Tag Archives: Nicole Chamoun

Gloves off

Australian miniseries On the Ropes packs a punch with its story of a female boxing trainer striving for equality and a chance to succeed in the sport she loves. DQ speaks to stars Nicole Chamoun and Keisha Castle-Hughes plus producer Courtney Wise about the SBS show.

Preparing for an audition might typically involve researching the series, learning some scenes and, if possible, reading the entire script. But for her latest role, Nicole Chamoun didn’t just want to speak the part, she wanted to look the part too.

This didn’t simply mean a change of outfit, however, as Chamoun was putting herself forward to play an aspiring boxing trainer in Australian network SBS’s four-part miniseries On the Ropes.

“I wanted it so much and I just wanted to do as much as I could to embody the character prior to the audition. So about a month before, I started training maybe once or twice a week,” she explains.

Her audition and her commitment impressed the show’s producers and she won the role. “Then once I was cast, I was doing boxing and weight training five days a week,” she continues. “And because I play a trainer, it was a whole other skill set to train and do pad work, learn the technique and the language, as well as learning how to throw a punch and to feel what it’s like to be hit. It was a lot but it’s awesome.”

On the Ropes — described as a “sexy, gritty drama that is fast-paced and full of heart” — stars Chamoun as Amirah Al-Amir, a wannabe trainer who has idolised her world-champion father Sami (Igal Naor) her entire life.

Nicole Chamoun’s Amirah gives Jess (Keisha Castle-Hughes) advice in the ring

Working in the family gym in Sydney’s western suburbs alongside her two brothers, she negotiates a professional debut match for her hardnosed fighter Jess O’Connor (Keisha Castle-Hughes) with Sami’s long-time promoter Strick (Jack Thompson). But when her furious father threatens to cut her off, Amirah must choose whether to chase her dream or choose her family.

Chamoun says the eight-week production — two weeks of prep and six of filming — was a “really special experience” and she fell in love with the sport.

“Boxing was all new to me,” she admits. “It was my first time experiencing a character from the physicality aspect of it, which was really interesting. The physical stuff of the boxing world was so important to who she was as a person and it coloured so much of her identity that we did a lot of the character work simply by turning up to boxing training. So that was cool, and watching my body transform and seeing myself get stronger and picking up a new skill set, it was great. I loved it.”

Producer Courtney Wise says she was sold on Chamoun from her first audition, impressed that she had nailed the character of Amirah. “But when we realised she’d gotten into boxing, that was a bonus that we discovered later. Seeing all these Instagram pictures of her boxing was exciting but we didn’t know that straightaway.”

Amirah grows to love boxing after being brought up in that world, but finds it’s only when she wants to step out on her own that she is confronted by opposition, most notably from her father.

Director Shannon Murphy (left) with producer Courtney Wise

“I think if Amirah were born a boy, it would have been a different situation,” says Wise. “She’s really talented in terms of boxing and would have been a natural heir but, because she’s not a boy, it’s that much harder for her. Sami’s responsible for nurturing her in this world but when it comes to making it her career, that’s where it becomes not for him because he does have that deeply entrenched, patriarchal view of the sport.

“When she decides to go pro, that’s when he and his wife start to panic and draw those lines in the sand. She knew he wouldn’t approve, but not how much it would tear the whole family apart.”

Chamoun says Amirah challenges traditional representations of men and women, in a story that tackles themes of gender inequality, multi-generational conflicts and the difficulties facing immigrant families. “The only reason she can challenge her family the way she does is because she knows they love her unconditionally. It’s not like he’s the big bad father who doesn’t respect women’s place in the world. She’s questioning all the things he’s grown up to know and believe in the boxing world and in the community. That’s where it’s coming from. He’s protecting her.

“But she’s a strong-ass woman. She knows what she wants and has the courage to fight for it. And they could be from any background – this story just happens to have an Iraqi-Australian family.”

Like Chamoun, Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones, Whale Rider) went through a demanding regime to play boxer Jess, training for up to five hours a day for eight weeks before shooting began. “In boxing, you don’t have anywhere to hide. There’s nowhere to go,” the Oscar-nominated actor says. “You can build your strength up and get as strong as you can, but it really comes down to mental endurance.”

Four-episode miniseries On the Ropes is set to air later this year

Castle-Hughes admits she often felt “broken” on set, such was the demanding nature of the role and the fight sequences she had to perform. Body doubles were used, but the actors did the vast majority of the physical work themselves. “But I felt really supported,” she says. “Nicole and I had such a special relationship — it was very easy for us to be the trainer and the fighter.

“Jess and Amirah are closer than anyone else, especially when training. There’s a level of deep respect that was required. You see their relationship and they learn so much from each other.”

