Mia Wasikowska, Once More Through the Looking Glass
She did what?” asks Mia Wasikowska, the inflection of her relaxed Australian accent teetering on falsetto, when I tell her that Lindsay Lohan could serve up to three years in jail for allegedly stealing a $2,500 necklace. Wasikowska shakes her head, although her dismay doesn’t seem especially condemnatory. On this February morning, the 21-year-old actor looks incredulous rather than critical, genuinely shocked that someone in Lohan’s position would abuse her privilege in such a flagrant and distasteful way. This is because Wasikowska is a woman for whom red carpets and loaner jewels are the gaudy aftershocks of revelatory, soul-baring performances. Tellingly, she just laughs when asked, as she often is by journalists jaded by the pleasure-seeking principals of young Hollywood, how she avoids the trappings of fame.
Over the din of clinking fine china at Peacock Alley, the Waldorf Astoria’s rococo dining nook, Wasikowska considers the perks of celebrity, the only time during the course of our conversation that she even entertains such frivolity. While looking off into the distance, she blows lightly into her cup of Earl Grey. She crinkles her freckled nose and, shrugging her shoulders, says, “There’s definitely something good about it.” But Wasikowska can’t quite put her finger on what that something is—surprising, really, when one considers that she ranked second on Forbes’ list of 2010’s highest-grossing Hollywood actors, tied with her Alice in Wonderland costar Johnny Depp and one place behind Leonardo DiCaprio, who ran away with last year’s box office winnings as the lead in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Equally surprising is that Wasikowska even made that list, a paradox given that she’s still known to most audiences as “that girl who played Alice.” Far from a household name, Wasikowska is sneakily percolating into the public consciousness with bold, mature turns in consistently complex, character-driven films.
A few minutes pass and Wasikowska, still trying to come up with a VIP-only indulgence for which she’s grateful, says, “I’m so lucky to have the best hairdressers and fashion stylists in the world… ” But her eyes tell me there’s more, and there is: “When I’m at premieres, however, I can’t wait to get home and put on my baggy pants. The glamour of Hollywood is such a myth. I can’t help worrying that I’ll trip on my heels, or that my makeup is smudging all over my face.”
Not unlike the pinafore-wearing pedant she played in Tim Burton’s re-imagining of the Lewis Carroll classic, Wasikowska is readying her return to wonderland—this one populated by photographers and screaming fans, rather than a hydrocephalic Red Queen—with the release of another ambitious remake, Cary Fukunaga’s gothic adaptation of Jane Eyre, featuring prestige players such as Michael Fassbender, Sally Hawkins, and Dame Judi Dench. This time out, however, after touring the world doing “65 interviews a day and then 65 the next” in support of Alice—and then splitting her time between her parents’ home in Australia and film sets in Ireland, England, and Oregon—Wasikowska will reclaim the attention of fans and critics armed with the self-assuredness she acquired on her first spin around the media carousel. “I’ve always tried really hard to make sure people have a good impression of me,” she says. “But I care a bit less about that now. I’m more chilled-out, and I’m not taking it too seriously.”
Still, she’ll admit that following up her performance as one of the most adored heroines in fairy-tale history with Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë’s equally iconic and beloved protagonist, can’t help but feel a bit daunting. “I did kind of go, Why am I doing this again? You make yourself a bull’s-eye because people have such strong and ingrained notions of Alice and Jane, so you’re challenging the audience to believe you as somebody whom they already know, somebody they understand.” Crispin Glover, her costar in Alice, says, “She was playing the title role in this huge-budget, big studio film, but there were no airs or pretenses from her, not even for a split second. She is unassuming, serious, and an excellent actor.” As Jane, also an unassuming and serious character, Wasikowska endures a loveless childhood at the hands of her conniving aunt, a lonely and severe education at a boarding house, and then a forbidden romance with Fassbender’s Edward Rochester, for whom she works as his daughter’s governess. “Jane is such a modern character,” says Wasikowska. “If you put her in contemporary society, she’d be running Parliament. There’s something so remarkable about a woman who feels worthy of respect regardless of her social status.”
Fukunaga, who made his feature directorial debut with 2009’s award-winning Mexican gang drama, Sin Nombre, wasn’t all that familiar with Wasikowska’s work when he first considered her for the part. Instead of reviewing her performances as Sophie, a suicidal, self-medicating gymnast on HBO’s serial psychodrama In Treatment, or as Joni, the stolid, emotionally anchored daughter of Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right, Fukunaga wrote to Gus Van Sant, who directed Wasikowska in the upcoming romantic drama Restless, to ask the distinguished filmmaker’s opinion of her. “I sent him a long email: What do you think about Mia? Can you give me some insight on her?” says Fukunaga. “Gus wrote back: ‘Cast her.’” As it turned out, she was the perfect choice. “She read the book, reread the book, and had all of these ideas about what her Jane could be,” he says. “So much of what makes Mia special—her intelligence and passion—is shared with Jane. She’s absolutely dedicated to her craft and so unaffected by her popularity that it doesn’t even blip on her radar.”
