Casting agent relishes life in the Illawarra

Casting director Anousha Zarkesh was living in Sydney, in the heart of the Australian film and television industry, when Illawarra’s northern suburbs lured her in unexpectedly.

Zarkesh, who had spent her whole life connected to the artistic pulse of the city, moved to Austinmer with her actor husband David Field on a hunch it would offer a better lifestyle.

‘‘I was sitting in the [Kings] Cross one day, and we had our first baby by that stage, and I just thought: ‘I’m sick of walking over the syringes and human faeces on the front doorstep’,’’ she says.

The idea took shape in the casting agent’s mind after her mother, Carol Zarkesh, relocated from her home of 35 years in Bondi to Austinmer.

‘‘I came down and had a look at mum’s house and I realised how beautiful the area was,’’ she says. ‘‘From there it was very quick that we said: ‘Let’s do the same thing’.’’

That was eight years ago. Zarkesh, who runs her own casting agency, kept her studio at Surry Hills and now divides her professional time between Sydney and the home office in Austinmer.

Their home is set on a lush land parcel, at the foot of the escarpment, with a watercourse running through it and large tracts of vegetation at the front and back of the property which gives it a hideaway feel.

Zarkesh and Field (Chopper, Two Hands and the Seven Network’s City Homicide) commute to the city for work.

‘‘It was a risk and I said to my husband: ‘If the phone never rings again then so be it.’,’’ she recalls.

Yet the phone didn’t stop ringing after the move to Austinmer. Zarkesh’s casting business continued to flourish.

She has been a casting director for many well-known dramas on the small screen (Rake, Redfern Now), TV movies and mini-series (Mabo, Mary Bryant) and feature films (Tomorrow, When The War Began).

The move down south was not without its challenges. Initially, Zarkesh didn’t know anyone and missed her circle of friends in Sydney. She was soon pregnant with the couple’s second child and her life in Austinmer started to blossom.

‘‘I realised that down here is so friendly and within months I had a posse of fantastic women who had children, the same age as ours, and they were artists and musicians and people of like-mindedness,’’ she says.

‘‘One friend in particular opened me up to a whole range of people, so I was lucky.

‘‘I just love the lifestyle and being away from the chaos and the noise of Sydney and the fact that I didn’t have to spend an hour looking for a park to go to the beach. I could just walk to the beach.

‘‘We found it was just an easy lifestyle, so much easier than being in Sydney. Even though we still worked there, the commute was easier than trying to live in a box in the Cross. And I don’t think we’d ever go back now.’’

Zarkesh has been around actors and artistic people all her life. She attended St Catherine’s School in Waverley, spending her spare time hanging out at the Australian Theatre for Young People, stage managing their shows and building sets.

‘‘I didn’t want to be an actor,’’ she says. ‘‘I found it terrifying and I hated it. I felt sick being in front of the camera or at the front of the stage.’’

Yet she discovered her people in the theatre environment.

‘‘It was great to find like-minded people,’’ she says. ‘‘I’ve always felt, perhaps due in part to racism at school, slightly other.

‘‘At the theatre I found my kind of weird, quirky, wonderful, arty second life which was outside the mainstream, conservative, private school, religious framework.’’

After completing an arts degree at Sydney University, Zarkesh got a job as a production secretary completing a year-long Australian tour with Les Miserables.

Then a job came up as a casting assistant with Liz Mullinar.

‘‘I didn’t even really know what casting was,’’ she says. ‘‘I had no idea but I went for the job interview and because I had gone to the theatre as a child I knew a lot of the actors and it was what I was into.’’

She got the job and was employed at Mullinar’s for 10 years before branching out on her own in 2000. In the same year, she and Field married.

‘‘I had immediate success, all my old clients came with me and I didn’t look back,’’ she says.

Zarkesh says casting work requires an innate understanding of people, which takes years to finely tune.

‘‘The creative part of my job is trying to work out the director’s vision and working collaboratively with the director to see his vision on the screen,’’ she says.

‘‘Sometimes that can be really easy and other times it can be difficult.’’

It also involves good business skills and an ability to negotiate. Having a thick skin is helpful, she adds.

‘‘It is a fickle business, the work comes and goes,’’ she says. ‘‘I think you have to consistently do good work because clients come and go and they do the rounds and then they come back again.’’

Her career highlights have been working with Australia’s indigenous communities to cast for the docu-drama TV film Mabo and for the Australian television drama series Redfern Now. She is currently casting for the second series of Redfern Now.

Most of the actors chosen for Redfern Now were freelance, meaning Zarkesh had to spend a lot of time doing research in Aboriginal communities, and indigenous amateur theatre and acting schools to find the talent.

