In the past two years, Australian actress Mia Wasikowska has gone from a bit part in Amelia to starring in approximately every third movie in theaters. (Jessica Chastain and Carey Mulligan get the other two.) To a wide audience, she’s probably best known for playing the lead in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, but she’s made the biggest impressions as the free-spirited daughter of lesbian parents in The Kids Are All Right and on HBO’s In Treatment as a suicidal teenage gymnast. Wasikowska, whose surname belongs to her Polish mother (and is pronounced vah-she-KOV-ska), was raised in Canberra and trained as a ballet dancer from age 9, but switched to acting when she grew tired of the art’s monomanic focus on body type. Seven years later, she’s played Jane Eyre to Michael Fassbender’s Rochester, and a winsome maid opposite Glenn Close’s cross-dressing Victorian waiter in the upcoming Albert Nobbs. In Gus Van Sant’s Restless, she shares the screen with Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry, as a teenager with terminal cancer who forges an unlikely relationship in the last months of her life. During a whirlwind appearance at the Toronto Film Festival, cut short by her duties on the set of the English-language debut of Oldboy director Park Chan-wook, Wasikowska talked to The A.V. Club about her penchant for outsiders, the link between acting and dance, and the harsh beauty of Portland, Oregon.
The A.V. Club: You had a major role on In Treatment, but in terms of film, this seems like the most central part you’ve had. You were the lead in Alice In Wonderland, but that movie had other things on its mind than character development.
Mia Wasikowska: Any time you get a role that’s a young person, that resembles what it’s like to be a teenager, I always kind of jump at it. There was something about Annabel that felt very natural and quite real, and playful and beautiful. So I was excited to play someone who is young. And also, I’ve been a huge fan of Gus’ work since I was really young, so to be able to work with him, and then learn from him and see how he runs a set, was a huge draw.
AVC: You said something similar about the role of Sophie on In Treatment. Why do you think it’s so rare to find well-drawn teenage characters?
MW: I think that because most films where there’s a teenager, it’s aimed at a teenage audience. Restless is—I wouldn’t classify it as a teen film, strictly, but it’s definitely a film that appeals to young people, but also gives them credit for their complexity. Similarly with Sophie, she was just such a real character, very complex. You don’t even find that complexity in movies, so that was just hands-down crazy luck, to have found a character you can delve so deeply into.
AVC: Annabel’s had cancer for a while when we meet her, so we don’t know what she was like before—whether she previously dressed eccentrically and was obsessed with Charles Darwin. Was it your feeling that these things were always part of her personality, and it was just a matter of letting go of her restraints?
MW: That was something that I tried to establish a lot in my research, figure out who she was, because she definitely isn’t defined by her illness. I like that about her as well. A lot of people asked me, “What’s it like playing a cancer patient?” and I never wanted to think about it like that. That’s the whole kids-with-cancer vs. cancer-kids debate [over the terminology]—just not defining her as a cancer patient. So first, finding the girl and everything she is without that, and putting it together.
AVC: You trained to be a ballet dancer before changing to acting, which has been written about a lot, but one detail gets glossed over every time. The story is that, around age 14, you were getting tired of dance, and because you’d been watching movies like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, you thought about acting instead. I read that and thought, “How many 14-year-olds watch Kieslowski movies?” You came from an artistic background, right?
MW: Definitely. My parents are both photographers and artists, so we grew up with a lot of unconventional cinema in the house. My mom’s a bit of a film buff, so we always had European cinema and independent films. Then she would always bring home photography books. We were always, without really knowing it, absorbed in their work as well, listening to them discussing shows and going to exhibitions. There’s a lot of things that I’ve seen that when I was watching them, I didn’t really know what it was.
AVC: You seem to play children with unconventional upbringings a lot: on In Treatment, in The Kids Are All Right, even arguably Alice. Do you relate to those characters particularly, or do you have a sense of why people see you in those roles?
