Jessica Tovey wears Lover "Tilda" flare dress. Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair by Richard Kavanagh. Make-up by Nadene Monley. Photo: Chris Colls
Jessica Tovey likes to get out of her comfort zone. Recently she saw a string quartet where the audience listened completely in the dark. "It was pitch black," she says. "The ushers were wearing night-vision goggles in case anyone freaked out. I just stared at this tiny dot of red light. It's great to do things that are really odd."
Sitting in the sunshine in a Redfern park in inner city Sydney, near where she lives in a "wonderfully shambolic share house", Tovey, 25, takes off her cardigan and enthusiastically eats a roast vegetable and pesto sandwich. A takeaway soy latte sits on the grass next to her. Nothing odd in this picture.
When I look at young characters, I want to strip off all the labels that young women are given.
She's on a break from Network Ten's new series Wonderland, a much-hyped 22-part romantic drama set in a Sydney beachside apartment building filled with good-looking youngsters. She plays newly married Dani, who has a Greek background and a career in PR. The press kit says she is "fun and sexy", but Tovey is determined to add more than that.
"She's not this dumb Gen Y girl," Tovey says. "She's very switched on and she's very good at teetering between the world of being a PR and being a Daddy's-little-girl and being a wife, but also being a modern woman who is in no hurry to have babies."
Wonderland is shaping up to be an Aussie drama blockbuster for Ten. Its debut episode attracted 939,000 viewers, a bigger first night than stable mate Offspring (868,000 viewers). Its producer Andy Walker snapped up Tovey after her impressive guest role on another Ten show, Mr and Mrs Murder, in which she played a psychopathic murderer.
"Not only is Jess very photogenic, she is quite a chameleon physically," says Walker. "If you look at photos of her over the years, she changes to suit every role and that is a tremendous advantage. The breadth of her performance ability is so strong that whatever she chooses to do, she'll be fantastic at it."
Tovey is dressed in a blue-and-white silk polka dot dress by Gorman, black tights and black ankle boots with "scratched cheap sunglasses". She says she's not particularly into fashion. "I'm a no-muss, no-fuss kind of girl," she says. On her left hand she wears three delicate silver rings: one is a tiny knot design, another is a little bow and the last is a butterfly.
"I can't give you a sentimental story about them," she says matter-of-factly. "It's more like, when it's seven in the morning and you've just rolled out of bed, and you know you should look presentable, throwing on a couple of rings makes you feel like you've gone to that slight bit of effort."
Tovey has a very likeable, no-nonsense way. She's good company, laughs a lot and never dodges a question. When I ask if she's happy to talk about her love life she simply replies, "I don't have a partner. So there's not much to talk about. I don't have time! How would I fit one in?"
Picking up her sandwich, Tovey says that she became a vegetarian at the age of eight. "My two older sisters bullied me into it," she says, adding that neither of her parents are vegetarian. "Dad just said, 'That's fine if you want to be vegetarian, but you'll have to know how to cook.' So we all learnt at a very young age.
"My parents have never stopped us from doing anything unless it was dangerous or stupid. We were allowed to make our own decisions and mistakes. The only way you ever learn is to fall on your arse."
Tovey - who is now "pescetarian" (she eats fish) - is the youngest daughter of award-winning children's novelist Libby Gleeson and Euan Tovey, a medical research scientist. Her older sisters are Amelia (a filmmaker who lives in New York) and Josephine (a journalist at Fairfax Media).
To say she grew up in a particularly smart family would be an understatement. "Everyone is really smart, but it didn't feel that way when we were kids," she says.
"Jo loved books and loved to write. Amy was always very independent, and I was the drama nerd. I clearly remember thinking, 'This is what I'm good at, this gives me joy.' Acting is my form of storytelling. Jo has writing. Amy has film and art. I have drama. I'm a very family-oriented person. My family are pretty massive to me."
Tovey won her first drama prize when she was six years old. "It was a surprise to us," her mother recalls. "You just don't anticipate that kind of talent at that young age. She was a really bright and vivacious sort of a kid.
