Fresh from making her acting debut in Mad Max: Fury Road, Australian supermodel-turned-actress Abbey Lee (who has dropped her last name Kershaw professionally) is now appearing on silver screens across Australia as Czech model Zoya in Ruben Guthrie, playing the girlfriend of a Sydney ad hotshot on his tumultuous path to sobriety in an alcohol-soaked society.
Lucy Stephens chatted to her on the way to the Sydney premiere of the film about the transition from runway to silver screen, who inspires her, and the series of serendipitous accidents that have shaped her life.
Lucy: Was acting sort of something you’ve always wanted to do?
Abbey: No actually, it wasn’t something I’d every really thought of doing, I certainly hadn’t planned on it. It was pretty much by accident; I got asked to audition for Mad Max after they couldn’t find someone suitable for the role after auditioning a series of actors, so they started looking at models. You know, Mad Max was the first audition I’d ever done in my life, and then I got asked, I got asked to do Ruben Guthrie while I was shooting Mad Max - it all happened very quickly! I didn’t want to do Ruben – I didn’t want to play a model, and I think I turned (Director) Brendan down about 17 times, and he kept saying: “ but she doesn’t actually do any modelling in the movie,” so I eventually said yes.
Lucy: And what was that process like? Crossing into acting - did you take on acting classes? How did you find that transition?
Abbey: No, no acting classes; I’m still very much in the process of learning. I’ve never taken classes, and so far I’m just running on instinct, um. And whatever it is that I have organically. I guess I’m just being really open to learning and taking risks at the moment.
Lucy: Have you had to put your modelling on hold to pursue acting?
Abbey: I've actually quit modelling altogether - I'm working solely on acting at the moment, which has been pretty exciting. Still learning the ropes, but enjoying it all the same.
Lucy: In this film you have an amazing Czech Republic accent. How did you go about creating that accent? Did you find it hard to maintain?
Abbey: I actually found it quite easy to pick up the accent. I used an accent coach; I used her for about ten sessions and she helped me through perfecting it. I worked with a lot of Eastern European and Scandinavian girls throughout my modelling career, so it was a sound I was familiar with, I guess - and I just picked it up quite quickly.
Lucy: Was working on Ruben Guthrie a different sort of experience to working on Mad Max?
Abbey: It’s like, the difference between doing, I don’t know, Cirque du Soleil and a piece off Broadway – there are benefits to both, and I learnt so much doing both different types, Ruben Guthrie obviously was a lot more, intimate, and collaborative, but still a great experience.
Lucy: Now that you’ve been bitten by the acting bug, are there any actors you aspire to be like?
Abbey: I would have to say my favourite, actor is….I feel like Meryl Streep; everyone should look up to her, whether they act or not. Gena Rowlands, I love her so much, she’s raw and she’s vulnerable and elegant but, she’s also got like a perfect mix of male energy and feminine elegance to her that I just find so appealing to watch. And, as an actress, I haven’t really seen anyone as good as her.
Lucy: Is there anyone in particular you’ve enjoyed working alongside the most? Has there been any particular person that sort of, as a director, or as a fellow actor, you’ve really got a buzz out of working alongside?
Abbey: Everyone that I’ve worked with I’ve learnt something different from, you know? I mean, obviously, to work alongside someone like Charlize Theron and also Tom Hardy was a pretty huge experience for me. They’re both experts in their field and in such different ways. But to narrow it down only to those two, I mean, I’ve also worked with Elle Fanning, who is in her own way, so wonderful and so talented at such a young age – there’s something really inspiring about that. I don’t think I could pick or choose at this stage – it’s been a privilege working alongside everyone – especially as a newcomer.
Lucy: So you got your start winning the Girlfriend Model Search – how old were you when you won that? Was modelling something you’d imagined doing?
Abbey: No – I was 16. That was also an accident. I was with my Grandma on the beach in New South Wales, and I got approached and asked to do it. And it wasn’t so much that I wasn’t passionate about it – it was beyond that - I had no idea that it was even an option as a career or a job. I didn’t have that sort of upbringing. I grew up playing football and digging holes with my brother; it’s not like I was a girl wearing nail polish and collecting Barbie dolls, I didn’t have that in me. So I guess you could say that most of the things that happened in my life were by accident.
Lucy: Would you consider yourself a fairly creative person in general?
Abbey: Yeah - everything that I’ve done has always been in the creative, the zone. I’ve always been a visual artist, so yeah - I guess that [creativity] has always been an innate part of me.
Lucy: Yeah. If you weren’t an actress, or a model, what would you, what did you always sort of envision yourself doing? What could you imagine yourself doing now?
Abbey: Um, you know what? I don’t really know! I guess when I was a kid I wanted to be a dolphin trainer - and then I got to high school and realised you had to be good at maths and thought, 'well there goes that idea'. But yeah, basically as a kid I thought I was going to work with dolphins.
Lucy: Yeah. I think it’s a pretty standard childhood dream.
Abbey: So you know, maybe, maybe if everything worked out, I would be - I don’t know – I’d be out on a Greenpeace boat somewhere tying myself to a ship, which is probably, actually exactly where I’d be. Let’s be real!
Directed by Brendan Cowell, Ruben Guthrie stars Abbey Lee, Brenton Thwaites, Alex Dimitriades and Brenton Thwaites and it is out in cinemas from July 16.