Composure: What was life like growing up in Australia? What is your fondest memory?
Stef Dawson: I think I had a pretty awesome childhood. Growing up in such a beautiful country, living amongst a lot of nature had a great effect on me. My sister and I were animal lovers and spent every second we had playing with them, adopting them or climbing trees. The best gift I was ever given was a horse. Some of the best memories I have are with our horses. My sister and I felt so free and wild with horses. They are such beautiful and intelligent creatures and there is so much trust involved and such a strong bond. We would saddle up and pack a lunch and ‘go bush’, pretty much go exploring and see where we ended up. On a hot day, we would go bareback and find a dam or a river and get the horses to jump right in. One memory I have is sitting out under the stars at night, leaning against my horses legs, thinking how huge the universe is and thinking there must be some kind of plan to all the madness.
Composure: Your childhood must have involved a lot of horse riding as you’re also known to be an award-winning equestrian! What sparked your love for horses? Were you a competitive horse vaulter?
Stef Dawson: After riding a horse at a circus as a kid, I fell in love with them and begged for the longest time, proving that I would take great care of one until I finally got one! The horse vaulting was a strange twist of fate. Vaulting is ‘gymnastics on horseback’, kind of dancing on a horse to music, like something you would see in a circus actually. They happened to do it where we kept the horses and I got hooked. It involved a ton of discipline and physical strength, balance, trust and fearlessness, always pushing yourself to another level. This was my first taste of performing as it definitely was a kind of dance and I started doing competitions. I loved to just lose myself in the music and totally transport myself and an audience into a story or a feeling through vaulting. I ended up winning a national competition at age 13 which was pretty cool. I injured my knees from jumping off such a great height that I had to stop for a bit and that is when acting really took over as my greatest passion.
Composure: Horse vaulting seems like a very high risk and physically strenuous sport – is this indicative of the kind of roles that you like to play?
Stef Dawson: Definitely! I think vaulting gave me a kind of fearlessness that stayed with me. I was a really small girl (still am haha) but working with horses, such powerful creatures and communicating with them challenged me to interact with something that could be bigger and more powerful than me and it was a really cool thing to find a way of working with them. The vaulting took it to another level, from a young age, working very hard at something, which was I guess pretty dangerous and conquering any fears to get up there each time. I think yes, I am often drawn to roles that are physical in nature, would love to do more of them, I enjoy a physical challenge and most physical ones start with a mental one too, which I’m always drawn to and fascinated by in every role I play.
Composure: What inspired your journey to be an actress? Did you always have Hollywood on your mind?
Stef Dawson: I have always been fascinated by people. My parents are doctors and I grew up with an understanding that there are so many reasons why a person ends up the way they do. My parents are both incredibly empathetic and encouraged me to ask questions and I guess I was always intrigued by humanity and why [we are] the way we are. We get to live a thousand lives as actors and I enjoy that. People’s stories intrigue me, particularly stories of struggle, which I think everyone relates to. I never had much of a concept of Hollywood, even when I started acting it didn’t really appeal to me to go to Hollywood but the roles drew me overseas to the US industry, the mecca of it all, where so much is happening and such interesting roles. It certainly was a shock, very difficult at times and I knew only one person but I was fiercely determined and the joy of doing what I loved motivated me to just go for it. There is something magical about losing yourself in a role each time and giving voice to stories.
Composure: How did you prepare for The Hunger Games audition? What was going through your mind when you received the call confirming your role as Annie Cresta?
Stef Dawson: I loved the books, my best mate introduced me to them and I was so drawn to the world Suzanne had created. Such an important message about humanity and love and our ability to survive despite the odds. I had fallen in love with Annie in the books, actually saw myself in that role immediately. I wasn’t in a good place emotionally at the time I auditioned for Annie. I was dealing with grief and a lot of hardship and very much related to her brokenness at the time. Annie’s survivalism comes from within her own mind, trying to keep going and I just tapped into my own feelings of that and the vulnerability I felt while trying to keep it together. I guess I just knew her inside out and the world, really tried to stay true to how I saw her in the book and stuck to that vision for the audition. Deb Zane, the casting director was so incredible to work with it, it was effortless to be vulnerable in front of her and make bold choices. I had this funny feeling that is so rare, felt so strongly this was my role but never sure. When I got the call I got chills, I knew my life had changed somehow and I was so ecstatic. There is this crazy picture of me my friend took in that moment where I look like I am about to cry! It was truly the best thing that has ever happened to me and I am forever grateful.
Composure: Was it instant connection with your co-star Sam Claflin who plays your love interest Finnick Odair?
Stef Dawson: Sam is the best! We did have an instant connection. He reached out to me on twitter and welcomed me to the family which was so lovely. We actually met at The Catching Fire premiere! We had this really cool moment at the premiere when we finally found each other, where I yelled out ‘SAM!’ and he yelled out ‘STEF” and we ran over to each other and had a massive hug. Everyone probably thought we were crazy, haha, no one had any idea what was going on. We had an absolute ball on set together! I adore him, he is so hilarious and kind hearted. Constantly makes me laugh, one minute we would muck around playing tricks on each other then the next minute we were able to instantly sink into the scene and block everything out. We had such a great bond, a lot of trust and I felt completely at ease in the role with him. He is such an incredible actor and has such a kind heart to go with it, an absolute superstar that’s for sure. I am so grateful it was Sam, it was a truly wonderful experience.