MW: I definitely identify with these characters, and I really love them for the certain amount of outsider-ness about them. I don’t really know, but I’ve been lucky, because those are the characters I’ve really loved, and I’ve been able to play them.
AVC: Was it difficult growing up in Canberra, coming from such an unusual background?
MW: It wasn’t unusual for me at all. And it wasn’t crazy or anything. They always made sure that we were very artistically and culturally aware, and they didn’t shelter us from anything—not that they showed us crazy stuff either, but they were very trusting. It was sort of a number of things. We lived in Poland for a year, and that was a really eye-opening experience for me as a young kid. There’s something about being taken out of your own culture and being put in another and experiencing that for what it is.
AVC: Going from Australia to Poland must have been quite a change.
MW: It was completely different. I remember being shocked. Because we’ve got poverty in Australia, but Poland’s different—not that there’s poverty in Poland, but beggars, and it’s just a completely different way of life. The streets of Poland are completely different to Australia, where I grew up. Traveling to Russia and Germany and being able to see the world at a young age was really cool for me, and I really liked that.
AVC: Gus Van Sant films in a lot of different styles, but he comes back again and again to making movies about characters in their teens. Having worked with him, do you have a sense of why that is?
MW: I don’t know. There is something that he understands about adolescence, I guess. Something that seems natural for him about the things you go through and experience. And there’s always kind of a raw feel to it. That as a teenager is really attractive to watch. I always craved cinema that was more realistic. There’s something really attractive about watching soapies and blockbustery stereotype movies as well, but that’s kind of an attraction because it’s foreign, and it’s not as everyday, and it’s not as real. But I always sort of craved the films like Juno, as a young person, anyway. Those are films that you can enjoy as an adult as well, but as a young person, it’s rare to come across those kinds of films that are a little more unique.
AVC: Juno, like Restless, is very stylized, but also aims for a degree of emotional truth.
MW: Yeah, it is. It’s very stylized, and very original. But I think that’s exciting. Definitely I would love more films like that. But I think studios—well, I don’t want to blame it on studios. They don’t always like to—something that’s more rounded is probably easier to get made. But it’s nice to make the slightly odd films.
AVC: Van Sant borrowed Terrence Malick’s technique of doing takes with no dialogue. How did that work?
MW: It was so cool. We’d shoot all the setups, and then the last take of each setup was a silent take. There was something about getting rid of the words and just having the beats that you already established that just simplified it in a way, and made it so natural. Gus cut together a whole silent version of the movie. I think it helped him in editing, because often you don’t need a particular line, actually, just a response, and you can get all these moments without actually having it so written, in a way.
AVC: It’s a common acting exercise, but you did it as a capstone to filming a scene rather than in preparation for it?
MW: Yeah, definitely, we’d do it at the end. But often we’d do it and I’d be like, “Aw, man, can we do it again with words?” Because for some reason, I understood it in a different way. So it often had that effect of just being, “Oh, wow, I get that.” You’re not really trying to do anything when you do a silent take.
AVC: Do you have a sense of how dancing led to acting, or how it helps you with it?
MW: I think it’s contributed hugely to how I am as an actor, just a level of comfort in my body and in movement. Things can become strangely physically technical when you’re acting, and often something that just feels so unnatural is actually what you need to do in a certain scene.
AVC: You have to turn your head in a certain way, even if it feels unnatural, so that the light will hit you just right.
MW: Exactly. And you’re kind of working around a whole crew, and lighting. When you don’t have to do it, it’s preferable, but even scenes like running or walking, all sorts of things, dancing, you’re always moving. Just being physically aware can be another aspect to your character, and allow you another tool in taking someone on. Also, in terms of controlling nerves, it helped me a lot. With dance, you learn to channel nerves into energy, excited energy. It’s sort of similar when you walk into an audition room, to be able to go [takes deep breath] and then go in real calm. It was in those ways that it really helped me.
AVC: Do you still dance on your own?
MW: No. I want to. I really want to. I also just miss how it makes you feel, because it’s such a great feeling. But no, I haven’t done it for a while.
