My cover story interview with Mia Wasikowska for Flaunt‘s Dial-Up Issue.
Sydney’s coastal suburb of Bronte is being ravaged by the kind of gnarly weather that wouldn’t be out of place on a windy moor in the prose of its literary namesakes. The gale force winds and arrhythmic downpours, unusual for a spring September day, feel like they’ve been summoned by the gods of journalistic cliché to herald the arrival of an actress known for portraying Gothic heroines in films like Jane Eyre (2011), Alice inWonderland (2010), and Guillermo del Toro’s new period horror, Crimson Peak. But when Mia Wasikowska quietly saunters up to Ruby’s Diner, a low-key, family-filled café nestled on the main drag, the 25-year-old Australian-born actress—blonde tresses cropped to an androgynous fringe, elaborate gowns swapped for a black-and-white striped turtleneck framed by a cardigan—seems closer to the new wave chic of Jean Seberg, if the Breathless (1960) ingénue were resurrected as Tavi Gevinson’s cool older sister. And for the first time in what feels like forever, she’s found the calm center of a life perpetually lived in turbulent weather.
On screen and off, Wasikowska’s life is always in motion. Since landing her breakthrough role at 17, she’s gone on to play a string of restless outsiders, from moody Victorian governesses and fantasy wanderers to rebellious teen vampires [in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)] and deranged Hollywood assistants [in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2015)], her formative adult years spent pinballing across a blur of film sets, international flights, and endless hotel rooms. She could be the poster girl for motion sickness, the very theme of the issue housing this article.
“Yeah exactly!” she nods, thinking back to that queasy sensation of waking up, disoriented, in some listless hotel room void. “It’s just the worst feeling, to not know where you are. It’s very strange. It’s kind of a hard age to not have any consistency, because you’re solidifying your character. I was working a lot and traveling a lot, and that felt kind of horrible because it is difficult, always moving, and just as you think you’re going to get a break, something will come up and you’ll have to be away and traveling. It does feel very rootless.”
Turns out it’s something we both have in common, having lived and worked the better part of the decade in Los Angeles—as well as being compatriots. And here we both are, back home among the moms and dads in flip-flops (yes, even in this weather), talking in jumbled accents about things that seem so abstract and far away. With perpetual motion comes the potential loss of self.
Wasikowska takes a sip of her tea, and ponders life on the run. “Even though I always felt that I knew who I was,” she explains, “there is a certain amount of just being in very vulnerable situations that erodes you a little bit, so you have to make sure that you really look after yourself.”
For an artist so adept at inhabiting multiple personae on screen, Wasikowska’s Australian accent is surprisingly stable, if decidedly mild, characterized by the gentle uptalk inflections of her peers and punctuated by the occasional “yeah, hey” that colors the local vernacular. Even so, there’s something malleable about her affectless demeanor, as though she were absorbing her surroundings, taking notes for the next incarnation of her film self, never far from the surface.
“Can I get the pea and mint salad with the chicken, and also a side of the beans?” asks the erstwhile teen psychopath who bludgeoned Julianne Moore to death on screen with her own Emmy. Another wave of torrential rain buckets down outside, right on cue.
In director Guillermo del Toro’s forthcoming Crimson Peak, Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, another of her spooky young women on the verge of darkness. Headstrong but dispossessed, her character falls for a mysterious stranger (Tom Hiddleston) and is lead away to the haunted mansion he shares with his disturbed sister (an eerie Jessica Chastain.) Evoking Mary Shelley via giallo, Mario Bava, and vintage Hammer horror, the film’s already been dubbed “gorgeous and fucking terrifying” by no less than Stephen King, and Wasikowska, as ever, is amazing in it.
“She is remarkably real and ‘in the moment’ as an actress,” del Toro says via email. He goes on to praise the actress’s remarkable expressionist presence: “She has a beauty that seems to belong in a period painting and is a powerful, non-verbal actor.”
Wasikowska is duly flattered. “Guillermo always says that inside him is a 12-year-old girl, so I think he’s a wonderful director of a very female story,” she says, clearly very fond of the affable fantasy maestro—like most who encounter him. “He has become a wonderful person in my life,” she says.
“Belonging” is a word that recurs in our conversation, and it’s apparent that Wasikowska’s stateless existence has fostered a desire to cling to surrogate families. I wonder where it originated.
“I think it was feeling on the fringe as a teenager, like a bit of an outcast,” she replies, “and then just being really desperate to find some sense of belonging to a group, and never really experiencing that until I did a film. The sad thing is that the films end, and your little family disbands. So I’m building my own strange little family, even though the family disintegrates.”
