When she was in high school actress Yvonne Strahovski used to walk around with a dictionary in her hand. Every time she heard a word she didn’t understand, she’d look it up and write it on the back of her hand. “And I’d use that word throughout the day so I could get it in my vocabulary,” she says in the noisy lobby lounge of a hotel here.
Though you’d never know it by talking with her, English is her second language. She’s the daughter of Polish parents - an engineer and a lab technician – who fled Communist Poland for a better life in Australia.
Strahovski was born Down Under, and while she claims her English is imperfect, she has no difficulty pulling off a variety of accents as she’s done in shows like “Chuck,” “Dexter,” “24: Live Another Day,” and her latest project, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” premiering on Hulu Wednesday.
She plays a bitter and guarded woman who’s entombed in a totalitarian society where women are stratified according to their function for the state. “I wasn’t anyone’s go-to for this,” says Strahovski, who’s wearing black pants and top, her long, blond hair contrasting with the dark colors. “Knowing that, I was kind of up to the challenge of convincing someone that maybe I could do it.”
She’s spent her life convincing others she can do it. “I remember being the lanky, goofy, acne-covered child who was always clowning around in front of a home video camera. And there was just never any question in my mind that I wanted to go down this path. I was just always involved with it in school,” she says.
“As I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve come to realize that it really is about storytelling and about reflecting life and life reflecting art. And you always learn something from watching art of any kind. You always take something away from it because you can’t help but have it reflect on you, and hold up a mirror to your own personal life.”
Her wary parents urged their only child to become a doctor or a lawyer - something with a solid future. “But I was very stubborn and I said, ‘No I want to pursue this.’ And they turned around and have been very supportive,” she says.
Strahovski waitressed for three years while she attended drama school in Sydney. “I enjoyed waitressing. It was kind of like going to the gym for 10 hours. There were a couple places I worked in Australia that was just hardcore for 10 hours straight. You would just run around and then clean up the place at the end of the day and close up shop. It felt very satisfying after a hard day’s work.”
She also worked in a movie theater ticketing and ushering. “Then I got my first couple commercials and my first steady gig on television, and that was it. I’ve been acting ever since.”
Doing OK in Australia, she had no intention of trying her luck in the states. But when acting friends urged her to accompany them to L.A. to audition for pilot season, she went along. On that brief visit she attended five meetings. At one of them she met her new American managers, who are still with her after 10 years.
“I remember coming home for Christmas back to Australia after I took those five meetings, and had my tonsils removed.” She was 24.
Her new managers kept sending her scripts for pilots. She would cut audition tapes in a small studio and send them back with little hope that anything would come of it. But one of those pilots was NBC’s “Chuck.” And Strahovski was cast as the toothsome CIA agent hired to guard the nerdy Chuck who harbored state secrets.
“It was me and my little blue suitcase for the rest of that year because I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’m probably going to go home now.’ After the pilot and an indie movie and ‘Chuck' was picked up for a series, I realized I probably should rent a proper place because I was living in a shoebox studio apartment and rented eight cars by that point from a Hollywood rental place.”
She searched Craiglist and rustled up a roommate to share a home in the Hollywood hills. Half-way through “Chuck,” she finally mustered the cash for her own place.
Strahovski, a self-confessed “goody-two-shoes,” admits that she’s great at organizing. “If I weren’t an actress I’d be a professional organizer,” she laughs. “I love to organize people’s houses. I love to de-clutter other people’s houses – anything to do with organization.” Pausing, she adds, “Sometimes I’m pretty terrible at relaxing, at just sitting on the couch doing nothing. It’s like a guilt complex.”
Strahovski has a sweetheart. Though she won’t say who he is, she does admit he’s “sort of, kind of in the business. One day it'll come out,” she laughs.