Megan Smart Breaks Down Her Career, from Breath to Class of ’07, in This Interview

Only seven years into her career, Megan Smart (previously credited as Megan Hajjar) has asserted herself as a staple in the Australian screen industry. Since her debut in Simon Baker’s Breath, the actor has made her mark by way of consistency and versatility. Audiences have grown accustomed to seeing Smart in multiple projects per year and seeing her work in nearly every genre imaginable. She has worked in Shakespearean drama (Measure for Measure), broad comedy (The Naked Wanderer), soap opera (Home and Away), and even an interactive rom-com (Choose Love), to name just a few.

Moreover, her star has only risen in recent times. Last year, Smart announced herself as a director with her debut short film, Stonefish. It proved quite popular on the festival circuit. While more recently, she scored arguably her most prominent role in the Amazon Prime series Class of ’07, which became a surprise smash hit for the streamer. In the wake of the latter, I reached out to Smart to see if she’d be interested in discussing her life in pictures. She was receptive, and after a lengthy research period, we spoke in depth. When talking to her, it became even clearer why she has achieved the success she has. There is a charm and warmth to her that is the stuff of movie stars. Her presence is undeniable, and it’s one that we’ll only see more of as the years go by. 

In a lengthy discussion, I spoke to Megan about her varied list of performances, her days training at Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), and what she plans on directing next.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

This is a conversation about your life in film and television, but before we begin discussing your oeuvre, let’s go back to your origins. Was it always clear to you growing up that you would become an actor?

Megan Smart: It was. I don’t remember wanting to be anything else or do anything else. I think I was about five when I said I wanted to be an actor. People talk about the films that made them want to be an actor, and for me, it was Pirates of the Caribbean. I remember sitting and watching behind-the-scenes and watching them do all the stunts and filming, and I remember watching that going, ‘That is the most fun a person could ever have. I have to do that!’ And there was no going back. 

You studied at WAAPA, but from what I’ve read, gaining admission wasn’t the easiest of processes. 

MS: I grew up in Brisbane, and I didn’t really know how to get into the industry. I thought, ‘Well, perhaps the best way is to train first.’ So, I auditioned for NIDA, WAAPA, and QT [Queensland Theatre], and it was on my third audition that I finally got into QT and WAAPA. And WAAPA was always the dream to go to. 

What did that require? Did you have to do a few monologues?

MS: You had to do one Shakespeare monologue and one contemporary monologue. They would send out a list of about 10 every year, and you got to choose one [from each]. The teachers, Angela Punch McGregor and Andrew Lewis, came to Brisbane and toured around Australia, going to studios [to see aspiring actors] perform their monologues. Then, that week, they had a call-back round of however many people they chose.  

From there, you had to wait several months for them to do the whole country and decide on the whole cohort. And I’ll never forget the moment when I got the call from Andrew Lewis saying you’ve got a place. I was on the Sunshine Coast at the beach, and I remember saying, ‘Yep, I’ll be there,’ and I just hung up the phone and started crying. I was like, ‘I’ve done it!’ (laughs).

Could you tell me about your time there? What were some of the main things you took away from that course?

MS: I had an amazing time, Connor. Honestly, even if you never acted again, to have three years to dedicate solely to the thing you love and enjoy and feeds your soul, but also to work on your craft, what a gift of life! Even if you never acted again, you learn so much about yourself, and you just grow in confidence so much. I remember walking around in the first week, looking at the third years, and thinking, ‘Will I ever be that confident in life? They’re walking on air! I don’t know if I’ll ever get to that point!’ But of course, three years feels like seven years crammed into three, and by the time you graduate, you’re so confident. 

But not to say that it wasn’t incredibly difficult as well. It’s incredibly rigorous training. You’d be there from eight in the morning until six o’clock at night. Then you go home, and you learn your lines, and you’re putting on a play every five weeks. Half the time is rehearsals; the other half is classes. So huge amounts of pressure. It’s incredibly high-pressure performing all the time and competitive, but not necessarily in a bad way; it’s just the nature of it. So incredibly challenging but incredibly rewarding as well. 

Your first film credit was in Simon Baker’s Breath. How did that come to be?

MS: That came to be because they needed somebody local in WA. So they auditioned everybody in our class, and it was my first ever audition, and I booked it. I was so excited and proud, and I went down to Denmark, WA, and shot that in my third year at WAAPA. I was allowed to leave and go shoot that, which was really lucky.