The idea for On the Ropes came from Wise, a self-proclaimed boxing fan, who wanted to set a drama in the world of sport. She devised the characters and the story before writing a series outline, bringing in writers including Tamara Asmar (Doctor Doctor), Adam Todd (Wentworth) and Ian Meadows (House Husbands).

Boxers such as Australian pro Bianca Elmir were also on hand to bring authenticity to the series, with Elmir also helping with the fight choreography. The series isn’t filled with boxing sequences, however, as Wise was keen to ensure viewers didn’t suffer from “fight fatigue.” When such scenes do appear, though, she says they are narratively driven and reflect the emotional relationships of the characters.

Barring a car-park brawl, Chamoun was largely on the sidelines for the fight sequences, as the trainer watching from behind the ropes, but she did climb into the ring for sparring scenes with Castle-Hughes and fellow actor Louis Hunter.

Star Nicole Chamoun also featured in fellow Australian series Safe Harbour

“Both Keisha and Louis worked so hard and it was so incredible. I have so much admiration for them,” Chamoun says. “I don’t even know how they did that as well as the acting and the character work on top of it. Also, I’m very clumsy so I feel like it wouldn’t have been good for anyone if I were in the ring. It’s best to have me on the sidelines — using my voice is my strength.”

Behind the camera is Shannon Murphy (Offspring), who directed all four episodes of the miniseries, produced for SBS by Lingo Pictures and distributed worldwide by DCD Rights. Wise says Murphy succeeded in getting grounded, authentic performances and a unique visual style that matches the unfamiliar setting for the story.

“When I took Shannon to one of her first fight nights, she instantly fell in love with it and then took all those visual elements and pushed it to a whole new level,” Wise explains. “She did that across the series and, when you look at it, it’s very visually distinct and that’s all credit to her embracing that and really giving it a push.”

Chamoun says the series pays respect to boxing, with many from the sport playing a part in the development and production of the drama. “I feel like that world’s going to be surprised about how authentically we have delivered it,” she says. “I’m just really honoured to have been part of a project where we’re putting on screen Arab-Australian characters that are not the victims or the terrorists. I hope there are women who see themselves in me being represented on screen.”

Having appeared recently in both Romper Stomper and Safe Harbour, the actor says she has enjoyed some “really beautiful, heartfelt, juicy roles and stories,” with On the Ropes following that same vein. It is due to air later this year.

“I just want to play bold, strong, powerful women,” she adds. “I feel like I’ve only had the opportunity to play Arab women so far, so I do think it’s important that we challenge that part of things. It would be nice to play some roles that are not based on my ethnic background, but then again it’s all about the story and the character. And if they’re strong women with something to say, I hope I have an opportunity to play them.”

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Choppy waters

Commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS, miniseries Safe Harbour offers a fresh perspective on the global refugee crisis. DQ sits down with the on- and off-screen talent behind the show to find out more about this ‘very cinematic’ piece of television.

Actors from a Middle Eastern background are usually cast in Australian TV shows for one of two reasons, according to director Glendyn Ivin – “To make us laugh or make us scared.”

Ivin seized the chance to avoid those caricatures when he was hired to direct Safe Harbour, a four-hour psychological thriller commissioned by Australian pubcaster SBS.

Produced by NBCUniversal’s Matchbox Pictures, the miniseries tackles the controversial topic of asylum seekers and the moral dilemmas they pose to governments, societies and individuals, particularly in the West.

The plot follows five vacationing Australians who set sail on a yacht bound for Indonesia. En route they encounter a broken-down fishing boat full of desperate asylum seekers.

Despite concerns that the Aussies could face charges of people-smuggling, they agree to tow the stricken vessel back to Australia, but by the next morning it has vanished. Five years later they meet some of the refugees and discover someone had cut the tow rope, resulting in the loss of seven lives.

Safe Harbour’s diverse cast includes Nicole Chamoun as Zahra

The relatively unknown Nicole Chamoun and Hazem Shammas play Zahra and Ismail, an Iraqi couple whose nine-year-old daughter dies after the vessel sinks. Robert Rabiah is Ismail’s brother Bilal.

“When we were casting we had a lot of people come out of the woodwork who were great actors, often from the theatre,” Ivin says. “They saw this as an opportunity to explore Iraqi or Arabic characters who were neither good nor bad: they were very human. In the show, we don’t explore characters in terms of their race, religion or politics; we explore characters purely as human beings. It’s paid off because their performances are so rich and so beautiful.”

Australian-born Chamoun, whose parents emigrated from Lebanon during its civil war, made her screen debut in the SBS series Kick in 2007 and more recently appeared in December Media’s The Doctor Blake Mysteries and Sticky Pictures’ Ronny Chieng: International Student, both for pubcaster the ABC.

