Home » Jenny Cooney: ‘The Godmother’ of Aussies in Hollywood

Jenny Cooney: ‘The Godmother’ of Aussies in Hollywood

19 Jun 2018 | BY Shelley Lee - @ShelleyLee_

Jenny Cooney image

“Everyone is scrambling to hire as many women as they can”

She’s known as the ‘Godmother’ of Australians in Hollywood, journalist Jenny Cooney has been alongside LA’s biggest players for 30 years. She set-up celebrity power couple Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, put Muriel’s Wedding under the noses of awards-season voters and, as coordinator of the Golden Globes seating plan, she has pulled feats like helping new mum Teresa Palmer snag a seat that would allow her to dart in and out to check on her newborn son. Jenny talks to The FIERCE about finding her place among Aussie talent in the US, running the Golden Globes and the aftermath of the #MeToo explosion. 

LA-based journalist Jenny Cooney has been writing about Hollywood’s finest for decades, like. She’s watched Daniel Craig as James Bond on the Mexican set of Spectre, interviewed Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. Her work appearing on the covers and pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, InStyle, Marie Claire, TV Week, with features across Fairfax and News Corp media.

She’s also a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, the organisation behind the Golden Globes, and has recently launched a new podcast series ‘Aussies in Hollywood’ where she reaches out to her famous contacts about their routes to success.

Growing up in Melbourne, Jenny Cooney didn’t set out to be an entertainment reporter, thinking politics, finance or war correspondence might be up her alley. But jobs were scarce, and instead the teen snagged a gig as cadet at TV Week magazine, while studying at RMIT.

The rag not one she’d ever had on the coffee table growing up “My mother discouraged us watching TV and wanted us outdoors playing,” she says.

It was while at TV Week, Cooney first met budding actress Nicole Kidman, and wrote an article titled ‘Teen With A Dream’ in which Kidman shared aspirations of an American film career. “I didn’t see her act,” says Cooney. “I was on a set with her dressed as a shepherdess, she was 15, maybe 16 at the time and I think I was 19”

Source: Instagram, @jennycooneycarrillo

The chance to relocate to La-La Land came in 1986. Jenny was tasked with minding American actor and comedienne Phyllis Diller while she was in town for the Logie Awards. Diller’s soon-to-be-ex-assistant had failed to relay to the star the event was formal wear, and 24 hours out, she was frockless. Working her contacts, Jenny had a custom designer gown whipped up overnight, the delighted Diller inviting the young Australian to come work for her in the US.

“There weren’t many Australians here [in LA] and I kept bumping into actors I knew from TV Week days who would be getting some big role or doing something. I’d call my old editor and say ‘I’ve just bumped into Andrew Clarke [ANZACs and The Man From Snowy River] or whoever, and they’re doing this TV movie’, and they were like, ‘Great! Write something.’”

The flow of articles became steady, and on a visit home to Melbourne a couple of years later publication put it to her, maybe she could make a living as their Hollywood correspondent.

To access top tier talent Jenny signed up to the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) “I didn’t realise it was a big deal” she laughs. She got in first go, a feat practically unheard of, at 27-years-old she was one of the youngest ever members and first. The scribe now in the powerful position of voting on who takes home a Golden Globe.

Today the HFPA boasts three Australians among its 87 members, which she says is now much more of a 50:50 split in men to women than when she joined nearly 30 years ago.

In the early days, Cooney sought to find a tribe of other Aussie expats in LA, which is how she ended up with a pack of mates that sounds like it’s been lifted from an Oscars red carpet wish list. It was simply about seeking out, she says, people who could “share the Vegemite theme song with you, that shared experience of a childhood.”

After befriending Australian director Michael Rymer (Battlestar Galactica, Angel Baby) and his wife, Jenny started attending barbeques with other Aussies in town at the time. The sizzle-ups a shrimp-free affair, Paul Hogan’s Australian tourism campaign holding no sway over the crew from the land Down Under “It was very organic because it was a small group of people,” she says. “I felt like I was writing for a local newspaper in a way, my own little beat.”

By this point she’d become an editor’s secret weapon, able to access celebs on the ground in LA.

