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There’s more to Mia Wasikowska than meets the eye.
Perched on an armchair in a corner of a bland hotel conference room during the Cannes film festival, the Australian actress — in town to promote her role in “Lawless,” which hits U.S. screens on Wednesday — looks more like your average high school student than the world’s highest-grossing actress of 2010, according to Forbes.
Her face free of makeup, the 22-year-old wears a black-and-white swallow-print Miu Miu skirt and top, paired with a boxy Austrian-style red felt jacket that swamps her tiny frame.
“I’m a huge sucker for comfort,” she says, attempting to sum up her red-carpet style. “I do like things that have character, and something maybe unusual about them. But I like pretty simple but detailed and more understated [clothes].”
She explains her everyday style was a far cry from the Marie Antoinette-inspired look she sported in Miu Miu’s spring 2012 campaign.
“I rarely get the chance to look glamorous in the movies that I do, so it was sort of just like taking on another role for a few days and dressing up,” Wasikowska says. “And it doesn’t even feel like me when I see it.”
It turns out that the real Mia Wasikowska is an elusive creature. Known for her finely modulated performances of women on the verge of adulthood — from the title character in Tim Burton’s surprise megahit “Alice in Wonderland” in 2010 to a terminally ill cancer patient in “Restless” last year — the actress is friendly but guarded in person.
Peppering her conversation with the words “like,” “definitely” and “maybe,” she describes what drew her to play the character Bertha in “Lawless,” based on the true story of three bootlegging brothers in Prohibition-era Virginia. The John Hillcoat-directed movie costars Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke as the Bondurant brothers, who punch, kick and stab their way to ruling the region’s moonshine trade.
As LaBeouf’s love interest, Wasikowska is the yin to his hot-headed yang. Bertha belongs to a conservative religious sect that closely follows scripture teaching. To say her family disapproves of her relationship with the heavy-drinking, pimped-up Jack Bondurant is an understatement.
“You never choose the way that you’re raised, it’s just the way that you were raised, but you do get to a certain age where you’re in a position to question the expectations of you and the way that you’ve been formed by your surroundings,” Wasikowska observes.
“To have the bravery to do that, and the independence of thought to think outside of what you’re being told, is really interesting to me,” she adds. “And her relationship with Jack is sort of her first foray and introduction into life outside of that very intense, concentrated sect.”
Asked how she worked with LaBeouf to foster on-screen chemistry, Wasikowska is vague.
“Well, there isn’t really time to spend developing that, so it happens very quickly and you’re just sort of thrown in there and it develops as you go,” she says. “So that was how it happened for us.”
LaBeouf recently gave a radically different take, telling The New York Post that his preparation for the role included getting drunk off the set to the point of frightening his costar. “She was calling her attorney, like, ‘Get me the [bleep] out of here,’” he told the paper this month. “Mia was ready to walk away from the movie.”
The costars’ differing accounts speak to Wasikowska’s ability to withdraw into her own space when creating a character — that same observant quality that can leave an interviewer feeling that she is circling around a subject, but only grazing its surface.
There is no traumatic childhood to credit for her willingness to explore other people’s minds. The daughter of Polish-born photographer Marzena Wasikowska and Australian artist John Reid, she speaks fondly of her parents, who have fostered her own burgeoning interest in photography.
“I’m so lucky. They’re so supportive and I always say that everything I know, I know from them and from what they’ve taught me,” she explains. “I just think that I have a very interesting perspective as an actor. Whereas behind-the-scenes photography is always sort of from behind people’s back and trying to look in on the center, when you’re an actor, you’re right in the center and everybody’s sort of staring at you. So that’s, to me, a very interesting image.”
A little later she muses, “It feels so alien sometimes to be looked at in that way.”
Wasikowska reportedly had a pocket sewn into one of her costumes on the set of 2011’s “Jane Eyre” so she could always carry her small digital camera. Her portrait of the film’s director, Cary Fukunaga, and costar Jamie Bell was short-listed for the National Photographic Portrait Prize at Australia’s National Portrait Gallery last year. But she is noncommittal about exhibiting her work. “Maybe one time, for sure — when I have some time,” she says.
That’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Currently shooting Jim Jarmusch’s vampire love story “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the actress will tackle the title role in a new version of Gustave Flaubert’s classic “Madame Bovary” in the fall.
She brushes off the suggestion that she might be too young to play Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife who has affairs and racks up debts to escape her stifling provincial life.
“I guess that the choice is either you go with an older actress who plays young for a while or a younger actress who plays old,” she says. “I’m hoping that, if not physically, emotionally you’ll be able to see the arc of her growing up and aging. So we’ll see how that works.”
She avoided watching the 1991 French adaptation starring Isabelle Huppert. “I’m a huge fan of hers,” she says. “I just think she’s amazing, so I’m still torn between watching it and maybe not.”
Not that Wasikowska is scared of matching her talent against the industry’s finest. Next year, she will be seen opposite Nicole Kidman in South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut “Stoker,” and she is due to costar with Cate Blanchett in “Carol,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt.”
Which brings the conversation around to strong female role models, and the lack of them at this year’s Cannes film festival, which drew sharp criticism for its failure to include a single competition entry from a female director.
“Rather than criticizing the festival, I think it’s about looking further back and saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s not the festival. It’s how can we educate women to feel powerful enough to do something that feels so intimidating, like directing a film? And can we do something in schools or in colleges that encourages women to feel the need and the importance of telling their stories?’” Wasikowska says.
“It’s either a perspective or it’s the fact that people aren’t confident enough in hiring [female directors] or they’re nervous of investing [in female directors] — there’s something that is obviously off balance and should be addressed in some way,” she adds.
Wasikowska hopes to eventually move behind the camera herself. “I always try and learn as much as I can from different departments on a film set,” she says. “And I feel like, from the people that I have worked with, I’ve learned a lot. But it will be something when the time is right.”
The Australian press had already reported that Wasikowska and Blanchett would both make their directing debuts with separate segments of a screen adaptation of Tim Winton’s short story collection “The Turning.”
But on this, too, the actress remains tantalizingly opaque.