Feb 2024

Bright star

Australian actor Geraldine Viswanathan has the kind of Hollywood CV most young actors dream of and, as Courtney Thompson learns, she's only just getting started

PHOTOGRAPHY by James J. Robinson

STYLING by Mercy Sang

MOTION by Joseph Haddad

Nearly ten years ago, a 19-year-old Geraldine Viswanathan rocked up to an audition in Los Angeles. Like many aspiring actors before her, she had come to California to try her luck at breaking into Hollywood. On this particular day, however, when she arrived for the audition, she was turned away. “It was fully for a herpes commercial,” she laughs as we speak over Zoom. “And they were like, ‘you are too young for this, but like, you're here, do you wanna do it anyway? Do you wanna pretend to like, wake up and find out that you have a herpes outbreak?’”

TOP: INDIRA VISWANATHAN dress; ABOVE: ACNE STUDIOS blazer, and skirt, ; RIGHT: BOTTEGA VENETA jumper, skirt, and shoes; BOTTOM LEFT & RIGHT: BOTTEGA VENETA dress, and jacket.

Herpes ads aside, she didn’t book anything and after six months, returned home to Newcastle. Though she felt slightly defeated, what Viswanathan didn’t know then was that her small stint in the City of Angels would become fortuitous; the show reel she recorded with her acting class became what she eventually submitted in 2017 for a film called Blockers. By then, she’d started performing stand up comedy in Sydney as a way of getting more experience and joined the sketch comedy group, Freudian Nip, with fellow comedians Vic Zerbst and Jenna Owen. They were preparing for a show at the Melbourne Comedy Festival when Viswanathan got the call that she’d booked a lead role in Blockers. She was flown to LA that week to start filming and hasn’t looked back. “It's on a dime,” she jokes on the whirlwind that was her first casting. “It makes life kind of impossible to know what's going on and how to plan accordingly. But it's also fun and a drug, and I'm addicted to the drug. And I couldn't imagine knowing what's happening like a month ahead of time, that would be so weird to me.“

In the seven years since, Viswanathan has built a Hollywood CV that would make most young actors would jealous. After Blockers — a critically acclaimed comedy coming-of-age about a group of teens who planned to lose their virginity on the night of their prom — she’s worked steadily in an range of projects. She’s done drama (played the titular role in the 2019 Sundance favourite, Hala, and worked opposite Hugh Jackman in Bad Education), romantic comedy (was the protagonist in 2022’s Broken Hearts Galley) comedy (The Package, The Beanie Bubble and and is in the upcoming movie, You're Cordially Invited with Reese Witherspoon and Will Ferrell), and television (she voiced a character in the beloved BoJack Horseman and there were four seasons of the series Miracle Workers which Viswanathan starred in with Daniel Radcliffe and Steve Buscemi). Not to mention a few weeks ago, it was announced that Viswanathan had replaced Ayo Edebiri in the upcoming Marvel film, Thunderbolts. She is, as they say, booked and busy.

Her most recent project is Driveaway Dolls. The subversive comedy caper from Ethan Coen follows Viswanathan’s character, Marian, as she’s swept into a cross-country roadtrip by her considerably more loose, and more freewheeling friend, Jamie (played by Margaret Qualley) who’s dealing with her breakup from yet another girlfriend. It’s refreshing and crude and bawdy and very, very funny.

Viswanathan is at the top of her game, considered one of the brightest young actors working in Hollywood right now and perhaps even more impressively, exhibits absolutely none of the self-seriousness or pretentiousness that can often come as a result. Here, InStyle chats to her about the journey so far.

InStyle: Hello! I’m so excited to talk to you. Where are you at the moment, are you living in New York now or still LA?

Geraldine Viswanathan: I actually don't know [laughs]. It's like, doing my head in, but right now I'm in LA.

Do you have a preference?

Not really. I mean, I think I have more of a life in LA. Like I have a car and a more kind of solid community of people. But New York is a better city, for sure.

That makes sense. Oh my God, congratulations, by the way, on your Marvel moment!

