Vaucluse, Sydney, in early autumn sunshine is a hazy dream, glistening like some nostalgic film reel of the French Riviera. There are people bathing in the harbour, a couple of off-duty models sunbathing. In the cafe by the water, light angles long across the polished floorboards and the air is heavy with the smell of coffee and the briny water.
The only jarring element to the scene is a huge black car with tinted windows, parked under a Morton Bay Fig It’s a pimpin’, gold-toothed, swinging-chains Beverly Hills statement. Dude, 50 Cent called – he wants his ride back! Standing to attention by the car is a massive guy in a black suit with an earpiece and dark glasses.
I scan the cafe for the famous passenger. A visiting rapper perhaps, or one of the guest judges from The Voice. It’s Sophie Lowe, an actor poised to enjoy a long, golden moment. Born in England in 1990 but raised in Australia, she’s tipped to be the next Cate Blanchett. She has the same versatile beauty and her acting has received critical acclaim.
Sitting in the sun, there she is, the ingénue with the long swinging hair, leggings, a green top, black nail polish, no make-up. She looks so fresh-faced, so young, that I half expect to see a mouthful of braces when she smiles.
Of course there aren’t braces – just perfect straight teeth (thankfully, not blinding white American teeth). Lowe modelled before she acted and still has that cool off-duty model look that looks great even on a few hours’ sleep, with clothes thrown on in the dark. Despite signing with modelling agency Chadwick in her early teens, she wasn’t sufficiently captivated by posing for the camera to make it her main career.
“Modelling I tried to do. I didn’t really get into it – I never really felt like a model,” she says after we order breakfast. She’s on her third latte, having been up since dawn to catch an early flight from L’Oréal Melbourne Fashion Week, where she’s been modelling for accessories label Mimco.
“Last night was fun, though,” she says after ordering a muffin. “The models were really cool and taught me how to do the proper Zoolander face.” (She demonstrates and it looks like a beautiful person taking an ugly selfie – trying to look ridiculous but the features refuse to co-operate.) As for her own look: “I like the casual stuff,” she says. “But I’m doing more and more fashion shoots at the moment.”
Lowe moved from Sheffield in England to Australia with her parents and older brother when she was 10. Now she’s a global nomad. She is renting a hotel room in LA that she shares with a friend, crashes at her parents’ place when in Sydney, and plans to spend the northern summer in London. Her older brother, Sam, a student, lives there.
When Lowe was a teenager, modelling gave way to dancing, which in turn led to Sydney’s The McDonald College, where she took up acting, getting a few parts in short films before her breakthrough role in the haunting 2009 film, Beautiful Kate. Lowe was 17.
“Beautiful Kate was my first big thing so having all those people [her co-stars, including Ben Mendelsohn] around me while I was doing it was great. Rachel [Ward, the film’s director] was like my second mum. The Flinders Ranges, where we filmed it, was beautiful – it was the first time I saw that many stars.”
Lowe was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Lead Actress. She followed it up with Blessed and the thriller Blame, released in 2010. “I didn’t really like school. I was going to leave and I was happy I had Beautiful Kate because I had something to go to. I didn’t think of studying at uni – I didn’t want to continue that feeling I had at school. I wanted to challenge myself in other ways,” says Lowe. “Dyslexia also made school a challenge. It was only the process of reading aloud and acting that made the words come alive.”
Lowe is genuinely thrilling to watch on screen. Not only has she got one of those faces that exerts a weird gravitational pull on the camera, but she imbues her characters with layers of complexity. How easy would it be to play the sexy young thing? But add a topcoat of insecurity and arrogance and you have Connie, her character in the 2011 ABC television series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel The Slap, who is in love with a much older, married man.
“I loved the book and the character,” says Lowe. “I felt I understood her. I didn’t treat it as a role where a younger girl was in love with an older man – I just have a crush. It becomes easier to access the nervous energy. I’ve experienced crushes. Hasn’t everyone?”
Lowe also has a part in the film Two Mothers, starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright, about two women who have affairs with each other’s sons, to be released later this year.
After Beautiful Kate, many urged Lowe to move to LA. “But I wasn’t ready,” she says of her 18-year-old self. But now she’s 22. And she’s ready. “I went to LA in February. Everything’s really spread out. There is a certain colour in the air that is only LA – it’s like yellow and fog. Palm trees, really big cars – it’s really exciting to find places that you love.”
