Elizabeth Debicki’s All-Consuming Character


Between palatial villas in Majorca, mountaintop hotels in Zermatt, and private compounds in the desert, the locations in The Night Manager are stunning, and they have to be. Based on the 1993 novel by John Le Carré, the six-part miniseries follows former soldier and hotel manager Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston) as he tries to gain the trust of arms dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie). Roper is aloof, charming, and filthy rich, and the series is set in his world. 

Understandably, Roper’s inner circle is small and insular. There is his right-hand-man Corky (Tom Hollander), his business partner Sandy (Alistair Petrie), and, of course, his beautiful lover Jed. Played by Australian actor Elizabeth Debicki, Jed isn’t a typical trashy trophy girlfriend; she is elegant and anguished, and it quickly becomes apparent that she has her own secrets to guard. “I was sent the first four episodes, and by that point [director] Susanne [Bier] and Tom and Hugh were already onboard,” Debicki recalls. “I completely fell in love with Jed instantly, and I went on a crusade to get the role,” she continues.

At 25, Debicki has an enviable résumé. Raised in Melbourne, Debicki made her American film debut as Jordan in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and has since appeared in Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth (as Lady MacDuff), as well as the real-life disaster film Everest. She recently finished filming Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in Atlanta and is returning to Australia to work on an independent film in Perth.

EMMA BROWN: Jed is quite mysterious. You find out a little bit about where she comes from over the course of the series, but it’s never fully fleshed out. Is that something you thought about in detail?

ELIZABETH DEBICKI: When I came onboard they were still in the process of developing her backstory. She’s very different in this version than from the book. There are lots of things we kept, but we also changed things. Jed is sort of an enigma the whole way through. You get little snippets, but you never get a whole sense of everything. She never sits down and tells you how it is. I think that’s indicative of how her mind works and her survival mentality. She keeps her cards very close to her chest, as do all the characters in this show. I think she’s quite protective of her past. The thing you do hopefully get when you watch it is that the decisions she made are very painful for her, and she has a lot of regret. It was an active choice to give pieces of her puzzle away bit by bit and never lay it all out on the table, in the same way that we don’t know everything about Jonathan Pine or Richard Roper. We just take the pieces we’re given.

BROWN: Do you think Jed loves or ever loved Richard?

DEBICKI: Yes, I do. It’s not your typical hot, passionate romance, the kind of thing you often see on screen. It’s quite a stable love and I think it’s born out of need. They both need something from each other and they receive it. In that way, it’s quite functional. I think she does love him, because how could you not love Hugh Laurie’s Roper? The guise of Richard Roper—the charming, charismatic part of him—is very lovable. I think she’s seduced by that and by what he offers her, which is a sort of protection.

BROWN: Did you stay in character when you weren’t shooting?

DEBICKI: I definitely try my best not to stay in character when I’m not on set, which can be more difficult in some roles than others. Here, I found Jed quite consuming. She was probably in me a lot when I wasn’t actively playing her, but we had lots of time off set to enjoy locations and spend time with each other. It was really an adventure, this job.

BROWN: When you have a character like Jed, do you think about her future beyond the story you’re given? We see Jed at such a tense point in her life, do you ever wonder how she would function under more normal circumstances?

DEBICKI: I definitely had hopes and dreams for her, but it’s funny, because I’m in her head so I’m thinking about where she’s going as her. I think that’s the question she asks herself: How do you deal with leaving it all behind, and the trauma of it all? How does she go back to the one thing she was running from? It’s a really complicated scenario, but not un-relatable I don’t think.

BROWN: When you’re sent a script like The Night Manager or you got the part in Macbeth, do people generally cite a specific project?  

DEBICKI: With Macbeth it was quite specific actually. Justin Kurzel, the director, had seen me in The Maids, a play I did at the Sydney Theatre Company with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert. Off the back of that, he cast me in Macbeth. Often you’re not quite sure what people have seen you in, but the script lands in your inbox. That was the case with The Night Manager.

BROWN: Your parents are both ballet dancers and you also danced when you were little.

DEBICKI: I did. I grew up learning ballet and then I took up contemporary as I got older. I probably thought I was going to be a ballet dancer when I was younger, but at a certain age, I really was more interested in acting.

BROWN: Were your parents quite keen for you to follow in their footsteps?

DEBICKI: No. I think they wanted me to have something a little more stable in my life. A dancer’s life is as peripatetic and unstable as that of an actor’s. You’re freelancing yourself all the time, and a dancer’s lifespan is even shorter than an actor’s; once they turn 30 or 35, they have to stop. I think they wanted me to do something very normal, have a normal person job and not be confronted by the instability of an artistic pursuit, but there wasn’t really a lot they could do to stop me. I was, at one point, going to go to law school when I finished high school, but the next day I got accepted into acting school and there was no real question in my mind of what I was going to do. 

BROWN: Did you ever go backstage with your parents on their productions?

DEBICKI: When I was younger my mom was still dancing, but at a certain point she stopped. My father stopped dancing and started working in the theater, so I spent a lot of time backstage with him. We would see pretty much every show that came through the theater, which was pretty incredible. We were exposed to a lot of different kind of theater, which really broadened my horizons from an early age.

BROWN: Did you act in school plays?

DEBICKI: I didn’t do that many. I went to a really academic school that had a renowned music program, but not necessarily a huge drama program. The one school play I did was Alice in Wonderland. When I was in my final year of school. I played Alice. That was my one shot at an ingénue.

BROWN: What was your drama school like? I know in the U.K., a lot of drama programs are grounded in theater and don’t teach acting for the camera.

DEBICKI: No, my school was very traditional in the sense that it was very theater based. It was actually quite experimental in terms of its training module and in the way it taught actors to deal with text. But I didn’t have any training in film and TV—the first training I had in that was doing The Great Gatsby, which is probably the best film and TV cast you could ever ask for. I don’t really look at the skillset of being an actor as different in each medium. It asks a different thing of you as an actor, but for me, I draw upon the same skillset. It’s just a different tuning of your tools as to who you’re doing it for, whether you’re doing it for an intimate camera or an audience of 2,000 people.

BROWN: When you decide you want to be an actor in Australia, is there a pressure to leave and go to the U.K. or the U.S.?

DEBICKI: No. In fact there’s such a strong community, I think it can be hard to leave it. There’s definitely a rite of passage that is this pilgrimage to L.A. The comforting thing for Australian actors is that there’s a strong community in L.A. [as well]—it’s almost like you swap one home for another. I didn’t feel any pressure. I still don’t live here; I just travel through and spend a lot of time here.

Our industry is so technologically driven that often I Skype with directors or send tapes in to people. It’s so common now that sometimes even when I’m here I’ll be send tapes for things that are based in the U.K. There’s never really a right place, right time anymore. Even something that’s L.A. based, the director might be in New York or they might be on location in Budapest. I think everyone’s really accepting of the fact that people are all over the world all the time. In a funny way, you can be an actor now and live anywhere, so long as you have internet.

BROWN: Do you prefer doing taped auditions? Is it easier?

DEBICKI: I don’t know if I prefer it. There’s a lot to be said for being in a room with a casting agent or a director. There are things you can’t really replicate when you’re self-taping and there’s the bonus of having someone to direct you, which is extremely helpful. The benefit of self-taping is, I suppose, being on your own clock. It’s certainly more relaxing to self-tape than to audition with someone in the flesh but I don’t know if it’s necessarily better.