'I Am Woman' Star Tilda Cobham-Hervey Says Helen Reddy's Anthem 'Will Always Be Relevant to Women'

I am Woman
Courtesy of TIFF

A still from I Am Woman.

The Helen Reddy biopic premiered this week at Toronto International Film Festival.

Billboard magazine has a cameo in I Am Woman, the biopic on ambitious Australia singer and women’s rights pioneer Helen Reddy (played by Tilda Cobham-Hervey), advancing the plot as her soon-to-be-anthem “I Am Woman” rises to No. 1 on the charts in 1972 and she became the biggest-selling female singer in the world at the time.

“So you saw that Billboard became the way we showed the climb?” director Unjoo Moon excitedly asked during a sit-down interview at the Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday before the film's world premiere. The film is still in need of distribution.

“We re-created them based on what was actually happening at the time, so we could use the actual Billboard charts, but we had to re-create all the ads and the articles. That was a big thing for her to be climbing those charts. Don't you love that they were waiting for the magazine and reading through it, instead of just like flicking it on your phone?”

Moon, a native of Australia, just like Reddy, clearly remembers the women in her neighborhood cranking “I Am Woman” and the changes and challenges she saw as a young girl with women having careers and even getting divorced, “When I was growing up, I equated it a lot with the song,” she tells Billboard.

She met Reddy quite fortuitously at an awards show event and switched seats to sit beside her. They began a friendship and the idea of a documentary emerged. After a year of conversations and researching, that morphed into a narrative film. “I built a very solid relationship and she did come to trust me,” Moon says. “I told her, ‘It's going to be the way I see your life through my eyes and things will change, events will change, but the one thing I promise you is I will always honor the spirit of who you are and your story.'”

Managed by her second husband (now ex) Jeff Wold -- who started managing Deep Purple when Reddy hadn’t yet recorded her first single -- Reddy would land 15 top 40 singles on the Billboard Hot 100, six of which went top 10 and “I Am Woman” going all the way to No. 1. She officially retired in 2002 but would perform periodically, most recently in Las Vegas in 2015, and also sang “I Am Woman” a cappella at the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles.

The principal cast of I Am Woman is Evan Peters as Wold and Danielle Macdonald as trailblazing music journalist and Reddy’s close friend Lilian Roxon. While Moon knew Reddy well, met Wold and had the “whole family involved” in the biopic, its star, 24-year-old Cobham-Hervey, chose not to meet her in preparation for the role. Hers is not the voice we hear in the film, rather a combination of Reddy and Australia’s Chelsea Cullen. The soundtrack includes an original song, ”Revolution,” sung by Reddy’s granddaughter Lily Donat, written and produced by Alex Hope (Alanis Morissette).

“It was really important that Helen's actual voice had to be in the movie for me,” explains Moon. “The way we approached the singing in the movie all came from Tilda’s performance. Tilda worked incredibly hard. She sang every day for weeks and weeks and weeks. Tilda has a great voice, but it was really about making the final film sound like Helen Ready. Once we had the performances of Tilda, then we were able to work to that picture and create the Helen voice that you see on the screen.”

Billboard sat down with Cobham-Hervey to discuss playing the role of this revolutionary icon, who helped bolster the second wave of feminism and whose message is still relevant today, with the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

What did you know of Helen Reddy?

I definitely knew her song, "I Am Woman." I didn't know a lot more than that. I'm so thrilled that I got to learn a whole lot more about her over this process. I now am her biggest fan and I could probably start a museum, I’ve done enough research on her. That's what's really interesting, is that not a lot of people in my generation know a lot about her life. But that being said, her song "I Am Woman," the words are on most placards at any women's march. Her story is so incredible, and to look back and honor all the amazing work she did, and what she did for women and just the music industry in general. I mean, she had four gold records in a year. She was the first Australian to win a Grammy, and people don't know that. So it feels like a really lovely thing to be able to share that.

At what stage in the making of the film did you meet her?

