With wide-set eyes and a blond bob clipped to one side with a barrette, Mia Wasikowska resembles a teenage Margot Tenenbaum: intelligent and eccentric, perching awkwardly on the edge of a couch with her hands on her lap like she’s patiently waiting for... something. When Tim Burton picked her to be his Alice in Alice in Wonderland, he exposed the former ballerina to her widest audience thus far. But by the time it was released in July 2010 the Australian actress had already worked with the world’s coolest contemporary filmmakers, playing the daughter of lesbians in Lisa Cholodenko’s Academy Award-nominated The Kids Are All Right, starring in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of Jane Eyre and shearing her long hair for Gus Van Sant’s Restless. “I love it short,” she says, running her fingers through her current schoolgirlish do. “I’m never going to grow my hair again.”
Maybe it’s the sporty haircut, but no one here at the Casa del Mar hotel restaurant in Santa Monica seems to recognise Wasikowska, even though she’s one of the highest-grossing actresses in the world (in 2010, her films made $1.03 billion, tying with Johnny Depp and outgrossed only by Leonardo DiCaprio at $1.1 billion). Perhaps the 23-year-old’s quiet demeanour also helps her slip by unnoticed, or maybe it’s her casual attire – sensible black flats, black tights, a flowery knee-length skirt and a simple pink t-shirt. “I think it’s because I live in Australia and I don’t get too much into the Hollywood scene,” she says, explaining her relative anonymity. “Living far away from LA has been the best way for me to exist within this industry. It’s good to be able to step away from here and into my personal life, and keep the two separate.”
“You know, before you arrived, the weirdest thing happened,” she says, her smile warm. Turns out a journalist from a different publication had sat with Wasikowska for a full five minutes, having mistaken her for someone else. And she had played along, not realising. “We were chatting for a while,” she confesses, “then she looked confused and asked me my name. I said, ‘I’m Mia,’ and she was like, ‘Oh. Whoops.’” It’s hard to imagine anyone making that mistake with DiCaprio or Depp, but then Wasikowska really isn’t bothered by her inconspicuousness. Rather, she’s enjoying it while she can.
Wasikowska – pronounced “vassikofska” – still lives where she was born and raised, in Canberra, the small, unglamorous capital of Australia. She grew up the middle child of three, with fine-art photographer parents. “There are a lot of public servants, artists and college students in Canberra,” she says. “Basically, it’s a small city in the middle of the bush.” Canberra’s most famous daughter trained as a prima ballerina until she was 14, when a small but painful bone mass on her heel forced her to swap the 35 hours a week she spent in the dance studio for Hollywood. Less than ten years later, the American dream is hers. Now she’s learning how to live it right. “I’m learning my own limits: how much to work each year, how much to put into establishing a home and friends,” she says. “I’m learning not to get carried away, to keep a life outside of films. Because this is a wobbly thing to pin everything on.”
She recently started knitting to help her detach from the ups and downs of movie life. “I guess knitting doesn’t do much for my badass image though, does it?” she sighs. Is the demure Wasikowska, with her flat shoes and sensible hair, really trying to cultivate a “badass” image? Apparently so. “But it’s not working, is it? Almost everything new I pick up – knitting, crotcheting – seems to work against me... Oh well.” There’s no time for knitting on this trip – she’s about to head to Sundance with her new movie, the modern gothic thriller Stoker. The first English-language film from acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Thirst), Stoker is visually lush and verbally sparse, an ultraviolent, hyperreal Hitchcock homage. Wasikowska plays the enigmatic India, a glum teenager blossoming into a ruthless killer – think Wednesday Addams meets Aileen Wuornos. She stars alongside a perfectly neurotic Nicole Kidman as her mother and Matthew Goode as the deranged but dashing Uncle Charlie. (Harmony Korine, who lives in Nashville close to where the movie was shot, makes a brief appearance as an art teacher.)
There are certain moments in cinema that are unforgettable by virtue of the emotional response they spark, the kind that linger in the viewer’s subconscious long after they leave the movie theatre. The shower scene in Psycho, for instance; Tim Roth yelling “everybody be cool, this is a robbery” in Pulp Fiction; or Jack Nicholson’s “here’s Johnny” grimace in The Shining. Well, there is a scene in Stoker that possesses that mesmerising power: India’s devastatingly erotic piano duet with Uncle Charlie. Wasikowska studied piano for months to play the complex duet by famed minimalist composer Philip Glass, who specifically intended the piece to be played by a husband and wife. At one point, the music demands that the male pianist reach his arm around the female while continuing to play. The incestuous sexual tension escalates with the music, India and Charlie dripping with tragic Nabokovian desire as their fingers do the talking. “It’s a very sensual moment,” says Wasikowska, adding, “That was my favourite day of filming.”
