Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Words by MEG MA­SON

Aussie TV di­rec­tor Jet Wilkin­son on tak­ing Hol­ly­wood by storm.

For a pair of hard-work­ing par­ents, an ac­coun­tant and a sec­re­tary-turned-house­wife from a down-to-earth sub­urb like Dun­das in Syd­ney’s north-west, to have their teenage daugh­ter an­nounce that she is plan­ning to be­come a Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor isn’t nec­es­sar­ily wel­come news.

“They said, ‘The worst thing you can do is an arts de­gree,’” laughs Jet Wilkin­son, that teenage daugh­ter, now 43. “I ended up do­ing an arts de­gree.”

And in­stead of pur­su­ing their sug­gested ca­reer in teach­ing, Wilkin­son did be­come a Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor and pro­ducer – one of the rel­a­tively few Aus­tralians to make the no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult leap from the do­mes­tic tele­vi­sion in­dus­try to the Amer­i­can big leagues.

But to hear her story, it seems clear Wilkin­son was never in line for a so-called nor­mal life. Born in Viet­nam in 1974, at the end of the bru­tal 20-year war, Wilkin­son spent her first six months of life in an or­phan­age, be­fore be­ing flown out as part of Op­er­a­tion Babylift, the sec­ond air­lift evac­u­a­tion of or­phans be­fore Saigon fell to com­mu­nism. Af­ter­wards, Wilkin­son was adopted by Aus­tralian par­ents and went on to spend a happy child­hood in Syd­ney, which in­cluded, among other sim­ple lux­u­ries, an hour or two of watch­ing tele­vi­sion in the af­ter­noon.

“In­stead of the shows them­selves,” Wilkin­son says, “I was ob­sessed with be­hind-the-scenes doc­u­men­taries, the ‘mak­ing ofs’ that would come on, on Satur­days. I’d watch them in awe, but it was al­ways the peo­ple who were be­hind the cam­era. And if I ever saw a film crew on the street, I’d go up and just stand and watch.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, Wilkin­son chanced part-time work with Aus­tralia’s lead­ing TV pro­duc­tion com­pany South­ern Star Xanadu. Her first task? Sort­ing fan mail for Po­lice Res­cue’s Gary Sweet. But she quickly filled her ré­sumé with pro­duc­tion roles on Home And Away, All Saints, Neigh­bours, Won­der­land and Packed To The Rafters, an im­pres­sive cat­a­logue of Aus­tralia’s best-loved shows.

“I feel blessed that I’ve been in con­stant work since 1995,” Wilkin­son says, well aware that is some­thing in no way guar­an­teed for gig­ging tele­vi­sion work­ers. “It’s been a life­time of hard work, ded­i­ca­tion and pas­sion, but I feel very lucky that I could build up so much ex­pe­ri­ence at home.”

Be­cause, af­ter 16 years in the busi­ness, Hol­ly­wood came knock­ing. With that nec­es­sary com­bi­na­tion of ex­pe­ri­ence and luck, Wilkin­son’s show reel found its way to ex­ec­u­tives at The Gersh Agency, one of the most in­flu­en­tial ta­lent agen­cies in the US. (Past clients in­clude Richard Bur­ton, David Niven and Humphrey Bog­art.)

“I’d tried to break into the US a few years ear­lier, but it didn’t work out. But when Gersh called me and said, ‘It’s time to ex­pand your ca­reer in the US’ it felt right. I al­ways be­lieve the uni­verse has a plan and that things hap­pen for a rea­son.”

Just nine months af­ter the call, Wilkin­son was state­side and liv­ing out of a suit­case: “The first time I di­rected here, I couldn’t hold my script I was shak­ing so much. But I think ev­ery sin­gle show you work on, you step onto the sound stage and you’re ner­vous. It’s healthy and if you’re not ner­vous, that’s a worry be­cause you’re not in­vested.”

And judg­ing by the stan­dard, and sheer vol­ume, of work Wilkin­son has pro­duced since then, the uni­verse knew what it was do­ing. Al­ready, she’s helmed shows such as Amer­i­can Gothic, Madam Sec­re­tary with Téa Leoni and, most re­cently, How To Get Away With Mur­der star­ring Vi­ola Davis – who, be­sides win­ning the il­lu­sive tri­fecta of Os­car, Emmy and Tony, is also the only African-amer­i­can ac­tress to be thrice nom­i­nated for an Academy Award.