Right at the end. So once we'd wrapped, then I met her, and that was a creative choice. Helen is at a very different stage in her life now. We're obviously talking about her from the age of 24 to 48 [the time frame of the biopic] and it was really important that I stayed present within that part of her life. There's also so much information about her. I read her book, which was really helpful. There's a million interviews and all her performances and the director Unjoo had such a close relationship with her and her family that I had all the knowledge and research that I needed. We're still making a film and creating characters and I fell so in love with her that think I would've found it really hard to meet her.

Significantly, you're playing someone that is alive.

It was a massive challenge, a huge honor, and I really felt the responsibility. I took it very seriously. I did so much prep. Probably too much prep.

She is endorsing it.

Absolutely. She really gave it her blessing. She really enjoyed it. And her whole family, 'cause obviously it includes a lot of them in the film.

What are the keys to playing Helen in terms of her mannerisms and how she speaks? What is so Helen?

So much. I'm so glad you asked that question. My physicality is very different to hers. There's a lot of parallels in our lives. We grew up in a very similar way. I grew up doing circus. My parents are both in show business. My mom's a dancer. My dad's a lighting designer; he's now a director. I grew up on the road with them, similar to Helen, and then moved to America for more opportunities. It was really important for me to find those hooks of her and, obviously, we're dealing with her from 24 to 48, so to see how she changes over time. Her voice was really important to me. She has a very unusual speech pattern and a very interesting tone to her voice. And it was really important for me to find that; that really helped me find her. I flap around and move my arms a whole lot and talk really fast and she's very considered and very distilled. She holds her shoulders and angle of her head in a very particular way. She does very particular things with her arms and she sits in a very masculine way. You sort of have to go through like an archeological dig into this human's life. It started out by mimicking those characteristcs.

You don’t sing in the film. How did the vocals work?

This is a really interesting process. I started off by doing four or five weeks of prep and I'd sing for two or three hours a day. Helen is such an extraordinary singer and you need that voice to feel as much like hers as possible. And it is an amalgamation of her voice and an artist named Chelsea Cullen’s voice. So it was very much a collaboration between the two of them. All of the voice was done in reaction to my performance and I sung on the days live, and they created the post sound to those performances. I did breathing lessons. I did a lot of work on mouth placement. And I had to be able to sing for real. It's like when you have a stunt person to do your stunts in film; she is an extraordinary singer. People called her the queen of '70s pop. It needed to feel really authentic. The voice stuff was created from the inside and from rehearsal and all of the characteristics and the breathing and me singing. They were an amazing creative team that supported my creation of the character and performance and worked backwards from there.

Why do you think in many biopics or music docs that it focuses more on the struggle and not on the fame?

Our film halfway through hits with this song. But I guess it's because we all know the stories of these people as artists. What we all don’t know, and what's fascinating, is how they got there. Helen's story is extraordinary. She was so bold and to arrive in America with a 3-year-old, $230 and one suitcase and within weeks she was completely broke -- and within five years she was the first Australian to win a Grammy. That journey is so huge and so extraordinary. There's so much bravery and determination and seeing people with that determination and bravery is fascinating and inspiring.

Helen could have come out now with “I Am Woman.” It’s kind of sad and ridiculous that we are still fighting for equality. As a young woman, how do feel?

I also find it hopeful because as much as this song is so relevant today, I think it will always be relevant to women. It’s a really empowering song. It talks about the future and it's really about bringing people together. I hope it's a song that's really inclusive of all people, of all gender identities. I also think that as much as there's still a long way to go, it's amazing to look back and see how far we've come too. She had to live through a lot of things that I know today I don't have this struggle with.

Like what?

As a female artist, I have so much more opportunity, and I think that in the last two years, particularly with things like #MeToo and Time’s Up, there's been this big conversation opened. The Pandora's box has been opened, and we can't go back now. Everyone's starting the discussion and I think from discussions is where you really find change. She was one of the first women in America to have a name on a credit card. She was the first woman in America to have her own one-hour TV show, and you see that more now. And, obviously, it's crazy to think you couldn't have a credit card. So there is still a lot that we've achieved and it's important to stay positive.

At the end of the film before the credits, it said the equal rights amendment hasn’t been amended to this day.

In America, there is nothing in the constitution that states that men and women should be treated equally.