Then there is Stoker’s own shower scene, an unsettling masturbatory moment, with India naked and washing away the memory of what she just witnessed – the murder of a boy she once kissed. What’s odd is that she becomes increasingly aroused as she flashes back to the moment of her lover’s death, her body shuddering in climax as she relives the sound of his neck snapping. Fun stuff. “It’s a crazy scene,” Wasikowska says. “The kind of scene that when you get the shooting schedule, you’re checking to see when it is so you can mentally prepare.” The film is littered with metaphor and symbolism, including a recurring egg motif — early on, India is seen rolling hardboiled eggs along a table and cracking the shells; later, you catch a glimpse of white plates arranged in a circle on a wall, a yellow plate in the middle like a yolk. This, says Wasikowska, stemmed from Chan-wook feeling that her character was like “a little chicken in an egg, pecking her way out and breaking the shell.” Does Wasikowska ever feel that she is “only an egg”, to quote Robert A Heinlein’s 60s SF classic Stranger in a Strange Land? Or is she a chick? Where exactly is she on her personal egg-to-chick trajectory, or has she already hatched into the actress she always wanted to be?
Okay, maybe we weren’t entirely normal, but I honestly don’t even know what normal is.
“Well, most young girls identify with this feeling of breaking out of their shell,” she says, picking at her bowl of wild mushroom pasta. “But that’s the beginning, then you have to find your feet and see how you fit in the world. There’s a constant readjustment, a feeling of always changing and being influenced by things and working really hard to keep a core sense of who you are, so that the outside world doesn’t erode that layer of yourself.” So what exactly is the core of Mia Wasikowska? What is she guarding? Whatever it is, she’s not giving it up on the first date. “I can’t explain it in words,” she says, “but I know how to protect it.”
Her family, of course, help keep her grounded, and her mother in particular has helped develop her uncanny knack for picking the right projects. “Marzena, my mom, was really into independent, experimental and art-house films when I was growing up, so she has often been my reference, introducing me to good directors.” Marzena Wasikowska (Mia and her two siblings took their mother’s name) and John Reid met at art school in Canberra, where they were both studying photography. Reid is a lecturer at the ANU School of Art, directing a programme encouraging students to produce environmentally conscious work, while Marzena continues to shoot portraiture and documentary photography. Marzena and John only married a year ago, to the surprise of their children. Wasikowska had just returned from America: “Mom said, ‘We’d like to invite you to our wedding at 3pm.’ So we had a wedding in our garden. Me and my sister ran out and got a plant from a nursery. My mom had a cake, a pie actually. Or maybe it was a pastry?”
Impromptu weddings, kids taking their mother’s surname, art school – the signs point towards Mia Wasikowska having grown up in a wonderfully bohemian household. Eccentric, even? “I don’t know... Okay, maybe we weren’t entirely normal, but I honestly don’t even know what normal is.”
Her parents have always been supportive of her career choices, although were initially surprised when she quit dancing and decided to get into acting. “They were a little worried at the beginning because it seems so out of reach, being in Australia and trying to make it as an actress,” Wasikowska says. “But I really didn’t like the dance industry. It’s kind of brutal.” She still dances every now and then, although it’s mainly in her bedroom, to favourite bands like First Aid Kit (she also digs Bob Dylan and Nina Simone). “I feel a bit stifled when it comes to crazy dancing in a club. Maybe I should try it though,” she ponders. “Maybe that would help me be more badass...” She is also a gifted photographer, shooting photos, often onset, using one of her Rolleiflex, Holga or Leica cameras. In 2010 she was shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize for an onset photo of Fukunaga and Jamie Bell, her Jane Eyre co-star. Photography, piano, ballet, acting – the list of Wasikowska’s talents grows ever longer with time. Other exciting projects she’s got coming out in 2013 include Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive with Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, about a longstanding romance between reclusive vampires who are thrown off when Wasikowska’s character comes in and disturbs the peace. “I’m a little bit of a trashy socialite in it,” says Wasikowska. Like a bloodsucking Kim Kardashian? “If you like,” she laughs. “She is quite different to the characters I have played before in that she’s a lot sillier. Polyester, Gucci and revealing, colourful plastic clothes. It’s fun.” She’s also co-starring in Submarine director Richard Ayoade’s The Double, a comedy about a man (played by The Social Network’s Jesse Eisenberg), whose life is taken over by his doppelganger. “Richard Ayoade is amazing, a wunderkind person,” she says. “Also, he has possibly seen every single movie under the sun. I’m in awe.”
I would never want to do something that I felt I had done before, and it’s not fun to just play a victim or a sexy, proppy girlfriend. Give me a character that has their own drive, something to say... That’s badass
In the next few years there are a few things on Wasikowska’s to-do list: she would love to work with Jane Campion, shoot films in Europe and Australia and play “louder” characters. She’s not putting any pressure on herself to cross over to the mainstream and sign up for the big-paying blockbusters that might increase her chances of being recognised by strangers in hotel lobbies. “I very specifically know what I like and what I don’t like when it comes to film, and I don’t know how much ‘business’ there needs to be in my decisions right now. I’ve made mostly creative choices in my career, which is really fun, so I guess I’ll just carry on, see how it goes and do what I want to do. To me there’s no point making a film unless it is challenging and different. I would never want to do something that I felt I had done before, and it’s not fun to just play a victim or a sexy, proppy girlfriend. Give me a character that has their own drive, something to say... That’s badass.”
Stoker is out on March 1.
Read the story at Dazed Digital here.