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Mireille Enos: an actress both gifted and grown-up, even in a zombie movie

Here's the only proof you need that World War Z is a refreshingly grown-up movie: Director Marc Forster cast Mireille Enos as Brad Pitt's wife. At 37, the Texas-raised, New York-trained actress may be a dozen years younger than Pitt, but her vibe is so adult – so naturalistic and mature, so grounded and humane – that in their few scenes together, she gives their onscreen marriage substance and believability, even amid the chaos of a zombie virus.

She does the same for Sarah Linden, the sombre, nearly silent detective she plays on AMC's The Killing – the first female series lead, it should be noted, on that network. In the second season's recent premiere, as Linden gazed at a marsh dotted with half-submerged pink body bags, Enos somehow conveyed horror and sorrow with the tiniest widening of her eyes.

So skilled is Enos at gravitas that when I spoke to her on the phone two weeks ago, I was surprised to hear that her voice is bubbly and musical rather than grave, and that her personality is much more sunshine and soft grass than drizzle and blasted heaths. "That's true!" she agrees, laughing. "I definitely have a serious side, but in general I walk through life very optimistic and light and lucky to have lots of laughter. I don't know why dark roles and I seem to find each other. But I'm not complaining."

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"Mireille is such a joy to work with," Canadian director Atom Egoyan told me via e-mail. They met when she agreed to audition for a small part in his upcoming film Devil's Knot (based on the true story of the West Memphis Three, young men wrongly accused of satanic murders). "Looking back, I realize what a crazy thing this was, but I wasn't familiar with her work. I was stunned by her flexibility and intelligence. She has an extraordinary range and the ability to make drastic and completely believable shifts within the space of a few words." He immediately cast her in a richer role in his next film, Queen of the Night, opposite Rosario Dawson and Ryan Reynolds.

Enos grew up in Houston, the fourth of five children to a Mormon father who met their French mother on a church mission. (This explains Enos's European-tinted accent, and her first name, which is pronounced "Mee-ray.") All her siblings were involved in music, theatre or dance. In junior high Enos began taking acting classes and appearing in plays. After graduating from Brigham Young University, she moved to New York, where she built a career in theatre (she was nominated for a Tony award for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and TV (Big Love). In 2008, she married the actor Alan Ruck (Matthew Broderick's pal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off ), and they have a daughter, Vesper, nearly 3.

"I will treasure the image of Mireille playing with her adorable daughter in the hallway of the hotel while we were shooting in Sudbury," Egoyan says. "As amazing an actress as she is, she's an even better mom."

"Wherever I am, I commit to that fully," Enos explains. "It means I don't sleep very much. It's funny, in one episode of The Killing, I look so bad I actually complimented my makeup artist – 'It was such a stressful moment, and you did such a great job making me look terrible!' He said, 'Honey, I hate to tell you, but that was basically you.'" She burbles with laughter.

She also chuckles when people call her an overnight success. "Yes, 20 years, then overnight," she says. "But that slow and steady build has been important for me. There are kids at 22 who are ready to bring whatever they have, to hit the big screen. That was not me. I needed to start in New York where I was comfortable. I learned the camera on Big Love, and now The Killing has cracked the world open for features. It's been wonderful."

It also means that most of us encountered Enos as a full-blown woman, who can convey a complex interior life without pyrotechnics. "There's something nice about being given permission to just be simple," she says – even in a global story like World War Z, whose script and editing problems were widely reported. "Everyone was aware that the end of the script wasn't in place as we were shooting, so I know there was some level of stress about that," Enos says. But those issues were addressed with re-shoots, and her experience was positive: "Brad was so lovely and easy to be around. And we shot on an actual aircraft carrier off the coast of Cornwall, which was awesome. There were lots of official guys making sure everything looked okay, and instead of having trailers, we had sailors' rooms." She giggles. "The filmmakers were modest about the grossness level, too, which I prefer. I can't handle gross."

Most of the time, Enos can leave her characters' heavy hearts at work, though this season of The Killing got under her skin – the volume of victims, and the calculated nature of the murders. To banish that feeling, Enos says, "I go with my husband and our daughter to the park or a bookstore, try to get out in the sunshine, or do a little tae kwon do." She calls the latter, "the perfect way to use your body: It's strength, endurance, flexibility, grace. It's focus, it's all about finding your centre and your power."

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She discovered tae kwon do seven years ago, when she was freshly arrived in L.A. and homesick for New York. She decided that, to define her life in Los Angeles, she needed to try things she had never done before. In one week, she bought a Jeep and looked up martial-arts classes. "I walked into the studio," she recalls, "and my tae kwon do master, this handsome, elegant Korean man, said, 'How can I help you?' And that was it." Another peal of laughter.

Of course, she now loves L.A. "The sun shines, the rhythm is gentle," she says. "And acting can be a lovely way to spend your life. Trying to unlock the mysteries of what makes humans tick, why we love, why we're scared. It feels nice to have found something I love to do that can provide some joy to other people."

I wonder one more time what pulls Enos toward bleaker roles, and this time she has an answer. "People do tell me that whatever I do, I bring heart to it," she says. "Because I am a joyous person, even when I'm in darker roles, I think some of that hope comes through. It creates a multidimensional experience. People are able to see something underneath the sadness or the hardness." She laughs one last time. "Though I must admit, at this point, I am totally open to doing a comedy."

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