I THINK I HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING QUITE SHY, BUT I DON’T THINK I’M TOO SHY. I GUESS I LIVED IN A BIT OF A FANTASY SPACE IN MY MIND.Mia WasikowskA
As Charlotte Brontë’s famous governess in Cary Joji Fukunaga‘s adaptation of Jane Eyre (2011), Mia Wasikowska is so ethereal as to seem almost translucent. But if we feel we can look through her and see clearly what she’s feeling, her thoughts remain closed off from us, hidden behind dark, still eyes. It is no surprise, then, when Edward Rochester, played by Michael Fassbender, asks, mystified, “Do you never laugh, Miss Eyre?” They sit by a fire, but Wasikowska’s Eyre seems to receive no warmth from it. “I can see in you the glance of a curious sort of bird through the close-set bars of a cage,” Rochester says, “a vivid, restless, captive; were it but free, it would soar cloud-high.”
In her brief but brilliant career, Wasikowska, now 24, has played a variety of gothic heroines, both classic and contemporary—restless captives all, and all of them trying to break free. Her Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) is a chaste teen fleeing the call of adulthood for fantasy—she is a cinematic sibling to Wasikowska’s teen vampire Ava in Jim Jarmusch‘s Only Lovers Left Alive, a lusty immortal trapped in perpetual adolescence and the existential crisis that comes with it. But even as the budding daughter to two moms in The Kids Are All Right (2010), Wasikowska isn’t only an angsty teen. No matter how caged her birds may be, they never lack the agency to determine their own lives. As the fire-scarred young woman in this September’s feverish Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars, written by Bruce Wagner and directed by David Cronenberg, Wasikowska’s seemingly captive character throws down her shackles to wreak some serious havoc. She may play the restless prisoner well, but she does psychological terror unleashed even better. Which makes her casting as the ultimate tragic captive, Emma Bovary, in an upcoming adaptation of Flaubert’s classic novel a kind of poetic justice.
Wasikowska recently returned to her native Australia to film this September’s Tracks, John Curran’s film based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her 1,700-mile walk across the continent. But Wasikowska’s own trek through the outback was less like a walkabout and more like a return to her roots. As she tells her Albert Nobbs (2011) co-star Glenn Close, the experience of making that movie brought to a close the restlessness and rootlessness she had been feeling. These days Wasikowska is feeling right at home.
GLENN CLOSE: Hi! How are you?
MIA WASIKOWSKA: Good. I finished a film two weeks ago in Toronto. I was there for five months. Then I went to Cannes, and then home for a week to Australia, and now I’m here.
CLOSE: Wow. What was the film in Toronto?
WASIKOWSKA: Crimson Peak, directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who did Pan’s Labyrinth .
CLOSE: I love that film.
WASIKOWSKA: This is a kind of gothic love story and thriller. It was really good, but it was the longest shoot I’ve ever done. I usually do, you know, six-week shoots or something.
CLOSE: Five months. That is a long time. And who were you acting with?
WASIKOWSKA: Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, and Charlie Hunnam; a great cast. How are you? Are you in Maine?
CLOSE: No, I’m in Westchester. Annie [Starke, Close’s daughter] is here.
WASIKOWSKA: Say hi for me! How is she?
CLOSE: She’s wonderful. She starts a movie herself next week up in the Boston area, so we’re going to drive up on Monday.
WASIKOWSKA: That’s exciting. Are you working at the moment?
CLOSE: I am doing a part in an independent film called The Great Gilly Hopkins with Sophie Nélisse, who was in The Book Thief. It’s a lovely story, so I’m happy to be there. So just this afternoon I watched Tracks, and it blew my mind. My gosh. First of all, how long did it take you to film that?
WASIKOWSKA: It was about an eight-week shoot, in the desert in Australia.
CLOSE: And how much training did you do with the camels?
MY MOM REMEMBERS A PERIOD WHEN I LOCKED MYSELF IN MY ROOM AND DID RESEARCH AND MADE PHONE CALLS AND WROTE LETTERS TO TRY TO GET AN AGENT. Mia Wasikowska
WASIKOWSKA: I was lucky enough to meet Robyn Davidson, who wrote the book the film is based on, and who I play in the film. The two of us went up to South Australia and spent maybe three days doing a camel boot camp. It was us and Andrew Hop, our camel wrangler, hanging out with a lot of camels. I was so scared at first, but they’re super gentle, and very quickly you learn how to judge their temperaments. They like to test you, though. The camels didn’t accept me as a leader for the first two days. [laughs] But then they were like, “Oh, okay, I’ll follow you.” They’re really funny.