“Because I met everybody when they arrived, and I had this unique position I was able to write about them as Australians for Australian media, but also as a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press, for work that had come to the attention of the Golden Globes.”

jenny and rachel

Source: Instagram, @jennycooneycarrillo

Cue 28 years later, and Coney’s writing career has now led her to her new podcast series ‘Aussies in Hollywood’ which considers, among other things, what it is about being Australian that contributes to success in Hollywood.

Talking to A-listers like Mel Gibson, Rachel Griffiths, Nicole Kidman, Paul Hogan and Big Little Lies producer and Reese Witherspoon collaborator Bruna Papandrea, Cooney says she consistently hears about great skills honed by fantastic training, years of hard work, and a good attitude and strong work ethic.

The deeper you dig the more apt Jenny’s ‘Godmother’ nickname is. There’s the obvious Cinderella-sense, literally getting Aussies to the (Golden Globes) ball.

“Deborah-Lee Furness was here for a long time, single – in fact she was my date to the Golden Globes one year as my friend, and we always joke about the next time she went back she was sitting right up the front with Hugh Jackman and Sting, and I’m still in the back!”

Then you start to notice this 5’5” tall brunette in snaps and group shots with the ‘Gumleaf Mafia’, the surge of Australian talent that seized the world’s attention between the 90s and mid-00s.

One of her particularly challenging gigs is negotiating the seating plan for the annual Golden Globes ceremony, one of the highlights of awards season in its boundary-pushing humour and being one of the few events where guests can have a tipple during proceedings.

Navigating egos, exes, professional and political conflicts has led to a few fails, and some big successes, like sitting (now married) actors Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel side-by-side.

In her interview in Jenny’s podcast series, actor Teresa Palmer let it slip that it was Cooney who made it possible for her to attend the 2017 Globes when Hacksaw Ridge was nominated, by securing her a spot that allowed Palmer to slip out of the room at regular intervals and breastfeed her newborn son in an upstairs room at the venue, the Beverly Hilton.

Source: Instagram, @jennycooneycarrillo

In another podcast, Kidman credits Jenny with getting her and country music star husband Keith Urban together. “It’s not mine to tell” smiles Jenny when asked about the story, the publicly love story is the couple met at the G’day USA Gala, and it took Urban quite a while to make the follow-up call to ask Kidman for a date. “Maybe they’ll tell it one day, but until then it’s not my place to say how someone got someone else’s phone number. Let’s just say I’ve got good taste”.  She and Nicole are close, a friendship that includes a high level of trust, which why if you see a cover feature on Kidman in an Australian mag (an interview that is, not a beat-up about an alleged marital break-up) chances are Jenny is the author.

Another titbit comes from Papandrea, who makes a passing comment about meeting Jenny at Nicole and Keith’s wedding.

On the front line witnessing the impact of the #MeToo and #TimesUP movements in Hollywood, Jenny says the fallout has been ‘massive’.

“I never thought in my lifetime I’d see a shift like this, ever. Everything has just turned on its ear and it’s really clear we’ve crossed a line we can never go back to not knowing what we know. You can’t get away with anything now, because nobody will be afraid to call [perpetrators] on it and they won’t be afraid that someone’s going to call them a liar or ignore them.”

Asked if there were rumours of anyone, like characters such as Harvey Weinstein, who behaved in a way that ever prompted this ‘Godmother’ to advise caution among aspiring actors landing in Los Angeles she says no.

“I knew Harvey really well – when you vote for the Golden Globes he gets to know you really well,” she says.

“I knew about the bullying, screaming, I knew he could be a piece of work. I never, ever heard about him hitting on women”

Weinstein was known as a ‘master campaigner’, part of that was due to the gruelling publicity and promotional demands he put on the stars of his films, according to Jenny “He would hound them to do everything to get nominated for an Oscar”.

“It’s not a coincidence that [these shows] are completely female-driven in every way. I think that suddenly the people who are making the money and all the decisions are saying ‘oh we kind of underestimated how many people would see this’, and they underestimated how much men want to see women’s stories as much as men do.”

