By Louise Rugendyke
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Of all the young faces in the new high school drama Year Of, one stands out. And it’s not just because of her surname. Sophia Wright-Mendelsohn – yes, her dad is Ben Mendelsohn – holds the screen with a natural force beyond her 20 years.
She plays Kate Kellaway, a poor little rich girl and only child with a mother who shows off her liposuction scars to Kate’s friends and a father who is a wealthy artist more interested in the wealth than the art. It’s only Wright-Mendelsohn’s third screen role. She first got her break on the ABC teen drama Deadlock and last year she worked on Animal Kingdom director David Michod’s new stoner comedy Wizards!, opposite US comedian Pete Davidson.
Sophia Wright-Mendelsohn as Kate in Stan show Year Of. Credit: John Platt
“I just want to make things that make people cry a lot and giggle a lot,” she says. “I think of how insanely lucky I am to be in a position where I can be doing this as a job and I really want to keep doing that,” she says.
Wright-Mendelsohn, who grew up in Byron Bay and credits her mum Leah with being “insanely supportive”, is aware people might label her a “nepo baby” – the favoured term for anyone with famous parents – but she only added Ben’s surname recently.
“I only took his last name at the end of last year because I was like, I don’t need to kind of hide part of my identity,” she says. “Because I was so scared [people would only see his surname]. But when I auditioned for Wizards! and when I auditioned for Year Of, I had Sophia Wright [written down] and I got them anyway. So, that was when I was like, ‘OK [I can do this]’.”
And while she says her dad is “endlessly proud of the fact that I did it myself”, he did try to steer her towards university. “He wanted me to study economics,” she says. “It really is so far from what he’d [want], he just wants me to live a life where I know what I’m going to be doing tomorrow.”
It’s that kind of intergenerational push-pull that bubbles away in Year Of. The adults struggle just as much as the teenagers – growing up doesn’t finish when you’re 20, 30 or even 40. If that sounds familiar, it’s because Year Of comes from the creators of Bump, the comedy starring Claudia Karvan as the mum of a high-achieving teenager, played by Nathalie Morris, who only discovers she is pregnant while in the back of an ambulance in the middle of labour.
The teenagers at the heart of Year Of: Gus (Joshua Hewson), Priya (Tharanya Tharan), Mo (Samuel El Rahi), Maya (Isabella Graiche), Kate (Sophia Wright-Mendelsohn), and George (Samuel Dawson).
But unlike Bump, which starts with what’s generally regarded as a joyful event, Year Of begins with a tragedy that affects teenagers and adults alike, but also manages to pull them together in unexpected ways.
“What they’ve managed to do so eloquently is create stories around the adults, as well as the kids,” says Wright-Mendelsohn. “And something Jess Tuckwell, who created Bump and Year Of said, which I really loved, is that coming-of-age, as a concept, is so exclusive to young adults and teens. But she said, she can’t think of one adult who isn’t still growing and knows what they’re doing.”
And while Year Of is its own show, it exists in the Bump universe – it’s set in the same Sydney high school, Jubilee High in the inner west suburb of Glebe, and it shares with Bump the character of Bowie, Oly’s hippie older brother. He is now an English teacher at Jubilee High, but otherwise it’s a new set of teenagers, their parents and problems.
The twist? Bump may be the older sibling – it began in 2021 and a fourth season is now being written – but the idea for Year Of came first.
Executive producer Dan Edwards, who co-created Year Of with Tuckwell, originally pitched the idea of a high-school series set in Glebe to his dad, legendary Australian TV producer John Edwards.
“I said to dad we should make a high school series and set it in Glebe because Glebe is this fantastic melting pot,” says Edwards. “You’ve got a lot of social housing, you’re on the precipice of the city and you’ve also got $40 million terrace houses.”
Bump’s teenage parents Santi (Carlos Sanson jnr) and Oly (Nathalie Morris).Credit: John Platt
They developed the idea for another network but when that fell through (“the head of drama came in and said, ‘I don’t like the kids’,” recalls Edwards), they sat on the idea for years until Bump came along. It was then they realised that Bump could live in this high school they had already dreamt up.
“And then Bump became the success it was,” says Edwards. “And we were into season two and we knew those primary characters were going to progress into their 20s, so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have a returning high school series.’
“So we pitched it in to say, let’s try and do something like, I guess, Frasier is to Cheers – it’s a spin-off but it’s actually very distinctly its own show.”
Edwards heaps praise on the young cast, who were largely teenagers when Year Of was shot last year, describing Wright-Mendelsohn’s performance as “unnerving”.
“I’m very mindful of being too likened to your parents,” says Edwards. “But you could just say the acting, the acting chops, come through in the DNA there.”
Edwards is also impressed with 19-year-old Joshua Hewson, who plays Gus, the rough diamond of the group. As it is for Wright-Mendelsohn, Year Of is only Hewson’s third screen credit. He also picked up a role on Home and Away this year, and also worked on Michod’s Wizards!
“I didn’t know who the director was at the time until I started searching his stuff up,” says Hewson. “Like, it was very rude. But then I was like, ‘Damn, so he’s a very, like, good director.’”
Bowie (Christian Byers), pictured with Mei (Deborah An), is the only character from Bump to have made the leap to spin-off show Year Of.
Hewson, who comes from Perth, was somewhat dazzled by Sydney (“He put his hand up and was like, ‘Where’s the Harbour Bridge?’” recalls Edwards) but he quickly made an impression.
“Sometimes you don’t see it necessarily the first time but you’ll see something a bit wild,” says Edwards. “And I think in the case of Josh, it was certainly a bit wild, like the first take was really quite rough, and he was a bit nervous, but he definitely had something.”
He wson eventually got over those nerves and appreciated being able to work with actors his age.“I liked it,” he says. “They gave me a much higher skill set that I can aim for now.”
And while the young actors are very much the focus of Year Of, the adult stars go all right, too, with Matt Nable and Danielle Cormack giving beautifully raw performances as the parents of one of the teens.
And it’s Nable, almost, who is the biggest surprise in Year Of. For once, he’s playing a dad, which is several steps away from his usual hardman/hitman roles.
“He’s fantastic,” says Edwards. “And he even dances in a later episode, dances in the living room. So, that’s one for everybody to watch out for. Matt’s comments [at the time of filming] were, ‘You get what you get.’”
And you don’t get upset?
Year Of streams from June 9 on Stan, which is owned by the publishers of this masthead.
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