Be­hind the scenes, Wilkin­son has also found a cham­pion in Shonda Rhimes, one of TIME mag­a­zine’s “100 Most In­flu­en­tial Peo­ple In The World” and the pro­ducer of se­ries such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scan­dal. Like Davis, Rhimes is also an African-amer­i­can woman in Hol­ly­wood, which thereby makes her a pi­o­neer­ing force in an in­dus­try his­tor­i­cally dom­i­nated by men. Whether she chooses it to be or not, it’s an ex­pe­ri­ence that Wilkin­son is now com­ing to share, as a gay, Asian fe­male.

Be­fore leav­ing Aus­tralia, Wilkin­son says she had given lit­tle thought to be­ing three-times a mi­nor­ity, but with race, in par­tic­u­lar, a more sen­si­tive touch point in the US than it is here, ques­tions of iden­tity have forced them­selves front of mind: “I’ve def­i­nitely had to give it a lot more thought lately, and it’s con­fronting in some ways to sud­denly ques­tion who I am and who I rep­re­sent, be­cause I’m now in that pub­lic space.

“It still feels strange, be­cause through my life I never iden­ti­fied my­self as Asian. I’m very proud to be who I am, but I’ve gone through life with­out any sort of la­bel.”

It’s partly for that rea­son that she’s never sought out her bi­o­log­i­cal par­ents in Viet­nam, only briefly con­sid­er­ing it at 16. Her or­phan­age was de­stroyed be­fore the end of the war, and Wilkin­son is cer­tain that no doc­u­men­ta­tion would have sur­vived. “I have ab­so­lutely no idea who my bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther is, but I tend to imag­ine it as a Miss Saigon sort of thing and that my mother gave me up for a bet­ter life.” Nei­ther has she ever felt the need to visit Viet­nam, opt­ing not to at­tend the 40th an­niver­sary of Op­er­a­tion Babylift in 2015, which saw adoptees gather there from all cor­ners of the globe. “I sup­pose I was afraid of it be­ing too con­fronting and feel­ing dis­placed by it.”

Although she says the feel­ing of be­ing an out­sider is some­thing that’s fol­lowed her through life, ac­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion hasn’t been part of her ex­pe­ri­ence, ei­ther in child­hood or in work. In fact, Wilkin­son won­ders if her eth­nic­ity has served as an ad­van­tage. “If any­thing, it’s prob­a­bly been help­ful, since Hol­ly­wood is mak­ing a con­scious ef­fort to be more di­verse, and en­cour­ag­ing fe­male di­rec­tors es­pe­cially. In that sense, it may have worked for me.” And, as an Aus­tralian in the US, there’s the added bonus of our rep­u­ta­tion as “hard­work­ing, good-spir­ited hu­man be­ings”.

Be­ing far from home isn’t with­out its hard­ships, how­ever, es­pe­cially since so far Wilkin­son’s wife Kristie, her part­ner of 17 years, has been un­able to join her over­seas. “It is re­ally hard be­ing apart, be­cause I know I wouldn’t be where I am with­out her sup­port; I hon­estly could not have done it with­out her.”

The cou­ple mar­ried in New York last year on Kristie’s 40th birth­day, an event that was so spur of the mo­ment, they had to pay the concierge of their ho­tel $100 to trek to the reg­istry of­fice in down­town Man­hat­tan to serve as a wit­ness. “Even though we’d de­cided to go down in our jeans and just get mar­ried, it turned out to be re­ally nerve-rack­ing. The fact the concierge kept prat­tling on about how ex­cit­ing it was to tick a gay wed­ding off her bucket list ac­tu­ally calmed me down.”

With that crossed off the to-do list and Kristie’s green card in process, work and ex­pand­ing fur­ther in the tele­vi­sion in­dus­try can be her fo­cus for now. “My wife’s al­ways laugh­ing at me be­cause ev­ery time I achieve some­thing, I’m al­ready mov­ing on to the next thing,” she says. “I just love what I’m do­ing and I want to keep go­ing.”

So even though her Mon­day be­gins with a 4.30am call time, Wilkin­son says, “Right now I’m sit­ting here in New York watch­ing the sun set over the Wil­liams­burg Bridge, so it’s not too bad.”


AC­CESS HOL­LY­WOOD The cast of How To Get

Away With Mur­der; one of the shows helmed by Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Jet Wilkin­son (be­low).

ON A ROLL (clock­wise from left) Wilkin­son di­rect­ing the cast of Nashville; Madam

Sec­re­tary’s Téa Leoni; Wilkin­son’s well-earned di­rec­tor’s chair.

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