To this day, it’s one of my favourite projects ever. I think when it’s your first job, you don’t have anything to compare it to, so I didn’t know how good I had it. But it was just that magic combination of beautiful crew, beautiful director, lovely cast, and amazing location. We had a lot of time off in between shots because we were holding for weather for weeks, and we just hung out in this really rural town and went to the beach with all the guys and those world-class surfers coming in to do the big waves. It was an extraordinary time. It was very cementing after those two and a half years [of studying] to go on set and be like, ‘Oh, my goodness! This is it. This is living.’

Baker is such an accomplished Australian export. What was it like working with him on his directorial debut? 

MS: He is a wonderful director. He had that perfect balance of being firm but also keeping everybody really relaxed. The vibes on set were very relaxed, which is very conducive to producing good performances. He’s also super, super charming (laughs).

Around this time, you also secured your first television role, appearing in an episode of Love Child. Something that impressed me about your performance was what you managed to do with only a handful of scenes. Your character Barbara isn’t the kindest. She is dismissive of the woman her husband got pregnant, and she plans on taking her baby. Yet when she holds the child and begins to tear up, you rid her of being an out-and-out villain. Was there anything you did in your preparation to make sure she had that dimension?

MS: I think the trick with all villains is, like any character, everybody thinks they’re always in the right. So you have to think, ‘What’s her motivation? She’s going after that.’ Whether that be an honourable motivation or not, to her, it’s right. To her, it’s honourable. She wanted a baby, and she couldn’t get one, and she thought she was saving this baby from this terrible life and giving it a better one. I sort of came up with this backstory that the character couldn’t have children, so at least this baby was half her husbands anyway. And the husband would then love it just as much, even though she couldn’t give it to him. So, in a way, it felt like her greatest failure, especially back then when women’s roles were to produce and raise children. She couldn’t do that, so she felt like this huge failure. Then, to be able to give him that baby was such a sense of life-affirming purpose for her. 

The next thing you did was a four-episode run on The Secret Daughter. Did you relish the opportunity to develop a character over several episodes?

MS: Definitely! I suppose that would have been my longest run at that point. So the director that gave me my first TV job on Love Child, Geoff Bennett, was working on Secret Daughter, and he brought me over to that one as well. So that was a huge win. I love that character because she was meant to be the villain that was breaking up Matt Levett’s relationship, and I came in and was like, ‘No, I’m going to play this like The Notebook. I’m going to pretend this is the best love that’s ever been.’ Because, again, villains are like any other character — that’s their motivation. She is deeply in love with this guy and made a mistake, and she’s coming back, so she has to fight for that. Then, as the episodes went on and with how I played it, it sort of became this, ‘Maybe we don’t want her as the antagonist.’ It became this more level playing field. 

In this telescoping of your career, I want to now jump to 2019. It was a big year for you, and it began with a change in name. On screen, you begin to be billed as Megan Hajjar. What made you decide to make that switch?

MS: Well, I did a film called Measure for Measure that year, and I almost missed out on that role. I am Lebanese, but I almost missed out because no one could really believe that I was (laughs). So I experimented with using my mother’s maiden name for a little bit just to see how that would be received. Although, after a while, I just missed Smart, to be honest. You know, it was the name I grew up with. I only used [Hajjar] for a little bit and then quickly moved back to Smart.

Speaking of Measure for Measure, that film was a big turning point for you. You were a co-lead, and you were working in the world of Shakespeare. How was it taking centre stage and handling such heavy material? 

MS: Yeah, it was my biggest one: my first lead in a feature. My first lead ever, really. That was a fairly challenging shoot, as you say, because of the dark subject matter, but also because we lost Damien [Hill], who, of course, wrote it and was cast to play one of the leads. We lost him two days before we were meant to start principal shooting, so that really threw us all off. It was incredibly sad, but everybody rallied together, and we pushed by about a week. This was [director] Paul [Ireland’s] best friend and the guy who wrote the script and was producing it with Paul as well. So it was incredibly devastating for everybody, but, you know, the show must go on.

One of your other films that year was The Naked Wanderer, which allowed you to flex your comedic muscles.

MS: That was one of my favourite jobs that I’ve done as well because shooting in WA is my favourite place to shoot. WA feels like home to me. It was a comedy, and it was an all our age group of people, and we were on location, so it felt like school camp in a way. We travelled up and down this coast of WA and stayed at hotels and had sleepovers every night. It was a great bunch of people, and it was one of those ones on set where you’re just trying not to laugh the whole time and ruin everybody else’s takes. And you’re shooting in just incredible beaches and beautiful locations. But also, I’ve really relished in my career being able to play such different tones and characters. That character in The Naked Wanderer was slightly heightened and slightly neurotic, which is not something that I normally do, but to play in that world of silly comedy is very fun. 