‘‘I’ve done quite a few indigenous projects so they trust me and they’ve spread the word,’’ she says.

‘‘If you don’t have an empathy for the community and understand their issues they just won’t participate and they won’t trust you.

‘‘I’m proud of not just the work on screen and finding the amazing actors we have found and shot on Redfern Now but also of my continuous relationship with the indigenous community and the amazing experiences that I’ve had meeting people.’’

One such experience was travelling to Murray Island, known to the Torres Strait Islanders as Mer, to spend time with the local tribes and the family of the late Eddie Mabo in her research for the Mabo film.

She also loves the comedy drama series Rake, which she is now casting for the third series, describing it as a ‘‘very intellectual, savvy, and cynical piece of writing.’’

Zarkesh’s ability to empathise with other cultures stems in part from her own upbringing. 

She was raised by her Australian-born mother after her Iranian father left Australia for good when she was two.

Her parents met on a boat bound for Israel in the 1960s and then lived together on a kibbutz.

‘‘So this blonde-haired very middle class Aussie girl hooked up with my father who was extremely educated and spoke seven languages,’’ she says.

Zarkesh’s father was studying philosophy and political science at the University of Pavia in Italy. The couple lived in Italy for a short time before moving back to Australia.

‘‘My father was very left wing, a political activist, as well as my mother who was also very left wing, but then the relationship broke down,’’ she says.

‘‘He found it difficult to live in Australia because it was the late 1960s, it was the Vietnam War era, and he found Australia quite parochial and conservative.’’

Zarkesh’s father returned to Iran where he was jailed as a political prisoner for several years during the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s.

‘‘I have had sporadic contact with my father...but he has had no influence in my life beyond a casual phone call,’’ she says.

Zarkesh herself is political. 

She was involved in the parent lobby groups that put pressure on the State Government to introduce ethics classes into NSW primary schools, for children who didn’t want to attend scripture lessons.

She felt that her children Honey, 10, and Daisy, 8, would be discriminated against if they were not offered an alternative during scripture time.

‘‘I was upset,’’ she says. ‘‘It was discrimination against our children who sat in the library doing nothing, as I did as a child who wanted to opt out of religious education.

‘‘It was nobody’s business but our own, and we weren’t actually affecting anything else, so I couldn’t understand what the problem was.’’

Ethics classes were introduced in 2011 as an alternative to special religious education.

‘‘When the approval for the ethics course got through I couldn’t believe it,’’ she says. ‘‘It was a landmark and I was so proud of the years it took of lobbying to get to that stage.’’

Zarkesh put her hand up to be a volunteer teacher. She underwent a recruitment process which involved completing a training course. 

She is one of three volunteer teachers at Austinmer Public School who deliver the ethics course to years 3 and 4, and years 5 and 6.

She says being an ethics teacher has taught her to be a better listener and to ‘‘not let my opinions be known 24/7.’’

Zarkesh, who thrives on the rush of adrenaline, has another project which adds to her busy lifestyle. She owns the cool jewellery store Mala Beads in Moore Street, Austinmer, and her mother is the designer.

The jewellery making started when Zarkesh first moved to Austinmer and found she had spare time.

‘‘We were bored initially so mum and I decided to make some earrings for ourselves,’’ she says.

‘‘We were having so much fun that we started making more jewellery which our friends loved and they wanted to buy it, so we ended up holding little parties.

‘‘Then we got more creative and every time I travelled I would buy a $1000 worth of beads from some exotic place and they would become the basis for our creations.’’

The pair sold their jewellery at market stalls, making ‘‘good pocket money’’, before moving into the retail space in Moore Street.

‘‘We just kind of designed for ourselves and if it didn’t sell, it didn’t matter because we would wear it anyway,’’ she says.

The shop is now popular with Sydney day trippers and attracts a solid local patronage as well, says Zarkesh.

Zarkesh says both her children are creative and engage in numerous dance, singing and circus classes after school. 

Earlier this month the family went to the central desert to visit Field who is on set as a cast member of the feature film The Rover. The movie stars Hollywood celebrities Robert Pattinson and Guy Pearce.

‘‘The girls have been beside themselves,’’ says Zarkesh of the visit.

Zarkesh says she gets a high from juggling all the important roles in her life yet the priority remains her children.

‘‘We live a pretty free non-conservative life, within boundaries, so I wish I had their childhood when I was growing up,’’ she says. ‘‘They live in a piece of heaven.’’

Zarkesh at her jewellery shop in Austinmer, Mala Beads. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Zarkesh at her jewellery shop in Austinmer, Mala Beads. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI


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