Danielle Macdonald is crying. The actor is standing in the back room of the Hollywood Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills, which is decked out as a New York bar in the 1960s for the new Helen Reddy biopic I Am Woman. The air is thick with the smoke of clove cigarettes, but that’s not what’s making Macdonald’s eyes water. Tilda Cobham-Hervey, who stars as Reddy in the film, has just told Macdonald (playing Reddy’s best friend, the iconic music journalist Lillian Roxon) that she is moving from New York to LA with her unemployed boyfriend/manager. “Are you sure about this?” asks a worried Macdonald, in character.
“Yes, I’m willing to take that risk for someone who believes in me,” says Cobham-Hervey. “I believe in you,” implores Macdonald. “I’m just really going to miss you is all.”
In the background, Reddy’s real-life granddaughter Lily Donat makes the whole room sway with melancholy, singing an original song by Alex Hope: “Here comes the revolution, voices clear, voices loud. Here comes the change for restitution, to make our mammas proud.” Cue crying.
It’s not the first time Macdonald, 29, has shed a tear because of the film, directed by Unjoo Moon. She burst out crying when she first read the script, which tells the story of Reddy, the Australian singer who moved to New York in 1966 with her three-year-old daughter, a suitcase and $230 in her pocket. Reddy lived in a cockroach-infested apartment before going on to become one of our biggest musical exports and the face/voice of feminism.
“I read the whole script in one go and I burst out crying at the end. That’s when I knew I had to do it,” says Macdonald, who received the script in 2017 while doing press for her breakout role as an aspiring rap artist called Patti Cake$.
Fast forward a year and two more blockbuster films (Dumplin’ with Jennifer Aniston and Bird Box with Sandra Bullock) and Macdonald is back in Sydney where she grew up, with her accountant mum and shipping company manager dad on the Northern Beaches. Both her parents came to watch her on set when she filmed in Sydney in 2018, transforming into Roxon, who wrote the literal Rock Encyclopedia and (spoiler alert) tragically passed away at the age of 41 after an asthma attack. “Everyone should knowthe story of Lillian Roxon. She’s fascinating. I’d never heard of her [until this project] and then I watched the documentary on her, Mother of Rock, and I became obsessed with her. There was a sweetness to her, but she was also quite devilish. One of her friends describes her as ‘like a Botticelli angel who’d just finished giving King Kong a blow job’,” says Macdonald of the quote that instantly made her understand her character. “Lillian was into free love and owning her sexuality. It was the decade of women taking control and doing whatever the hell they wanted. Lillian had power; no-one would cross her.”
In her final scene opposite Cobham-Hervey, Macdonald musters all of Roxon’s power in a heartbreaking face-off with Reddy. “Helen and Lillian had a tiff and got really upset with each other. And then [Lillian] died,” says Macdonald.
“The last scene we did was horrible, so mean. I messaged Danielle afterwards to apologise – I felt like such a bitch,” adds Cobham-Hervey, who lives close to Macdonald in West Hollywood, where they meet for pizza on Sundays.
Despite the characters falling out in the film, I Am Woman is a love letter to the sisterhood and an important reflection on the second wave of feminism that swept through the US in the ’70s. At the time, women were calling out sexism, fighting for legal access to abortion, repealing misogynistic laws and campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment. Reddy’s song “I Am Woman” became the anthem for the revolution and was the soundtrack for the strikes. “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore,” declared Reddy in the 1971 hit that still resonates with women today. In 2020, we’re still fighting for real equality. “The song still feels very relevant, which is scary. It should feel like it was 50 years ago,” marvels Macdonald. “We have come a long way – women can get credit cards now. But even though women have rights, we still don’t have equality.”
Lucky for us, Macdonald is strong. She’s invincible. And she’s sharing Reddy’s message with the world – once again.
A Star is Born
The rise and rise of Danielle Macdonald.
This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of marie claire.