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Yael Stone: advice, auditions and Picnic

Actor Yael Stone on her serendipitous route to being on series across Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO, and what she would impart to budding actors.

Yael Stone in Deep Water, Orange Is The New Black and Picnic at Hanging RockYael Stone in Deep Water, Orange Is The New Black and Picnic at Hanging Rock

By following instincts and opportunity, Australian actor Yael Stone has unintentionally become one of the voices at the forefront of online storytelling. First she was cast in one of Netflix’s early success stories – Orange is the New Black. Then the Vimeo series she featured in High Maintenance was picked up by HBO. And even more recently Foxtel’s TV adaptation Picnic at Hanging Rock was snapped up by Amazon Prime in the US before it had even wrapped its Victorian shoot.

But Stone says in all those cases, she was simply responding to the stories and characters.

“With High Maintenance… talent and unique storytelling is really obvious to me, so when those guys asked me if I wanted to be in their web series, I was like ‘absolutely’,” she says.

“And the same thing with Orange is the New Black. Netflix was such a fledgling thing, the agents asked if I maybe wanted to try out for this web series thing, which was going to be online, but not quite online. It’s not on a network, but it’s not a web series. [But] then I read it and it was amazing. [I thought] this is unlike anything else I’ve ever read. This is unlike anything in the television landscape.

“Maybe I’m lucky I have a sense of people’s wonderful work, then if they want to include me in that I’m thrilled.”

“And reading the scripts for Picnic at Hanging Rock, I read the first two episodes and was like this is the bomb. This is going to be fantastic. Maybe I’m lucky I have a sense of people’s wonderful work, then if they want to include me in that I’m thrilled.”

Picnic at Hanging Rock premiered at Berlin International Film Festival in February to a standing ovation and is set to air on Foxtel’s Showcase from 6 May. It’s one of a number of Australian series Stone has been involved in, including a starring role in acclaimed 2016 SBS series Deep Water.

On returning to work in Australia, it’s both a conscious choice for Stone, and a response to the writing.

“It’s definitely both. I made it very clear to the teams that I work with in Australia I’m very serious about finding roles [here],” she says, adding that her Australian manager Lisa Mann was very proactive about finding those opportunities.

“I really care about being Australian and connecting with my home but it’s also motivated by great scripts and great storytelling and an industry that I enjoy.”

Yael Stone with co-stars Madeleine Madden and Lily Sullivan and Foxtel's Brian Walsh at the Picnic media launchYael Stone with co-stars Madeleine Madden and Lily Sullivan and Foxtel's Brian Walsh at the Picnic media launch

Here are some of the tips gleaned from Stone’s already formidable career as an actor both in Australia and overseas:

PATHWAYS TO BECOMING AN ACTOR

Stone attended Sydney’s prestigious drama school NIDA, but says there’s not a right or wrong way to train as an actor.

“Everyone finds their way differently,” she says.

“I know a lot of people who have gone that route [of tertiary training] and a lot of people who have gone without that and had really nourishing training in the industry. Because I do also believe from every job you learn so much.”

After Stone graduated from NIDA, she was mainly doing theatre, and secured her first onscreen role in All Saints.

“It was meant to be one episode and turned out to be a six-month job, and that was amazing to me to be able to support myself as a young person,” she says.

“That was my bread and butter and my learning playpen as well. I’d worked closely with [late actor] Mark Priestly when I was about 15 on The Farm, which was a beautiful show made by the ABC, and there I was six or seven years later working with Mark as a grown-up and working with wonderful people like Andy Supanz and Virginia Gay. That show really gave me a chance to learn because the stakes are so high dramatically. Especially when you’re a guest character – all the awful stuff happens to a guest character. And I just took it really seriously and I got to re-oil those [skills]: the mechanics of a set and working in front of a camera, after three years of really overanalysing my presence on the stage [at NIDA]. It was just great to be thrown in.”

LOS ANGELES ISN’T THE ONLY OPTION

While many Australian actors head straight for Los Angeles, Stone has only ever really worked out of New York.

At first, Stone found herself in the city thanks to the 2010 production of Diary of a Madman with Geoffrey Rush.

“We went from an amazing season at Belvoir and then did an amazing season at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music),” she says. “It was a real learning curve for me.”

The theatre at BAM was enormous in comparison to the intimate 300-seater in Sydney.

“Theatrically really having my chops be where they need to be, having those huge audiences and there were even moments of cultural translation with the comedy that we had to adjust to,” she says.

“It was early February 2011 when we toured it. I had a shaved head. It was so cold. Then there was just a life energy in New York. Despite having lived there for six years, it still beats me all the time. It’s a really tough city. I’ve always found it quite intense.”