Like generations of Australian actors who have gone before her, having Australian mates there eases the transition. There’s a group of them, including Lowe, living at the Beverly Laurel Hotel, sharing rooms, helping each other learn lines, Instagramming the retro pool and meeting at the diner downstairs for burgers. Does it get wild? “I don’t go clubbing much – I’m a bit of a nerd like that,” says Lowe. “I love dancing – mostly hip-hop dancing. Dancing’s what I do with my friends. We go to someone’s house in the hills and dance there. I love Beyoncé.” Lowe sighs. “She’s the best.”
Being part of this world entails dealing with a lot of rejection, which Lowe says she copes with by trying not to take it personally, “although, of course, it hurts”. She likes to think the losses might all be part of some grand plan, that missing one part leads to the chance to gain another. “I want to be doing acting forever and it’s important I learn how to deal with stuff like rejection now.”
We talk about having your moment, that time when the stars align – as they are for her former co-star, Ben Mendelsohn, who at 44 is in a string of major Hollywood movies. “I don’t want one big moment,” she says. “I don’t think anyone has just one big thing happen, it’s more like a wave, going up and down, that happens throughout your life.”
LA has already paid off. A week or so after we meet, Lowe is all over the newspapers and trade papers for having won the title role of Alice in the ABC pilot Once: Wonderland. It is not a stretch of the imagination to understand why she was cast in a role that requires a delicate conveying of a delicate state – the girl who is becoming a woman in front of your eyes.
When she’s not travelling or going for auditions, Lowe is directing friends in video clips, and she sings and writes songs. She is intensely attuned to her emotions, and talks of wanting to experience as many emotional states as possible. “I’m a very open person and I love emotions. It’s such a brave thing just to be able to connect with someone – and understand each other,” she says. “I open up more on camera. I’m kind of really shy. But I want to experience all these feelings, go through everything.”
We talk about American singer-songwriter Fiona Apple, who said in a recent interview, “I just want to feel everything.”
“It’s also a line from one of her songs,” says Lowe, who gets the whole Fiona Apple thing. “She’s very open with her lyrics. I’m trying to be like that in my music, I just want to convey stuff that is really raw but feels true. You have to be really open to everything to do that.”
This way of living feels dangerous – but also thrilling. True openness is a rarity, or a transitional state – something present for a short time in youth. (“Nature’s first green is gold/Her hardest hue to hold/Her early leaf’s a flower/But only so an hour”, wrote poet Robert Frost).
We talk about more seasoned, hardened actors. The shutters are down, their interviews are muted versions of a performance. They’ll talk without revealing anything. “Nothing gold can stay,” the Frost poem ends. But maybe it will stay with Lowe. Maybe that remarkable quality she has that directors see is not something transient, but something innate.
We walk to the enormous black car and the driver in the tinted sunglasses opens the door with its tinted windows. And I think, oh, of course, this is the ride of a girl on her way. The ride of a girl who is already there.
This is part of the Hollywood dream made corporeal, the baubles of the ongoing golden moment – like the dawn flight from Melbourne and the suite at The Olsen, the fashion-week catwalk booking, and the borrowed designer clothes and shoes, and the person whose only job that day is to brush and blow-dry your hair, the SYD/LAX loop, the palm trees and the swimming pool, a dreamscape where there is a “certain colour in the air that is only LA”.
The big car takes the narrow roads around the harbour to a fashion shoot for Sunday Life where she will be until evening falls. In the car she talks about her dad – it’s his birthday and she and her mother have concocted a ruse: he doesn’t know she is back from LA and she’s going to surprise him at dinner.
She asks if I want to see her new tattoo. I lean in as she scissors her fingers and there it is, in a tiny point size: M & D. “Mum and Dad,” she says with a grin.
There is another tattoo. It’s even smaller, just a tiny line. It was her first and it looks less like a tattoo, more like a piece of lint. It’s a tentative tattoo. You can see what she’s done – she’s been trying something out, seeing how it feels.
Lead-in image: Sophie wears Tome sack dress, $530, tomenyc.com. Top image: Sophie wears Manning Cartell “Cinemascope” dress, $1089, manningcartell.com. Fashion editor: Penny McCarthy. Photography: Trevor King. Hair: Richard Kavanagh. Make-up: Jodie Oliver for La Mer.