Amid the calls for gender equality across pay, on screen representation, and creative input, Jenny says doors are now being flung open for women who want to make their mark

“Everyone is scrambling to hire as many women as they can. If you’re a female director or writer, this is the time to come to Hollywood. Everyone’s got this 50/50 mandate now. People like Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) who has five shows on the air has committed to equal gender split in every area.”

The seismic shift behind the scenes is happening as high-impact female driven projects have already started to pierce through ahead of the pack earning big audiences, big dollars and critical acclaim.

“It was really interesting to look last year (2017) at the Globes and Emmys, Big Little Lies and The Handmaid’s Tale are the two TV projects that dominated everything, and dominated the year in every way.

It’s not a coincidence that [these shows] are completely female-driven in every way. I think that suddenly the people who are making the money and all the decisions are saying ‘oh we kind of underestimated how many people would see this’, and they underestimated how much men want to see women’s stories as much as men do.”

Jenny and Nicole 1

Source: Instagram, @jennycooneycarrillo

Cooney’s observations are backed up by Papandrea’s experience. The producer says in Cooney’s podcast she had fathers bounding up to her at preschool drop-off to let her know they didn’t think they would like Big Little Lies, (based on the book by Australian author Liane Moriarty) but had become completely hooked. As many men loved the show as women. “Men just have to admit it’s OK to sit with your wife or girlfriend and watch something you might think [isn’t for men] because there are only women in it, or it’s a woman’s perspective. We’ve been sitting and watching TV and films our entire lives told from a male perspective, and we’ve certainly enjoyed them. So, it doesn’t make sense to me people think you can’t cross over and have a man enjoy a story told by a woman”.

“We’ve got to take the gender off it and just have great movies, great TV or crap.”

The same day she speaks to The FIERCE, Jenny has interviewed Simon Baker for an upcoming podcast. They were laughing, she says as they reminisced about the 2002 Golden Globes ceremony and after party.

Baker and Hugh Jackman had their first Globes nominations that year (for The Guardian and Kate and Leopold respectively). They were sitting with winners Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge) and Russell Crowe (A Beautiful Mind) and presenter Naomi Watts.

Source: Instrgram, @jennycooneycarrillo

“Wow this is cool” she remembers thinking on the night. “These people have all gotten off the plane and I’ve seen them struggle and each one of them has in their own way made their mark and I got to be there to support them and see it happen”.

Over her three decades in LA there have been plenty of moments like these to savour, and with more fresh-faced Australians flocking Hollywood, ‘The Godmother’ is sure to have many more ahead of her.

Find Jenny at:
TWITTER: @jennycooney
INSTAGRAM: @jennycooneycarrillo
Check out the Aussies In Hollywood podcast HERE

FIERCE FOCUS –The names to watch according to Jenny:

BRUNA PAPENDREA – Producer (Big Little Lies, Gone Girl)

“Bruna is someone I’ve known for years. I’m so excited for her and she’s done it with pure willpower… Now she’s one of the top producers in Hollywood, she’s got a list a mile long of things people are clamouring to work with her on.”

ELIZA SCANLEN – actor (Home and Away, Sharp Objects)

The former Home and Away actor is playing Amy Adams’ 13-year-old half-sister Amma in HBO series Sharp Objects. (Airing on showcase on FOXTEL from July) The show is based on the book of the same name by bestselling author Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl).

“She just has come out of the blue, I’ve seen the first few episodes [of Sharp Objects] and she is just amazing. She is on her way immediately now. You’ll be hearing a lot from her”

ANGOURIE RICE – actor (The Nice Guys, The Beguiled, Ladies in Black)

Angourie will soon appear in director Bruce Beresford’s Australian film Ladies in Black, internationally she’s known for The Nice Guys with Russell Crowe, and then The Beguiled alongside Nicole Kidman.

“As a schoolgirl in Perth she would go to the university and look at open casting calls for student films. That’s how she got a role in the student film that was turned into the feature These Final Hours. It went to the Cannes film festival, and from there she got an agent. She’s 18 and has just finished her final year of high school in Melbourne.”

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