Mia Wasikowska on doppelgangers, dancing and developing survival instinct

A spur in her ankle brought her ballet career crashing to a halt aged 14 – but that was never going to keep Mia Wasikowska down. The actress reveals how she bounced back to become the world's highest-grossing female film star… and why she's returning to the depths of despair for her two latest movies

Simmy Richman@simmyrichman
Sunday 30 March 2014 02:00
Wasikowska as the shifty Hannah in The Double
Wasikowska as the shifty Hannah in The Double

Perhaps it is because she came to public attention playing the part of Sophie, a suicidal gymnast, in the award-winning HBO series In Treatment, but sitting opposite Mia Wasikowska with a bunch of questions and a notepad feels a little like conducting a therapy session.

Some background notes, then: she was 17 when she played Sophie, but is now 24, has just bought her first property and has recently been papped in various states of intimacy with her boyfriend, the actor Jesse Eisenberg. She met the star of The Social Network, Zombieland and Now You See Me on the set of The Double, Richard Ayoade's follow-up to Submarine, which is one of the two films she is here to talk about. (The other is the Australian film Tracks, based on the true story of Robyn Davidson, who trekked across Western Australia in 1977.)

Wasikowska, it has been made clear, will not be talking about Eisenberg. Fair enough – the pair are not typical Hollywood stars and their business is just that. But if you let her, Wasikowska would talk endlessly about the process of acting and the monotony of being on a film set. And such subjects quickly wear thin. So we are dancing around each other wearily, locked in the time-honoured journalist-versus-Hollywood-star tango: me pressing for the personal detail that might unlock her character for public consumption; her guarding against intrusion.

She is super-bright, professional to the point of cool, and always ready to counter subtly probing questions with frustratingly general answers. To give an example: it has been widely reported that Eisenberg never watches any of his own films, so – when formalities have been dispensed with – I ask whether she does. "I usually do see them," she says, "because originally I'm a film fan and I usually work with directors I like. But it's not a pleasurable experience from an acting point of view."

Does it strike her as odd that some actors claim not to? "No. I can understand that, because it's like listening to your own voice on an answering machine and you go, 'Is that really how I sound?' It can be so awful and disheartening, so it's not a fun thing to do. I'm a critical person anyway, but…" she trails off, "it's definitely interesting, though it's not the best part of the job."

What is?

"I really like acting, but at the end of the day the camera only has about 15 minutes of film in it and that's the only time you are actually acting on any given day, so there's a hell of a lot of waiting around. It's quite a boring job apart from the few minutes you are acting."

This isn't really getting us anywhere. Time to try a different approach. According to Forbes magazine, in 2010, Wasikowska was the highest-grossing female star, second overall only to Leonardo DiCaprio. How did that happen to someone born in Canberra, Australia? "That was bizarre," she says, relaxing slightly. "It was because of Alice in Wonderland [Tim Burton's reimagining of the Lewis Carroll classic] and The Kids are All Right [the comedy in which she starred alongside Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo]. It was really funny because everyone thought I was a millionaire, but it was because the budget for The Kids are All Right was so small and the film did really well. In no way did it reflect on me financially."

But you must still have to pinch yourself, right? "It's been a process of this becoming a normality for me, which is something that five years ago would have been completely out of my world. But in order for me to exist in [the film industry], you have to approach it as if it is perfectly normal. But it's not. It's very bizarre and I never would have thought this would be the course of my life."

The course of Wasikowska's life appeared to be set at a young age. She was a ballet dancer from the age of eight, and was heading towards being a professional dancer when a spur in her ankle halted her progress at age 14. "I tricked myself into leaving ballet," she says. "I had a substantial enough injury to get some time off – I'd got used to practising 35 hours a week, leaving school at 1pm and dancing till nine every day – and I just never went back."

It sounds like the conscious decision of a self-assured young woman, but probe a little deeper and the following emerges: "I could still dance, but every time I pointed my foot it would click. So giving up was a longer process. I did this audition for a ballet school and had my heart broken by being rejected. I was completely distraught and it made me more determined to keep dancing. So I did dance for a long time after that. But then I burnt out and it became this endless battle."

So, aged 15, she turned to acting, landing parts in an Australian soap and a couple of small films before, finally, sending a videotape of herself to serve as an audition for the role of Sophie in In Treatment. Major film roles followed, and Wasikowska's choices have never been predictable. It is a trend that continues with The Double, a dystopian take on the Dostoyevsky novella, in which Wasikowska plays the crush of a man being driven insane by the appearance of his doppelganger; and Tracks, an acting masterclass that is the perfect vehicle for her range. So what appealed about these very different roles?

"[The Double's] Hannah was the most ambiguous character I'd ever read. Usually, when I read a script I instantly have a picture in my head and I'll want to mimic that. With Hannah, I couldn't figure out if she was nice or bitchy or both. The tragedy of the story is kind of undermined by the humour, the awkwardness, the bizarreness."

Jesse Eisenberg and Mia Wasikowska in 'The Double'

The draw of Tracks was that Robyn Davidson, the woman she was to play, specifically asked for Wasikowska, even though she felt the actress's frame might be too slight to convince an audience that she could trek 1,700 miles across the desert with only four camels and a dog for company. "I was so nervous because it is based on such an incredible book. But I can totally understand and identify with the urge to remove yourself from wherever you are and bring things back to the very basics of survival."

There is a line in that film, where Davidson (paraphrasing the American writer Renata Adler) says, by way of explaining her epic journey, something like: "I think when you are truly stuck, when you have stood still in the same place for too long, you should throw a grenade in the spot you are standing in and run away from it as fast as you can." Do you ever feel that way? "A couple of years ago I was having a mini-crisis where I was like, 'Oh I will, I will go to university. I think I just wanted to be in one place for a certain amount of time. So I did go to university. I wanted to study photography [both her parents are photographers]. I went for a week, and it was such a silly thing because I got my schedule wrong and realised I had to leave to do a film. Then I bought my place in Sydney and I think that was what I was looking for: a grounding."

So you won't be dropping that grenade any time soon? "It's kind of hard to give up this life," she says, perhaps a touch ruefully. "To be a working actor is such an incredible privilege and it seems ridiculous to pass it up."

Even with the photographers lurking and the journalists gently probing? "You know," she says, taking another sip of her tea and finally smiling for the first time, "the one thing you have to yourself as an actor is your private life, so I won't discuss that. But I don't usually have a problem with paparazzi. When I did Alice in Wonderland, it was like they were testing to see who I would be. They were there at the airport, they were waiting at the hotel to see if I would come stumbling out… But they soon realised I was completely boring, so I never have any problems."

What about getting recognised when you're out and about minding your own business? "It happens so rarely," she laughs. "Sometimes I'm like, this is insane. I could be standing next to a poster of myself and no one would look. I'm sometimes almost offended!"

She laughs, and finally we get to see just a glimpse of the fragile but determined and hugely gifted young woman behind the professional veneer.

'The Double' (15) is in cinemas from Friday. 'Tracks' (PG) is out on 25 April

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