In her dark new thriller, Mia Wasikowska aims to portray the true complexity of teenage life, she tells Helen Brown.
"The kids of photographers grow up being told not to smile," says Mia Wasikowska, the flicker of a grin twitching at the corners of her mouth. The 23-year-old, recently described as "the 'it' girl of quality cinema", has had years of practice then, for the role of sombre-faced India Stoker in Park Chan-Wook's strikingly perverse new thriller, Stoker.
It's India's voice we hear first: the film opens with a monologue about the nature of freedom, as the girl - wearing her mother's silk blouse and her father's belt - gazes victoriously across a windblown expanse of waving corn. But it's her wonderful repertoire of pouts, frowns and inscrutable stares that carry the film through its tense silences, erotic ambiguities and vintage noir twists.
As watchful, defensive and self-aware as her character, Wasikowska retreats into the upholstered corner of her chair as we talk about the film. She leans forward as we discuss its themes and her co-stars, Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode. But when we move back to her and her character she cradles her elbows and tilts her head seriously, while her gaze stays steadily fixed on me.
At times, she looks like she wants to take a shrinking potion, as she did in the title role of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. At others she's challengingly clever and self-possessed, like the girl she played opposite Annette Benning and Julianne Moore in the sophisticated 2010 comedy The Kids are All Right. As Kidman recently told the press, it's rare to meet a young actress who's not glued to her smartphone between takes. On the set of Stoker, Wasikowska sat quietly reading Chekhov, Mamet and Tennessee Williams.
Born and raised in Canberra, Australia, Wasikowska is the middle child of three, with an older sister and a younger brother. Both her parents are photographers who, she says, "educated us in a very visual way, a cultural way, which I'm very grateful for now. It's the sort of thing you appreciate in hindsight, being dragged to galleries."
Pronounced "Wah-shi-kov-ska", Mia's surname comes from her Polish mother, who moved to Australia when she was 12 and took the entire family back to Poland for a year in 1998 after she received a grant to take photographs featuring her family. "I don't want to give the impression that we were never smiling in those pictures," she laughs, "that sounds so sad."
But learning to look natural in front of a professional's camera - that must have been a great preparation for a life in films, I suggest. "We weren't acting," she says, "we weren't changing what we were doing, but I guess we were conscious of her. And now it's really nice to have lovely big prints of our childhood."
There may have been big prints at home, but Wasikowska was "a little introverted" at school. "I was quiet, socially awkward. I never felt like I thrived in a social environment. I didn't really have a group. But then also I wasn't there that much - I used to leave at lunchtime to go to dance, so I wasn't there at the prime social time. I got out of that one."
Beginning ballet lessons at the age of 8, Wasikowska was dancing for a serious 35 hours a week by the time she went en pointe at 13. But at 14 she rejected ballet, frustrated by its focus on physical perfection. Watching European cinema with her mother at home, she realised that film was more interested in human imperfection, found herself an agent on the internet and within a year had landed herself a two-episode stint on the Australian soap opera All Saints and a role in a quirky short film, I Love Sarah Jane (2008), which saw her sitting moodily on the sofa, batting off the advances of local boys before defiantly decapitating her zombified father with a spade.
Her American break came with the role of suicidal gymnast Sophie in the HBO series In Treatment, and from there she was catapulted into the big league. In the wake of Alice, she has since starred in Cary Fukunaga's sensitive Jane Eyre, Gus Van Sant's Restless and the prohibition-era crime drama Lawless.
But it was the old zombie short that caught Park Chan-Wook's eye when he was looking to cast his first English-language film. Written by Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller, Stoker is the story of what happens to India and her mother Evie (played by Kidman) after the sudden death of India's father. Cut adrift from the world in their beautiful 20s Nashville mansion, the strain in their relationship shows. So when India's mysterious Uncle Charlie (Brideshead Revisited star Matthew Goode) purrs up in his vintage sports car, Evie is relieved for the diversion and aching for the attention.
India's true nature is a mystery for much of the film. We know she has a sensitivity to sound, is a bullied, straight-A student and loved hunting with her father. But there's a power struggle between her and her mother as she turns 18. Wasikowska has been repeatedly praised by critics for the truthful complexity of the adolescents she portrays.
She shrugs this off: "Stereotypes are much more prominent in teen movies," she says. "As a teenager, it's more attractive to watch something you don't necessarily feel you are, to watch movies about pretty people in love. But it was always exciting for me to find roles that gave me an opportunity to express what I felt was the more realistic side of teenagers."
It was, she says, the ambiguity of Stoker that drew her to the project. "You don't know if India's a hero or a villain, the hunter or the hunted. The film toys with your perception. It's a weird love triangle between a mother, an uncle and a daughter. That feels very modern and very classic at the same time."
Despite the film's titular nod towards the creator of Dracula, "It's less about evil being in the bloodline than an idea of evil as contagious," says Wasikowska. "I think violence is something that catches on. I was interested in something India's father says: 'Sometimes you have to do something bad to stop you from doing something worse."'
Who: Mia Wasikowska
What: Stoker, also starring Nicole Kidman and Matthew Goode and directed by Park Chan-Wook
When: Opens at cinemas on Thursday.
- TimeOut / The Daily Telegraph