You then did the Channel Seven series Between Two Worlds. What appealed to you about playing the role of Bella?

MS: Bella was such a complicated character, and the mental complexities of a character always interest me. She had a lot going on. I remember going for that audition, and the brief came through, and it was like this character’s not very good-looking, then she has plastic surgery, and then she becomes good-looking. So I rang my agent and said, ‘Do they want her before or after surgery look?’ And they were like, ‘Can you give us the before look?’ So I was like, ‘Okay, no worries.’ I went to the gym, didn’t wash my hair, put all this pale makeup under [my eyes] and on my lips, brushed up my eyebrows, and put dust on my eyelashes to make it look like I had none. That’s how I went to the audition, and that’s how I got that role.

After watching the program end on a cliffhanger, I was disappointed to learn that it didn’t get renewed for a second season. As an actor on that show, was that difficult to process and move on from?

MS: Well, nothing’s ever a sure bet. Until that job is yours and you’re on set, it hasn’t happened yet. I think in this industry, you can’t ever count on anything. Keeping your expectations in check is really difficult but completely necessary to survive, particularly this year. It’s a tough industry in general, but this year has been incredibly difficult for a lot of filmmakers with the strikes and everyone sort of being unemployed. But, yeah, I was optioned on that series for three [seasons], I think. I don’t know, sometimes they go, sometimes they don’t. 

Well, thankfully, it didn’t slow you down! Shortly after, you begin a run of very eclectic performances. You played a woman suffering from postpartum depression in the ABC series Wakefield. You also played a femme fatale in a seven-episode stint on Home and Away. Was this a conscious choice of yours to try your hand at a variety of genres, or was it more these were the opportunities afforded to you?

MS: I’d love to say I was choosing, but it’s really what you’re given. Especially in those early days, it is just what you get. And it’s funny because each casting office in Sydney has a different idea of who I am or what my box is. One might think that I’m [suited for] really confident femme fatale roles. I do a lot of casting for that. Then, another one, I just do comedy. Another one, it’s all tears. There’s one casting office that’s cast me in three things now, and every one of them has been this really dramatic crying role (laughs). If they give you one audition and you do well at that, that’s what they think you are. So it’s just been the way it’s turned out. I love that they’ve been all so different. 

Sometime later, you hit another milestone when you directed your short film Stonefish. Did you have a long-held desire to direct?

MS: When I first started doing professional work as an actor on sets, in the back of my mind, I always knew that one day I would go into directing. Maybe when I was 40 or something. So I was always keeping one eye open on the directing and asking the cinematographers questions all the time. What lens are you using? What are you doing there? Why are you doing this? Annoying the crap out of them, probably (laughs). And it is amazing how much you truly pick up by just osmosis from being on set. So when COVID hit, and there was nothing to do, my best friend, George [Pullar], who I was at drama school with, messaged me. He said, ‘I’ve written a script. Do you want to read it?’ I read it and said, ‘George, who’s directing this? I’ll direct it!’ He said, ‘I was hoping you’d say that.’ So we got that up, and I thought, ‘Well, if not now, when?’ It was a perfect storm of time and nobody working. 

How would you describe your approach to directing?

MS: My approach is surprisingly similar to acting. You do pretty much the same scene analysis, except you’re not doing it for one person — you’re doing it for the story. And you’re looking at where those beats and shifts are in the script. Then, instead of thinking as an actor, ‘Okay, how can I reflect that moment change or that story beat in my body, in my face?’ You’re thinking, ‘How can I reflect that in camera or in the scene?’

Has the experience of directing a film altered your approach to acting?

MS: Totally! I think when you look at anything holistically, it can only improve every facet of it. I wrote a script during lockdown as well that completely blew the ceiling on my acting. It opened the possibilities that were available in a line of dialogue for me. It made me think about dialogue in a completely different way and gave me a lot of ownership over it as an actor. Acting completely opened my style of directing, and directing opened acting from a technical point of view.

Especially being in the edit room for the first time, I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I need to give them a cutting point every time now.’ But I know how to do that now, and I know what that means. And as an actor, you’re often like, ‘I’ll do something different in this take,’ but that’s not necessarily the best thing to do because you only want one right take as a director, and you’re trying to get everything right in that take. You’re trying to get the camera, lighting, and actors right. So if all of a sudden you finally get the camera right and the actor changes, you’re torn between the two takes. 

