Gonna be huge: Tara Leniston
She has been painted as a fraud by the press, yet Irish actress Tara Leniston numbers Al Pacino and Ryan Seacrest among her VBFs. She tells Donal Lynch how she made it big in Japan, was loaded at 18 and was spotted by Jackie Chan who wanted to mould her into a martial-arts fembot. And boy can she talk. Photography by Agata Stoinska. Styling by Liadan Hynes
It seems downright unfair that Tara Leniston isn't a huge film star yet. After all, she's young, stunningly beautiful, insanely ambitious and has been mentioned (mainly by herself, but that's neither here nor there) in the same sentence as Nicole Kidman, Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Like any starlet worth her salt, she's been linked (again, mainly by herself) with a rumoured-to-be-gay male star. She's hobnobbed at movie premieres with Helena Christensen and Bono.
She's been mentored and groomed by Jackie Chan. She's swatted a casting-couch nerd's palm from her knee. She's been hyped, destroyed and had a comeback, all before lunch. She's done everything but sell the frigging popcorn.
So, other than not having been in any movies that we've seen, what exactly is the problem?
"Well, this year is going to be my year," Tara confidently tells me, between mouthfuls of posh scone -- the first thing she's eaten today and it's 4pm (another good sign). "I just know it. My film, Meet Me in Miami, is finally coming out here and I'm really excited about it. There's been so much bitching about me in the press. I think there's tall- poppy syndrome in Ireland. You have a little bit of success and people think you're getting too big for your boots."
Ah yes, the bitching. A prophetess (of her own success) is rarely welcomed in her own land. Critics have variously mocked Tara's accent -- despite her childhood in Clare, she sounds like a Home and Away character who's done a stint at finishing school -- her Olympic-standard name dropping and her gimlet-eyed self-promotion. One enterprising journalist even took it upon herself to disprove Tara's claim that Al Pacino (or just "Al" to Tara) was executive producing her new movie and that she had a movie coming out called Danny Boy.
"I cried when I read that piece," Tara tells me. "It's like I was being painted as a fraud. But in the movie world things often fall through. Jim Carrey had three movies in 2007 that fell through. I was naive. I was excited. The production people were saying it was happening, contracts were being talked about. As far as I was concerned, everything was going well. So when journalists called me up and asked: 'Do you want to talk about it?' I said: 'I'd love to, thanks.' And then, for reasons outside my control, it fell through and all of a sudden it's, 'She's making this up.' I mean, who in their right mind would make up a story about them being in a film?"
The accent, she tells me, is a result not of overdoses of Australian soaps but of her peripatetic and impossibly cosmopolitan upbringing. She was born in London 24 years ago to Irish parents, Greg and Julie. For work reasons, Greg moved the entire family to Killaloe, Co Clare, where Tara spent most of her childhood.
When she was 14, he took up a post with the ill-fated Baltimore Technologies and the family moved again, this time to South Korea. Tara had to make a fresh start at school and it wasn't easy.
"I got teased about my accent at the school. They'd say: 'Here comes the little leprechaun girl' and ask me if there were leprechauns in Ireland. I decided to change my accent then. I was saying 'grand' and they'd laugh at me and when I said 'crack', they'd ask me if I was on crack. I was 15 and I desperately wanted friends. I wanted to fit in. But the accent doesn't mean I'm not Irish. There's even a Leniston's pub in Angela's Ashes."
Like all ultra-confident, ravishingly beautiful young actresses, Tara claims, somewhat implausibly, to have been a bit of an ugly duckling. "I was one of these kids -- I grew into myself. My nose was too big, my lips were too big. Then, somehow it all came together."
The dot.com bubble burst spectacularly in the early part of this decade and Baltimore was one of the biggest losers. Tara's family hit the road again, travelling back to London via a six-month stay in Sweden and then back to the Far East, this time to Hong Kong. At this stage, Tara had had enough of school and left three months before she was due to sit her A Levels to pursue a career in show business.
