Stoker star Mia Wasikowska defies expectations

Mia Wasikowska at  the "Stoker" premiere. Picture: Getty
Mia Wasikowska at the "Stoker" premiere. Picture: Getty
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Mia Wasikowska looks like a typical, sweetly innocent, twentysomething actor, but there’s much more to her than meets the eye.

At the age of 23, Mia Wasikowska is already an actor who confounds expectations. She may have been moulded in Disney plastic for ever more, but the Alice in Wonderland she grew up with was an obscure stop-motion animation by Czech director Jan Svankmajer.

She is Polish Australian, still sleeps in her childhood bed in Canberra, and trained for years as a ballerina before turning to acting. In 2011 she was included in the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people. And she was ranked as the second highest grossing actor of 2010 after Leonardo DiCaprio. Not quite what you expected, I bet.

And the surprises keep coming. She swears like a trooper, which is all the more satisfying because of that sweet, angelic face. She is a keen photographer and was a finalist in Australia’s National Portrait Prize for a startling image of Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga and co-star Jamie Bell hovering in mid-air. She can usually be spotted on set focusing her lens on all the cameras pointed at her. Oh, and this year she will direct her first film.

“I’ve found a certain amount of peace recently with this industry,” she says with a self-conscious giggle. Most of her sentences end in one of these, by the way, which is disarming because what comes before is usually so sensible. That’s another thing about Wasikowska. Just as her most famous character, Alice, can go from titchy to towering with the merest sip of a potion, she can switch from childlike innocent to world-weary adult in a heartbeat. “It helps that I live in Australia,” she continues. “My life there is so removed from film, which is really healthy. I don’t want to end up getting into a frantic frame of mind where I really need this industry or feel that I’m not worth it. This is a really strange business. One minute you’re hot, the next you’re not. It’s very erratic and extreme so it’s important to keep my home life consistent and very separate.”

For now, though, she is hot. She has fronted a fashion campaign (Miu Miu’s 2012 collection) and graced the cover of Vanity Fair as a leading face of “Young Hollywood” alongside Jessica Chastain, Rooney Mara and Jennifer Lawrence. In her 2012 Golden Globes acceptance speech, Meryl Streep announced, “How about Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre?” She’s quite the hipster too, pitching up at the London premiere of new film Stoker with co-star Nicole Kidman last month in Christopher Kane and with a conspicuously on-trend blunt fringe. Basically, all the evidence is signed, sealed and delivered. Wasikowska has arrived.

Today, perched on a chair in a London hotel, she looks every inch the Vanity Fair-endorsed movie star: slim, graceful, make-up free, with an impossible to pin down accent. She is sipping on coconut water and wearing a sculptural black dress, black tights, and black brogues that lie uninhabited on the floor. Her dress is statement-making enough for me to ask who it’s by. Wasikowska looks uncomfortable and turns to her publicist. “Who is it again?” she asks. “Carven,” her publicist confirms. We move on to more comfortable territory for both of us.

Stoker is the first English-language film by South Korean auteur Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) or “Director Park” as he is known to Wasikowska and her co-stars. “Working with him was amazing,” she says. “No one was sure how the translation thing would work but it was really flawless. After the first few days it wasn’t even noticed. Director Park is incredibly visual and so collaborative. He wants your opinion and perspective on everything. We had two weeks where we just read through the scenes and talked about them.”

Stoker is not, as you might expect, about vampires, although a fair amount of blood is shed. It’s a brutal and beautiful psychological thriller, verging on hysterical in both senses of the word, and an unashamed homage to Hitchcock. There is even a shower scene, though this one involves masturbation rather than murder. It must have been a nerve-wracking day of filming. “We shot that on the very last day,” she recalls. “It was such a rush to get the film finished so we started shooting that scene at 6pm and finished at 4am the next morning. It was an intense and strange experience.

“I found the anticipation hardest. And to have to wait until the last day,” she laughs. “I was so angry with them. It’s the sort of thing you want to get out of the way. But when we finally shot it, it wasn’t so bad. It’s actually quite liberating to think, ‘F**k it,’ and not really care about what other people think.” She smiles angelically.

For the first time Wasikowska got to play nasty. She has done her fair share of sweetly awkward girls poised on the verge of womanhood (the daughter of lesbian parents in The Kids Are All Right, the young wife in Defiance, the heroine of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland). This time she plays India Stoker, an intense and introspective teenager who falls somewhere between Wednesday Addams and Sissy Spacek in Carrie. As she mourns her father, who died in rather suspicious circumstances, her remote and intoxicated mother, masterfully played by Kidman, is charmed by the sinister Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode).

“It’s so much more fun playing evil,” Wasikowska admits. “It’s much more fun to play a character who gets to beat the shit out of somebody.” She pummels the air with her small, pale fists.

She also had to learn the piano well enough to play a specially commissioned Philip Glass piece that forms a pivotal scene. “I hadn’t played the piano before so I did an intensive two months before we started shooting,” she explains. “It was a crash course and I loved it. I had a lesson every second day and in between practised two hours every day. I have enough of an obsessive personality to really love the challenge of learning the piano fast.”

You get the impression there isn’t much that Mia Wasikowska wouldn’t do for a role. She endured weeks of hypothermia to play a muddy-skirted Jane Eyre and her first role was as a suicidal gymnast on Gabriel Byrne’s couch in the award-winning HBO series In Treatment. She has played a terminally ill teenager in Gus Van Sant’s Restless and talked to Cheshire cats that weren’t really there in Tim Burton’s CGI fantasia Alice in Wonderland. Part of this drive and determination comes from her years of rigorous training in dance. Between the ages of eight and 15, she danced 35 hours a week, leaving school every day before lunchtime.

