I Am Woman Roars at TIFF

September 9, 2019
We spoke with I Am Woman director Unjoo Moon and star Tilda Cobham-Hervey following the film’s triumphant premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

More than six years in the making, director Unjoo Moon’s journey into making I Am Woman first began at an awards dinner. “I realised I was sitting at the same table as Helen Reddy,” recalls Moon when FilmInk meets with her at the Toronto International Film Festival. “And I actually made my husband [DOP Dion Beebe] switch seats with me because I wanted to sit next to her.”

Coming face to face with the legendary Australian singer brought back powerful childhood memories for Moon, growing up in Sydney’s North Shore suburbs. “I had all these memories of watching my mother and her friends – all incredibly strong intelligent women – but because it was a different era, they were mostly mothers and homemakers. But whenever ‘I Am Woman’ came on the car radio, they would literally roll down the window of the station wagon and start singing at the top of their voices. In that moment, they became wholly other women.”

Thus, seated next to Reddy, Moon was determined to learn the inspiration behind ‘I Am Woman’. “Before dessert was served, I realised she had the most incredible story.”

Convinced somebody else must have told Reddy’s story already, she was shocked to discover this was virgin territory. “So, I figured it would be up to me to do it and I’m really lucky Helen trusted me with her story.”

From there, Moon spent almost a year with Reddy, now 77, before she even started turning it into a film script. I wasn’t sure how it would work out, but I made a promise to Helen that I would keep the spirit of who she is throughout the film.”

Born in Melbourne to a show business family, Reddy began her career at the precocious age of four. At 25 years old she won a TV talent contest; the prize being a ticket to New York and a record audition.

Within two years, she would become one of the most successful singers of the day with a string of hit records including ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ and ‘I Believe in Music’, going on to have 15 singles on Billboard’s Top 40 during the 1970s.

But it was her self-penned hit, ‘I Am Woman’, which earned her the title of feminist icon, winning a Grammy Award for best female pop vocal performance and launching her on a secondary career as an activist.

Unjoo spent more than a year searching for the right actress to portray Reddy. “We looked all over the world; in the UK and in USA and, of course, we found someone in Australia,” she says of Tilda Cobham-Hervey. “It was extraordinary the way Tilda prepared for this role and how she immersed herself in it.”

The actress will readily admit how she was initially terrified: “It was a huge and daunting task at the age of 24 – honouring such an extraordinary woman and getting to track her life for 20 years. But Unjoo did such a great job of researching Helen and then I had five weeks of rehearsals, which was key.”

In the early stages of development, the filmmakers were unsure if they would show 20 years of Reddy’s life but, ultimately, the aging process would really help Cobham-Hervey define the character.

“Having grown up with parents who would always tell me what a relief it would be to turn 40 and how you care less about stuff and just grow into yourself – which is what Helen did – was really useful. To be able to take Helen from being the mother of a four-year-old and then stepping into her shoes after she found success was so nice.”

Set against a backdrop of Reddy’s hit songs, I Am Woman relates how her marriage to former manager Jeff Wald unravels under the strain of his cocaine addiction. Despite his success in show business – also managing the careers of Sylvester Stallone and Deep Purple – he struggled under the pressure of being “Mr Helen Reddy”, the couple divorcing after 15 years.

Portrayed by Evan Peters, his performance as the out-of-control Wald is in marked contrast to the buttoned-down Reddy.

Benefitting greatly from actually spending time with the real Wald – now 33 years sober – Peters  says, “he is written very flashy and eccentric and, meeting him, he lived up to everything on the page. He is very colourful.”

Cobham-Hervey credits her dad – a lifelong Reddy fan – for doing all her research while she wrapped another film. “There’s so much responsibility when you’re playing a real person, although there was very little video footage of Helen,” she says. “So, it’s very difficult when you have so little source material; it involves a lot of imagination.”

Aussie actress Danielle Macdonald (Bird Box, Dumplin’) plays Reddy’s best friend, journalist Lillian Roxon, and Moon says. “Danielle was thrilled to actually play an Australian for the first time in her career”.

Keeping it all in the family, Moon hired her husband Dion Beebe as I Am Woman’s cinematographer. “I’m very lucky that I get to go home with him every night,” she smiles.

Previewing the movie for Reddy and Wald – and also Reddy’s adult daughter, Traci, and son Jordan – Unjoo sat behind them all at two separate screenings. “That was the most scary part of the process because we hadn’t quite finished the film but I thought it was very important to be able to show them and for them to be able to feel like they were on this journey with us and to be able to finish the film with their blessing.”

Reddy, she says, enjoyed it so much she was even singing along to her own songs. “She was commenting along on so many things and was absolutely devastated when Lillian Roxon died in the film.

“Helen was so moved by the end of the film; to have seen her life represented up there on the screen. She cried but not out of sadness; more because of her story and the nature of it and the enormity of what she and I had been through on this movie over six long years.”

Wald – despite the fact he is not portrayed in a warm light – was equally moved. “Jeff is really extraordinary because he is prepared to fully own his mistakes; he is open to everything that happened in that relationship,” says Moon.

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