"I literally knocked on doors. I got a job interning for the summer with MTV's Hong Kong channel. I did everything there. I'd be getting coffees for people. I'd be there at 10pm waiting for everyone to finish so I could put the bins out."
Her doggedness paid dividends when a presenter at the station failed to show up for work and Tara was asked to fill in. Soon, she was presenting a children's show full-time and modelling part-time. Her face graced billboards and ad campaigns in the city.
"They love blondes over there," she giggles. "I've been dubbed into Japanese, for a car ad, and also into Indian. I was earning big bucks back then, but I didn't really invest much, to be honest. When you're 18, you're more concerned with having a flash car and fab clothes than a pension."
You'd think, since she was putting out bins the week before, she'd have been happy where she was, the presenting gig, but no. After meeting Jackie Chan at a nightclub, Tara set her sights on becoming a film star. As she tells it, she hit it off with Jackie and he decided to groom her into a sort of international martial-arts fembot.
"He told me a lot about life and philosophy. He taught me martial arts. I trained with his team and then, once a week, with him. He got a lot of stick for it because I was the first female westerner he ever took on," she says. She denies that Jackie had ulterior motives for teaching a beautiful, blonde western girl some moves.
"Oh no, he was always the perfect gentleman," she giggles. "He had people help him when he was younger and he wanted to help me, like 'pay it forward'."
The film studio system in Hong Kong, she tells me, "is like old Hollywood. You sign a contract and they sort of own you." Chan, she says, wanted her to sign a 10-year contract, which would have guaranteed her roles in all of his films. "It might sound really ambitious or whatever, but I wanted more than that. So I left Hong Kong."
She supported herself modelling for a while before travelling to Australia to audition for a part in a film alongside Russell Crowe. She was all set to take the part when a family crisis erupted. Her father, who had at this point moved to New Zealand, had lost a lot of money in a business investment in hydrogen fuel. A luxury, period lodge he had intended to run as a boutique hotel had gone belly up and he was declared bankrupt. He left New Zealand in a blaze of bad publicity -- the press snippily noted that he drove a Bentley and a BMW motorcycle, even while bankrupt -- while Tara's mother was reported to have stayed behind.
Shortly after that, their marriage broke up and Tara gave up the part in the Russell Crowe movie to be with her family. She and her father left New Zealand with one suitcase each. That must have been heartbreaking for everyone? "It was. Nicole Kidman is in that movie now. It's coming out soon I think."
She continued to hustle and be seen at all the right parties. It paid dividends as she won a part in the independently funded film, Meet Me in Miami. And it was while in the US working on the film that she had her famous meeting with Al Pacino.
"I was up for another role for another film that never got made and I was out for dinner with some people to talk about that. This guy comes up to us and he looked a bit like Al Pacino, but not really. And then he comes up to me and goes: 'Hi, I'm Ally'. And I'm thinking: 'Is he or isn't he?' Then he went to the bathroom and came back looking like himself. It turned out that he had prosthetics on and he wanted to make sure I wasn't weird. I think I passed."
One of the other personages at the dinner table that night was Barry Navidi, another friend of Tara's, who had produced The Merchant of Venice, starring Pacino and Joseph Fiennes. He was also the man who had persuaded Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp to star in the ill-fated Divine Rapture, which collapsed during shooting in Ballycotton, Co Cork in 1995. Navidi was understood to have been somewhat peeved at Leniston for claiming that Pacino was going to executive-produce one of her films, but she shrugs off criticism that she used his name to get her own foot in the door.
"I get on with Al. He was here last year and we went to dinner together in Chapter One. He tells me about his kids."
She does admit, though, that in Hollywood it's more about who you know than what you know. The casting-couch stories are true," she adds.
"I haven't been put in that situation per se, but I think that's because they're scared of me because I know martial arts. But some people have made suggestions. I've had hands on the knee. These guys, you know, they were probably geeks in school and they've got this girl looking for something from them. Of course they try and use it," she says.
