When the inimitable Meryl Streep was awarded the Golden Globe for her performance in The Iron Lady last year, she glided up the stage steps, cursed at herself for forgetting her spectacles, and then praised some of the year’s heralded—and unheralded—performances.
“This is such a thrill, but really, really embarrassing in a year that saw so many extraordinary performances by women in leading roles,” Streep uttered. “How about Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre? Fantastic.”
Indeed, Wasikowska’s turn as the titular heroine in Jane Eyre was criminally overlooked, lost in a sea of more operatic on-screen portrayals. And with her pale, unostentatious visage and gift for malleability, it’s perhaps easy to bypass Wasikowska.
It’ll be damn near impossible for people to miss her in Stoker.
Marking the first foray into English-language films by South Korean maestro Park Chan-wook (Oldboy), Stoker centers on India Stoker (Wasikowska), a peculiar, introverted young girl mourning the recent death of her father. She’s constantly at odds with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), a boozy, emotionally volatile floozy. When her attractive Uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) moves in, both Stoker gals, in true Freudian fashion, become infatuated with him—despite his penchant for bloodshed.
Wasikowska’s India, with her dark hair, cadaverous countenance, and prim dress, resembles a slightly more demented Wednesday Addams. To prepare for the role, which includes a seductive piano-playing sequence between her and Goode, she took two months of intensive piano training. She also experienced her first stab at on-screen nudity. In a sequence that recalls that scene in Psycho, Wasikowska’s character violently pleasures herself in the shower after witnessing her uncle dispose of her lecherous classmate.
“If you’re gonna go there, you go there,” says Wasikowska with a laugh. “The anticipation is worse than actually filming it. It’s a closed set, and they’re such specific, small shots, and they yell ‘Action!’ And then after you’re covered right up. So you’re not that exposed, thankfully!”
The incestuous relationship between niece and uncle in the film provides much of the picture’s sense of unease, as India becomes more and more drawn to her charismatic relative.
“It’s a fine line, for sure,” she says. “There’s no overt physical act, but it’s one of those things that can drive a person crazy, where they can almost be blamed for just imagining it, because at the end of the day, there’s no hard evidence.”
And, in addition to acting alongside fellow Aussie Kidman, who she says “was very kind and open about her experiences” and advised the 23-year-old actress to “just go for it and not be too self-conscious,” Wasikowska says she finds herself drawn to more introspective characters, because they, in a way, reflect her own slightly withdrawn persona.
“I definitely identify with them in a way,” she says. “I was more of an observer than a participant in my teen years.”
It’s fitting, since the native of Canberra is the daughter of two professional photographers. Her parents used to have her pose for portraits, which she says may have subconsciously instilled in her a desire to perform.
“It could be linked to performance in a really subtle sense, since we didn’t really have to perform for the camera, but it was always there, and there is this unspoken dynamic between photographer and subject,” she says.
Wasikowska’s first love, however, was the ballet. She began training professionally as a ballerina at age 9, and by the time she reached her teen years was dancing for about 35 hours a week, leaving school at 1 p.m. and then dancing until 9 p.m. At 14, however, she decided to quit and pursue an acting career.
“I absolutely loved [ballet], but it’s very physically and emotionally demanding,” she says. “I just burnt myself out with it. I got a spur on my heel, so I stopped dancing for two weeks, and that hiatus gave me the chance to step back and think of a career change.” She adds, “I’m grateful for it in that I’m informed and aware of my physicality and body, and you do have to transform physically for certain roles.”
Her mother greatly influenced her taste in film, immersing her in Polish and Australian cinema, since she’s half Polish (on her mother’s side) and half Australian. Some of Wasikowska’s favorites growing up were Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy and the Australian films Walkabout, Picnic at Hanging Rock, and My Brilliant Career. She was also “highly disturbed” by the Czech film Něco z Alenky—a surrealist adaptation of Alice in Wonderland combining live acting and stop-motion animation.
After Googling a few talent agencies in nearby Sydney, Wasikowska accompanied her mother to the city during one of her photo exhibitions and hounded an agent into taking her on. After booking a couple of episodes on the Australian soap All Saints in 2004, she starred in a series of short films before seguing into feature films.
Her first big crossover role came in 2008, when she starred on a nine-episode arc of the acclaimed HBO drama In Treatment. Wasikowska played a suicidal gymnast seeking therapy and related to the character’s inner turmoil due to her own background as a ballerina.
“In both disciplines, the girls are put under intense pressure, their bodies are scrutinized, and they get a warped view of reality and how to perceive themselves,” she says.
She made a gigantic leap to leading lady in 2010. In addition to a fine supporting turn as the daughter of two lesbian moms in The Kids Are All Right, Wasikowska landed the coveted role of Alice in Tim Burton’s blockbuster adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. The film ended up grossing over $1 billion worldwide, leading Forbes to name her the second-highest-grossing actor of the year, tied with her co-star Johnny Depp.
“It’s hard to tell the tone, because when you’re in an environment, you have wind and other elements around you that inform your performance without you even knowing it, so it’s like you’re filming in a void with green screen,” she says. “It was a hard shoot, for sure, quite like being lost in a different time.” (While she says she’s “heard things” about a possible sequel, Wasikowska claims she hasn’t been approached for it just yet.)
Alice in Wonderland is an outlier of sorts on the young actress’s resume, since she’s gained a reputation for a diverse array of indie fare. She even turned down the chance to audition for the role of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after being shortlisted for it.
“I didn’t pursue it,” she says. “I like my freedom, and it’s quite scary doing a franchise, since you’re signing away six or seven years of your life.”
When she’s not acting, Wasikowska loves dabbling in photography. She uses her mother’s old Rolleiflex camera, a Leica M6, and “a tiny, crappy digital camera.” One of her photos of her Jane Eyre co-star Jamie Bell was selected as a finalist for Australia’s 2011 National Photographic Portrait Prize. And later this year, she’ll star in The Double, a tragicomedy by filmmaker Richard Ayoade (Submarine), alongside Jesse Eisenberg; the drama Tracks, directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil); and Jim Jarmusch’s vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive, opposite Tilda Swinton. She’s also confident that a long-gestating adaptation of Madame Bovary, where she’ll star in the title role opposite Ezra Miller’s Leon, will find financing.
But the thing she’s most excited about right now is her new home away from home.
“I just got a place so I’m moving to Sydney, which is really exciting!” exclaims Wasikowska. “Having my own privacy, bathroom, cabinets ... It’s definitely time to move out of my parents’ house.”