When Sarah Snook was watching Disney films as a child, she didn’t see herself in Ariel, or Jasmine, or any other princesses. “I wanted to play the fun, interesting characters,” the Emmy-nominated Australian actress and star of HBO’s smash-hit Succession told former prime minister Julia Gillard.
“I wanted to be Jafar, or Simba, or Ursula. The roles I wanted to play weren’t the girlfriend. I wanted to play characters who were more complex.”
The 32-year old actress seems to have retained the integrity of her childhood ambitions; in the last decade or so, she has starred as unconventional characters in films and television series including The Dressmaker, The Glass Castle, Black Mirror, and most famously, as ‘Shiv” Roy in Successions — one of Gilliard’s favourite shows. She’s a woman with a “dubious moral compass,” according to Snook.
“I don’t agree with her,” she said of her character. “But I like to back her. There are too many one dimensional women characters.”
Snook spoke to Gillard on A Podcast of One’s Own with Julia Gillard, the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership podcast which Gillard hosts. Previous guests have included Cate Blanchett, Mary Beard, Hillary Clinton and Marcia Langton.
The pair spoke about the gender driven pay gap in the performance industry, the similarities and differences between politics and Hollywood, and explored Snook’s early experiences as a young actor growing up in Australia pursuing her studies at Sydney’s NIDA.
“I had a great childhood,” Snook said. “I rode my bike. We went camping. I always wanted to do boy-things.” The youngest of three daughters, Snook was raised in Adelaide where her father often took her on hunting trips, shooting rabbits and doing other ‘boy-activities.”
She began performing at just five, and went on to compete in Junior orator programs, Tournament of Minds, and “loads of plays and performances.” When she graduated from high school she chose to remain on the path of acting, moving to Sydney to undertake studies at NIDA.
“Acting is unstable and not safe,” Snook said. “My father had some reservations, but I had really good mentors who challenged me to think about acting as a job, not just something you do because you’re good at it.”
Competition at NIDA was tough. According to Snook, much of a young actor’s career is pitched on getting an agent and a job.
“My friendships were great and wonderful and strong,” she said. “There were 8 women and 16 guys in our class. That was pretty standard. There seemed to be less women.”
Gillard asked Snook how she dealt with producers and directors and “people who’ve got more power than you.”
“How did you manage that? Did you have a plan in your career, or was it more organic?” she asked.
Snook replied — both.
“It’s hard to have a plan in this kind of job,” she said. “It’s more organic. It’s thinking from one opportunity onto the next, and of course it pays to be a good person in this industry. You need talent, technique and professionalism.”
In many instances however, women are also required to have an unattainable elixir of youth. Ageism is rife in performing arts and sees women cast from the industry much more quickly than men, something that Snook grimly acknowledges– though she adds the situation is gradually improving.
“There’s this expiring date in Hollywood,” Gillard prefaced. “Women feel pressured to ask questions such as, am I young enough, pretty enough? How did you think about that when you were starting out and how do you think about it now?”
“It’s a visual industry,” Snook agreed.
“We need to show diversity and differences of things that can be beautiful. You get used to a certain way or type and believe that you’re not this or that and so how can you change or be different? I remember being told that beauty fades but talent doesn’t so work on one and not the other.”
Since then, Snook said she has used that advice “like a North Star.”
“Though now, we are more inclined to discuss beauty at any age,” she added. “Through those discussions and using a positive lens at any age, we can move away of the aspect of the closing door.” Has she sensed any difference in the ways male directors are treated compared with female directors?
“There’s been no stark difference I’ve seen,” Snook said. “I’ve had good experiences with both male or female directors. I’ve noticed however that sometimes, female directors can be spoken over, or taken advantage of. Some men don’t realise that they’re doing it.”
How about the dreaded Imposter Syndrome? “How’s that impacted you?” Gillard asked.
“I’ve been a victim to it,” Snook responded candidly. “I didn’t realise I was doing it. In the first five episodes of Succession, I was convinced they would fire me. But then it got to a stage where it would have cost them more to fire me so by episode 6 onwards, I started to say to myself, Sarah, pull your finger out and start acting. If you’ve gotten this far, you must be good.”
The most recent study to come out of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative revealed startling facts about the gender inequality of the entertainment industry. Looking at 1300 movies in 2019, it found that 27.9 percent of speaking roles in action or adventure films went to women.
In comedy, it was 38. 7 percent. Of the Top 100 movies last year, 43 percent depicted a woman or girl as lead or co-lead. Just three of those women were over the age of 45.
“Does this surprise you?” Gillard asked her guest.
“Not really,” Snook says. “They are disappointing statistics, but I’d also like to know what were the top 100 movies.
“I would hope there are more opportunities, and I do feel there are more opportunities now than 5, 10 years ago. There will be more. There are more women in decision making roles. As soon as we have more commercial interest to have more women in roles, then it’s going to happen. The less we rely on just box office, the more we can change the metric.”
So what’s next for Snook? Season Three of Successions will begin filming this month, when the Melbourne-stitched actress has been spending the last 9 months in lockdown.
“I am going back to the States in Season Three. It’s provided something to look forward to,” she said. “I’ve had free time, the first in a long time. I got stuck here since February.”
Next year sees Snook take on a lead role playing Anne Elliot in Austen’s classic Persuasion, which will be directed by English director Mahalia Belo.
Gillard concluded her conversation with Snook with the question she asks all her guests; If you could change one thing in the world to make the lives of better for women, what would it be?
“The onus of contraception to be on the men,” Snook replied. “That it wasn’t just us to have to deal with the pill. If it were easier for women to not be pregnant because of something the man was doing…a pill or something that they had to take. Particularly for women in developing countries, they’d be in a far better position. They didn’t accidentally get pregnant because of what the man did.”