Of course, a crucial part of any starlet's ascension of the slippery showbiz pole is the right boyfriend. Tara's been single for a year now -- though not for want of trying. She went on a date recently with American Idol host, Ryan Seacrest.
"The thing is, in LA you can date people -- just meet them for a no-strings-attached lunch or coffee -- which isn't really done here," she tells me. "Here, guys are either totally shy or they're like, 'Wanna shag?'
"I had been out on a date with this [other] guy before Ryan. I had been on a few dinners with him. And I saw him when I was with Ryan and I panicked. So I leaned down under the table and said I'd been bitten by an insect. He was behind Ryan and I was trying to keep out of his line of vision. I went to the toilet and didn't come out for 20 minutes.
"I didn't see Seacrest again. He probably thought I was mad."
She adds that he is "totally sweet, but tiny" (Seacrest's actual height is hotly debated -- he says five-foot nine, the camera suggests five-foot three) and "definitely not gay. Trust me," she adds.
"I've seen a lot of in-the-closet gay guys in Hollywood and he's not one of them." (Off the record, she confirms my suspicions about some others, with gossipy glee). She tells me that people, or rather stars, take to her because she has "no ulterior motives". What -- other than wanting to get them to help her with her career?
"Hmm, well, it depends what you mean by 'ulterior' I suppose," she counters.
"I just want to work with them. In LA, everyone asks: 'What have you been in and how much money do you have' and if you don't have what they want, they leave. I can have a normal conversation too. I can ask people how their day has been, and that often disarms them."
She says it's important to go to the right parties. "You need to do that to make connections and meet the right people. Especially me, because I've never had an agent. Any work I've gotten, I gotten for myself."
She confesses she can't Google herself now because of all the false reports about her and she says she does have the odd panic attack about what she's doing with her life.
"It doesn't matter what other people say about me because I'm my own worst critic. When I get down on myself, I have to remind myself that I'm doing my best."
She looks forward to the day when, after all the years of slog, people can announce that she's an overnight success.
She attended the US premiere of Meet Me in Miami recently (she flew in from St Tropez) and tells me that even though she had food poisoning and a perforated appendix, she violated doctors' orders to put her into intensive care (they apparently told her she could die) and struggled down the red carpet.
"There were all these underprivileged kids invited and I wanted to see their faces," she tells me.
"They were swarming around me, it was like, 'Oh my God!' And, a week later, I visited them in their school. And I could relate to them when I told them about my family almost losing the house. And they related to me and they had this new-found respect for me. And then, all of a sudden, they were like, 'I wanna be this and I wanna be that and I wanna be a lawyer.'
"And I was like, 'Go for it.' And you know what? That's important. Because they didn't have anyone saying, 'You wanna be a journalist? You go be a journalist,'" she recalls.
And, as much as you may smile at her Miss World-ish patter and frequently eyebrow-raising anecdotes, you have to hope she makes it herself. We've exported our share of hunks to Hollywood, but we haven't had a bona fide female film star since Maureen O'Hara.
"Irish starlet" like "Irish model" always seemed like a sniggered oxymoron. Leniston, with her brazen blend of beauty, ambition and old-school chutzpah, looks every bit like she could change that. You just wonder, though, if, in being so perfectly international, she hasn't made herself blend too perfectly with the other million starlets trying to make it in Hollywood.
Part of the appeal of Colin Farrell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers is that they are Irish and sound it. Leniston could be from anywhere. Before she goes, I ask her if she still has the Irish accent as part of her repertoire.
She hesitates before seamlessly lapsing into a Clare burr: "Oh God, I'll sound like a knacker, I'll need a few drinks." The Yanks would love it.
Photographs by Agata Stoinska
Assisted by Marc Hughes and Maciej Pestka
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Make-up by Vivien Pomeroy
Make- Up Forever, 40 Clarendon St, D2, tel: (01) 679-9043
Hair by Ross King for Toni and Guy, 52 Dame St, D2, tel: (01) 670-8745