Tilda Cobham-Hervey on the complexities of portraying feminist icon Helen Reddy in I Am Woman
I am woman, hear me roar.
These words are such a part of the fabric of our cultural lives, a constant at women's marches and a popular design for feminist cross-stitch samples, that it's hard to imagine a time before their existence. But they're actually the lyrics to a famous Helen Reddy song, "I Am Woman," which became the unofficial anthem of the women's movement during second-wave feminism in the 1970s.
Reddy, a Grammy-winning pop star, co-wrote the song that would become her signature number, and she herself was an outspoken activist for women's rights. But she was a bundle of complexities, a feminist icon whose husband and manager, Jeff Wald, was manipulative, controlling, bordering on abusive.
All this is brought to the table in the first biopic to tackle Reddy's life, the fittingly named I Am Woman, which opens today in limited theaters and is also available on-demand.
Twenty-six-year-old Australian breakout Tilda Cobham-Hervey portrays Reddy, opposite Evan Peters as the mercurial Wald. Cobham-Hervey was tasked with not only learning to embody Reddy's physicality and vocal tone over the course of several decades on screen, but also bringing authenticity to a life vividly real and abundant in contradictions.
We called up Cobham-Hervey to talk about meeting the real Reddy, the similarities she found between them, making sense of and peace with the struggles of Reddy's life, and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When auditioning, how familiar were you with Helen Reddy and her music?
TILDA COBHAM-HERVEY: I'm very ashamed to say I didn't know much about her. I knew the song "I Am Woman," of course, I knew Helen Reddy's name. But I did not know much about her life. It was such a joy to be able to learn about her; it had such an impact on me personally, and I'm just so excited about sharing her story with the world.
She was arguably one of the biggest music stars of the 1970s, and yet I don't think she's well known the way some of her other contemporaries like, say, Stevie Nicks are. Why do you think that is?
It's quite interesting because I felt the same. Not a lot of people know much about Helen. She was quite a private woman. But I also think that she didn't get so engaged in the partying and the wildness of the '70s. She was very focused on her family and very driven and very about the work. Perhaps that's why, there wasn't as much drama around her.
You and Reddy both grew up in families of performing artists. Did that help you find a way into her?
Definitely. I've never played a character based on a real person before, so that was a huge challenge anyway. I approached it by going through and trying to find the bits that were similar about us, and then sort of going through and finding the bits I admired about her and trying to lean into some of those things. My mum's a dancer, my dad's a lighting designer. I grew up in the back of theaters and on the road as a kid, and Helen's parents were vaudeville stars and had their own radio show, and Helen started performing very young as well. I definitely felt like there was similarities there in the way we grew up. We both moved to America for more opportunities. When I moved here, it was a lot easier than when she moved over. And it was because of women like her that paved the way for the next generation.
Was there any story or information about her that really unlocked who she was for you?
There was so many. That was a really hard bit because once I started researching her I was like, "How can we not have that scene?" or "What about when she did this?" There was one story I heard really early on about that helped me understand Helen and Jeff because there wasn't a lot of stuff about their relationship. In her book that she wrote, she only refers to Jeff as "Husband Number Two," so that didn't give me a lot of insight. But there's a story someone told me about the fact that Helen and Jeff always used to drive separately to places so that they could race home to see who could get there first. That competitive streak made a lot of sense. The playfulness in there, it really helped. Because we'd all heard the hard story of their breakup and the dramatic story of their life. But of course, there was a lot of love there at one point.
The prep for this must have been crazy — singing Helen's songs, learning to embody her physicality. Can you tell us more about all that?
