Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would end up acting in Neighbours. It’s such an iconic series in Australia which everyone grew up watching. Actors such as Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan launched their careers from it
Words: Tina Edward Gunawardhana
Photos: Ashen De Sylaw
Make up: Ruby Vidor
Hair style: Nadiya Fernando from You by the wax museum
Location: The Mangrove Hotel
Olivia Junkeer, an actress of Sri Lankan heritage stars in the iconic australian tv soap ‘Neighbours’. holding a baton for women of colour in the TV industry, 21 year old Olivia’s star is on the rise.
What prompted you to become an actress?
I think from the moment I could focus my eyes on something, I was addicted to TV.
I loved singing and dancing in front of my favourite shows. I started off dancing from the age of about four. I think I just loved being on stage. I did tap, jazz and hip hop.
I wasn’t the best dancer but I wanted to be in all the routines because I loved performing so much. My mum usually drove me home before my class had got to the finale. I would be shattered that I couldn’t take a bow with everyone. Being a lover of entertainment, clearly the six year old drama queen that
I was, made me realise I wanted to be an actress.
How old were you when you first started acting?
I started acting in school plays, when I was six. I did that for a while but I never took it too seriously when I was younger. I will admit I spent a lot of time talking to the camera as if someone was watching. When
I started high school, acting became less of a hobby and more of a passion. I tried to do as many drama classes and theatre shows as I could. My poor dad spent hours and hours driving around Melbourne, even though most of the time I was only an extra.
How did your parents react when they knew you wanted to be an actress?
My parents have always been very supportive of me. The one thing my dad always says to me is “aim for the stars”. When my desire to act become more apparent, my mum was a little bit worried. She wanted me to focus on school and worry about acting later. I was so eager and restless that I wanted to take any opportunity
I could. I wasn’t allowed to get an agent or go to auditions. My mum was worried that I would land a role and drop out of school. In her defence, I probably would have. I convinced my dad that I needed experience, so we secretly found representation and would go to an audition every now and then.
Did you go to theatre school?
I went to a couple of theatre schools throughout my teenage years. School finished at 3:30pm, and half an hour later I’d be at my drama class. I loved it because I got to spend time with people that had similar interests and I learnt so much. However, as I got older, drama classes became difficult for me because it really pushes you out of your comfort zone. You have to dance around the room, sing, play strange games, speak fake languages etc. All of which I loved but I think I became a lot more shy. I thought if I stop going to theatre school, I’ll never improve. When I turned 16, I made my four best friends (who by the way have no desire or much skill in acting), to attend the National Theatre Drama school, so I wouldn’t be alone.
What was the first role you starred in?
The first main role that I can remember was ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. I played Jack. I was eleven, and I got to dress up in a little boy’s costume, and wear one of those hats from the 1940s. I remember being so excited that my parents were finally going to see me perform on stage in a main role and not as an extra.
How easy was it to get into acting in Australia?
When I was 16, I thought this stuff is impossible, I’m never going to be an actress. Little did I know, I wasn’t even at the beginning! Some of the most talented people are forever trying to break into the industry. Sometimes you feel like you’re getting nowhere and you need a tough skin. Australia’s entertainment industry is quite small. I’ve been extremely lucky and I hate to say it, but so far it has been easy. I was 17 when I got my current full time job. The entertainment industry is hard, regardless of where you are, and I’m sure my most difficult times of searching for the next break, next place, next step up, are yet to come.
How did you get your first break?
I had an audition for the Australian soap opera, ‘Neighbours’. I had literally just finished my last year of school. I didn’t think much of it because the chances of landing an audition are extremely slim. I was more focused on my end of year celebrations. When I got the callback, I was about to get on a plane to Byron Bay, and party with my school friends. Looking back, I can’t believe that for a second I was considering possibly not cancelling my flight!
Starring in Neighbours is a big achievement. What were your first thoughts when you landed that role?
I could not have been more excited! I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, because I had no idea what I was going to do after school, and then all of a sudden I had this amazing opportunity. I had never been on any sort of TV show before, let alone ‘Neighbours’. In Australia, it’s such an iconic series which everyone grew up watching.
