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"I have to not take myself too seriously and I have to realise that if it is meant to be, it will be."
Teresa Palmer steps outside the Hollywood box

Appearances can be deceiving. Sitting in a Sydney cafe, Teresa Palmer, she of the golden locks and delicate features, looks positively angelic. She is polite and softly spoken, but the 24-year-old Adelaide-born actress is definitely not to be underestimated.

Take her latest role. In I Am Number Four, a sci-fi blockbuster produced by Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay and directed by DJ Caruso (Disturbia), she plays “bad-ass” Number Six, one of nine aliens sent to Earth disguised as high school students and now on the run from their enemies. In the movie she kicks, punches, rides a motorcycle and fires rocket launchers with as much élan as Angelina Jolie.

She had a great time, especially given how hard she trained. “My character is such a warrior and I’m really not,” she says with a laugh. “I’ve never done any sort of kicking or shot a gun, I’ve never stabbed anyone, obviously, so these are skills that I’ve had to learn.” She was in training for three months prior to shooting and it had some unexpected benefits. “I feel like if I ever got into some sort of rumble on the street, I will actually be able to defend myself.”

The film will no doubt strengthen her reputation as Australia’s go-to blockbuster girl. She starred in Bedtime Stories with Adam Sandler and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opposite Nicolas Cage and has been linked to the new Mad Max: Fury Road film, and says she has been very fortunate to work with the industry greats. “I never guessed that this would be my life at all and it still feels like I am in a dream.”

She will also get to show off her indie credentials soon in the long-awaited comedy Take Me Home Tonight, opposite former love Topher Grace. Originally filmed in 2007, it is set for release in 2011. She, Grace and co-star Anna Faris did key reshoots last year, stepping back into the characters they had created more than three years earlier.

“I felt very nostalgic when I played Tori Frederking again,” she says, a little wistfully. “That was one of the most amazing times in my life shooting that film, one of my first big American movies where I got to experience playing a leading role in an American comedy.”

It’s hard to believe Palmer has only been doing this for five years. She first captured our attention in 2:37, a harrowing high school drama for which she received an AFI nomination for best lead actress. Next came indie dramas December Boys, opposite Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, and Restraint, followed by her big break in Bedtime Stories. Despite the rollcall of big names, she says she doesn’t feel successful. “I don’t think I will ever get to the point where I think: ‘Oh, I’ve made it.’” She adds: “I know my parents are really proud of me, and they think I’ve become successful, so that’s nice, but there’s still so much I want to achieve in my life.”

While she is on a roll at the moment, Palmer has long been outspoken about the ups and downs of Hollywood. “The unknowingness of the job is both super-exciting and terrifying, and it’s a very difficult thing to wrap your head around, not knowing where the next pay cheque is coming from.” She classes herself as ambitious but not in a blinkered way.

“I definitely try to be very healthy with that stuff and it’s very easy to get stressed out in Hollywood, because you realise you are absolutely disposable and, to a lot of these studios, you are just like a puppet.” She recognises that Hollywood is a machine, with newcomers arriving every day. “I have to not take myself too seriously and I have to realise that if it is meant to be, it will be.”

Her solution is simple: create her own luck. She has commissioned a script to be written with a “very Angelina Jolie” lead role for her. It started out as a small independent film about the corruption in the pharmaceutical industry, but has now grown into a possible blockbuster, and she’s due to sit down with Dreamworks on her return to Los Angeles. “As a producer you have creative control, and that’s what is so exciting about it. At the end of the day, if you have made a film it’s totally your responsibility, and if it works it’s your responsibility and if it doesn’t it’s also your responsibility.”

She is also producing a documentary on happiness, and when we speak she is just about to fly to Kenya with a crew of three to start shooting. Produced in association with the UK-based charity Happy Africa, the documentary will follow a group of orphan children who, despite their trials, remain remarkably positive. “We are just going to let the kids run the documentary,” she says. “We want them to talk to us about what makes them happy – just a study on why so many people from third-world countries seem to be able to find the happiness that is missing in a lot of people’s lives in more privileged countries like America and Australia.”

It was living in Los Angeles that sparked her initial enquiry into the issue. “It can be very isolating and lonely and I had numerous friends who were struggling with it and were in dark places in their lives. I realised their thinking had shifted from thinking about the positive things in their life to focusing on the negatives. I thought it would be a really nice thing to go to some place like Africa, where these people have next to nothing and they are always focused on the positives, on what they do have as opposed to what they don’t have.”

It’s part of what she hopes will be, in her words, a philanthropic life; which also includes setting up an animal shelter in the Adelaide Hills. The animal lover, who regularly volunteers at a local LA homeless animal shelter, wants to buy land so that she can rehabilitate dogs and cats on death row. “That is my dream – I would love to live on the property with all the animals, kids running around; that would be great,” she says, demonstrating yet again she is not your average Hollywood starlet.