Helen is so loved. Actors always have to fall in love with the characters they're playing, but I fell so in love with Helen learning about her life. I just find her so inspiring, and her confidence and her bravery, that added some pressure as I was starting to take her on. I constantly had that fear of "How am I ever going to pull this off?" When I found out that I got the role I was 22, and we starting filming when I was 23, and I'm playing a woman who ages from 24 to 48, who was a '70s pop star, a feminist icon who has two children. At the beginning, it was incredibly daunting. It's a huge responsibility, and I took it very seriously. I did everything I could. I read her book, I studied her interviews, I studied her performances, I tried to create little things that people recognized in Helen, things like the way she stands, her physicality, the pattern of her speech, the tone of her voice. I started trying to take some of those things on. It started off as bad mimicry, and from there we pulled it back to what was naturally in me, because we really do want it to not feel like an impersonation. We really wanted to make it feel an authentic story and be as true to her spirit as possible.
Did you get to meet her or any of her family before shooting? If so, how did that help inform your take on her?
I didn't meet Helen while we were making the film, but I met her after the film. But I met her daughter and her son while we were filming. They visited the set. Her granddaughter Lily, she performed the original song in the film, so that was a really beautiful day on set. Her voice is amazing, and the song's so beautiful.
What was meeting her after the fact like?
It was such a joy. After spending so long really exploring her and trying to imagine what her life must have been like, to actually meet her in person was really special. She lived up to every expectation. She was really kind and generous and funny and charming. I actually met her at an awards show when she was winning a lifetime achievement award, and I had to speak about her before I'd met her, which was even more intimidating.
The ending, just seeing Helen tear up at what her song means to people, is pretty extraordinary. Was it incredibly emotional filming that for you too?
I was so nervous about those scenes because I'm playing older than myself, and it was really important that the songs are very different to her when she's older. We really wanted to capture that. The actual day of filming was quite funny because that scene is set in Washington, and it's based on a real performance. On the day, we were in a park in Sydney. There was about 20 people standing in front of me and there was a big storm coming in. We were really worried it was going to start raining. So it all happened very quickly. It didn't feel the grand [way] I remember when I first watched the film. But it did feel so emotional, imagining Helen in that space, and that moment where she realizes the huge impact she's had on the generation, and hopefully the next generation once they see this film.
We hear more and more these stories of amazing, ambitious, creative women who build up this incredible career and do something amazing, only to have it undercut by the terrible choices of men. Why do you think we see this over and over? Do you think Helen's story can be inspiring or instructive?
I hope that if we're telling stories of this day and age that they don't repeat as much, that we don't see that story as much now. What I find quite inspiring about Helen was she was quite ready [to do what she did]. She walked away from showbiz and she started a new life in Sydney and became a hypnotherapist and has all these other interests and passions. But it is very sad, and I really hope that that is a story that doesn't keep perpetuating throughout the stories we tell or [in] real life.
In some ways, it feels like, "Well, if the woman who wrote the unofficial anthem of the woman's movement couldn't avoid these pitfalls, how can anyone?"
I found that incredibly interesting about Helen. We're all so complex as people, and she was too. She's this person we all look at as this incredibly strong, vivacious symbol of feminism of the '70s who wrote this song. But then she was living a life and in a marriage that was complicated. He controlled all of her money. She was still a woman of her time. That made a lot of these things very tricky. That dichotomy in her I found very fascinating — that she could go on stage and do all of this and then come home and still be cleaning the house or looking after the kids or picking up the milk.
The film uses a lot of real footage from the women's movement and second-wave feminism. It was both inspiring and a little exhausting to see how many of the same fights we're still fighting. Did it have the same impact on you bringing it to life?
Absolutely. That's what's really bizarre about promoting this film, is we're talking about a film and a woman who is known for her achievements in the '70s, and talking about the women's movement in the '70s. And it's still incredibly timely, which is an odd thing to say because that was a while ago now. We're still fighting for a lot of same things. For example, the Equal Rights Amendment has still not been passed in the Constitution in America. That's something I would love to see change in the next few years. Yeah, it is exhausting. But I also think it's really important to acknowledge how far we've come. There's a scene in the film where Helen is one of the first women in America to get her own name on a bank card, which to me just seems completely bizarre, that that wasn't something we always had the right to. It's really important to acknowledge all the work that those women did to get us to where we are today. And hopefully this movie will inspire us all to go out and stand up and follow our passion and trust our voice and catch a bit of Helen's confidence and do our bit.