WHO’S THAT GIRL?
– At this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Utah, Mia Wasikowska and Nicole Kidman did the press rounds together as they promoted their latest film, Stoker, made by renowned Korean director Park Chan-Wook (of The Vengeance Trilogy fame). As the fellow Australians moved around the snow-trimmed streets of Park City, a herd of paparazzi followed them from place to place. But when Wasikowska left one media interview before Kidman, the paps kept their cameras idle and simply waved a cheery greeting to the young Canberran as she sauntered past solo.
“They were like, ‘Hey, Mia!'” She recounts.
“I just kept walking and they’re just, like, sitting there waiting for Nicole and no one took a picture of me. It was really good!”
Small, hsu, and with a chameleon-like quality that allows her not only to evade the world’s paparazzi but also to transform herself into roles as diverse as Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland (as reimagined by Tim Burton), Mia Wasikowska is as un-blonde and un-actressy as starlets get.
She’s from Canberra and when she goes home, as she often does, she stays with her folks at the family pile in Belconnen, a group of suburbs known as “Belco” to the locals. She catches the bus there and no one recognises her on the street. She feels guilty about not having gone to university (yet) and atones for this guilt by working her way through self-set reading lists. Her parents (who didn’t marry until two years ago) are both artists: her mother a well-regarded Polish-Australian photographer, her father a photographer and collagist who runs an environmental studio at the Australian National University.
On a recent red-carpet outing for the opening of the Sydney Film Festival, a rather bitchy Sunday tabloid “style judge” gave Wasikowska’s outfit a five out of 10 – not because she looked tarty, but rather, one suspects, because she didn’t look tarty enough. She was dressed demurely in a black skirt and a white shirt with a red collar.
Wasikowska arrives for our interview at Three Blue Ducks cafe in Sydney’s Bronte wearing a furry cardigan over a plain red T-shirt that she’s tucked into the tiny waist of a calf-length skirt that looks suspiciously second-hand. Her face is free of make-up, she has leather sandals on her feet, and she looks tiny and almost sepia-toned compared to the bright glamour of the publicist who deposits her with me.
After six years of bouncing between her childhood home, film sets and short-term rentals in Los Angeles, Wasikowska has just bought an apartment in Sydney. It’s her first and she’s enjoying home-making, she says. She orders an egg and bacon roll and when it arrives, smothered in sauce and roughly the size of her head, she issues a warning before she begins eating it. “This is not going to be pretty.”
Wasikowska is here for what is her sole Australian interview to promote Stoker, a taut and creepy thriller. She seems uncomfortable with the strange actor-journalist bargain that requires her to to offer personal information in exchange for publicity for her work, so we start by talking about the film and she loosens up. Her youth is evident in her speech – she peppers her conversation with the “likes” and eye-rolls of your average 23-year-old.
In the film, Wasikowska plays India Stoker, whose beloved father dies in an apparent car accident on her 18th birthday, leaving her alone with her chilly mother, Evelyn, played nervily by Kidman. After the funeral, the two are joined in their eerily silent American-Gothic mansion by India’s long-lost Uncle Charlie, her father’s brother (Matthew Goode).
India is initially suspicious of Charlie, who uses his sinister charm to manipulate Evelyn. But she finds herself drawn to him, and the psycho-sexual interplay between the two unfurls during the film as India realises she has more in common with him than she wants to believe.
Wasikowska plays India with a strong sense of vulnerability and girlishness.
The film has sparse dialogue and the storyline owes an artistic debt to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt (which starred Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotton). Beyond the script and an absolute faith in their director, neither Wasikowska nor Kidman had any idea how the film would end up before they first saw it at Sundance, where it was generally well received.
“I just immediately loved it,” says Wasikowska of the project, which had been floating around Hollywood for a while on the prestigious “black list” of 2010, the unofficial log of the best unproduced films available.
Director Park, as his actors call him, speaks little English and communicates with his actors via a translator. Before they started filming, he and Wasikowska emailed each other pictures as they constructed the character of India in their imaginations. “We looked at some Balthus images,” Wasikowska says, referring to the 20th-century Polish-French modernist who painted sometimes disturbing nudes of pubescent girls. “That was an older man and he always paints young women, and he sort of captures sexuality in them which isn’t known to the girls, necessarily.”
Wasikowska’s expressive power may come from her ballet background. She began lessons when she was eight and, by the time she was in her early teens, was practising for 35 hours a week with a view to becoming a professional dancer. “I loved the expression of it and I loved that whole-of-body experience and the feeling it gives you,” she says.
But she began to notice when she attended auditions that people were measuring her waist, calves and thighs. “You’d go for auditions and they’d check your physicality, but they wouldn’t necessarily watch you [dance]…I think it makes you very unhappy when you start fixating on things you can’t necessarily change.”
Instead, the 14-year-old Wasikowska decided she would try to break into acting. It was a “covert operation” at first. “In my mind, I had decided on this,” she says. “But I didn’t want the pressure of people knowing that’s what I wanted to do.”
So, on the quiet, Wasikowska did a Google search (“actors’ agents Sydney”) and started cold-calling. Her parents were wary at first, but she picked up parts almost immediately – first a small role on the Channel Seven television drama All Saints, then a part in the 2006 Australian film, Suburban Mayhem, as Lilya, sidekick to Emily Barclay’s psychopathic teen mum, Katrina.
The film, directed by Paul Goldman, was a critical hit. Her performance saw Wasikowska nominated for a Young Actors’ AFI Award. “The part was written for a [physically unprepossessing] 13-year-old girl,” says Goldman, “but we couldn’t find anyone. Mia, however, had caught our eye in the audition tapes.” Wasikowska was entirely unknown, having done no professional acting aside from her All Saints bit part, but, says Goldman, “There was something about her performance that was beautiful.”