“Nicole came in and did this screen test that had me in tears. It was in Arabic but there was a guttural panic and sadness behind what she was doing; the words seemed to force themselves out of her throat in a way I wasn’t expecting,” Ivin says. “She did something I’d never seen an actor do before in a screen test. She requested that she did not talk beforehand; she just wanted to come in and do the scene and then we would talk afterwards. When she arrived in the room, she was in a heightened emotional space. She delivered it twice, and then through tears we began the more familiar casting small talk. She is an incredibly passionate actor who puts everything on the line.”

Chamoun says of her audition: “I felt compelled and so connected to the story and this character I was not leaving that room without [getting the part].”

Director Glendyn Ivin says he sees ‘TV as the new cinema’

Of Zahra, she says: “She is a strong, hard-working woman, the glue in the family who is trying to keep everyone together when everyone around her is crumbling. She takes on the weight of everyone’s problems and comes out fighting. I don’t know if I would have been as strong and determined. It was gut-wrenching for me but this could have been real and has happened to many, many people.”

After a lot of hard work and perseverance, Chamoun’s star is rising: she also plays a Muslim university student who gets embroiled in race riots in Melbourne in Roadshow Rough Diamond’s Romper Stomper, an original series commissioned by streaming service Stan that debuted in Australia on January 1, 2018.

Ivin was similarly impressed with the performances of Shammas, an experienced stage actor whose screen credits include Screentime’s Underbelly and ABC comedy At Home with Julia, and Rabiah (Screentime’s Fat Tony & Co, Matchbox Pictures movie Ali’s Wedding).

The producers secured marquee names to play the Aussie holidaymakers. Ewen Leslie (Top of the Lake: China Girl, Rake) plays Ryan, the boat’s captain, with Phoebe Tonkin (The Originals, The Vampire Diaries) as his sister Olivia and Leeanna Walsman (Seven Types of Ambiguity, Cleverman) as his wife Bree.

Joel Jackson (The Wrong Girl, Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door) is Damien, Olivia’s boyfriend who disappears after the incident on the water and reappears at a group reunion five years later. Jacqueline McKenzie (Love Child, Hiding) is the fifth passenger, a lawyer named Helen.

The cast and crew faced the challenge of a week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane

Filmed over six weeks in Brisbane and off the Queensland coast, Safe Harbour is co-funded by Screen Australia, Screen Queensland, SBS and NBCUniversal International Distribution, which has international rights. The series is due to premiere on SBS next Wednesday.

The concept was one of 300-plus ideas that flooded in after Matchbox Pictures opened an office in Brisbane in 2015 with the support of Screen Queensland and issued a general call-out for stories. Matchbox development executive and producer Stephen Corvini says the two-page treatment from neophyte writers Phil Enchelmaier and Simon Kennedy for the project, then titled Asylum, was the standout.

Corvini held a brainstorming session in Brisbane with Enchelmaier, Kennedy and experienced writers Beatrix Christian and Anthony Mullins, who runs Matchbox’s Brisbane office. Christian subsequently dropped out to co-write FremantleMedia Australia (FMA)’s Picnic at Hanging Rock for Foxtel, so Belinda Chayko and Kris Wyld came aboard and a series bible was written. Wyld then moved on to create and co-write medical drama Pulse for the ABC and Matt Cameron was hired.

Chayko had worked with Cameron on Matchbox’s miniseries Secret City for Foxtel and the prodco’s drama series Old School, which starred Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, for the ABC.

Corvini subsequently pitched the project to SBS head of drama Sue Masters, who readily agreed to fund the script development. After four scripts had been written, SBS gave the greenlight and Screen Australia and Screen Queensland provided production funding.

Safe Harbour launches in Australia next week

The international relevance of the subject was a big plus, as Corvini explains: “Shows that travel are very important to the company and, as storytellers, we want our stories to travel. We absolutely want to be successful in the domestic market foremost, and with NBCUniversal distributing they have a say in what we produce and give us some indication of how a show like this will perform internationally.”

Masters says: “We’re inordinately proud of the show. The fact it is a psychological thriller was very exciting. The great beauty of the SBS charter is that we won’t make anything that is unimportant. The challenge is always to make it engaging, compelling, fresh and bold. Four-part, one-hour series are dense and quite difficult.”

SBS adopted the four-hour drama template with FMA’s Better Man, which Corvini produced, followed by Essential Media and Entertainment’s The Principal, Blackfella Films’ Deep Water, Easy Tiger/Carver Films’ Sunshine and, also premiering in 2018, Subtext Pictures’ Dead Lucky.

“It’s creatively challenging – you feel like a start-up company every time you do one of these four-hours because they are all different. But we feel it is an efficient use of our money, and it’s important to have some marquee stars so that our projects can stand out,” Masters adds.

