“I was taught to be opinionated”
Rachael Taylor wants to empower women with her story – onscreen and off – and has a glamorous new gig bringing her home to Australia this month
Ahead of her return to Australia for a glamorous new trackside role, Jessica Jones actor Rachael Taylor tells Stellar that she’s determined to use her voice to make a difference – whether that’s being a passionate advocate for victims of domestic violence or using her work to tell women’s stories.
Ideas can come from anywhere; and our most powerful influences are not always easy to predict. For a long while, Rachael Taylor knocked about Australia and Hollywood in a string of films, and an unlucky streak of TV shows that seemed to go nowhere (remember the short-lived Charlie’s Angels series?). But the past two years have seen the actor hit her professional stride, courtesy of an unlikely source – a superhero series – playing radio host Trish Walker on Netflix’s Marvel Jessica Jones and The Defenders.
The role seems to have reignited a spark that has always lain deep within 33-year-old Taylor, who tells Stellar from the New York City set of an exclusive spring racing cover shoot that she “was drawn to [it] because I care about how female stories are told. Obviously… I’m a woman. The issues we have touched on so far are near and dear to my heart.”
Like many in the industry, Taylor pays tribute to Big Little Lies, which dominated the cultural conversation over the past year. “It’s tremendous storytelling, about women with rich, complicated lives,” she says. “And I think Jessica Jones does that, too – even more impressively. We’re a comic-book drama, taking place within a traditionally more masculine world in some respects. We’re taking on the female experience in a really bad-arse way.”
Growing up in Launceston, Tasmania, “I was always kind of a serious child,” Taylor says. “I’m probably too serious as an adult, as well. I was not a sporty kid… which is extremely un-australian, I know.” The only child of carpenter father Nigel and stay-at-home mum Christine, little Rachael Taylor tried her hand at school plays, dabbled in modelling and even took out the Miss Teen Tasmania gong in 1998, though she has since said that “I would take that back if I could”.
If there were future feminist credentials to be earned, or a fiery hellraiser bubbling beneath the surface, Taylor was not quite aware of it at the time – she was just 14, after all. But one unlikely person in her life was lighting the way forward, whether they realised it or not. Taylor says she “was raised to have an opinion”, and of all those who pushed her to express it loudest, it was her grandfather Desmond who stands out.
“He was a really influential figure for me,” she says. “He was a union man, the textiles union representative for Tasmania. I was taught to be, for better or worse, opinionated about politics and to have an argumentative nature. And my grandfather was very, very vocal – so I think I get it from him.
“I think my grandfather was a feminist in every sense of the word. He split all domestic chores equally with my grandmother. He always encouraged me, and dismissed that idea that women should be seen and not heard. I was never led to believe I should be anything but forward and forthcoming with my opinions, and I credit that to him.”
YET THERE WAS a period – one of nearly four years – during which Taylor opted to stay quiet about the incident that, like it or not, would come to dominate coverage of her in the press, and tends to even now. In September 2010, reports emerged she had taken out an AVO against her then-fiancé, Underbelly star Matthew Newton, alleging “two unprovoked violent assaults” at home in Australia as well as in Rome.
She eventually penned a first-person essay about the experience and continues to speak out as an advocate to change the discourse around domestic violence, as well as pushing for broader judicial reforms. Owing to the fact the title character of Jessica Jones is a survivor of sexual assault, Taylor knows – and seems at peace with the fact – that she will continue to be asked about the issue.
“Advocacy is important to me,” Taylor explains. “And the advocacy I have done around domestic violence is something I’m really proud of. I’ll take any opportunity I can see for a conversation to open up around it. It destigmatises it; that was always my reason behind wanting to talk about it.
“But I feel a little bit pulled – it’s tough being based in the US as much as I am, as I’d love to do more. As an actor, you end up shooting so much that you kind of dive into the deep end. When you’re committed to a TV production schedule, it can be hard to feel effective in another space. Part of growing
“I’m Australian so the whole look-at-me thing? That doesn’t digest well for me”
up as somebody in the public eye means finding your voice, while also trying to put your personal development first.