Composure: The trailer of Mockingjay Part 2 opens with the stunning scene of Annie and Finnick’s wedding. Can you take us through that moment and what it means to the rest of the Mockingjay story?
Stef Dawson: The Hunger Games story is so full of great tragedy and pain and yet as Snow said ‘Hope is the only thing stronger than fear’. Within a world that is so dark, the thing that all people hold on to in times of struggle, particularly war, is hope. Annie and Finnick’s wedding is a symbol of that, hope for the future, light in the dark times and evidence that life will go on, that the one thing the capitol can never take is love. Annie and Finnick never stopped fighting and hoping that they would be reunited. Their beautiful love story, despite the odds is a symbol of hope to all the other characters. It is an important moment for everyone, as it reminds them what they are really fighting for.
Composure: You’ve been busy working on other projects like The Lennon Report, Creedmoria, Paper Store. Can you tell us more about your roles in them?
Stef Dawson: All three of these movies were shot in NY! I am now a little bit in love with NY. Creedmoria is a coming of age story set in Queens in the 80’s. I play a teenage girl, ‘Candy’ who is breaking out of so many things that hold her back in life, family, dickhead boss, controlling boyfriend and becoming the person she knows she can be. Candy is such a ray of sunshine in a pessimistic world yet has a total rebellious streak. It is going to be such a charming film, so full of heart. It was absolutely a labor of love from everyone involved and that just comes through the screen with this film. The second film The Paper Store is about a gifted university student that is let down by a system controlled by finances. As she can’t afford to study, she becomes a ghost writer for papers and ends up in a tumultuous relationship with one of her ‘customers’, played by Penn Badgley fueled by their passion for ideas and each other which ultimately clash at times. Penn Badgley and Richard Kind were so wonderful to work with in this movie. She then seeks revenge on him and the whole system, outing him through the papers, to surprising results.
The Lennon Report, is a film about the events the night John Lennon was shot, through the eyes of those who were right there. I play Barbara Kammerer, a young nurse who was practically running the ER that night and was hands on with the events. I got to know the real Barbara, who is now like family to me and it was such an honor to play such an incredible lady. It really is a glimpse into how the world stood still on this night and how many lives John Lennon touched. It is also a celebration of those who often go uncelebrated in tragedy, like Barb, nurses, doctors and people who have the responsibility of breaking a story like that which will affect so many lives.
Composure: Your Twitter bio says that you’re a tomboy in a dress. What does that exactly mean and what was your recent NYFW experience like? Who are some of your favorite designers? If you were to start your own fashion line, what would your first collection look like?
Stef Dawson: Haha, I think I wrote that Twitter title the first day I had to go to a red carpet type thing. That’s exactly what I felt like!! I have never been the sort of girl that aspired to wearing gowns or dressing up, it was a new world to me! I felt like Cinderella going to a ball but knowing I would most likely face-plant imminently. I think I will always be that nature loving girl who would prefer to trample through the bush than tip toe in a pair of heels, but I now enjoexploring it. Fashion week was a little mind blowing for me. It was chaotic and fascinating at the same time. I have always had a love for design and was so impressed by their beautiful creations. I am now getting more into fashion and really starting to form what I am drawn to – fashion is an art form I now love! My tomboy ways are balanced by a great appreciation of design now. If I was to start my own line it may have to involve scarves and coats. I’m obsessed with scarves and coats!! Nothing better than rugging up on a cold day. I totally live in the wrong area for that. Some of my favorite designers include Dior, Valentino and Christian Siriano that are just incredibly beautiful and feminine but I have also always loved Vivienne Westwood for her boldness and breaking the mold. I was introduced to some incredible new designers including Max Gengos, the quirky Ground Zero and a fellow Aussie Rebecca Vallance, who I am now massive fan of.
Composure: Outside of acting, what else are you passionate about/ involved in?
Stef Dawson: There are so many other things that I love and want to get involved in. One thing I hope to get more involved in is being an advocate for mental health and the homeless. Mental health is something dear to my heart and I think we need to talk about this subject and deal with it so much more. Homelessness and so many other tragedies I think also are often a result of mental health issues. It is such an important subject and so complex and unique to every individual to treat and we must talk about it. I have also been a long time supporter of Vietnamese charities such as ‘Blue Dragon’ who work with street kids in Hanoi and give them the skills and education to stay off the streets. I learned to sing in Vietnamese and raised money being a lil white girl, it was a bit of a spectacle I guess and I loved being able to give back a bit. Singing is another passion of mine that I would like to get back into. I trained in opera but haven’t sung or trained in it in ages but I really love it.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JOHN HONG STUDIO
STYLING BY FRANZY STAEDTER
MAKE UP BY MANDY PEREZ USING KEVYN AUCOIN
HAIR BY CHERIE COMBS AT ONE REPRESENTS USING ORIBE
INTERVIEW BY JANE HONG