Tuesday 12 December 2017

Cinema: The Queen of Darkness - Mia Wasikowska

At 26, Mia Wasikowska is one of film's most respected and driven performers. But, she says, she's finally learning to relax

Actress Mia Wasikowska at the 'Crimson Peak' premiere in New York last week.
Actress Mia Wasikowska at the 'Crimson Peak' premiere in New York last week.

Julia Molony

What's a nice girl like Mia Wasikowska doing in a bloodbath in a haunted house? In Crimson Peak, a lavish period horror from gothic supremo, the Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, she's at the centre of a fright-fest of death, ghosts, monsters and things that shriek in the night.

With the exception of a flight into the fantastical in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, the gamine, delicately-featured actress's stock-in-trade thus far in her career has been finely drawn, hyper-realistic and restrained portrayals of characters facing crisis or personal development. Indeed, an early run of nuanced performances have led to her being named as "the It-girl of quality cinema." She's been a critically-acclaimed Jane Eyre opposite Michael Fassbender as Rochester, and played angsty teenage identity-building to perfection in The Kids Are Alright. But taking on a ghost story isn't the departure from form that it might appear. Wasikowska continues to seek out complex, convincing characters. In Crimson Peak she plays Edith - a young writer, and the daughter of a wealthy entrepreneur who finds herself drawn into a sinister spiral of exploitation and greed when, having been orphaned, she marries a dashing British aristocrat. The role appealed to her exactly because Edith is well developed and concretely, recognisably human. She is vulnerable but always self-determining. "At the beginning, she's a curious, ambitious young writer and very spirited, but also very naive and idealistic, and because of that she gets swept up in this romance," Mia says. "She finds herself in a place where she's having her core sense of self completely questioned and battered." It might be set in a paranormal environment, but there are truths within that remain relatable. "She has to climb her way out,"she says. "I like that, I feel that people experience that, whether it's in a relationship or in a work relationship, you always need people in life who make you completely question who you are."

Before Guillermo del Toro came calling, she wasn't exactly a devotee of the horror genre, "I think I had quite a disdainful. . ." she starts to admit, before quickly correcting herself, "not for this kind of film, but for horror film, which I think in my mind is kind of a slasher film. But this is a gothic romance. I love the genre. I think it's fun to be scared when you are safe."

For sure, a del Toro film is never a standard horror. He is an acknowledged modern master of his subject. His films are always subtle and spectacularly beautiful to look at.

For Wasikowska, it was a project that "required a change of tone, for sure." Not least because she spends quite a lot of it in a state of abject, immobilising terror. "The challenge with this film is that the level of emotion and intensity is to be so much higher and bigger than the films that I've done more recently," she says. "Which is great, because it's a great challenge. It's something you completely don't phone in. It makes it completely exhausting but it's really a good, satisfying experience."

Crimson Peak was inspired by a paranormal experience that del Toro says his mother had, when she was a child. But on the subject of ghosts, Wasikowska is a bit more circumspect. "I believe in emotional ghosts, in the sense that people or experiences can definitely haunt somebody," she says, carefully. "People articulate ghosts in a really different way. I've never had any supernatural experience, but who knows . . ."

Wasikowska grew up in Canberra, Australia, the daughter of two artist/photographers. She started acting when she was just 17. By then, she'd already abandoned a career as a professional ballet dancer. She sees a common motivation in her interest in both. "I think with ballet it was the first place I really felt socially accepted and a part of something. And then I think there's something from films that has the same peripheral thing. It's a great expression. And also you feel like you really belong in this little group of strange people who are making this film and that's really nice. And I think maybe some part of it was wanting to have an outlet for expression because dance and acting seem quite similar in that sense." Though, largely film seems to suit her better. She once said that compared to dance, the rigours of the film industry were a breeze, explaining that "I feel like the dance world was so hardcore in terms of image and body, and physicality, and I know that a lot of people find the film world similar, but I've found it so much more chilled out."

Still, from the first she brought a dancer's discipline to her ambitions of becoming an actress. Aged 14, she began cold-calling actors' agents and persuaded one to take her on. Ever since, she has pursued roles and opportunities with a laser focus.

"I think I've relaxed so much now," says the now-26-year-old. "Just because I've grown up. I feel so much more relaxed. I think a part of that is feeling less anxious and trusting your own ability a little bit more. I think it's really easy for actors to get super hung-up on having to, like, show everybody how much research we are doing and work we're doing, and really it's just for ourselves." Exhaustive research, she thinks is often just a coping strategy in a profession where there's always anxiety because "there's no way of showing that you know what you are doing until you are standing there doing it. . . . You're not sure if when you are actually in front of the camera you'll be able to turn it on. I used to read a lot and research, and do stuff, which I still do for fun. But sometimes a lot of that is just a bit of insecurity. . . I'm very happy to be spontaneous now." She'd never go so far, however, to describe herself as confident. "Because obviously I'm still terrified of every job. But a little bit more relaxed that it'll be alright."

Though in the early days she wanted to always be working, experience has afforded her the luxury of being able to take time off these days too. "And part of that is also feeling much more relaxed and happy in my off-time. I don't feel so much the need to be always travelling and doing stuff, which is really nice, to feel a bit more comfortable and happy, even if things don't work out with acting, there's not that sense of terror that I won't know what to do. Because I'm happy with that other life of not acting."

Part of the life of "not acting" is a new professional interest in directing. She's done a little bit already, and would like to do more. "I was raised with a visual awareness just because of my parents," she says. "I think a lot of actors will start directing so that they can create roles for themselves, but I don't think I'd ever want to act in a film that I would direct. Because I love not having that pressure, and I loved being able to explore a different part of creativity, in a visual way and in a language way and a way where you're so much more involved in the film across the board."

But she's in no hurry. And in the meantime, sounds settled and content, balancing her Hollywood career with a more rooted, grounded home-life in Sydney. "I think when I decided to live there that was a huge relief in one way, just to feel super-settled there and I have great friends there and it doesn't make me feel too myopically dependent on the film industry. . . And my family is close. I think I'll always stay there, and I like that world. And then being able to dip into film feels really fun and I probably appreciate it more than if I was always around it and became cynical."

Crimson Peak is in cinemas now.

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