This year, you’ve had two high-profile roles. Let’s talk about the first one, Class of ’07. I spoke to your castmate Sarah Krndija a few months ago, and she told me that you were all able to choose the character you auditioned for. What made you want to try out for Amelia?

MS: It was a pretty unusual casting process in general. I think it’s true what Sarah was saying. I know a lot of people who did audition for three or four characters to begin with. Some people were given the choice to choose one or two they wanted to do, but then [they’d be asked] to audition for this character and this character as well. That was the case for a lot of people, but that wasn’t my experience. I only had the audition for Amelia. I did one audition for Amelia, and then I had one call-back for Amelia, and that was it.

For the show to work, the relationship between you and Emily Browning’s character had to feel authentic. Was there anything the two of you did to establish your chemistry? 

MS: You know what? Not really. Nothing out of the ordinary. I mean, we all bonded. The chemistry between us was obviously very important, but we were also estranged, remember. There was that war between us for a really long time. But what was probably more important — especially in a comedy — was the chemistry and cohesion between the whole group. We did a lot of bonding exercises in pre-production as a cohort. And we actually made up that dance in episode one in pre-production. That was part of our bonding exercises. Then that dance made it into the show! But Emily and I obviously worked together very closely. It was the usual thing: working on scenes together. That relationship grew as we shot the show, and by the time we got to those [one-on-one] scenes, we were very close.

It’s such a terrific show! Can you tell on set when something is working, or is it when you look back later once it is out in the world?

MS: That’s true for theatre completely. You can feel when something is just dying, and you can feel when it’s going really well. There’s not always that immediate audience feedback, but you can feel if something’s popping or not. But in film, not really because it might feel horrendous on the day — particularly with comedy — because no one’s laughing, and you’re just putting it out there, and you’re hoping that it’s funny. You finish your take, and you go, ‘Was it funny? Did it work?’ 

Sometimes, it can be cut fantastically, and it works, and the timing’s fixed in the edit. Other times, it can feel amazing, and you finish the take and go, ‘Wow, what even just happened? That was insane! I was so in that,’ and it gets kind of butchered in the edit. It’s been cut to pieces, and the timing feels off. So it’s made once in the writing room, once on the floor, then it’s made again in the edit suite. You don’t have much control over it.

Only a couple of weeks ago, audiences saw you in Choose Love on Netflix. Did you know in advance that it would be an interactive film?

MS: I did, yeah. The script was very intense to read (laughs).

How was it laid out?

MS: It’s very complicated, and Laura [Marano] did an amazing job at keeping all of those story threads in her head. I had a much easier job in that my storylines were pretty much the same. There were only one or two variations on each of them because my scenes were all about Paul’s storyline. You just have to remember where you’ve come from and where you’re going. The director [Stuart McDonald] did an amazing job of keeping that all in his head, too. I was looking at him going, ‘I’m so glad you are doing that, and I don’t have to worry about it!’

With Class of ’07 and Choose Love both being made for big streaming services and finding popularity, does it excite you that you’re being seen by international audiences more than ever before?

MS: Yeah, it’s a pretty crazy thought. Particularly with Class of ’07, something that felt so uniquely Australian. The fact that it performed so well overseas was an amazing feeling. To think that the little show that could is resonating with people halfway across the world is pretty amazing. And it excites me to think that that’s where the future of Australian film and television is going. That’s a possibility for us now. That’s on the table.

When looking back on all the projects and accomplishments you’ve amassed so far, how does it make you feel?

MS: That’s very kind (laughs). Gosh, you look at it all, and every one of those projects is so hard-earned. People see the job, but it’s the five ones in a row that you don’t get. It’s the hustle and the everyday hard work that goes into each of those jobs and all the work you don’t see. That’s what I see when I see those jobs. You know, people see the success and all the credits, but each one of those roles was earned with blood, sweat, and tears.

What are you hoping to achieve in the future? I believe you’re developing a feature to direct!

MS: Yeah, that’s right. It’s called Phoenix. It’s still in early stages of development, but that’s next on the directing side of things. With the acting, as I said, it’s been an incredibly tough year in the industry with the strikes. So there’s a couple of things that might go, but nothing I could say yet. 

Connor Dalton

Connor Dalton is a freelance entertainment journalist with a Bachelor’s degree in film and television studies. When he isn’t interviewing stars of the screen, he works in the reality television sector. He is sadly not related to Timothy Dalton.

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