Ahead of the ABC’s anthology Fires, Torv spoke to Guardian Australia about her nonlinear career – and the traumas compounding around us.
If every memorable actor has a signature, Australian actor Anna Torv’s would have to be her voice. To quote a friend after watching The Newsreader, “I really wish she would do a recording for one of those meditation apps.”
In the ABC series, which aired its first season finale on Sunday, Torv wields this voice with a theatre actor’s precision as Helen Norville: an 80s news anchor whose composure behind the desk has drawn comparisons to Jana Wendt.
“I did a couple of sessions with a beautiful person they’d brought in to teach the newsreading,” Torv says. “But what I learned is that the phrasing, and all that kind of stuff, comes purely through the autocue.
“The way you speak as a newsreader is because you can’t see the next word.”
For scenes at the news desk, Torv read her lines from the autocue, falling into the odd lilt that defined old-school TV news.
“Back in the day, like in the 80s, these guys would just go and get wasted at lunch. Absolutely rolling drunk. Then get their makeup put on, come back in and then just go: ‘Good … evening … I’m … Helen Norville. Welcome to News … at Six.’”
In person, or at least over a spotty Skype connection, Torv is warm and quick to laugh, often at herself. When we speak she’s in Canada, holed up downstairs at a friend’s holiday house, taking a few days’ break from shooting HBO’s blockbuster series The Last of Us. Our call is punctuated by the sound of kids running around upstairs, enjoying the tail end of summer.
It was Norville’s offscreen turmoil that drew Torv to the role. Her last role was in Netflix’s critically acclaimed Mindhunter as Wendy Carr, a psychology professor who helps the FBI research serial killers. Carr is steady, necessarily detached from the horror of her research subjects, and Torv’s coolness plays perfectly in the gloomy world created by director David Fincher.
“I think often you take jobs in a kind of reaction to the last gig that you had,” she says. “I wanted to make [Helen] just not still … I just needed her to be just volatile and outwardly so, in every area.”
Torv is an actor who can shift a scene with the raise of an eyebrow; she’s never chewed the scenery. So, at first, Norville’s flares of emotion are jarring. But as The Newsreader unfolds, we grow to understand them as a product of the unbearable bullying, harassment and sexism she faces in the newsroom.
Developing the texture of the character, Torv says, “was everything you dream of, to be honest, as an actor”. Particularly working with Secret Life of Us alumni, producer Jo Werner and director Emma Freeman, and the show’s creator, Michael Lucas.
“Michael is one of those incredibly beautiful and confident writers, and also confident creators, who sits at the table and is open … you feel like you’re a part of the development,” she says. “It becomes invigorating … I say that because it doesn’t happen for actors all that often.”
For two decades, since she graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, Torv has worked steadily as an actor. Yet her path has been anything but linear.
After some early TV and theatre success in Australia, she moved to London, hoping to travel. She got an agent but spent a while “very broke, working in call centres”. A video game, Heavenly Sword, took her to New Zealand to star alongside motion capture legend Andy Serkis, known best as Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
Torv then returned to Australia for Steven Spielberg’s The Pacific before winning the lead in JJ Abrams’ Fringe. Her role, FBI agent Olivia Dunham, became a cult favourite. But when the show wrapped after five seasons, she surprised US fans by turning back to Australia for Secret City. It was almost four years before she was on American screens again, as Wendy Carr in Mindhunter.
For Torv, there’s clearly always been a pull to Australia. And last year, early in the pandemic, she decided to move home for good.
“I left Los Angeles when Australia said if you’re an Australian citizen come back,” she says. “They shut the city down and everything got very eerie. And I’m like, ‘I think I’m just going to get on a plane.’”
The next few months were spent in relative idyll with her family on the Gold Coast, where she’d been raised by her single mum.
“But then I go to Melbourne to do The Newsreader and it was just an entirely different experience,” she says, of the pandemic. “I mean, the shellshock of people there, people who had gone through it … you can see it in their faces. There is, like, PTSD. It’s just a different beast.”
The toll of trauma and grief is central to Torv’s next project too: Fires, an ABC anthology series about the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-2020, which begins this weekend.
Torv stars in the third episode, as a woman faced with the choice to stay to defend her home or flee as a bushfire encroaches. Her performance is quietly powerful, in a series that has the look and feel of a prestige US drama.
“Part of my desire to be part of [Fires] was that this was a devastating event, just a horrendously devastating event, that has been blindsided by the next devastating event,” she says.
“Those people who lost everything are now only a couple of years into regrouping. It takes longer than two years.”
Fires will premiere on Sunday 26 September at 8.40pm on ABC TV. The series is an anthology of six standalone episodes: Anna Torv stars in episode three.