Once in a while, a translucent actress comes along, a young woman whose emotions and responses are not just readable, but luminously so. These ingénues are so sensitive, they seem to feel the touch of the very air on their skin, and they make us feel it, too. They serve to remind us, oh so delicately, of our own insensitivity - of how often we hurt one another, and of how we dull our feelings to avoid being hurt. Mia Wasikowska, 20, is one of those actresses.
In her extremely short career - five years, and only two of those in North America (she's Australian) - Wasikowska has created a canon of memorable characters, who bear the weight of the yearnings and foibles of adults who should know better: Sophie, the driven gymnast on In Treatment, who stirred Gabriel Byrne's fiercest protective instincts. Chaya, the young Jewish bride in Defiance, whose forest wedding was shot in, literally, a shaft of light amid the darkness of Nazi persecution. The title character in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, whose naturalism was the only thing that kept that movie from spinning completely out of control. Their souls may be weary-wise, but they're still young enough to squeak when they cry.
The new film, The Kids Are All Right, which opened yesterday, also relies on Wasikowska's expressiveness. Her character, Joni, not only has to rise above a breach of trust among her hyper-self-aware lesbian parents (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) and her sperm-donor father (Mark Ruffalo); she also has to live up to being named after Joni Mitchell. She's believably contemporary, but also believably innocent - not unlike the actress herself.
Wasikowska grew up in Canberra, Australia, with an older sister, a younger brother and their artist parents: mother Marzena Wasikowska is a photographer from Poland, and father John Reid is a painter and collagist from Australia. "I was surrounded by a lot of art and culture," Mia said in a phone interview. "I was so far removed from the film industry that it still surprises me that I'm a part it, though my mum did bring us up watching European cinema and independent films." Early favourites include Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career, Gus Van Sant's Elephant and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy.
When Wasikowska was 8, her mother, who had left Poland at age 12, got a grant to produce a body of work based on her memories. The family moved to Poland for a year, also travelling through France, Germany and Russia. "There's something about being taken out of your world at that age," Wasikowska said. "You're old enough to absorb it and take it all in, but not judge it or have any preconceptions."
Mia and her siblings posed for some of their mother's photos. "I always had fun being photographed by my mum," she said. "We never had to smile or perform. We weren't always conscious of being photographed. We'd just do our thing, and she'd take pictures of us. It's how I like to work in films as well. I like to be absorbed in what my character's doing."
She's wasn't a show-boaty kid. "That's the irony of my having this career - I really didn't like performing," Wasikowska said. "I hated getting up in front of the class, and I hated doing drama at school, because I wasn't a performing personality."
She was, however, a committed dancer. At 14, she was practising ballet and modern dance for 35 hours a week, in addition to going to school full-time. "But it became so much about perfectionism, trying to achieve this perfect image," she said. "That started to really get on my nerves. I was watching a lot of films that were about the opposite, about imperfection, and I really liked that. I thought I'd give acting a try, never really expecting it would take off." Though she never took an acting class - "I learned by watching the people I've worked with" - she landed a TV job almost immediately. She's hardly stopped since, finishing high school via correspondence courses so that she could continue the Australian curriculum.
"Dance has such an intensity to it," Wasikowska said. "You become, in a way, an intense person. Your mind gets swept up in it. It's kind of like your passion and your torment at the same time. It's hard being a young person and trying to do something that is very adult."
When asked if that's true for acting, too, she giggled. "Coming from dance, I feel acting is - I'm not going to say easy, because it's not," she said. "But the dance world is more hard-core. Ballerinas are really worked hard. And they don't get all the luxuries that we get in the film business: We get picked up, pampered, people please us." She stays grounded by going home to Australia between jobs, "where I live a really normal life.
"The jobs I enjoy most are the ones where I never feel like I'm performing," Wasikowska continued. "I'm just feeling things. It's an organic process." Though she had fun working on Alice, she prefers "working in actual environments with actors, because you can bounce off their energy. It just feels more natural than standing opposite a tennis ball and trying to pretend it's the Cheshire Cat."
She has two big films coming up: She's the title character in Jane Eyre, due out later this year, directed by Cary Fukunaga ( Sin Nombre) and co-starring Michael Fassbender ( Hunger). "There were certain moments on set where I'd go, 'What have I gotten myself into?' " Wasikowska said. "You can't believe you've been trusted with a character like Jane Eyre, and you want to do her justice. In the novel, she's 18, but she's always been played by older actresses. It's kind of fun to play her as a teenager, with these insane responsibilities. If she was living in our time, she'd really thrive."
And next year, Wasikowska will star in the eccentric love story Restless, directed by her "hero," Gus Van Sant. "It was incredible," she said, sighing happily. "There was a whole level of fussiness that was completely not a part of that set. We sat on apple boxes and on the floor. It felt like a bunch of people making a movie, as opposed to you being a cog in something. Gus involves you on a deeper level. I felt very encouraged."
She also loves how Van Sant presents teenagers "in a sophisticated light," she said. "He gives them a lot of credit for their emotional capabilities. Teenagers live really complex emotional lives. And that's something that doesn't always come through in teen films. Most teen films, I can't relate to. I sit there going, 'Who felt that comfortable in themselves at 16?' Because everybody's in some kind of turmoil at that age. Those are the characters I really respond to." And it shows.