But it’s also the city where Stone’s career-pivoting moment came – it’s where she auditioned for and won the role of Lorna Morello in Orange is the New Black. And it’s where she’s lived and filmed the last six seasons of the series (season six has wrapped, but hasn’t released).

Stone says she never realised New York was even an option for actors until that first tour with Diary of a Madman, when she met with casting agent Alexa Fogel and then-assistant Christine Kromer.

“[Casting agents] took me to lunch and very sweetly told me ‘you could work here’.”

“They took me to lunch and very sweetly told me ‘you could work here’. I hadn’t had any meetings. I’d never thought to. I was just doing the show. But they said, ‘you could have a career here… there’s a whole industry here in New York and you could fit into this town.’ I really went off the back of that and the encouragement of my friend Ashley Zukerman (The Code), and that’s when I got my representation in the US. And I did another tour to New York with a different show and then I just stayed.”

(Read more about the New York industry here.)

THE AUDITION PROCESS

Yael Stone as Dora LumleyYael Stone as Dora Lumley

For Stone, finding the physicality and markers for a character really happens early on.

“For those really defining characteristics, I tend to find them when I’m preparing an audition,” she says.

“So for example Lorna’s accent [in Orange], I came in with that accent into the audition.”

When she auditioned for teacher Dora Lumley in Picnic at Hanging Rock, she stuck a wad of toilet paper into her bottom teeth so she appeared to have an underbite.

“That came from reading the script. Bea [Beatrix Christian, one of the writers] describes when we first meet Dora Lumley, is she’s like a sniffer dog and I just felt like this bulldoggish, canine feel was interesting and I followed that.

“Often it comes from the script and it starts for me very much at the audition, because that’s my offering, that’s my job interview.”

THEATRE VS SCREEN

For Australian actors keen to get involved in theatre in the US, while it’s not impossible, Stone says the process is more complex.

“It’s a little bit more complicated, because stage and screen have separate unions. So with SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) if you’ve got the right visa they allow you to work, but it’s different for stage. For theatre they’re much more protective of American jobs.”

So while Stone has toured to the States with Australian productions, she has not acted in US theatre.

“I haven’t in the past had a Green Card and that’s been a little bit prohibitive in terms of working in the theatre. Not impossible, but different. Maybe that’s my excuse as to why I haven’t done it.

“[But] I am always excited and rightfully intimidated at the possibility of being on stage anywhere in the world, because it’s a really rigorous thing to do and you have to be match-fit otherwise it eats you up. It’s a whole other game. And the seasons are longer in the States as well, so that’s another thing.”

FOLLOW YOUR INSTINCTS

Noah Taylor and Yael Stone in Deep WaterNoah Taylor and Yael Stone in Deep Water

Stone says when you have a feeling or a voice that tells you when something is right, listen to it. But also do the same when something feels wrong.

When it came to Picnic, Orange, Deep Water and High Maintenance, Stone says they were no-brainers. But it’s not always the case.

“I have a very strong instinct about things that are weird to me and things that feel immoral. And I’ve had one of each. I’ve had a big opportunity where I thought ‘this isn’t the right job’ and it was a very hard decision for my representatives to swallow.

“And then I’ve had another situation, where I’ve just said morally I don’t [want to do it], because it involved the representation of a woman, not even my character, but just in the film who was a living person, and I felt like a really devastating and traumatic event in her life wasn’t being represented in the way that was going to be healing at all for her… So there’s a very strong instinct on that, much to the frustration sometimes of people that I work with.

“I try and follow an instinct and I don’t always get it right, but I have found listening closely to that voice is helpful. It’s when I move away from that voice I get confused.”

STORIES ARE GLOBAL

One of the biggest things Stone has noticed about television now, is its ability to travel.

“Honestly when Deep Water came out, I had people in New York stop me and I made the assumption that they’re stopping me because of Orange, but I had a lot of feedback in that time when Deep Water was on Netflix,” she says.

“Likewise Deep Water did so well in the UK. I just think our stories travel and this new world where stories can be exchanged globally is a really positive one.

“When that sale happened with Picnic for Amazon Prime, I just felt like so excited, particularly for FremantleMedia and Foxtel to have taken a leap on a risky project and have it pay off so hard.

“And then it just means this wonderful strange story that started with a book set 100 years ago, which everyone thinks is somehow a true story, it now gets this other life and it gets to travel the world again after Peter Weir.”


Picnic at Hanging Rock airs on Foxtel’s Showcase from 6 May.

It is also set to air in the US on Amazon Prime, the UK on BBC, France on Canal +, and Germany on Deutsche Telekom/Entertain TV Serien. And later this month, it will make its North American premiere at Tribeca Film Festival.