It’s a long journey from the set of Home and Away to north Africa and the latest spy thriller from the makers of Spooks, but Melissa George looks born to kick up rough.
In the first ten minutes of the new high-octane BBC1 drama Hunted, her character dispatches brawny villain after brawny villain through a variety of violent means. Then, after a chase through the dusty streets of Tangiers, she sets another on fire. It’s relentless, but stylishly so.
While she may remind you of Spooks’ own Ros Myers, George’s character, Sam Hunter, is something of a new breed of heroine for British television.
“I guess you could say she’s an alpha female,” says George. “She’s a woman out for revenge. But she’s not crazy: she’s a highly-intelligent operative who uses all of her skills, physical and otherwise, to do what she needs to. There are echoes of Jason Bourne, Nikita and Taken [the 2008 film starring Liam Neeson as a retired CIA agent], and even Kill Bill.”
With its lavish budgets - rumoured to be almost 2million an episode - and a high-end, cinematic quality, those comparisons aren’t misplaced. A co-production between Spooks’ Kudos and HBO’s Cinemax channel, the eight-part series features locations from Morocco to Scotland, and has enough whizz-bang effects to rival any glossy US drama. To add to its international pedigree, let’s not forget that George is Australian, perhaps best known to British audiences as Home and Away’s Angel Parrish.
“When I did the audition for Home and Away, I was 15 and crying real tears in there and something obviously clicked,” recalls the 36-year-old actress fondly. “I owe a lot to that show.”
It is, of course, a long way from the sands of Summer Bay to playing the lead in eight hours of such a high-profile drama, and George has doggedly put in the time and the hard work. Leaving Australia for America, she landed small roles in Friends, Lie to Me, and Grey’s Anatomy, was a series regular in spy drama Alias (in which she also did her share of fisticuffs) and earned a Golden Globe nomination as troubled Laura in In Treatment, opposite Gabriel Byrne.
While George’s TV excursions are more varied, her film roles - in the mountain-climbing thriller A Lonely Place to Die and the horror 30 Days of Night - show a natural progression that leads to Sam Hunter. Put simply, George does “alpha-female” impeccably.
“It’s weird because I love being feminine – I’m living in Paris at the moment and love couture fashion - but I get cast in these ‘tough women’ roles and something happens,” she laughs. “I watch them back and it’s almost as if it’s someone else: I don’t know where the fighting and the anger comes from. When I go home for Christmas and my parents have seen my work, they must wonder what crazy person they’ve created! I’m a funny and happy person and yet I never get cast in romantic comedies. I’m waiting for that day.”
But it isn’t just George’s kick-ass credentials that are worthy of note. Like many of her antipodean compatriots who made it in America - from Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman to Ryan Kwanten (Jason in the vampire drama True Blood, and who also appeared in Home and Away) – George’s aptitude at accents is impressive. Indeed, her critically acclaimed performance as overprotective mother Rosie in The Slap, adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’s novel about life in suburban Melbourne, is the last time she played Australian. In Hunted, George deploys both a cut-glass English accent as Sam, but an American timbre when under cover.
“There’s a technical reason that may explain it,” she says. “Australians speak with a lazy tongue and a relaxed mouth that lends itself to being able to do other accents. If your natural way of speaking is ‘lazy’, you can train your mouth to be more disciplined. In Australia, we grew up with a huge amount of American TV so you can learn the accent from an early age. That said, you do get face-ache when you do an American accent. It takes a lot of muscle.”
While George is waiting for a romcom or period drama to come along, she demonstrates a steely dedication to her tough gal characters. “On A Lonely Place to Die, I lived the life of a rock climber for three months and even climbed Ben Nevis. With Hunted, it was real street-fighting and filming fight scenes for eight hours straight. The adrenaline pumps so much, it gives you a headache.”
“Filming for seven months on a gruelling schedule, the producers were waiting for me to collapse,” she says. “I didn’t but I wanted to!”