Eventually, the film’s writer, Alice Bell, decided she would rewrite the part for Wasikowska. The 15-year-old was cast and her rehearsals began with acting coach David Field, a man known for his confrontational style.
“I’ll never forget [the first session],” says Goldman. “David spun around to Mia and said, ‘Have you had sex?’ She blushed deeply and said, ‘No’. For an hour and a half, she had to listen to everyone around her recount their sordid sexual tales. I’m glad her parents weren’t there.”
Wasikowska was powerfully aware of her lack of experience. She compensated for it with a quiet diligence that set her apart from other young beginners. “I’ve always been fascinated with trying to understand people,” says Wasikowska. “I never like to judge anybody because I think if you could just stick with someone for long enough, you’d start to understand why they are the way they are.”
After the first rushes of the film started coming through, the film editor rang Goldman and said, “That girl you’ve cast is amazing. She almost steals the scene. You need to pull her back a bit.”
Australian director Greg McLean next cast the teenage Wasikowska in his giant croc-horror flick Rogue, released in 2007. “We watched her audition tape,” remembers McLean, “and she had this luminous quality and everyone was like, ‘Wow, this girl is incredible!'”
Her co-star in the film, actor Stephen Curry, remembers Wasikowska as a reserved, quietly observant presence on set: “We didn’t hear a peep out of her for three weeks, which earned her the nickname of ‘Rowdy’.” He adds that Wasikowska comes from the Guy Pearce school of Australian acting. “They’ve achieved this monumental success but can still have a private life because they hold on to something of themselves in the face of all that success.”
When Wasikowska landed her first overseas role, working with the acclaimed producer Rodrigo Garcia on the American cable-TV drama series In Treatment, her mother accompanied her to Los Angeles for filming. The pair lived in Studio City for three months and Wasikowska studied when she wasn’t working. After all, she was still in high school.
After that, the roles came thick and fast. In 2008, she was cast in the title role of Tim Burton’s retelling of Alice in Wonderland, followed by the American comedy-drama film The Kids Are All Right (co-starring Anette Bening, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo) in 2010, then in Jane Eyre opposite Michael Fassbender’s Rochester. The latter role caught the attention of Meryl Streep who, in her Golden Globes acceptance speech in 2012, said: “How about Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre?”
Robyn Davidson, the Australian author of Tracks – an account of her 1977 trek across the Australian desert with a dog and four camels – was keen to have Wasikowska play her in the film adaptation (which will appear in cinemas later this year). “I’d never met her, but I saw her in In Treatment and was bowled over by her,” Davidson says. “I just thought she was a very, very fine actress and that involves a whole lot of qualities, including intelligence.”
When Davidson first met Wasikowska, she was worried initially whether the slightly built young woman would be able to summon the “sense of earthiness necessary for the role”. But, she adds, “the next time I saw her on set, she’d transmogrified into this little toughie”.
Wasikowska doesn’t buy into the accolades. “I’ve watched almost everything I’ve done and my immediate reaction is, ‘I don’t know why I was cast,'” she says. “[Watching myself] isn’t a pleasurable experience.”
In 2010, she was ranked the second highest-grossing actor of the year after Leonardo DiCaprio. The following year, she made Time magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people and became a finalist in Australia’s National Photographic Portrait Prize for a picture she took on the set of Jane Eyre of co-star Jamie Bell and director Cary Fukunaga. She has fronted a Miu Miu fashion campaign and done a Vanity Fair cover. When in Los Angeles, she stays with actress Jessica Chastain (the pair were co-stars in last year’s Nick Cave-scripted Lawless) and designers send her clothes to wear to premieres.
Here in the cafe in Bronte, however, no one notices her. She is so slight that she has to plant one foot on the ground for leverage as she tackles the mighty bacon and egg roll. Asked about her fame, she says, “There are very few specific moments that I notice it. When I’m on a press tour, or when I’m promoting a film in other countries, or when I’m specifically at a premiere, those are the only times I ever actually feel it.”
Her determination to live in Australia and her un-starry circle no doubt help. Her best friend is an old school pal and, when we meet, Wasikowska’s preparing for a visit from her mum, sister and two-year-old nephew (they’re all based at the family home in Canberra, along with her sister’s partner and Wasikowska’s younger brother).
When I ask her about a boyfriend, she endures paroxysms of awkwardness. “I don’t really…Like I said, I have trouble with that, not engaging with these questions…they tell me I shouldn’t talk about it. So yeah, no, I don’t.” (That seems to be a no, although, about a month later, she is photographed canoodling sweetly in Toronto with The Social Network actor Jesse Eisenberg.)
Attitudes to fame vary greatly between the United States and Australia, she says. “America is much more like, ‘Good on you! Well done!’ Whereas Australia is much more like, ‘Stay normal! Here’s the warning.’ And then I’m like, ‘Who the fuck are you to tell me that? Have faith!'” She adds, laughing.
Wasikowska says she’s keen to do more work locally. A couple of years ago, producer/director Robert Connelly (Balibo, Three Dollars, The Boys) recruited her to direct one of the 18 short films in his forthcoming adaptation of Tim Winton’s short-story collection, The Turning.
“I’d read she was interested in visual art as a photographer and possibly going back to art school,” Connelly says. “This intrigued me, so I just went to her. Her film reminds me of early Jane Campion. It has a mischievous eccentricity about it. I think it’s a superb work that announces a new directing talent.”
When Wasikowska leaves the cafe, she farewells me with a goofy wave, her hand swallowed by the sleeve of her woollen cardigan. She slips out completely unnoticed, her bacon and egg roll unfinished on the plate – Jacqueline Maley (Good Weekend, August 10th, 2003)