CLOSE: What did Robyn do with her camels after she did the trek?
WASIKOWSKA: She found a really great family in Woodleigh, on the west coast of Australia. The family had kids, and they loved the camels and took really good care of them. She used to go back and visit them. Then they had to sell the farm and move, so the camels were given to somebody else who didn’t take good care of them. Robyn was living in London at the time and she went back to get them out of there. She took them to another farm, but then, tragically, their fence was broken and the camels all ran off. She was really heartbroken.
CLOSE: So they’re feral again.
CLOSE: The times I’ve been in Australia, I really noticed the use of the word feral—feral cats, feral dogs, and now feral camels. [both laugh] Did you have pets when you were growing up? Do you feel an affinity with animals, or was this something that you had to get used to?
WASIKOWSKA: We asked for a dog but we weren’t allowed one. I loved animals so much, but we didn’t really grow up with them, until a bit later on, when everybody started rebelling and bringing home rabbits and fish. We had almost everything other than dogs, which ended up being so much more trouble than if we just got a dog. If one of us got a rabbit, then everybody had to get a rabbit, and then it was three rabbits and three hutches. It was a disaster. [both laugh]
CLOSE: The dog part of the story in Tracks was very touching. And as somebody who grew up with dogs and has never been without one trotting behind me, I could understand her despair.
WASIKOWSKA: I think Robyn felt like she’d never had a friend like her dog, so that’s pretty heartbreaking.
CLOSE: Did she really have to shoot her?
WASIKOWSKA: She did. It was horrible. I heard you had a blog for dogs?
CLOSE: I did, and I loved it. I would interview people in our profession who loved dogs. So just one more camel question—did any of the camels get to know you? Did you kind of have an affinity? I noticed you almost kissed the little camel on the lips at one point. [laughs] Its lips went way out. It was so cute.
WASIKOWSKA: Really? That’s funny. I loved them so much. They were a constant source of entertainment for everybody. One camel decided it didn’t like Adam Driver, who played Rick [Smolan, the National Geographic photographer who documented Davidson’s trek]. Every time Adam went near him, the camel would gurgle and growl. It became such a joke. I would love to see the baby one now, because she was so little on the film.
CLOSE: What made you want to do this particular story?
WASIKOWSKA: Well, I read the book; I actually read the script first and I loved it so much. I think people react really differently to the circumstances of their life, and there was something about the way that Robyn reacted to all of the events in her life—culminating in this idea that she wanted to take this trip out of the blue—that was so beautiful. There was an element of testing herself, putting herself on the line, wanting to know she could go through something and come through on the other side. There’s a rite of passage to becoming a grown-up that I think we all put ourselves through. And I loved the way she did it. I felt like I understood her. I never had a problem understanding why she would want to do something like that. It seemed perfectly fine to remove yourself from the everyday.
CLOSE: It really communicated the noise of our civilization. Everywhere you turn, it’s talk, talk, talk. To find yourself in silence and space, going through the crucible of the desert—I could totally understand it.
WASIKOWSKA: We used to go camping a lot growing up, and I could never understand why other people would bring a boom box. We’d be in the bush, in the forest, and there’d be like bmph bmph bmph. That doesn’t make any sense!
CLOSE: I know. Bringing all the noise with you. What was it like for you, personally, to be in that desert during the movie?
WASIKOWSKA: It was great. I hadn’t filmed in Australia since I was 17. It had been such a long time since I’d worked in my own home country that I started thinking of the two things as separate—home was Australia and work was somewhere else. It was amazing to merge the two, and it was super important, I think, especially at that time in my life—which is still now, I guess—to connect to my home while I was doing my work. So even though it was isolating being in the desert, I felt a lot less isolated than I have on other films because I was on the same time frame as my family. I could pick up the phone at any time during the day and call friends or call home. That was really nice. I have this funny thing that, if war breaks out, or if anything catastrophic goes down, I want to know that I can walk home. I hate the feeling when I’m overseas, away from Australia, that I’m trapped, blocked by an ocean from getting to the people I love. That gives me anxiety.
CLOSE: That’s something that I never would have thought of, but you said it very eloquently. Home for you is still very much Australia, and it’s a long flight. I think it’s one of the hardest things about our business, that most of the time you have to go away from your home.
WASIKOWSKA: How did you feel as a young actress, traveling a lot? Did it feel isolating for you?
CLOSE: It probably really kicked in when I had Annie because I was very aware of being away from home. But for you, it’s not only being away from home but being across a huge ocean. Do you think that has affected your work?
