma-tanned, hair-extensioned, Louboutin-heeled starlets so prevalent today. She’s cool in a floaty blouse, a favourite pair of gabardine hotpants - courtesy of the H&A wardrobe department (“They’re Belle’s!” she laughs) - tights and chunky ankle boots.

The only visible hints of the cavalier rebellion so common in her peer group are the tattoos on her left ankle and right upper arm. She had the first one done when she was 19 and now has four. “They’re all about family,” she explains. “It’s a personal thing. I deliberately got them in places where they couldn’t be seen for work.”

Her career choices are shrewd, too, but that doesn’t mean she’s short of work. First up this year, she’s shooting The Grandmothers, an Australian-French production directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), co-starring Naomi Watts, Robin Wright and Aussie hunks Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville, based on the 2003 Doris Lessing novel about two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s sons.

After that, she’ll go straight into a two-month run in Truck Stop, a new play by award-winning playwright Lachlan Philpott debuting in May at Sydney’s Q Theatre Company. It’s roughly based on the true story of two high school girls who dabble in prostitution, which Tovey, who plays one of the girls, laughingly admits, “doesn’t sound like a very fun story”.

“But there’s a lot of joy in it, as well as showing the darker side of these girls’ lives. It’s more of a comment on what kind of world young women are growing up in.

“When you see popstars doing concerts in their underpants,” she muses, “you have to wonder how that’s going to affect a 12 or 14-year-old girl.”

Tovey describes her own childhood as “incredibly lucky and wonderful”. She grew up in Sydney’s inner west, with her mum, author Libby Gleeson; dad Euan Tovey, a medical research scientist; and two elder sisters, Amelia and Josephine. “We’re very strong, loud women,” she says.

At age seven, she followed in her sisters’ footsteps and started after-school drama classes. Unlike her sisters, she become so smitten that she went on to attend the Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, spending her afternoons and weekends in acting classes and rehearsals.

She was a drama geek - and proud of it. “Nothing gave me more joy,” she reflects. “You’re spending all your time with like-minded people, talking and laughing and creating.”

Tovey’s parents were supportive of her passion but didn’t want it to interfere with her education, so they dissuaded her from actively pursuing roles until Year 12, when she auditioned for Home and Away.

Filming started the same week she sat her final exams. “I finished school and walked onset to a full-time job for three-and-a-half years,” she says.

Tovey received three Logie nominations for playing Belle, but after years of the long hours and lightning pace soaps demand, she was ready for a new challenge. Indeed, the show’s gruelling schedule was blamed for what appeared to be a dramatic drop in weight towards the end of 2008, which sparked rumours of an eating disorder.

The network vigorously denied it and Tovey remains tight-lipped to this day. But perhaps her exit from the show less than a year later - and her subsequent return to her old petite yet healthy-looking self - says it all.

“I had a really wonderful experience on Home and Away,” she says diplomatically. “But I’d gone straight from school to my first professional job and I’d never had time to grow as an adult. I needed to shake it up a little.”

That shake-up came in the form of landing the role of rookie cop Wendy Jones in Underbelly. “I went from playing a bad girl from a beach town to playing a police officer in Kings Cross,” she laughs.

Her profile grew further with Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, in which she played Leslie Carpenter, a naïve young secretary from the ’burbs who joins the fledgling glossy feminist bible as an assistant to Ita Buttrose (Asher Keddie). Leslie rolls with the turning cultural tide and blossoms into a worldly, independent young woman. Tovey knew instantly she had to have the role.

“It’s hard to find complex, intelligent characters when you’re young,” she says.

“There aren’t a lot of roles with strength. You’re often playing the wallflower, the bimbo or the girlfriend. You could actually see how Leslie matured and developed. Nothing is more challenging than that arc.”

Challenge is a theme the actor returns to often - not least when asked about shooting her somewhat graphic sex scenes in Paper Giants. “It was tough, but that was the point, wasn’t it?” she says.

“Leslie experiences an orgasm for the first time, and that would be a big moment. It’s important for women of my generation to understand what it was like then - their sexual liberation is a result of that time.”

Paper Giants opened Tovey’s eyes to just how far women have come in the past 30 years. “It made me appreciate how lucky I am to be part of this generation.”

Not content to just sit back and bask in that good fortune, she’s eager to get involved in more than just juicy acting roles. She began a degree in law and communications a year ago, but she says, “acting got in the way”.

More recently, she became an ambassador for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. “Climate change is the kind of thing I’d be involved in whether or not I had a profile,” she says. “They’re not feeding me opinions - they’re my own. I’m more than happy to take a stance on things I care about.”

Unlike so many of her acting peers, Tovey has no plans to join the mass migration to Hollywood. She’s thought about it, of course; she even went to LA not long ago for a few meetings. “It’s a different world over there,” she marvels. “They see hundreds of people a day [at castings]. It’s a different pace.”

A pace she’s not sure she’s ready to handle. “You have to be a certain breed to survive Hollywood and, right now, I don’t think that’s me.

“I want to go overseas knowing exactly the kind of person I am - not go over there trying to find that out. Right now, I need to grow up. The more new things I try, the more it’s making me change and think about the kind of person I want to be. I think there are lots of places to look for myself here first.”

She flashes that genuine, wide-open smile. “But I’m only 24. I might change my mind in two years.”


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