AVC: Do you think it makes you more comfortable with silence and a certain kind of restraint in front of the camera as well?
MW: I guess so. Yeah. I don’t know. Like a stillness? Yeah, I guess so, if that’s what’s needed.
AVC: Or just the understanding that movement can be its own language? That’s it’s not just about what you’re saying?
MW: Definitely. There’s a whole language to movement and how you embody someone, and how you can use different techniques for different characters. I guess just posture, and the way you walk, and the way you physically are. All of that says a lot about who someone is.
AVC: Annabel in Restless is very aware of how she presents herself, to the extent that it’s like an ongoing performance.
MW: When I read the script, I never knew it was going to be that stylized, and I found out, and I was like, “Wow, I never thought of it like that, and that’s sort of so brilliant.” Because in a way, Portland is quite a harsh background. It’s a harsh reality they live in. Then the costumes signify how they do live in their own heightened reality. I thought that was really beautiful, because where they live isn’t glamorous, and it’s not chic or fashionable, but then they wear these costumes that are so endearing. She’s going to enjoy her last few months, or whatever, and she’s going to have that little fantasy life, which I thought was really sweet.
AVC: You shot in Portland, where Van Sant lives. Did the setting or his familiarity with it soak into your character at all?
MW: Oh, it did, definitely. And it was beautiful. I love Portland. I think it’s one of the best cities—I obviously haven’t been to very many places, but I had one of the best times I’ve had on a set there. It’s the kind of place where two weeks into it, I was walking down the street, like, “Hey, how you doing? How you doing?” You just kind of know people, and there’s a young scene there. Also, it’s beautiful. The city’s really cool, and there’s history, and then also the landscape nearby is quite dramatic and smoky and misty. It’s really beautiful.
AVC: Your American accent in Restless is pretty bulletproof. Is that innate? Did you train for that sort of thing?
MW: In Australia, because there’s so much American cinema and film and television, you grow up hearing it. It’s sort of easier to pick up. But I did it also on In Treatment and on The Kids Are All Right, so I feel like I’ve done it quite a bit now. But it’s always the best when someone says they buy it. It feels natural now, and I feel like I can click into it pretty easily, but it also helps being in America.
AVC: What sort of research did you do into the lives of juvenile cancer patients?
MW: There’s this great organization in Portland called CHAP, Children’s Healing Art Project, which is run by this guy Frank [Etxaniz], who has this great warehouse/workshop where every day, kids come in, and there are paints, there are art materials—it’s basically an art workshop. Kids come in all day, so I hung out there with him, talked to him a lot and heard some of the stories, hung out with some kids. It was wonderful, really, really wonderful. And he was fantastic, because he’s had some experience with children.
AVC: How did that change or inform the way you approached Annabel?
MW: It sounds corny to say, but it was really inspiring seeing kids that were just living and connecting with people. That was something I really understood, the need and want for connection, and fun, and it not needing to be sympathetic, just sort of good fun. That’s what Annabel and Enoch have with each other.
AVC: What are you shooting now?
MW: I’m filming a film called Stoker, which is Park Chan-wook. He’s a Korean director. I’m so excited, it’s so much fun. We just finished our first week, and I get back to do that.
AVC: He’s kind of a madman. What is the set like?
MW: He’s amazing. He’s so cool. Everything goes through his incredible translator, Won-Jo. It’s super interesting. It’s only our first week, everyone’s getting their groove, but it’s pretty amazing how he shoots things, and everything is so planned out. Yeah, he’s incredible. He’s just a completely original mind, and the way he sees things is fully his own style.
AVC: When you say how he shoots things, what’s an example?
MW: It’s all very storyboarded. The cameras—he just spends a lot of time prepping it. He’s already been in Nashville for a couple of months with his DP. So it’s pretty amazing. I’m having a ball. And I’m just learning so much from him in a whole new way. I always start a film thinking I know how to do it, then I learn all over again.