Thank you! It couldn't have happened quicker. I like, met with the director on Thursday, got the job on Friday, and it was announced on Monday.

Oh my God.

And we're going to Atlanta soon to start pre-production. I'm like, Jesus Christ.

It’s all happening.

It's all happening from the foot of my bed as I'm on, like, day seven of the flu. Life be crazy.

When did you audition?

Originally, I didn't. I just met with the director

So you just got the call up being like, Ayo can't do this now. Would you be keen?

Yeah, It is funny that the headline is like, “Geraldine replaces Ayo.” I'm like, Jesus Christ. The ins and outs, not the details! But I guess it's true.

I wonder if that would've been the headline if she hadn't recently won like, a million awards. She's everywhere and killing it at the moment. But it's funny that it's been such a whirlwind because that's kind of how Blockers happened for you, right? One minute you were at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and the next minute, you were in LA filming.

Yeah, that's right. It's just, you know, it's on a dime, and it makes life kind of impossible to know what's going on and how to plan accordingly. But it's also fun and a drug, and I'm addicted to the drug. And I couldn't imagine knowing what's happening like a month ahead of time, that would be so weird to me.

Yeah, totally. But okay, let's just pause and talk about the Marvel thing. Because it is a big fucking deal. What does it mean to you to be joining the Marvel universe?

It's pretty exciting. It kind of feels like, you know, it signifies you've reached a place in your career, which is very, it's a real pinch me moment for sure. And one that I don't think has fully sunk in yet because as I said, my living situation has been kind of a logistical nightmare. But it's exciting and it's a very well-oiled machine that I'm interested to learn about. And it feels cool. I mean, it's definitely, I think I'm getting the most people reaching out than I ever have. Like, it's a very, kind of concretely big thing.

Even people who might not totally get the industry, get that Marvel is a Big Deal.

Exactly, yeah. And it’s nice to know we’ll be in theatres, you know?

Let’s rewind a little. Straight after you finished school, you initially went to LA for 6 months. What was that like? Were you there by yourself?

Yeah. I got an AirBnB, I was lucky. My Airbnb host was an angel and sort of took me under her wing and became like a mother figure in LA and introduced me to all her friends. I was literally like 18 in LA catching the bus around the city, hanging out with like 40- 50-year-olds. That is my origin story.

It’s crazy to think about. I had a strange manager who, like, his office was in a Vietnamese restaurant and it just, it wasn't legit. And I was self-submitting on Actors Access because I could only do unpaid stuff 'cause I didn't have the Visa — it's a real chicken or the egg situation because you need a job to get a Visa, but you can't get a job without the Visa. So I was just doing whatever. I remember pulling up to an Actor's Access audition and it was fully for a herpes commercial. And they were like, ‘you are too young for this, but like, you're here, do you wanna do it anyway? Do you wanna pretend to like, wake up and find out that you have a herpes outbreak?’

It was just so stupid, but I was having a ball. I was so excited to be out of Newcastle to just be somewhere and feel challenged and I felt really just rearing to go and I was just so determined. Like, I'm gonna figure this out somehow. And then totally kismet things happened; I met people in acting class and we made a show reel together and then that's what got the Heath Ledger Scholarship. So I think it was a really random but valuable time.

So then you came back to Australia and that's when you got into comedy. How did you actually get into the scene? How did you meet Vic and Jenna [of Freudian Nip]?

I just started doing open mics in Sydney because I was auditioning for stuff and not getting anything. And all my friends were at uni. So I was just kind of working at Strike Bowling Bar and being like, what's going on? Then I did a set at Hermann's Bar at Sydney University and that's how I met Vic, our dearest sweet Vic. And I had known of their work, I had seen a Freudian Nip show at Sydney Fringe or something and just thought they were so funny and cool and there just weren't a lot of like-minded people like that at the time. I just really felt a kind of kinship with them and respected them and thought they were so smart. And then we just started doing stuff together. We did a set at Hermann's and we were doing live comedy and then started writing sketches together for the slot.

