Jillian Nguyen feeds off ‘Hungry Ghosts’ and visits ‘Loveland’

Hugo Weaving and Jillian Nguyen in ‘Loveland’.

Jillian Nguyen landed her first screen role – as Molly Kane in Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang – just two weeks after graduating from 16th Street Actors Studio in Melbourne last year.

Since then her career has rocketed as she played the lead in Ivan Sen’s romantic sci-fi drama Loveland followed by a key supporting role in Hungry Ghosts, Matchbox Pictures’ genre-bending 4-parter for SBS directed by Shawn Seet.

There was one speed bump after Kurzel’s film wrapped: She was so depressed she got fired from her retail job. It’s unlikely she will have to go back to such work, as Seet says: “I was blown away by Jillian. She is a real, natural talent.”

Stephen Corvini, who produced Hungry Ghosts with Timothy Hobart, tells IF: “She is a superstar in the making. On the screen her energy crackles and pops.”

The supernatural drama co-created by Hobart and John Ridley, which stars Bryan Brown, Clare Bowen, Catherine Văn-Davies, Suzy Wrong and Ryan Corr, explores three generations of Vietnamese Australian families, all haunted by the traumatic events of war.

She plays Sophie Tran, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, who is studying bio-medicine and gets possessed by evil spirits.

The character’s background parallels the actress’ own experience: She was born in a refugee camp in Malaysia, where her Vietnamese parents spent five years, and moved to Australia when she was 14 months old. She set her sights on acting when she was only seven after watching Titanic 20 times.

Her character treads a fine line between inherited trauma and mental illness. On her first day on set Sophie is the subject of an exorcism by a real-life Buddhist monk.

“It was thrilling: I’d never seen a female character doing anything like this on Australian television,” she says. “She has so much fun, including an underwater scene where she tries to kill her mother. I think the show will really challenge the way people see Asian women and in particular Vietnamese women.

“Apart from The Family Law, which was very good, all the Asian women you see on TV are sexualised or insignificant. It’s damaging because that affects how people treat Asian women in society.”

Jillian Nguyen in ‘Loveland.’

It was a thrill working with Kurzel and the cast led by George Mackay as Ned, Essie Davis as Ned’s mother, Russell Crowe, Charlie Hunnam and Nicholas Hoult. She played the lover of Constable Alexander Fitzpatrick (Hoult), who went to the Kelly family home to arrest Dan Kelly for horse stealing, triggering a fight which led to the beginning of life on the run for the Kelly brothers.

“I did not know what to expect on my first day on set ever,” she says. “I was absorbing everything. I had to act like I knew what I was doing. It’s a small role but you have to start somewhere and I am eternally grateful. Justin was very sensitive with his actors. It was a shell-shocking experience, but that’s what I want to do for the rest of my life.”

While she was in Sydney appearing in Daniel Keene’s play The Serpent’s Teeth last November she got a message from Sen via Star Now. She had not heard of the acclaimed director, suspecting he may be a “random Russian guy” and did not reply.

Then her agent at Catherine Poulton Management informed her of Sen’s credentials (Toomelah, the Mystery Road movie, Goldstone) and that he had asked for a tape of her singing, as the role was for a nightclub singer.

She did so, Sen was impressed and told her she would co-star with Ryan Kwanten and Hugo Weaving in the movie filmed in Hong Kong and the Gold Coast, produced by Bunya Productions’ David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin.

Set in a futuristic megacity, it follows two lonely souls, Kwanten’s Jack, a hardened assassin, and Nguyen’s April. Weaving is a genetic scientist named Dr Bergman. Together Jack and April search for what it once was to be human until it confronts them, revealing the true mystery of their existence.

“It’s a story about love, about two people who are helpless, powerless and soulless and the connection they have with each other,” she says. “It will be a beautiful, slow and sad film.

This week she and Mark Coles Smith are shooting a short film, The Story of Li Ping, based on The Burial, the debut novel by Courtney Collins, directed by Jasmin Tarasin, intended as the precursor to a feature. Set in the 1920s, the plot follows the relationship between a Chinese woman and an Indigenous stockman.