WASIKOWSKA: Maybe. It affected the way that I felt. I never felt like I lived in L.A. or New York or America. I’ve just been in transit for the last five years. I’d always been like, “I don’t really have a reason to settle in L.A. I don’t have friends and family there …” But after Tracks, I thought, “Oh no, I’m definitely going to live here.” Something about the peace of mind leaving that film set, which, when I was younger, was so heartbreaking, to have formed such close bonds with people and then everybody leaves and you don’t know where you’ll see them. But this was like, “Oh! They’re going back to Sydney. We can have coffee next weekend,” which is never possible when I’m out of the country.
I NEED THE CONSISTENCY OF ONE PLACE AND PEOPLE AND FRIENDS. BUT I’LL PROBABLY END UP BEING THE PREGNANT 30-YEAR-OLD IN THE BACK OF THE CLASS AT UNIVERSITY ONE DAY. Mia Wasikowska
CLOSE: I have such fond memories of your mom and dad and that beautiful book of photographs they put together of the making of Albert Nobbs. Was it your mom who did that, or did they do it together?
WASIKOWSKA: I think my dad might have done it, but maybe my mom had some pictures in there.
CLOSE: Beautiful. I remember being so incredibly impressed by your photography as well. Did you take some photos out in the desert?
WASIKOWSKA: I didn’t. I was sort of overwhelmed, and I didn’t really have it on my mind. So, funny enough, I replaced photography with knitting and became an obsessive knitter, knitting beanies obsessively in 50-degree heat [122 degrees Fahrenheit].
CLOSE: I used to take my camera with me, but all my pictures were of people from the back because I was too shy to go around to the front and take a picture. [both laugh] I thought it was too intrusive. Did you ever get into RISD?
WASIKOWSKA: I did. I was applying on Albert Nobbs, but I didn’t end up going, because I got a job. I think on Albert Nobbs, I was looking for something that would give me a consistent life. I was like, “Oh, I need to go to university,” because I need the consistency of one place and people and friends and things like that. But I think home has kind of replaced that. Having an apartment now, in Sydney, has helped. But I’ll probably end up being the pregnant 30-year-old in the back of the class at university one day. [Close laughs] You went to university, right?
CLOSE: I did. I went to a wonderful liberal arts college called the College of William & Mary. I studied theater and anthropology.
WASIKOWSKA: Did you like it?
CLOSE: I loved it. I was older. That’s a whole other story. I was 22 when I was a freshman, so everything was like water in the desert. I was interested in everything. Now, were you in Arnhem Land? That’s way up north …
WASIKOWSKA: That’s up in the Northern Territory, but we weren’t up there. Have you been there?
CLOSE: No. I’m dying to go.
WASIKOWSKA: Oh, you should. It’s so incredible.
CLOSE: One of my favorite parts was with the Aborigines. Were they actors?
WASIKOWSKA: The main character, Eddie, was played by an actor. There was a community of them in the film, and it was pretty great. I remember at one point we were sitting around the table before we started filming it. They were all looking through the photography book that Rick had made. There were pictures of Robyn and Rick when they’d come into different indigenous communities. Some of them were saying, like, “Oh, that’s my mom! That’s my brother!” It seemed very close to them. The story had been part of their childhood.
CLOSE: I’ve done two films in Australia, and you hear what’s happened to the Aborigines, how they were put in with white families.
WASIKOWSKA: It’s horrible.
CLOSE: Was that a unique experience for you, to work with an Aboriginal actor?
WASIKOWSKA: It was unique. We have a lot of great indigenous actors in Australia, and Roly Mintuma, who plays Eddie, was so brilliant. He sort of ad-libbed the whole time we were filming. He would go along and make things up. He didn’t speak a whole lot of English and, well, obviously I don’t speak his language. So it was unique, this film, in that most of my scenes were with people I couldn’t necessarily verbally communicate with. It was quite nice, actually. Very peaceful. [laughs]
CLOSE: Apart from the camping trips when you were younger, what were you like as a little girl?
WASIKOWSKA: I was probably quieter in social situations. I think I have a reputation for being quite shy, but I don’t think I’m too shy. I was probably reserved, but I would go between being really hyperactive and then very quiet. So I don’t really know what I was like. I guess I lived in a bit of a fantasy space in my mind. I remember distinctly, when we went to Poland and lived there for a year, my imagination took a big leap, and I remember walking around holding my arm outstretched, holding imaginary leashes. So, yeah, I was probably a little in my head. But then I had such a brilliant time camping, to be wild for a couple of months. We went camping for two months once, real camping—no bathroom or anything; you could go into town and have a shower, buy food and all of that stuff. There were a couple of families that would camp with us, a really nice bunch of people with kids who were our age who I’m still friends with.
