Priscilla Bonnet is set to develop comedy series Something Old for the American market.
Priscilla Bonnet is set to develop comedy series Something Old for the American market. BILL CHEN

Priscilla Bonnet finally gets comic timing right in US

For a woman who's aiming to make her mark in the tough game of US comedy, it's a good sign that Priscilla Bonnet is a bit of a hoot.

The Queenslander is packing her bags for Los Angeles after she and her writing partner Julie De Fina landed a deal to develop their comedy series Something Old for the American market.

As fate would have it, it comes at much the same time as their breakthrough in Australia, with the two due to begin filming their own comedy series Lemons for the ABC this year.

"No wonder I've got anxiety,” Bonnet says.

"I'm all over the place.”

Ironically, Lemons is based on the women's own lives, "going from failure to failure” as they were for many years before they finally caught their break.

But will success mean an end to Bonnet's failure schtick, the rich seam she has been mining for material for years?

"Ha, I won't have anything to write about,” she laughs.

"I always seem to write about underdogs and people who are kind of doing the failure thing.

"Most of my characters have kind hearts and good intentions but it just doesn't come off for them, which is how I am, in a way.”

Indeed, if writers need to look to their own lives for material, it seems there's plenty more where that came from. At 30-something, Bonnet has much to draw on.

Her father and mother, French-born chef Michel Bonnet and wife Trisha, ran much-loved French restaurants for many years.

From a young age, Bonnet was performing and singing.

"I was in a group called the Young Australians,” she says.

"Sort of a girl band but with a boy in it.”

She graduated with a scholarship to study law at Bond University - ah, but where's the material in that?

The bright lights were calling so she threw it in for Hollywood, more or less. She took a job as a waitress at Planet Hollywood in Sydney, telling her family she was going to work there and audition for NIDA.

"I was having the best time,” she says.

"I did it for six months and then I thought, 'This sucks.' And I never did audition for NIDA.”

The next stop was a bit closer to the real thing. She enrolled in the famed Strasberg film school in LA, living in a small studio apartment at the age of 18.

After graduating, she landed an acting gig playing a young Bette Davis in the CBS miniseries Lucy about the life of Lucille Ball. No doubt it helped that Bonnet looked uncannily like Bette Davis. She played opposite American actor Madeline Zima, who was the young Lucy.

It was a promising start to an acting career but that's when Bonnet began wrestling with anxiety.

"In auditions, my nerves would be crazy,” she says.

"The anxiety was out of control. I think I was putting too much pressure on myself.”

She came back to Queensland and to her high-school sweetheart.

But then more material just threw itself her way. She won Rolling Stone magazine's search for Australia's best new unsigned singer/songwriter and was scouted to record an album.

"I was a bit of an emo back then,” she says.

"I was more Morissette and they wanted more Kylie Minogue. It didn't really work out.”

But it led her back to LA, this time as a songwriter, where she wrote for other artists, including Grammy award-winning rhythm and blues man Ne-Yo and Paris Hilton.

Being back in LA gave her the acting bug again but she found her anxiety hadn't gone away. Auditions were even more excruciating and, she eventually realised, impossible.

Priscilla Bonnet will star in Lemons with writing partner Julie De Fina.
Priscilla Bonnet will star in Lemons with writing partner Julie De Fina. Kurt Sneddon

In Bonnet's version of her life, she lurches from failure to failure, a narrative peppered with black humour and one-liners. Then there is the tragicomic.

Her eventual marriage to her high-school sweetheart ended in divorce.

"He's remarried with kids now,” she says.

"He was an angel.”

There is no one-liner to follow.

Returning to Australia, with the realisation her audition anxiety was killing off any hopes of an acting life, she wrote and starred in her own short film Fully Famous that was to launch the next phase of her career. It told the comic tale of two friends looking for fame in all the wrong places.

"It was the first thing I'd ever written,” she says.

Even for her, it's hard to paint Fully Famous as a failure. It made the 2011 final of Australia's premier short film festival Tropfest and a video clip from the film was picked up by US celebrity blogger Perez Hilton and went viral.

The film went on to win best comedy at the Los Angeles Comedy Festival and got Bonnet an invitation from the ABC to turn it into a television show.

There she was paired with the more experienced Julie De Fina, a comedy writer who'd also experienced her fair share of hard knocks, and the two have been writing together since.

"It was introduced to about 10 or 15 other writers,” Bonnet says.

"I knew instantly as soon as I met her that she was the one. We had an instant connection. She has exactly the same taste as me. I didn't really know how to write scripts but we worked together for a couple of years to turn (Fully Famous) into a television series and we were also working on (ABC sketch show) Wednesday Night Fever (in which Bonnet also appeared).”

Things were looking up. The TV series was being shopped around in the US by prolific TV producer Aaron Kaplan but just when it was all set to go in Australia, the ABC pulled it - as Bonnet tells it, another failure.

"It never got to air,” she says.

"They never even shot any of it.”

But by then she'd found her feet as a writer. She and De Fina were commissioned by Fremantle Media to develop Something Old, a series about a gold digger who marries a rich elderly man on his death bed only for her risque farewell gesture to revive him.

It is the concept for Something Old that's scored the women a prized US development deal with Kronicle Media, founded by noted producers Korin Huggins and Monique Nash, who are dedicated to creating more diverse content about women.

"In the US version, the protagonist is a fun, sassy African-American woman,” Bonnet says.

"Her dying husband ends up recovering and leaving hospital and she has to go home and live with him. It's a real cat and mouse thing - everyone is after his money.

"It takes the whole feminist culture and ideologies and spins it on its head. We wanted to highlight the flaws and ultimate irony of women 'having it all', because, when it comes down it, 'having it all' basically means not only doing the majority of domestic work but also working longer hours and for less pay. For our protagonist, her idea of having it all is sponging off a rich man and watching daytime TV. To her, that's true empowerment.”

At the same time, Bonnet is also developing a drama series for Essential Media based on the true story of Australia's first policewoman.

Then there's Lemons, in which Bonnet and De Fina also star, which is due to start filming midyear.

With it all happening together, it's little wonder Bonnet is prone to a bit of anxiety.

"My life has been so up and down,” she says.

"I rarely have had any stability there. I'm always travelling between LA and Sydney. I've been invited to be involved in a lot of writers' rooms over there, brainstorming sessions with other writers.

"I'm just going to make the move with Julie and base myself there. We'll come back to do our show (Lemons) but Julie and I are both going to be out there from now on, continuing to work together. The good thing about writing is you can do it from anywhere.

"There are limited opportunities in Australia for comedy writers. There's really only one avenue for half-hour comedy programs and that's the ABC. The commercial media is risk-averse, especially for newer writers and edgier concepts. That's the reason I'm making the move. There's just so much more happening there.”

As showbiz stories go, there can be rich rewards for those who hang around long enough. It's also very Hollywood that your big break finally comes at the same time as another break based on your lack of breaks.

Bonnet may well have to revise her trusted failure themes.


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