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THE frightening worlds seen in many of today’s most popular TV and film series may seem a long way from suburban Canberra, but that’s exactly where rising screen star Stef Dawson grew up.
Best-known internationally for her role as Annie Cresta in the “Hunger Games” movies, the former Girls Grammar School and Radford College girl is also a key character the Australia/NZ TV series “Cleverman”, recently seen on ABC TV. Now the series is available digitally.
Her career trajectory has been swift but no surprise to her parents and friends in Canberra who, she says, always believed in her.
“I am extremely grateful to have grown up in Canberra, which was an amazing place to discover my love of performance and creativity,” she says, explaining that while she got to play Kate in “The Taming of the Shrew” at Radford, it was really as a champion in equestrian vaulting that she first starred.
“It is very much what dance would look like, it’s performing on top of a horse, a bit like circus,” she says. “It gave me fearlessness, it set me up.”
And she’s certainly game. At the New York premiere of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part Two”, the former tomboy trod the red carpet in a dress by Kim Kardashian’s couturier.
“Someone waved their wand and made me completely different,” she told a reporter from fashion magazine “Marie Claire”.
Growing up in Canberra, she says, gave her a myriad of opportunities. She was close enough to Sydney for her mum to drive up to NIDA for the kids’ programs.
“Also I got into classical singing while I was at school,” she says, and continued that when she studied at the University of Wollongong before attending Screenwise Film & TV School in Sydney.
Then came a break. She was selected to study with the Australian Institute for Performing Arts in Los Angeles, where, she reports, “I met a lot of casting directors, it was a boot camp for me”.
America, in her view, is the mecca of the entertainment industry and she has scored lead roles – Candy in “Creedmoria”, Barbara in “The Lennon Report” (about the night John Lennon was shot) and Annalee in “The Paper Store”.
“I’m enjoying it. I miss Canberra and nature, but I do love it here, there are so many wonderful roles to work on right now,” she says.
Dawson believes there is a parallel between her own life and the roles she plays.
“I’m the one who left my family and I’ve gone into a world I didn’t know, I am drawn to these works, which look at survival, what the world is and what the world can become when human nature is at its worst and at its best.”
A petite, flaming redhead, in “Cleverman” she plays Ash Kerry, one of the two best friends of the flawed central character Koen West, (Hunter Page-Lochard), the “clever man” of the title, who is gifted with special powers by his dying Uncle Jack (Jack Charles). He can heal, he can’t be wounded and he probably can’t die.
Steeped in Aboriginal lore, yet spiced with contemporary references to racism, asylum seekers and border protection, “Cleverman” has wowed them at the Berlin International Film Festival and on Sundance TV in the US, becoming a source of pride to the many indigenous Australians who have longed for their own superhero.
No wonder Dawson is chuffed to be part of it.
“I am grateful and honoured to be a part of ‘Cleverman’ and very proud of a show that has such an important message, uniquely giving voice to 60,000-year-old stories from the Dreaming, while dealing with universal struggles and having such international appeal,” she tells “CityNews” by phone from Los Angeles.
Along with her marginalised, white boyfriend Blair, played by Ryan Corr, her character Ash is one of the first people who see Coen’s true potential… “she’s the one who really looks into his soul and communicates to him, just the way Uncle Jack did.”
“Cleverman” is set in a twisted version of Australia not too far into the future and there’s an obvious comparison between the series and Dawson’s most famous role in “The Hunger Games”.
“I think I am drawn to stories set in dystopian worlds because the stakes are so high in these environments, both ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Cleverman’ are about inequality and survivalism and really delve into the dark side of humanity, as well as our potential for great love and hope,” she says.
“Cleverman”, Season 1, out now on Digital, Blu-Ray & DVD. Rated MA15+.