Woman sitting, wearing a white blouse and jeans, hand on head, against a pink backdrop.


Everyone Wants To Be Friends With Phoebe Tonkin

The Australian actor is always on the invite list. It’s easy to see why.

Katie Holmes! Carey Mulligan! America Ferreira! Chanel’s pre-Fashion Week dinner was not for lack of stars at the brand’s new jewelry flagship, a gilded jewel box on the Upper East Side. And at the top of the twirling staircase, a one-woman greeting committee: Phoebe Tonkin. “I like your bangs,” said Elizabeth Olsen, squeezing by, as Tonkin greeted Cazzie David with a hug. It’s not a role Chanel appointed the actor, but one she’s born to do, taking in Victoria Pedretti, Kelsey Asbille, and so many more, as they ascended the second floor and lit up at the sight of the 34-year-old Australian actor. “They’re amazing,” Tonkin says of the Chanel team, with whom she’s worked as a brand ambassador since 2018. “It's been a really wonderful relationship and partnership.”

Tonkin has been someone you want to talk to since her teens, when she was cast as Cleo Sertori — yes, the one from that TikTok sound — on the Australian children's television series H20: Just Add Water. In 2011, she broke into the U.S. market with a leading role in the teen drama The Secret Circle, and would eventually reach peak fandom with The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff The Originals. When we run into each other at the Chanel dinner, she’s on the heels of her latest hit: Boy Swallows Universe, the Netflix adaptation of Trent Dalton’s 2018 bestselling book, in which Tonkin plays Frances Bell, a troubled young mother who lands in jail.

On a chilly Friday morning, Tonkin and I meet at Happy Medium, an art café on the Lower East Side, to discuss the role. Tonkin has lived in the city on and off for eight years, but officially got her own place last summer. Dressed in a white gauzy blouse, jeans, and red ballet flats, her face lightly touched by makeup artist Samantha Lau, she’s just as in her element painting a white vase with tiny pink and red flowers (inspired by her Khaite bag that completes the look) as she was in head-to-toe Chanel surrounded by friends. But you get the feeling that Tonkin, inadvertently or not, abides by that old phrase: strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. It’s how, in fact, we ended up here, at Tonkin’s request. “I was chatting with [the owners] the last time I was here because we were making chairs, and my friend Ang was better at it,” she says. “I need a lot more help.” Now, we’re back making vases before the doors open for the day, the owners chiming into conversation every now and then with familiar ease. Call it the Phoebe effect.

Since you consider yourself a true New Yorker now, I have to ask… do you still like LA?

I love LA, too, for different reasons. I have a really good core group of girlfriends where everyone is quite transient, but it's nice when we're all in LA and can have lunches and things. So I would say my friends and my home in LA I love, but I do prefer New York as a city.

And how often do you get back home to Sydney?

Usually I'm there once a year for work and then I'll tack on seeing people, but when I was shooting Boy Swallows Universe, I was there for six months and it was heaven. I'm from Sydney and was shooting in Brisbane. My school friends that I've known since I was 13 would fly up. We'd spend the weekend, we'd go on weekend trips. I kind of felt like I was 18 again.

How many of your friends are in the industry versus home friends?

It's a bit of both. One of my best friends is a kindergarten teacher. I went as a show-and-tell and met her kindergarten students a few years ago. Then I've got friends who are actresses who are kind of all over. It’s nice to have friends that understand that everything is relative and that everyone's issues are big or small depending on how they affect you. And my sister doesn't work in the industry and she lives here too, so it's nice to have that balance as well.

“It’s nice to have friends that understand that everything is relative and that everyone's issues are big or small depending on how they affect you.”

With Boy Swallows Universe, you’re bringing a very popular and very beloved book to life — did that intimidate you?

It wasn't scary. I felt a lot of love from Trent Dalton and his family and a lot of support. I tried to block out any kind of Goodreads reviewers that were like, “That's not what Frankie Bell looks like in my head.” My priority was really Trent and his family, and doing justice and having compassion for how vulnerable he was in telling that story, and how delicate some of those emotions and subject matters were. It felt like a really beautiful challenge.

You’re an aunt in real life, but how was playing a mom for this role?

You know what's funny? I've been playing moms for so long. I was playing a mom on The Originals when I was like 23. But with this one, because we were shooting for so long, I got so close to Felix [Cameron] and Lee [Tiger Halley], who played the younger kids. I just loved them like my kids. And seeing them the week before last at the premiere, I felt really protective of them.

What are your go-to spots when you’re in New York?

This is such a basic one, but it's Souen. My sister's always like, "You can't go there on a date, or with a friend from out of town. You have to take them somewhere cool." And I'm like, "No, I love it." I like Spring Street Natural, where my sister and I go for lunch all the time. I've been going to I Sodi. I like il Buco. I like anywhere that has nice light or is candlelit.

How did you find this place?

I saw it over the summer on Instagram, and then one of my best friends and I came in September for the build-a-chair workshop. I built a stool, which is now my bedside table. I need to come back and do a second one so it's even. I love the energy here. I love the people that run it and work here. I love the incense they burn. I think maybe it's also why I like Souen. I like to go out and be social, but I don't necessarily want to go to a bar or restaurant. It still feels sexy, warm, and intimate [and not] like going bowling.

When we came and built our chairs, we were here for three hours. We didn't look at our phones, we were focused, but we also had this long conversation. It's also nice to come out of it with a beautiful print or vase I just painted, but also be in a really calm, beautiful space, which is what I want to do most nights. Otherwise I'll sit at home and watch Netflix on my laptop and isolate, and I don't want to do that.

How do you find time for nights like that, and your friendships, when also in promo mode?

I love being able to talk about a project I am so grateful to be part of. I sent a message to my friend yesterday because she sent me this long, beautiful message about the show, how excited she was and proud of me. It's so rare that you get those messages, and I want to take as much time to write back as she's taken to spend the time to watch it.

I was talking to another actress friend about this — I think sometimes you forget that people who are doing these things that are quote-unquote successful also love to hear from their friends. It's so meaningful. And so it's been so nice to get all these beautiful messages. And I'm truly like, “Thank you so much. I could kiss you. I'm so grateful that you watched it and you loved it.”

Did this particular experience change how you view potential future projects or roles?

It did. I was a kid actor, and these kid actors were treated in a way where their choices, opinions, and thoughts were really taken seriously, and they were treated like any other actor on that set. I would love to find that experience again. I don't necessarily know what role or project specifically I would like to do next, but I would love to cultivate that kind of environment on the next job I do.

Would you want to further pursue directing?

I directed a short film a few years ago with Milly Alcock and Markella Kavenagh, and I loved that experience. But I think because of COVID, and now the strike, it's just been so long between. For a long time I was on a set every day for 10 months out of the year, and that's how I like to work. I like to go from set to set to set. I would love to direct again, but I would like to take the time to do the preparation, which requires a little bit more staying in one place. [But] right now, I'm ready to get those stamps in my passport every three months.

Photographs by Anna Nazarova

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Lauren McCarthy

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert