Mia Wasikowska: A new Aussie movie queen

Move over, Cate and Nicole: there’s a leading lady from Down Under who is now grabbing the tastiest roles. James Mottram meets Mia Wasikowska

When Meryl Streep starts name-checking you in awards speeches, you must be doing something right. Accepting her Golden Globe for The Iron Lady this year, the legendary actress enthused, “How about Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre? Fantastic.”

How about her indeed. From anchoring Tim Burton’s day-glo Lewis Carroll adaptation Alice in Wonderland to playing a suicidal gymnast in the HBO series In Treatment, the Australian is shaping up to take the baton from Cate  Blanchett as their country’s most elegant, in-demand actress. The 22 year-old casts a spell over just about everyone she comes into contact with. Miu Miu recently hired her as a Marie Antoinette-like figure for their spring/summer campaign, the actress following on from Kirsten Dunst and Maggie Gyllenhaal as the face of the fashion giant. Meanwhile, Time magazine named her as one of their 100 Most Influential People; writing alongside her entry, Glenn Close, her co-star in this year’s Oscar-nominated Dublin drama Albert Nobbs, nailed it when she said, “Mia’s a sun, not a satellite.”

Indie auteurs certainly seem to orbit her. Gus Van Sant (Restless) and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) both proved that Wasikowska can play contemporary, just as she can corset. “She’s really soft-spoken and gentle spirited and bright and sensitive,” says Cholodenko, a statement that is backed up when we meet in a hotel on the French Riviera. Wearing a red wool jacket, black skirt and a pair of flats she removes, with her blonde crop and gamine features, she’s almost as delicate as the china tea-set.

Still, her latest collaboration seems entirely at odds with her quiet reserve. The film is Lawless, a 1920s Prohibition gangster drama scripted by singer-songwriter Nick Cave and directed by The Road’s John Hillcoat. Based on the lives of the Bondurant brothers, a trio of rural bootleggers who fall foul of a sadistic FBI agent (played by Guy Pearce), it’s a blood-splattered tale that rings with bloodcurdling screams. “I think John and Nick like to blend violence and romance, and see the relationship between the two,” Wasikowska reasons. “I think that the female roles were a contrast to the more gruesome, brutal elements.”

The romance in part comes when Wasikowska’s character, Bertha Minnix, falls for Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf). Belonging to a family of Mennonites, her sheltered religious upbringing – she sings in the church choir for kicks – is busted wide open when she meets this charismatic gangster. “Her romance with Jack is her first introduction to people from an outside community,” says Wasikowska. “I think she wants more than she has, and I think to a certain extent, she’s looking for some sort of freedom – and peace, I guess. Finding a place where she feels more at home.”

Wasikowska never had a need for such rebellion. Raised in Canberra, the middle child of three, her upbringing was perfectly tailored by her photographer parents, Polish-born mother Marzena and Australian father John, to nurture her artistic temperament. When she was 8, her mother took her and her siblings back to Poland for a year, after receiving a grant to produce a body of work based on her experiences growing up there. For Wasikowska, it was thrilling. “I think there’s something about being taken out of your world when you’re a child, because really your environment, as a kid, is everything that you know.”

Forever entranced by her mother’s profession (on Jane Eyre, she had a secret pocket sewn into her costume to conceal a digital camera), when she returned from Poland, she took up ballet, studying it until she was 14. “I’ve learnt so much from dance,” she says. “You learn to channel your nervous energy before you go on stage. And you’re in a lot of high-pressure, high-stress environments on film as well, whether it’s a meeting or even a day on set or an audition. So you learn to channel that nervous energy into creativity. And then knowing your body. You have an awareness of your body and how to use it.”

When she was a ballerina, she was much less happy with her body. “I felt incredibly ugly and weird and awkward and all those things a lot of people feel. When you look at magazines, you feel so inadequate and so small and you feel really imperfect, when you’re constantly seeing these images. I wasn’t aware of that until I was a teenager. It was until then that I would buy those magazines or watch those shows where everybody is immaculately perfect. But then I started watching films more with real people – like Breaking the Waves and The Piano.”

Playing in such independently-minded films is something she seems devoted to – the trip down the rabbit hole to Burton’s $1bn-grossing Alice in Wonderland almost the exception in her career to date. Currently filming Jim Jarmusch’s vampire tale Only Lovers Left Alive, she has already completed The Double, the new film from Richard Ayoade (who made Submarine) and Stoker, the English-language debut of Park Chan-wook, the South Korean director behind Oldboy, in which she plays Nicole Kidman’s daughter.

Then there’s another literary adaptation in the offing – Madame Bovary. “It’s still very early days,” she says, “but I can’t wait. I love the book so much. And the character. I can’t wait.” Jane Eyre, Alice and now Emma Bovary – that’s quite a collection of female literary icons. Just for good measure, there’s even talk of working with Cate Blanchett on a Patricia Highsmith adaptation, The Price of Salt – for what might just be a spot of baton-passing between the Australian stars.

But for all this impending success, Wasikowska remains unruffled. “Popularity is very inconsistent,” she tells me. “Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. It usually just comes in waves.” For the most part, she keeps her feet welded to the ground, with frequent trips back to see her family in Australia – where she’s still told to take out the trash and empty the dishwasher.

“It’s important to have a good balance of both worlds,” she says, “So it doesn’t become just one world.” Meryl Streep would definitely be impressed.

‘Lawless’ opens on 7 September

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