Chayko wrote episodes one and four and co-wrote episode three with Enchelmaier. Cameron did episode two. The plotting was a collaborative process involving all the writers plus Kennedy, Mullins and Corvini.

Glendyn (right) chats to actor Hazem Shammas

“The most difficult challenge in the writing was to get the delicate emotional balance of the characters right, particularly the Australians,” says Chayko. “The more we got into their stories and acknowledged the depth of their feelings once they realised what the consequences had been, that’s when it felt like it was all really coming together.”

Chayko sees one virtue of four-part dramas as the ability to tell stories that in the past might have been the subject of theatrical features.

Ivin, who directed Seven Types of Ambiguity and the US cable series Hunters for Matchbox as well as numerous other dramas including The Beautiful Lie, Gallipoli and Puberty Blues, heard about the project on the grapevine.

“It’s the first time in a long time that a project made me think, ‘I’d love to do that.’ I was jealous when I heard someone talking about it,” he admits. “Then I got a call from Matchbox when I had been day-dreaming about the project. I had been doing a run of commercials so I was really happy to jump back into longform drama. I see TV as the new cinema. This is four hours, one director and we’ve treated it as one film. It’s a piece of very cinematic television and the kind of thing I aspire to make.”

The director adds that the ambiguity of the moral dilemma at the heart of the story was the key to the drama. “I did not want it to be a for-or-against story,” he says. “We’re talking about the issue of asylum seekers, which could be anywhere in the world. From the outset, this felt like a way of contributing to and discussing this really important issue without it becoming a piece of advocacy.

“We as an audience expect a lot more from TV drama than in the past. As a director, the stories I’ve been drawn to in television, I know that if I had made them as feature films they would not have had the audiences they had on TV.”

The director frames a shot while out at sea

Tonkin jumped at the chance to come back to Australia to work on a grounded drama after spending years on the heightened-reality milieu of The Originals and The Vampire Diaries. The actor relished tackling her character’s arc from being a hopeful, happy young woman to someone who, five years later, harbours a lot of anger, guilt and sadness.

Working for the first time with veterans McKenzie, Leslie and Walsman, Tonkin says she was a bit intimidated initially but felt comfortable after the first day and enjoyed the collaborative effort. “It was incredibly inspiring to work with all those actors; I probably learned more than I did in the past 10 years,” she says.

Ivin notes: “[Tonkin] proved herself to be a much greater actor than we had been aware of. I think people will see her differently from now on because she delivers a stellar performance.”

Similarly, McKenzie marvelled at Tonkin’s temperament and technique as she persevered filming a scene in dying light after a camera malfunction, observing: “Phoebe is at the top of her game in the US and it was lovely to see her back in Australia doing a fabulously dramatic role that she could get her teeth into.”

McKenzie describes her character as an embittered, driven and ambitious woman who is nearly unhinged after the tragedy at sea. Thereafter, she sets out to save her soul.

Like most of the cast and crew, Leslie found the week-long shoot on two boats and six support vessels off the coast of Brisbane challenging, especially playing the boat’s captain with zero maritime expertise. He was cracking Jaws and Waterworld jokes before venturing out to sea but quickly desisted.

Leslie was attracted to the project because all the characters are complex and make bad decisions over the course of the four episodes, and by the chance to work with Ivin for the first time, having followed the director’s career since 2003 short film Cracker Bag. He also enjoyed teaming up again with Jackson after they collaborated on the Foxtel-commissioned First World War miniseries Deadline Gallipoli.

“What I really liked about Safe Harbour was that it’s very much a personal story about the inter-connected relationships, as opposed to being a political story,” Leslie says. “Because of the subject, people viewing at home are going to bring their own politics to it. But the show doesn’t make any attempt to push any agenda. I would not want to watch if it did. It sets up a very complicated dilemma and lets it play out as both sides make questionable decisions that have repercussions.”

Ivin is full of praise for the work of first-time cinematographer Sam Chiplin, who had been the B camera operator on The Beautiful Lie, a reimagining of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks for the ABC. Before that, Chiplin was a director’s assistant at TVC production house Exit Films, where Ivin met him.

“He created an amazing aesthetic on the show,” says the director, adding that he had only seen that level of enthusiasm and attitude in two other people: Australian DoPs Greig Fraser, whose movie credits include Lion, Mary Magdalene, Rogue One and Foxcatcher, and Adam Arkapaw, who shot the first series of Top of the Lake, True Detective and features including Assassin’s Creed and The Light Between Oceans.

Executive producer Debbie Lee, who is Matchbox’s director of scripted development, says the show is based on a key premise: what would viewers do if they were confronted with the moral dilemma the Aussies faced? “It is complicated and there is no simple answer to what is a unifying dramatic question,” Lee says. “It’s about the fantastic characters created by the writing team and their own dilemmas.”

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