But yeah, it all just came from a place of wanting to make it happen for myself because it just wasn't happening. And it's so funny looking back 'cause I'm like, at the time I was so like, ‘it's never gonna happen! It's not happening!’ And I'm like, it actually wasn't that long. I was just 19 being like, ‘My life is over!!’

When you're 19, everything feels like the end of the world.

And truly, just not going to uni felt crazy. Everyone was talking about uni and everyone had somewhere to go during the day and had a routine while I didn’t. It felt like a risk.

"I feel like I’ve been KNOCKING at the door my whole life to no avail. Now, I just want to BREAK the door down and build the house MYSELF."

One that paid off. In a lot of your earlier interviews you spoke about wanting to work in America because the Australian industry was so overwhelmingly white and there just weren’t the same number of opportunities here. How do you feel about the local industry now?

I think there's always an element of like, ‘please like me Australia’. Like, even though you've never been nice to me once.

I often think Australia has bad taste.

It's really, it's baffling. I feel like there's so much talent in Australia and there's so many exports. All I hear over here is like, ‘why are Australians so good?’ And ‘why are they everywhere?’ And yet it feels really hard to get work or press in Australia. And it's getting to a point where I'm kinda like, what's it gonna take guys? When do we get there? Like, yeah, I've done press with an Australian man who had only done one show, and he could get so much more press than I could.

Which is insane.

It's a bummer because I really wanna rep Australia and I want to work in Australia. And I think there's so much potential and I do have hope, like Heartbreak High gives me hope and there are people doing cool stuff. It could just be on a bigger level.

I know you’re currently working on developing a project in Australia with Freudian Nip. People in your situation who’ve found success in the US usually don’t come back, why did you want to do it?

Good question and it’s something to unpack. I guess I feel like I’ve been knocking at the door my whole life to no avail. Now, I just want to break the door down and build the house myself. I think in just the experience of my life, I think I wanna be home and I wanna be close to family and I wanna create opportunities for myself to do that more. But I want to straddle both; I want to make things in America, too. ‘Cause there's so much more room for that. But yeah, the project is just something that feels really homey and cosy and nice.

And honestly, I’ve just been obsessed with that idea for such a long time and have this unwavering passion for it. And it makes sense in Australia. It makes sense with Vic and Jenna. So it just sort of lends itself to that. But it's a constant kind of push and pull between where I'm accepted and where I’m not.

I’m sorry that’s been your experience because it’s obviously not at all a reflection of your talent. You’re consistently amazing, and you should be given all the flowers.

Thank you. I really appreciate that. And I mean, it's exciting like, you know, you’re Australian media, you’re a friend; it feels like it’s getting better.


Let’s talk about Drive-Away Dolls, because you’re great in it. I loved it. Were you a big Coen brothers fan before?

Yeah, I was. I mean, The Big Lebowski is one of the best films ever. I was a big fan of theirs. I hadn't seen all their work but I definitely knew the Coen brothers and loved the Coen brothers, but they felt so out of reach that it wasn't even like, on the bucket list. That’s the golden tier of filmmaking that just felt sort of impossible. So when the audition came around, I was like, ‘LOL, I'll throw my hat in the ring, I guess.’ But honestly I was really busy; I was working on Miracle Workers and I had family in town and then they were like, ‘Ethan Coen wants to meet with you.’ I didn't have much time to think about it and just sort of ripped it. And honestly, just doing the callback with him where I was on Zoom and I got to perform in front of him, like, I bawled after that session because I was just like, oh my god, Ethan Coen just saw me work and he was like, ‘great job.’ This just feels beyond, I can’t believe it's happening. So then getting the part was completely insane and still trips me out.

When you got the script, what were your first impressions?

I was like, ‘what?’ And even while we were making it, I was like, ‘wait, so what's going on?’ But I think I was drawn to the specific tone and then in the story, with Marian, I just kind of identified with her in a weird way. I saw someone who kind of gets in her own way and I felt that and I feel like I know a lot of people who feel like that. So I just had love for her quite instantly. It’s just the wackiest adventure, and I love watching movies like that.

I loved Marian. Talk me through your approach to the character. I know Ethan wrote the film with his wife, Tricia Cooke; was everything in the script or was it collaborative?