She takes a moment to savor her soup, and I allow the silence to dwell for a good minute. Weirdly, it feels somehow comfortable, a soothing, unspoken calm where more vocal Hollywood stars would be itching to yap away the pause. Wasikowska seems wiser than her contemporaries. Del Toro confers: “She has the gravitas of a much older, much more experienced actress,” he says. “She is ultimately a much older soul than her chronological years.”
We get to talking about the Alice sequel and Wasikowska’s co-star Johnny Depp, and how he was given shit for a recent interview in which he’s apparently losing his grip on his “real” self—whatever that means. It’s a curious topic: How does one remain in the real when your life takes shape in constant identity flux on screen?
“Your characters give you access to expressing a whole bunch of emotions that are otherwise probably super repressed,” Wasikowska offers. “So you love your characters. But sometimes it’s different. Sometimes I’m really excited to get rid of them, ’cause it doesn’t feel nice.” She pauses. “The characters that are really fun to play are the really wild ones, who are, I dunno, angry and very expressive.”
Considering Wasikowska’s résumé of auteur collaborators—del Toro, Tim Burton, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, David Cronenberg, Park-Chan Wook—it was inevitable that she’d pick up the filmmaking scent. Having directed a short film in 2013’s Australian anthology The Turning, she’s set to debut her second later this year as part of the portmanteau feature, Madly.
“It was just like a natural progression,” says Wasikowska, who calls herself a film fan foremost, of the move to directing. “I love films, and I worked on all these great sets and saw all these great directors work in really different ways. Obviously it’s important that women tell their own stories themselves. I have worked on films where I thought men were telling a story that should have been told by a female.”
Google Wasikowska and you’ll get a random paparazzi collage of her and boyfriend Jesse Eisenberg, whom she met on the set of Richard Ayoade’s The Double (2013). Unsurprisingly, many of the shots are snapped at airports. Always in motion, this girl.
“The only time I’ve ever really been bothered is like, at the airport,” she remarks. “Never really like when I’ve just been out. And never here.” She maintains that she and Eisenberg, who’s notoriously testy with the media, get away with mostly flying under the paparazzi radar, and jokes that photographers settle for taking her picture in the absence of some trending celebrity starlet. “I don’t feel like I’m in any kind of spotlight in my personal life, which is good,” she says. “I don’t really want to be.”
While it would be inaccurate to call Wasikowska a blank canvas, her manner is so disarmingly calm and without affect that it can be hard to get a fix on where the actress ends and the real exists—if they’re at all inseparable. It’s the movie star as anti-persona, and that’s precisely how she likes it.
“I know what you mean,” she says. “I hate talking about myself in this way, in terms of how I’m perceived, but I think people find it hard to attach themselves to me in any way, ’cause I don’t have a persona. I don’t want the pressure of having a persona to present, ’cause I don’t feel comfortable in creating one—and so the persona I put forward is probably super bland and boring and plain.”
She grins with uncharacteristic pride when I compliment her on not having a Twitter, on resisting the urge to cultivate her brand.
“Yeah, and that pressure is only a recent thing,” she continues. “I feel like with the Internet and everybody having access to everybody’s Twitter and Instagram and that being such a public thing, if you’re not a part of that thing, you don’t have a personality for people to latch on to.” She breaks for a second. “And also I think the nature of talk shows has really changed. It used to be like, you’d go on the show and talk, and that’s the thing, but now it’s like You have to go on the show! And play a game! And bowl! And have an operation! And everybody stares at you. It’s gotten so extreme.”
The media persona supplants the real.
“You have to have a gimmick, yeah, and you have to do a thing. They have to see you off guard. And that’s fine, I totally understand that but it makes me uncomfortable, because it’s not something I naturally thrive at. It feels fake. Press is stressful already without having to perform your ‘thing,’ so I feel more protected having no thing. I like that people think that I’m boring!”
Maybe that is her thing, I venture.
“Yeah, so don’t reveal it!” she smirks. “Keep it on the down low.”
Wasikowska laughs, briefly, mischievously animated. The conversation turns to the simple pleasures of her life here: tending the communal garden in her apartment block, eating ramen with old school friends in Chinatown; enjoying being thoroughly, blissfully anonymous. The waitress, who clearly knows who Wasikowska is, returns without fuss to ask us if we need more tea. The actress smiles. “I’m so rarely bothered,” she reflects. “It’s so nice. I feel like I have a completely normal life here, which is really great.”
The rain has eased up a little, and a few beams of Sydney’s sun are clawing their way back through the unseasonal gloom. Mia Wasikowska is home.
Published at Flaunt.