But she hasn’t been entirely impervious to those radar blips. On Alice’s opening day, for example, Wasikowska was recognized three times while walking down Abbot Kinney Boulevard in Los Angeles. She flew back to Australia that night, which is when she realized the toll her instant fame had taken on her. “I’ve since cut off all my hair so I don’t get approached by Alice fans anymore, but at the time it was such a shock,” Wasikowska says. “I just really needed to get out of LA. Actors get used to doing things a certain way: we have people who dress us, and people who drive us. There’s a lot of babying that comes with the job, but when I’m back home, where there’s currently seven of us—my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, her boyfriend, and their newborn—cramped into a little house, I’m definitely brought back down to earth. It’s like, ‘Mia! Take out the garbage!’ They don’t let me get away with anything, which is good.”
Vash-i-kov-ska is not a name that rolls easily off the tongue. Her mother, Marzena, is a Polish photographer who moved to Australia as a teenager when her mother, Mia’s grandmother, “bundled everyone up and was like, ‘We’re going on a two-week vacation.’” Her father, John Reid, is an Australian photographer and collagist. Needless to say, hers was a creative household. “I grew up in Canberra’s galleries,” says Wasikowska, referring to the healthy art scene in the country’s capital.
But it was dance, rather than visual arts, that preoccupied much of her youth. At the age of 9, after spending a year in Poland with her mother, who was given a grant to produce a body of photographs in her native country, Wasikowska began an intense ballet regimen, practicing 35 hours a week. “Dance,” says Wasikowska, who only speaks a bit of Polish, “is about perfection. It’s about the line of your ankle, the ideal weight, minute things that most people don’t notice but that dancers are trained to see and spend hours obsessing over in front of the mirror.” She says that Natalie Portman’s unraveled and paranoid performance in Black Swan as a ballerina who lives and breathes her craft is actually quite convincing. “Dancers are kept in a perpetual state of pre-puberty, and for young girls in particular, that type of pressure breeds insecurities. You can become so obsessed with the smallest details—it was a good thing for me to get out of.”
When that razor-sharp focus got to be too oppressive for Wasikowska (“If you do the same thing over and over again, it’s easy to start hating it”), she turned to acting, a craft she believed would value her imperfections more than ballet had. At 14, enamored of certain flawed characters she’d seen on film—Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s The Piano, Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence—a precocious Wasikowska compiled a list of 12 talent agencies that she hoped would represent her. She called each of them and, without any acting experience, sked if she could schedule a meeting. Only one of the agencies agreed to see her. Afterward, “They were like, ‘We’ll call you,’ and of course they didn’t call me, so I kept calling them and eventually they took me on.”
Two years later, with tapes to prove she had the chops, Wasikowska was flown to Los Angeles, where she auditioned for, and was cast in, In Treatment. Looking back on her first meaty role, Wasikowska says, with more than a hint of fondness, “I feel such an affinity for Sophie. She so honestly represents what it’s like to be a 16-year-old girl. When I was doing the series I’d just come to America, I didn’t know anyone, and so every time I’d get a Sophie script it was like reconnecting with my best friend. I missed my family, too, so Rodrigo Garcia, who cast me in the show, became like a father to me.”
She recently re-teamed with Garcia, the immensely talented filmmaker behind Nine Lives and Mother and Child, on Albert Nobbs, a film he directed based on a short story by Irish novelist George Moore. In it, Wasikowska plays 19th-century heroine Helen, who gets herself embroiled in a love triangle with Joe (Aaron Johnson) and “Albert,” a female butler who disguises herself as a man. Glenn Close, who portrays the film’s title character, says of Wasikowska, “I just totally fell in love with her. She has this kind of purity about her, and a solidity—she’s just so herself, and brave and lovely and gifted.” Similarly, Annette Bening, who played her mother in last year’s The Kids Are All Right, says, “Mia is intelligent, open, and authentic. I admire her enormously.”
We’ve drained our cups, and the hotel’s dainty tea crowd has been replaced by women who use “lunch” as a verb. Tomorrow, Wasikowska will meet me at a photo studio in Chelsea for her BlackBook cover shoot, and then she’ll drive straight to the airport to catch a flight back to Australia, but for now, she must return to one of the Waldorf Astoria’s hospitality suites, where she’ll spend the afternoon at a Jane Eyre press junket enduring more than a few questions about Johnny Depp’s hair and Michael Fassbender’s kissing technique. Wasikowska gets up from her chair and smoothes the wrinkles from her dress with her hands. Looking at her standing there, a tall, gorgeous, and mysterious young woman, I’m reminded of something she said earlier: “If you stick with someone long enough, you’ll unlock a secret about them.” What’s her secret, I ask? Smiling, she says, “When I started acting, I felt like a visitor in a foreign land. But a few years have passed, and now this world is mine.”
Photography by Santiago Sierra. Styling by Christopher Campbell.