Actress Isabel Lucas was raised on Aboriginal land in her native Australia, and also in Switzerland, before being discovered at a flea market in Cairns, Australia, not far from the Great Barrier Reef. She entered the star market in 2003 at age 18, playing Tasha Andrews on the infamously beachy Australian mega–soap opera Home and Away, a virtual feeder for Australian acting talent, and it wasn’t long before her elevated cheekbones and unusual backstory were routinely exciting Hollywood casting agents. She landed roles in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009), and in the HBO World War II miniseries The Pacific, and relocated to Los Angeles.
Nevertheless, Lucas says she didn’t know what an agent was until she was approached by one, and she was never interested in being photographed—by glossier magazines or the tabloids that have fixated less on her performances than on her personal life, particularly after she was identified as her Transformers co-star Shia LaBeouf’s passenger when his truck flipped in 2008, famously crushing his hand. The earthy 26-year-old, though, isn’t a reluctant star-on-the-rise and, in addition to acting, has been busy focusing on other projects: She has worked as a community volunteer in Namibia for two months and in 2010 hiked Mount Kilimanjaro with Elizabeth Gore, Jessica Biel, Alexandra Cousteau, and Lupe Fiasco to raise awareness about the global clean water crisis; she also made international news in 2007 when she joined a wet-suited Hayden Panettiere and about 30 surfers in the water off the coast of Japan to protest dolphin hunting.
This month, Lucas co-stars in Immortals, a lavish 3D production directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Henry Cavill, Freida Pinto, Kellan Lutz, and Mickey Rourke, in which Lucas plays a young Athena—a goddess, naturally. She, though, naturally has more Topanga Canyon leanings, and looked the part at last spring’s Coachella festival alongside her boyfriend, musician Angus Stone of the folksy duo Angus & Julia Stone. She prefers flats to heels, but wears both astoundingly well.
MARK JACOBS: I understand you grew up with a lot of animals.
ISABEL LUCAS: We had horses, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, turtles, lizards, quails, budgies, mice . . . I’m trying to remember everything. I lived for a couple of years when I was 9 years old on beautiful Aboriginal sacred land in a town of a thousand people in northwestern Australia. It’s where the Aborigines are still very connected to their culture, the Dreamtime culture. It was really quite a special experience. I was a barefoot earth child for a couple of years. My best friend was Aboriginal.
Jacobs: What did your parents do that they could offer you that kind of experience?
Lucas: Dad was a farmer, and when my older sister Nina and I were born, he became a pilot. Mom worked with autistic children. We ended up moving for Dad’s work. We spent a lot of time in nature, but we did live in cities like Melbourne as well. When I was 7, I went to school in Switzerland because everyone on my mom’s side of the family lives there. Then we were back in Australia, in Queensland. That’s where we had the chance to have lots of different animals. I spent a lot of time living in nature and building cubby houses in big old trees by the ocean. We had a paddock, and I would take the horses to swim in the creek.
Jacobs: Cut to Michael Bay teaching you to run in high heels.
Lucas: [laughs] In between, I spent a good amount of time just traveling. I’ve spent months living in Africa and India. So it’s not like I was sheltered when I started living in America. But my family laughed when they heard I was going to be in Transformers. I learned a lot and got to experience Michael Bay’s mayhem. It was a very colorful experience.
Jacobs: You got your start on Home and Away. What should Americans know about the show?
Lucas: It’s a TV drama that’s been running for something like 25 years. It’s a well-oiled machine and a great beginning for a lot of young actors—Heath Ledger, Naomi Watts, and Guy Pearce have all cycled through it. It’s based in a small town next to a beach where a lot of the kids are surfers. It’s very typical Australian.
Jacobs: And now you’re also one of its successful graduates. Are you a huge deal in Australia?
Lucas: I don’t think so. It wouldn’t be very eloquent of me to say, “Yeah!” [laughs]
Jacobs: Would you be stopped in a market?
Lucas: It’s on in everyone’s living room at seven o’clock every night, Monday through Friday. So people just recognize you whether they watch the show or not.
Jacobs: Were the bodies on the Immortals set completely absurd? I imagine it was something like an Olympic Village.
Lucas: Um, yeah. Gosh. Henry Cavill was training for months before doing this film and the gods as well. All except for me. It wasn’t Tarsem’s vision for Athena to be muscular so I didn’t have to train physically for Immortals, but the guys definitely did. I just had to train for the choreographed fights at the end of the film. All that masculinity! Freida Pinto and I were pretty much the only females in the cast, and it was good for us to have that feminine bonding energy.
Jacobs: What is the key to embodying a Greek goddess?
Lucas: Growing up, my mom would actually read to my sister and I about the Greek goddesses, so I revisited a lot of those mythological stories. Athena was a very powerful woman, but Tarsem really encouraged me not to play her with that serious, stoic type of energy that we know from history. He wanted her to be cautious and gentle, a lot more feminine, which surprised me at first.
Jacobs: Tarsem was interviewed with you at WonderCon wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’ve been media trained.” What does that shirt tell us about him?
Lucas: That’s Tarsem in a nutshell. He has a really wonderful sense of humor. Actually, there are a lot of words that people would use for his humor . . . But everyone loved him, just adored him. We are all encouraged on films like this to go to media training, so he had to go, too. He literally is like a big child who is just full of passion and imagination. He would crack jokes nonstop and run around and hug crew members all day long. He’s really an amazing spirit.
Jacobs: You are in the tabloids. How do you deal with that kind of attention?
Lucas: Do you think I am?
Jacobs: I mean, listen, when I did my research, you know, I would read about things that Shia LaBeouf supposedly said, or there’s that weird video of you and Adrian Grenier in the street with paparazzi in your face with cameras. I mean, there’s all that stuff.
Lucas: It’s definitely a very different culture from what I grew up with. It’s something I’m trying to adjust to and accept with grace. It sometimes intimidates me and makes me feel a bit like a fish out of water. But living in L.A., I’ve also had really wonderful, beautiful experiences and met really wonderful, beautiful people. All in all, I feel like I’ve grown a lot and it’s been a really good experience for me.
Jacobs: Whose careers do you admire?
Lucas: Daniel Day-Lewis and Cate Blanchett, definitely. I also love Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard—French actresses. I’m really drawn to European films.
Jacobs: Why did you decide to be an actor?
Lucas: I didn’t actually decide. I just said yes to opportunities that came my way.
Jacobs: How so?
Lucas: I was 17 and totally focused on art. I wanted to study fine art or philosophy or just travel. Initially, my agent asked if I was interested in modeling, and I said no. Then she asked if she could take me for lunch with mom and dad the next day [to discuss acting]. We did, and I was interested. It felt like a very serendipitous encounter. About half a year later, I auditioned for Home and Away. I genuinely didn’t have any expectations of actually getting the job, but then I did, and that was for three years and three months. Afterwards I took time to travel, but I started to realize that I missed that creative outlet—the playing and the interaction and the creativity and the writing a diary for your character. I started to realize that this is something I really feel compelled to explore. I gave myself time with it. I said in my mind, I’ll give myself five years and wholeheartedly commit. Actually, I’m just past the five years now.
Mark Jacobs is a Los Angeles–based writer and creative consultant.
spent a lot of time living in nature and building cubby houses in big old trees by the ocean.—Isabel Lucas