We always supported her acting, but we were adamant she wasn't going to get an agent and get into television while she was still a little kid. We wanted her to finish high school."
Tovey went to Newtown High School of the Performing Arts and appeared on stage with the Australian Theatre for Young People, before landing her first television role as Belle Taylor on Home and Away, aged 17. She was nominated for two Logie awards before quitting the show in 2009. (Belle was killed off.) Since then she has appeared in the profile-boosting series Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo and Underbelly: The Golden Mile and performed on stage in the confronting play Truck Stop, a tale of teenage girls prostituting themselves to truck drivers during school lunch break.
Lachlan Philpott, the writer of Truck Stop, has known Tovey since she was in the NSW Public Schools Junior State Drama Ensemble. "It always seemed really obvious to me that Jess could be a huge star. She can be simultaneously fragile, bold and outrageous, which was perfect for Truck Stop."
Tovey says she'd love to do more theatre, even though she finds it terrifying. "People often ask me if I prefer film, stage or television and I know it seems blasphemous, but I really love television. I like the speed of it. It forces you to be in the moment. You have to go on instinct. Television is like a giant Theatresports game every day."
Tovey says she would love the chance to work in American television and follow in the footsteps of Rose Byrne, Miranda Otto or Toni Collette. "If a job was there, I'd take it," she says. "It's not that Hollywood grabs me.
But the work would if it was interesting and with fabulous people, and offered some new experiences. But right now, I'm really happy working in Australia."
Her only concern is finding meaty roles. While older actresses worry roles are drying up, Tovey says roles for younger women are too lightweight and lacking depth and intelligence. "I have found it very frustrating. When you're in your early 20s and in your teens, there are too many roles where you play just the daughter, or just the girlfriend, or just the secretary or - I hate to use the word - the slut. None of them tap into the underbelly of what young women go through," she says.
"I'm sure most young women agree that the period from 15 to 25 is an incredibly confusing, tumultuous time, where you do learn how to stop pandering to that stereotype of being a girl and start feeling confident. I've had five years of huge change in the kind of woman that I want to become.
"When I look at young characters like Dani in Wonderland, I want to strip off all the labels that young women are given - good girl, Gen Y, new bride - I want to get beneath those labels and find the real person there."
Tovey has just made three films: Adoration with Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, the story of two women, lifelong friends, who start passionate affairs with each other's sons; Tracks, based on Robyn Davidson's real-life camel trek across the Simpson Desert starring Mia Wasikowska and Adam Driver; and Lemon Tree Passage, a supernatural thriller inspired by the legend of a ghost haunting a stretch of road north of Newcastle.
She says working on Adoration was "dreamlike". "I had pretty much only done television and I'm walking on set and there's Naomi Watts and there's Ben Mendelsohn and there's Robin Wright. But then you see Naomi sitting across the catering table and she's digging into her meal and talking about her kids and just being completely relaxed and lovely and warm."
Tovey is ready to head home where she lives with a couple of journalists, a filmmaker and a painter. "None of them are actors, which is great," she says laughing. She tells me a pile of books is waiting for her on her bedside table: Franz Kakfa's The Metamorphosis, Patti Smith's memoir Just Kids, some Mary Oliver poetry and a book about Buddhism. "A weird mix," she says.
At home, she listens to Cloud Control's new album or catches up on classic cinema, recently Ingmar Bergman films. She loves tea. "Our kitchen bench top is exploding with tea. My housemates and I are working through about 50 different types.
"Everyone I live with is creative and interesting," says Tovey. "I don't think I've been to so many art galleries as I have since I moved into the house.
"We go to weird dance parties or weird installation nights. I find other people far more interesting than myself. So having a life that is greater than my work is so important to me."
Lead-in photography by Chris Colls. Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair by Richard Kavanagh. Make-up by Nadine Monley. Jessica wears Dion Lee shirt and Lover bodysuit.