“I always think the dance world is like the film world taken to an extreme,” she says. “In films I’m super-pampered and well looked after and everything is very cosy. I mean, it’s a hard job, and weird as well, especially the press stuff... But dancers do all of it without the support and it’s so much more physical. It’s a much more brutal way of living.”

Wasikowska has an artistic rather than actorly background. The middle child of three, her mother is a Polish photographer and her father an Australian artist. She grew up watching arthouse films and travelling around Poland and Europe, her childhood continuously documented by her mother’s camera. “It was part of our normality,” she says with a shrug. “That’s why children of photographers never smile for pictures. The camera was always there and we just had to carry on and do our thing. But I guess there is always a level of consciousness.”

Did she like it? “I was particularly patient, I think, compared to my siblings,” she says. “That’s what my mum would say. But I never really saw the link between being photographed by my mum and wanting to act. I never connected the dots until much later. But now I realise it was a kind of acting.”

This is surely something to do with Wasikowska’s uncanny naturalism on screen; her ability to do so much while appearing to do so little. It’s what has drawn comparisons to fellow Australian actor Cate Blanchett and the internalised, pared-back acting style of Tilda Swinton. Burton has praised Wasikowska’s “old soul quality” which led him to cast her as Alice over hundreds of others. And Park Chan-Wook refers to her “internal maturity”, noting that “she has a level of restraint surprising for someone her age. She is almost completely still when she is acting”.

Where does it all come from? “I don’t know,” she giggles, suddenly like a teenager again. Then she gets serious. “I suppose I moved from a few primary schools and then high school was less consistent because I would leave before lunch to go and dance so I never found my niche or group of friends at school. That was what drew me to dance and then acting. I wanted to be part of those worlds instead. And I’ve always felt as though I’m either 30 or 12. I didn’t really do the teenage years in between. Maybe I’ll have some embarrassingly delayed teen crisis and end up stumbling around Hollywood.”

For years, she thought she would become a professional dancer. She became enamoured with the singularly disciplined yet passionate world of classical ballet. Then, at 14, she developed a spur (a thickened mass) on her heel and, more than that, realised she was disillusioned with the whole thing. “I do think the way dancers view their bodies is so much more critical than necessary,” she sighs. “You’re trained to pick up on the tiniest of so-called imperfections. There is a very particular physique for dancing. It’s not just about being thin or small. It’s about having the right muscle and bone structure.”

Acting, at least in comparison, seemed more liberating and forgiving of people’s imperfections.

“I was probably starting to burn out a little bit with dance,” she admits. “I was exhausted from the intensity of it. Acting presented itself as a different kind of expression yet in a similar vein because it’s also a bodily experience. I started watching lots of films and slowly became interested in filmmaking and acting. I thought I would give it a try. And I was attracted to the notion of it being a less perfect view of people. Dance always presents a more controlled image. The films I love explore our flaws and the ways in which we are imperfect, the ways in which we screw things up. I like that. And it ended up being more fulfilling for me than dance. But I never expected it to go well.” She chuckles uneasily.

What’s extraordinary is that at the age of 15 she decided, all on her own, to get into acting. And more than that, she pulled it off. Wasikowska googled acting agencies in Sydney and started harassing them. In the end her mother took her to Sydney to meet with one and that was that. In Treatment followed soon after. Yet Wasikowska doesn’t immediately seem the type, just as you can’t really imagine her contacting her agent after reading Jane Eyre to ask if there was a script going around.

“It has always been my choice,” she shrugs, evading the question when I ask where this drive comes from. “I don’t feel pressure from anyone else to keep this going. I’m just going to do it for as long as I like it. And for as long as it satisfies me.”

Already she is branching out. This year she will direct her first film, an adaptation of a celebrated book of short stories by Tim Winton. “I mentioned directing to my agent a couple of years ago and said it might be fun,” she says breezily, not realising this is yet another example of that mysterious determination. “And then I knew a producer who was coordinating a project in Australia, a compilation of all these short films, and he gave me the opportunity to make one. We haven’t shot it yet but we’ve done some pre-production and will shoot at the beginning of April.

“It will be so fun to be on a set where I have a different point of view. I’m keeping it super small and simple so it’s more like a project than a debut in directing.”

Now she falters again and a shadow of uncertainty crosses her face. “I’m not sure,” she sighs. “We’ll see how it goes.”

She is also becoming more serious about photography. She had a pocket sewn into her dresses on Jane Eyre so she could carry her camera around with her and snapped away happily on the set of Stoker. “I take pictures when I’m bored,” she says, at first coming across like an unimpressed teenager. “There is a lot of waiting around on set...” But now, like Alice, Wasikowska grows up again in front of my eyes. “Well, I guess I find our point of view as actors fascinating,” she continues. “We’re sort of in the middle of all this focused attention and action and all these people are looking at us and fiddling with us. Yet somehow we’re invisible until action is called. So I document that moment of invisibility with a photograph.”

And it must be fun to shift the balance? She squeals with delight. “It is,” she says gleefully. “It’s like I’m saying, ‘Look, I can shove a camera in your face too’.”

• Stoker is on general release this weekend.