Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie's latest movie role shows a new side to the actress whose star just keeps rising.

The Kiwi actress from Wellington had a whirlwind year in 2019, with a critically acclaimed role in Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit. Now she's taken a different tack with True History of the Kelly Gang premiering at the New Zealand International Film Festival (NZIFF).

In the movie, based on the Booker-prize winning novel by Peter Carey, she plays Mary Hearn, a young sex worker with a child in tow, while the notorious Australian bush ranger Ned Kelly is played by British actor George MacKay of 1917 fame.

The two actors were award season mates last year, after both films won Oscars.

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"It was cool seeing each other, and running into each other at events in LA or in London, and seeing a familiar face," the 19-year-old says.

"He's such a lovely and thoughtful guy. It was cool kind of having that connection with him and seeing him be so successful."

Thomasin McKenzie says her character is bold and strong. Photo / Supplied
Thomasin McKenzie says her character is bold and strong. Photo / Supplied

McKenzie first read the script after she filmed 2018's Leave No Trace, and notes it didn't shy away from explicitness or violence.

It was a challenging shoot too - McKenzie recalls it being freezing on the Australian project.

"I think she [Mary] has a lot of wisdom and strength, and a kind of boldness behind her to be a young woman during that time.

"She was so emotionally attuned and just felt like a really wise person."

McKenzie says she may not get a chance to watch the film with her Grandma Dame Kate Harcourt in person - the young star is on her way to Jane Campion's Power of the Dog set and is jetting to London the next day for a reshoot.

"But I would like to watch it with her one day and see what she thinks because I'm sure she would know a bit about Ned Kelly and everything.

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"I always feel self-conscious when Grandma watches my films because I look up to her so much. In a way, I'm kind of doing a lot of the things I'm doing for her honour."

George MacKay (1917) and Essie Davis (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) and Russell Crowe star in the movie directed by Justin Kurzel. Photo / Supplied
George MacKay (1917) and Essie Davis (Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries) and Russell Crowe star in the movie directed by Justin Kurzel. Photo / Supplied

While McKenzie hasn't exactly slowed down this year - she's still regularly receiving scripts, even with Covid-19 hitting the film industry - lockdown was a chance for her to reflect on the whirlwind of her career so far.

"I don't want to say that I enjoyed lockdown because I know that a lot of people really struggled through it," she admits.

"I think it was definitely a much-needed opportunity for me to slow down, and just kind of take a look back at the last year," she says.

"I'm myself really grateful for that time, but also of course feeling kind of conflicted because of the pain and anxiety in the world is very obvious at the moment."

When Kelly Gang opens at the NZIFF, it will be a full-circle moment for the actress. Leave No Trace played at 2018's festival when she was 17, and her role as 13-year-old Tom earned her international acclaim.

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"Hell yeah, it's so special to me," she says of Kelly Gang's New Zealand premiere at NZIFF.

"I think it's probably the film festival I'm most nervous about whatever I've worked on being shown because New Zealand is my home. "

Since 2018, she has worked alongside several big-name stars and directors including Edgar Wright, Scarlett Johansson, and Timothee Chalamet and of course Oscar-winning Taika Waititi.

As McKenzie enters her twenties a Hollywood star, she says she sometimes feels that she's missed out on what her Wellington friends are experiencing.

"Yeah, sometimes I do feel a bit of FOMO, and feel like I'm missing out of this teen party side of things, and other times I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am."

• True History of the Kelly Gang, directed by Justin Kruzel, screens at the opening night of NZIFF on July 24, in select cinemas and will also be available to watch online on AtHome.NZIFF.co.nz. Go to nziff.co.nz

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