Ever since falling down the rabbit hole for Tim Burton in “Alice in Wonderland,” Australian actress Mia Wasikowska has kept busy working for other singular filmmakers in films that couldn’t be more dissimilar, appearing in everything from Cary Fukanaga’s “Jane Eyre” adaption to Park Chan-wook’s English language debut “Stoker.” At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival she’s arguably the belle of the fest, with a whopping three features screening at the event.
In John Curran’s well received drama “Tracks” she plays a young woman who goes on a 1,700 mile trek across the deserts of West Australia with her four camels and faithful dog. Richard Ayoade’s follow-up to “Submarine” sees her star opposite boyfriend Jesse Eisenberg in a satiric dark comedy in the vein of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” And in Jim Jarmusch’s freewheeling vampire lark “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Wasikowska plays Tilda Swinton’s wild child vampire sister who has a lust for blood and hipster boys.
Indiewire sat down with Wasikowska on the second day of the festival to discuss her busy schedule, why she went indie following “Alice,” and who her mentors are.
I’ll confess I’m not wholly prepared for this. Given two of the films you’re in at the fest have yet to screen (“Tracks” and “The Double”), I’m talking to you having only seen “Only Lovers Left Alive” in Cannes. So forgive me.
Oh, it’s fine (laughs).
What’s it like to be in Toronto with three films? Does it feel like a professional victory?
It’s really fun! It’s like my entire last year is here, which is really great. I’ve been to this festival before, but a couple of years ago. It’s always nice to come back with some projects I’m really proud of.
You seem to be an actor’s actor —
Oh, thank you.
What do you make of this side of the job — the promotional part?
I think you just sort of learn to take it for what it is. It only ends up being a couple days of the year. It’s not my normal life, so you just kind of end up enjoying it. The nice part is seeing the people you worked with, and supporting the project. I’ve really grown to love the people on the last three projects, so it’s like a reunion and it’s nice to see them. Then I go back to Australia, and go, “Well that was an interesting journey.”
You still live in Australia?!
That’s wild considering how much you work in America and England.
Yeah, “Tracks” was the first time I’ve worked there since I was 17. I’ve always thought of home and work as two separate things, so it was really nice to be filming in my own country, and to be on the same time frame as my family and friends. I got to have a friend from home visit!
How important is it for you to keep that division between work and life?
It’s like a blessing and a curse. It’s so wonderful to go back to Australia and not be in a city that’s only about film. I’d go crazy if all I talked about was movies. So it’s really nice to go home and have that perspective about the industry that I’m so privileged to be a part of.
You really haven’t slowed down since “Alice in Wonderland.” Are you happiest when working?
I am. In terms of the elephants of making film, and the different stages, I love being on set, and I love, love, LOVE the moment between action and cut, which ends up being reduced to such a small amount of time. That’s the reason I do it. But I also actually really love downtime, and I’ve grown to find the balance between that. When I was younger it was all about getting on the next set as quickly as possible. But now there’s a little bit more calm and appreciation for enjoying the simple things at home.
You have a habit for working with auteur-ish directors. Why is that?
I am a film buff — oh, not really! But I love cinema first, so when the opportunity arises to work with someone like Jim Jarmusch or Tim Burton, it’s the easiest decision. Even as a film fan to watch them. I would just go on a set and watch them for a whole shoot, or bring them coffee. It’s so fun to then work with them creatively. I love that.
Since working with Burton on “Alice,” you’ve noticeably stuck to smaller scale indies. Was that a conscious choice on your part?
Yeah, I think so. It was a level of exposure I hadn’t experienced before, and being one of the first international films I did, it was like being thrown down a rabbit hole in its own way. If something as interesting came up, and it was a big film, I’d do it. Maybe I am consciously not doing big films, but only because the smaller ones are more interesting right now. If something comes along that’s go those other elements and it’s also a big film, I wouldn’t rule it out. At the moment it’s just about what’s challenging for me.
So your experience with “Alice” didn’t scar you in any way?
(Laughs). I wouldn’t completely rule out the scars. Tiny little scratches (laughs). But no, for a big film it was a great one to do. And it’s responsible for me working on smaller things, so I’m lucky.
It was all part of your master plan.
Yes! Why not?
How did Jarmusch compare to the other filmmakers you’ve worked with?
I think the thing that I learned the most from working with a lot of different filmmakers is that there’s no one way to make a film. There’s no formula that equals a good film. Jim, at the same time that he’s very specific, he gives you a lot of freedom. He sees the script as a skeleton, and lets us go with things. But at the same time he has the film edited in his mind.
You seemed freer in this than I’ve ever seen you before. Despite it being a vampire film, it’s arguably one of your lightest films. Was it nice to let loose?
It was really fun to be a brat. In real life we’re always suppressing a bratty nature, so it was really fun to be as annoying as possible and encouraged in that direction. I do get a lot of quiet introverts.
You seem drawn to fiercely independent female characters. What do you attribute that to?
I think I am attracted to those roles maybe because I think that there’s something to learn from them for myself (laughs). Also it’s just more fun to play them. It’s much more interesting than playing ‘the girlfriend.’
Did you have strong female figures growing up?
Yeah. All of the women in my family above me are pretty interesting. My nana and my mom immigrated on their own from Poland. My mom was 11 and my nana was in her thirties. They’re pretty independent and feisty women in their own right, and I admire them.
Another awesome woman is Tilda Swinton. What was it like to get to know her?
I love that acting is just one part of her life. A lot of the female actors that I admire, they don’t let it to become their only thing. It’s their obvious passion, but they’re good at balancing a life outside of film. And Tilda’s like that. She’s this amazing woman who lives in Scotland and has her family. She always seems to be learning things and dabbling in other areas, both creative and academic. She was talking to a brain surgeon on the shoot, just because she was curious about the brain.
You’ve worked with so many amazing actors over the course of your career. Do any of them serve as mentors?
Nicole Kidman, who I worked with recently, was so wonderful and kind. She was always the ultimate role model for any Australian actor. I just found her incredibly warm and open sharing her experiences about coming into a world that she’s not from. She’s always there if I need any help.