FROM A VIETNAMESE ORPHANAGE TO A SYDNEY SUBURB TO HOLLYWOOD, AUSTRALIAN TV DIRECTOR JET WILKINSON IS BLAZING A UNIQUE TRAIL
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.”
“EVERY SINGLE SHOW YOU WORK ON, YOU STEP ONTO THE SOUND STAGE AND YOU’RE NERVOUS. IT’S HEALTHY”
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.