A lot of successful actors such as Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan started there, and to think that I get to be on this show as my training ground was incredible. We are filming our 35th anniversary at the moment, and it’s insane that I’m actually a part of that.
What is the character you play now?
The character I play on ‘Neighbours’ is Yashvi Rebecchi. She is a rebellious, outspoken and ambitious teenager. My character takes the most out of every occasion and is highly reactive and feisty, which makes it such fun for me. She is a very restless character, which keeps me active. My character loves AFL (Australian Football League), which I have to say is quite a challenge for me as I am not very sporty! Currently in my role I am a police officer in training, so I’m pretty excited to see where that is going to take me.
I’ve had the luxury of representing young women of colour in Australia. The film and television industry lacks people of colour. This issue is really important to me, because throughout my childhood there was a serious lack of cultural diversity on our screens
How many days a week do you film?
We film 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 43 weeks of the year. Neighbours is a fast moving show, because we are on every week night. There’s not a lot of time, but it keeps us on our toes. We are never filming one episode at a time. Most days we are filming scenes from three different episodes, on the same day.
What’s the most exciting storyline your character has experienced?
That’s a hard question, because we explore so many different things all the time! I’d say the most exciting storyline was when my boyfriend started to fall for his stalker, and then the stalker tried to kill us both. It was Halloween, and we filmed in a maze. The episode had costumes, knives, lots of blood, it was great! I was stabbed, and I got to take down the villain. As you can imagine, I was pretty pleased that I got to do that one.
What do you like about your character?
I like my character becomes she goes on a journey of self discovery. She’s openly vulnerable and shares her struggles and her feelings all the time. This can get her into a lot of trouble, but she is always learning. Although she is reckless, there’s never bad intentions. My character is head strong and stands up for what she believes in.
Being an actress of colour how difficult was it to break into acting?
I haven’t yet encountered any particular difficulties being an actress of colour. I’d say if anything, I’ve had the luxury of representing young women of colour in Australia. As I said before, the film and television industry is small, but also lacking in men and women of colour. On the show, I’m part of a mixed race family which is reflective of my own family. This issue is really important to me, because at the moment and throughout my childhood there was a serious lack of cultural diversity on our screens. I love that my little cousins can watch me and see someone that looks like them.
I absolutely loved Sri Lanka. I wish we could have stayed longer. The people were lovely and there is so much to do. We went surfing, visited beautiful beaches and spotted a few elephants
Would you ever consider a profession outside of acting?
No. I’ve never wanted to. I’ve always tried to think of a ‘Plan B’, but it’s always stayed at that. If I wasn’t an actor, I’d have to be doing something creative. I used to love photography, writing and media related activities. I think it would be interesting to be behind the camera. Script wiring has always sparked my interest… maybe I’ll get there someday.
You recently visited Sri Lanka on holiday. What was that experience like?
I absolutely loved Sri Lanka, I can’t wait to return. It was an unforgettable trip - me and my seven best friends, nothing better! Within two weeks we visited Galle, Mirissa, Yala, Ella and Colombo. I wish we could have stayed longer. The people are lovely and there is so much to do. We went surfing, visited beautiful beaches and spotted a few elephants, the whole experience was insane! I also celebrated my 21st birthday while
I was there, so how could I not enjoy it!
Where was your most favourite place?
My favourite place was Mirissa. It was our longest stay and we enjoyed every minute. It was so relaxed and we were able to do day trips to places like Hiriketiya and Tangalle. Not to mention, we probably had the best food ever. We also celebrated new year’s eve in Mirissa. There were all these parties on the beach, I wanted to be there forever!
How many times have you visited Sri Lanka?
Twice now. The first time was in 2012.
I visited with my entire extended family. It was my aunt’s wedding and we all stayed in Colombo together. My dad used this occasion to take us around Sri Lanka to show my siblings and I where he grew up.
What words of advice would you give to aspiring thespians?
I would say always be present, don’t settle for less, and aim for the stars!