Mia Wasikowska on ‘The Kids Are All Right,’ Gus Van Sant, and the Brutality of Ballet

When Mia Wasikowska first burst onto the scene in HBO’s transfixing series In Treatment, critics were quick to praise her acting chops and label her the next big thing. A bit part in Edward Zwick’s Holocaust drama Defiance, a role opposite Hilary Swank in Mira Nair’s Amelia and the title spot in Tim Burton’s blockbuster Alice in Wonderland culminated in a coveted spot on the cover of Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue. The transition from ingénue to star was complete. Now, Wasikowska’s delivering on the hype. In Lisa Chonlodenko’s latest indie flick, The Kids Are All Right, she takes on the part of Joni, an introverted 18-year-old girl who, at the request of her younger brother (Josh Hutcherson), contacts their “bio-dad,” the motorcycle-toting sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) her lesbian mothers (Julianne Moore and Annette Benning) selected 19 years prior. The drama–and humor –unfolds as Joni and her family get to know donor-dad. We sat down with the rising star to talk about her role in Kids, the genius of Gus Van Sant, and the brutality of ballet.

What attracted you to this film? When I read the script, I felt it was very unique and unlike any story I had read before. I was also attracted to the creative team behind it: Lisa, Annette, Julie, Mark and Josh. That was what really excited me.

How did you approach the role of Joni? From reading the script, I had a clear image in my head of who she was and what she is going through. I liked her because she is more concerned with the life of her mind and broadening that than being up to date in other things. She is at that time in her life when she is leaving the nest and leaving her comfort zone and going off on her own path. I feel like I’ve done that myself a number of times.

You were so proactive about it; you were dancing professionally and decided you wanted to make the switch [to acting] on your own. Definitely. It is always good to keep challenging yourself, to keep moving and doing things.

Did your experience in ballet affect the way that you approach acting? The physicality of it? Definitely, even down to things like controlling your nerves in an audition. You definitely have to control your nerves on stage for dance, and seemingly when you go into a room for a meeting or audition. There’s also the physical side of it. There’s a physical awareness and that is something you forget you have to be conscious of when you are acting. I definitely wouldn’t be the same actor if I didn’t have the dance background. I miss how it made me feel after class, but I don’t miss the industry. People think I’m crazy when I say that this industry is easier on a young person than dance industry. I’ve found the dance industry hard and not as encouraging. This is very different.

So, what was it like working with Julianne and Annette? It was fantastic! They always choose interesting roles and are part of really smart projects. I love learning from them and seeing how they do things and how they handle scenes. They are also very loving mothers themselves and really great people. We shot for 23 days. It was fun on set, but the pace was really quick.

You were familiar with of Lisa’s past work? Yeah. I really love her films–the kind of realism and humanity. In this film particularly, there is such a great humor and a great approach to all these human personal issues, matters, and feelings. She handles things very sensitively. It is not trying to put a political message out there. It’s about a family. It’s not saying, “There is one way a family should be.” It’s not saying, “There is a normal family.” It’s celebrating how families are unique and compiled of really different people and also celebrating those people who you go through your life with. They are the only people in the world who understand your family dynamic like you do ,and that is a special thing to celebrate.

So, you just finished filming the new Gus Van Sant movie Restless. How was that? It was amazing! I’ve been a huge fan of Gus’ films since I was 14. He handles adolescence with such intelligence. I always thought as a teenager watching movies about high school. Who experiences that? It’s such a rare experience to be the pretty popular girl in school or the hot girlfriend. That is something that never resonated with me. Gus gives [young people] a lot of credit for their complexity as human beings. He also gives the young audience credit for their ability to enjoy people like themselves. There is thoughtfulness behind it. I play Annabel who is a young girl. It’s a love story between a boy and a girl who are preoccupied with death and mortality. It’s also a really playful, fun movie. It deals with love and death and being young.

You just finished shooting Jane Eyre. Is it a pretty straightforward adaptation? Yeah. It’s very much a classic Jane Eyre. Things will be flushed out in a way that maybe hasn’t been done in previous adaptations. Cary’s an usual choice for the director: his last film was about illegal immigration. He’s going to bring some interesting things to it, a lot of elements that aren’t as focused on. It’s dialogue heavy, obviously. It’s a wonderful role with intense conversations.

How has your life changed in the last couple of years? It hasn’t changed too much, besides the fact that I travel a lot and work more. But I don’t feel any different in who I am.

Are you still able to be anonymous? Absolutely, which is fantastic. I don’t think I even really look like Alice. She is the most exposure I’ve had and I’ve still been able to be anonymous. I feel very lucky.

Will you be able to maintain it? I hope so. I think, to a certain extent, you can choose. Then there is a certain amount [of attention] which you can’t really control, but you definitely have a choice as to how much you want to be out there.

So, is Australia still home? Yeah. Whenever I’m not working, I go straight home and go hang out with my family. I don’t get out of my pajamas for weeks!

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