“So I took my time to speak out about domestic violence, because I wanted to really think about how I could do it in the most effective way.”
Then there is her involvement with the Australian Marriage Equality campaign, dating back several years. “I was on the ground, in Australia, at the time. It was something I could put myself behind totally, as I care very much about it. Marriage equality should have happened a really, really long time ago.
“I guess what I’m saying,” Taylor concludes with a laugh, “is that I don’t do things by halves very well. I’m kind of… think- y. I take things seriously. I’m all in.”
That’s not to say Taylor is unwilling to find the time for less weighty endeavours. She seems genuinely worried, for instance, when it is pointed out that her Instagram feed features little more than posts of her on set or in the gym. “Oh, no,” she groans. “I hope I have a more balanced life than that – I’m interested to hear that my Instagram makes me look like a workaholic and a workoutaholic, because I think I have a lot of fun. I think I might just be a bit old. I’m also Australian – the whole look-at-me thing? That doesn’t digest well for me. Sometimes I’m not clear I want to share what my lunch looks like with everyone.”
Perhaps Taylor really means it when she says “the older I get, the more I lighten up”. For the past four years she’s dated US photographer Mike Piscitelli, and tells Stellar “he’s a keeper – a permanent fixture”. But she admits being an only child, and having parents who live in Tasmania, leaves her feeling “quite guilty” when she’s in LA (where she lives) or New York (where she now films). “I feel lucky to be able to roam between all three,” she says, “but Australia will always be where my heart gets nourished and where the best bits are: family, ocean, closest girlfriends… ultimately, I want that little house in Australia, and to end up there. It’s always been a priority for me.”
It has been nearly two years since Taylor last came home, but that changes later this month when she helps the Melbourne Racing Club kick off the Spring Racing Carnival as the special guest at the 2017 BMW Caulfield Cup. Having just spent hours frocking up for Stellar – “today was really, really glamorous” – Taylor reflects on what racing season means to both Melbourne and Australia as a whole.
“I love the vibe that starts bubbling up in Melbourne around racing season,” she says. “It marks the start of this months-long celebration that ends up stretching out, really, to the end of the Australian Open.”
Taylor laughs when reminded that despite her special standing this year, she is not, in fact, a true Melburnian. “I don’t feel like an interloper, but anyone, at any opportunity when I tell them that I’m Tasmanian, will not hesitate to remind me I am an interloper. Still, to this day, I get, ‘Where’s your scar?’ Come on! Haven’t we moved past this?”
Her association with spring racing is nothing new; Taylor says she has “fond memories” of filming scenes from the 2012 film Any Questions For Ben? inside the Birdcage at the Melbourne Cup. “Watching everybody getting off the trams in their beautiful fascinators… it all feels so elegant,” she says. “It’s almost transportive in a way. But Australians also have a real knack for poking a hole through that – and managing to have a really good time. And the Caulfield Cup is great for
that. There’s something democratic about it: you can see the track from any part of the course. I’m really excited for it.”
She teases that a heap of new projects – a film and a TV series among them – are in the works; after shooting wraps on the next season of Jessica Jones, she will be home for a longer spell to make them. “I’m not married to wanting to work in the US,” she insists. “I don’t give it preferential treatment; if anything, it’s the opposite. I’m proud of who we are. We need to reflect our own culture back to ourselves.”
Speaking of, Taylor’s first local onscreen appearance was in a 2005 episode of Mcleod’s Daughters, which led to her starring role in the TV soap Headland later that year. Asked if she has any stand-out memories from her time on Mcleod’s, she responds: “I was so, so nervous – like, shaking. My first big speaking part. I looked up to Rachael Carpani and Anna Torv. It was awesome. We need another good Australian TV show like that.”
Told that the Nine Network is looking into opportunities for a Mcleod’s reboot, Taylor gasps. “Ooh, I’d do it. You can spend years away, but [Australia] is in my blood and it’s a part of my soul. I’ll always come home to make Australian stories. I hope I will – if they’ll have me!”
“I don’t do things by halves very well. I’m kind of…
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