CLOSE: Did you play games or have pretend characters that you would play?
WASIKOWSKA: I think so, a lot of imaginary games. I think it’s important. We encourage it, imagination.
I HAVE THIS FUNNY THING THAT, IF WAR BREAKS OUT, OR IF ANYTHING CATASTROPHIC GOES DOWN, I WANT TO KNOW THAT I CAN WALK HOME. Mia Wasikowska
CLOSE: Especially when they’re outdoors and they have to make their own hideouts and come up with their games. I think it’s wonderful for a kid to run wild. When did you say to yourself, even secretly, just for you, that you wanted to be an actress?
WASIKOWSKA: Probably when I was about 15. I was so obsessed with ballet before that. I was doing it full time. I was doing a program where I had to leave school early to do ballet for 35 hours a week, and then I kind of burned myself out. I was really loving film at the same time and loved the opportunities to express myself. I didn’t telecast it though. My mom remembers a period when I locked myself in my room and did research and made phone calls and wrote letters to try to get an agent. I was almost embarrassed by wanting to be an actor, because it seems such an unattainable thing, but my parents were so supportive, and my mom showed me a lot of great films.
CLOSE: What was your favorite film as a kid?
WASIKOWSKA: My mom watched a lot of European cinema. She loved the Three Colors trilogy, Red , Blue , and White . I remember watching Blue for the first time, and I loved the style of acting because it seems very real. I didn’t feel confident or outgoing enough to do drama at school because I was terrified of popping up in front of a group of kids and, I don’t know, it seemed more like making a fool of yourself than acting. So then when I was watching those films, I was like, “Acting can be like this!” It didn’t have to be …
CLOSE: Right, yeah. Shakespearean.
WASIKOWSKA: It can be real.
CLOSE: So, European films rather than a Disney cartoon?
WASIKOWSKA: We were so scared of Disney cartoons. We tried to watch them, and it just didn’t end up going well.
CLOSE: You’re a reader. What’s your favorite kind of book? What genres do you like the best?
WASIKOWSKA: I’m reading a lot of classic books at the moment because I want to know why they’re classics. I just read a book called The Social Animal by David Brooks. It was basically the psychology of two people, following them from birth to death, and you see all the different phases of their lives. I’m really interested in psychology, but this is the first book of this kind that I’ve read. Really fascinating.
CLOSE: I just finished, not long ago, a book called The Social Conquest of the Earth by Edward O. Wilson. He’s a scientist. He’s an authority on ants and the social lives of insects. It’s just fascinating. It sounds like it’ll fit very nicely into what you’re reading about right now. And what classics have made kind of a mark on you?
WASIKOWSKA: The first book I studied in school was Lord of the Flies and, as most teenagers probably are, I was kind of eye-roll-y about it. But as we started dissecting it, it was the most interesting thing ever. I love The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Jane Eyre, of course. What are your favorite books?
CLOSE: I love histories. I love learning. I love books that talk about people who made a real impact on history, because it always has to do with who they were at that time and what their personalities were like and what their strengths and weaknesses were. One of the great history books written from that point of view is Barbara W. Tuchman’s The Guns of August about the First World War. I’m fascinated by the First World War because it was supposed to be the war to end all wars, and it was the biggest conflagration that this particular planet had seen. Millions and millions of young men died. And the year before it broke out, it was one of the most beautiful summers in people’s memory in England. There was a lot of talk about utopia and how it was possible, and then, because of these events that for one reason or another couldn’t be stopped, the idea of utopia went out the window. The Guns of August—wonderful book. Another great book, by William Manchester, is called A World Lit Only by Fire. That book captured, for me, what it was like to live in the Middle Ages. Western Europe was still covered by this almost impenetrable forest, and so a lot of our fairy tales come from that, and then out of the East came Genghis Khan. It’s just unbelievable. [laughs] Near the end, he goes into the whole story of Magellan. But it’s all about psychology and what makes people do that, which folds into the question, what is a hero? A hero isn’t somebody who does what he’s been trained to do in a moment of great danger. A hero is somebody who goes against the tide and has a vision that inspires and affects people, from individual courage or individual new thought.
WASIKOWSKA: That’s so true.
CLOSE: It is lovely to hear from you. I hope our paths cross very soon.
WASIKOWSKA: That would be wonderful.
GLENN CLOSE IS AN EMMY AND TONY AWARD-WINNING AND ACADEMY AWARD-NOMINATED ACTRESS. THIS MONTH, SHE CAN BE SEEN IN GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.