It really felt like it was all on the page. I think Coen scripts are so specific and clear and I think one of my favourite parts of Coen movies is the timing and the comedic rhythm of their dialogue and that just felt really built in. So it felt like a first impression of the character on the page and it just felt really interesting and different to what I'd done before; more restrained. Just like a fun comedic rhythm to play with. But yeah, with them it's all in the writing

Did you have a chemistry read with Margaret?

No, they didn't test our chemistry together. They just took a risk. She was in New York and I was in LA. But we got lucky, it worked out.

How did you work opposite each other? Do you have similar approaches?

We had really similar approaches, yeah. And it was really funny, we overlapped one day with the guys who played the crooks chasing us. And watching them work; we were like different vibes. Because they're theatre actors and super trained and Margaret and I were both just like, goofing off until the last second. We’re very loose, so it was nice. And I think we both really absorbed the energies of the characters. Like, Margaret was just like truly like dicking around and making me laugh until the very last second. And I was kind of like, ‘Margaret, we have like a job to do, stop!’ I did feel like Marian in the dynamic and she like Jamie.

There are a lot of very funny moments in the film, what was the most surreal or memorable moment from filming?

Oh my God, there's so many. Maybe the soccer girls makeout scene? Just a bunch of girls making out in a circle. And we did it a bunch of times because it was like a very specific kind of one-shot capturing everyone. That day stands out, but it all feels like a fever dream because they shoot so fast. Ethan is so specific and knows exactly what he wants. There's no extra coverage or anything. It’s the shortest day on set that I've ever experienced. It kind of feels like it almost didn't happen. It just was so, so fast and absurd that it felt like a dream.

Does that make it easier or trickier?

At first it was freaky. I was like, ‘wait, what? I didn't even do it good yet!’ But then I started to enjoy it. Because there's not a lot of improv, which I'm quite used to, especially in comedy, doing it differently every time. But since it's very specific and you're not really messing around with his words, if you do it too many times it kind of becomes stale anyway. So it felt good to keep it fresh and I just trusted him so much.

You got cast for your first film in 2017, and you’ve been working consistently since. You’ve already built a really solid career; you've worked with amazing people, you've done really interesting, varied things across genres, across film and TV. At this point in your career, what does success look like to you?

From where I'm standing right now, when I have a home and when I feel kind of settled in my life. I think success is, it would be just the confidence that I'll work with who I wanna work with, on what I want work on. And I'm free to do what I wanna do.

What’s guiding the projects you do at the moment?

I think it's all instinct. I personally really value the experience of something. I'm not trying to reach a certain goal or outcome. I value my experience of my life and I wanna just do things that I enjoy with people that I enjoy doing them with. So I think I'm guided by who's attached to something and what that experience will be. I've just been gathering these experiences and honestly, collecting people as I go. Like, I know who I wanna work with again and I know who my people are. I feel very lucky. Like I have a very strong community of like-minded people that I could just work with again and again and again.

Who are some of those people?

I mean, I just worked with Gloria Sanchez, Will Ferrell's company on this movie, You are Cordially Invited and I really, really, loved working with them. 'Cause it's just like young, funny women and it just felt like making something with friends. I think that's the ultimate goal. And then, you know, like Molly Gordon, Ayo, like all these girls that I'm friends with; I feel like the dream is to just be able to work with them.

Ayo, Molly, Rachel Sennott, and Patti Harrison; there’s this new era of actress-comedians who are all really cool, smart, funny and you’re all friends as well. How did you all meet? I know you worked with Molly on The Broken Hearts Gallery.

Yeah, I worked with Molly, but I met Mitra Jouhari through Miracle Workers and then was in New York and that's how I met Ayo. I went to a standup show of Mitra’s and met Ayo and then worked with Molly, and then Ayo was close with Rachel and Mitra was close with Patti. We all met just very organically. But yeah, it's really nice to just have a community that has your back but also are like artists that you respect and admire and it feels like there's this real sense of camaraderie, like very genuinely. It’s cool.

Drive-Away Dolls is in cinemas February 22.

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