We Chatted With Sarah Snook About ‘The Beautiful Lie’, And Going From ‘All Saints’ To Hollywood

We didn't freak out or anything, nope.

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When I ask Sarah Snook how she is over the phone, her response is a little breathless. “Good!” she says. “Busy day?” I ask. She laughs. “Yes.”

It makes sense that Snook is busy, because this year she’s everywhere: in ABC’s The Secret River, Holding the Man and family flick Oddball. Later this month she’ll take a glamorous turn in The Dressmaker, alongside Kate Winslet, Judy Davis and Liam Hemsworth; and at the end of the year Australian audiences will see her in the new Steve Jobs biopic, directed by Danny Boyle.

A rising international star, Adelaide-born Snook got her start on Aussie TV favourites like All Saints, Spirited, Packed to the Rafters, Redfern Now and in Sisters of War, for which she won the AACTA Award for Best Lead Actress in a Television Drama.

Last Sunday night, Snook returned to the small screen in the first episode of six-part series The Beautiful Lie, an exquisite modern-day retelling of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

A modern, Australian Anna Karenina seems an unusual proposition. “It’s this bold idea of: how do you make a Russian story from 1878 work for 2015?”

“Classic novels are often those that stand the test of time – Anna Karenina is no exception, and I think that’s because the narratives of all the characters within are so relatable, familiar and human.”

In The Beautiful Lie, Snook plays Anna Ivin, a retired tennis champion. Like Anna Karenina, Snook’s Anna is “a tragic figure”. She’s comfortable, content, but restless in her seven-year marriage to sports superstar Xander (Rodger Corser).

“They’re familiar with each other,” Snook explains, and I’m reminded of Anna’s observation in the opening scenes of The Beautiful Lie: “Being with him was a feeling of safety, of comfort, of a cold square of butter melting into a warm bread roll.”

Anna’s comfortable life is thrown off-course when she meets music producer Skeet (Benedict Samuel). Their attraction is instant, and they begin a passionate and destructive love affair. “Skeet loves her for who she is,” says Snook. “He lets her be herself.”

To complicate things further, Skeet is engaged to fragile Kitty (Sophie Lowe), the sister-in-law to Anna’s brother Kingsley (Daniel Henshall). And Kingsley is trying to make amends with his wife, Dolly (Celia Pacquola) whom he cheated on with their au pair.

The Beautiful Lie is determined, it seems, to examine all the chaos of contemporary romance and domestic life. There’s a grandness and tragedy that still resonates with Tolstoy’s text. “We always want to come out the victor, but there’s going to be fallout.”

Snook’s preparation for the role focused on examining the public life of sports stars. Anna and Xander, whom Snook describes as “like Bec and Lleyton Hewitt,” are a tabloid-ready celebrity sports couple, our modern equivalent of Russian royalty. “In the public eye, it’s just as scandalous to be having an affair,” she says.

Anna’s relationship with Skeet is high-octane, with a spark of lust that’s absent in the routine of her marriage to Xander. In the series’ opening scenes, Anna tries to entice Xander into the shower with her, an offer he declines for fear of ruining his suede shoes. Later, Anna rejects Xander’s seductions because they’re late for their taxi to the airport. They are never quite in sync.

“One of them is a familiar, safe, comfortable marriage,” says Snook. “And the other is a tantalising, seductive and obsessive kind of love.”

Amorous Skeet tells Anna over and over that their relationship is fated: “inevitable”. Hard to argue with that. Snook adds: “They’re both so different, and there are downfalls in both relationships.”

I ask Snook if she liked playing Anna. “At the start I did — but it becomes harder.”

It’s no secret that Anna is on a path to self-destruction – she says as much at the series’ start. Having spent two hours with Anna already, I worry about her fate at the end of the series. “You have to do what you can to prepare for the role to protect yourself.”

Snook’s Anna narrates the series, a tricky technique that works brilliantly to allow us real intimacy with Anna’s perspective. “It was about 15 hours in the booth,” says Snook, “though not all at once. Sometimes it was too arch and observational, sometimes it was too flat.”

In fact, Snook’s performance, both in the narration and on screen, is perfectly pitched. Her Anna is bold, expressive and compelling. “Working from the outside in can be just as useful as working inside out to find your character,” she adds.

Snook has a lot to say on the business of adaptation, and The Beautiful Lie’s classic Russian roots. “It’s the same. I mean, we’re the same now as we were then. To bring it forward to a contemporary time we really only needed to change the setting.”

The setting – well-appointed houses in Melbourne and the Victorian countryside – is decadent and stylish, characteristic of all the work that John Edwards and Imogen Banks (Offspring, Puberty Blues, Tangle) produce. “They’re the stalwarts of the Australian TV industry,” says Snook. “They’re able to get that cinematic quality on short time.”

Edwards and Banks also attract exciting talent to their projects, like the “tremendous” Celia Pacquola and Gina Riley. Riley, Snook tells me, can “freeze the action with just one look”.

Up next for Snook is Ibsen’s The Master Builder with Ralph Fiennes at the Old Vic in London – a stage show. “I can’t believe it. I don’t know how I’m going to do the same thing on stage every night.”

I have a feeling she’ll be just fine; director Matthew Warchus, who describes Snook as Judi Dench and Judy Davis rolled into one, claims he hired her to “give Ralph a run for his money”.

The Beautiful Lie airs Sundays at 8:30pm on ABC1.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She tweets from @mdixonsmith.