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People In Film | Mia Wasikowska

Mia Wasikowska is Everywhere
Just one year ago, only the savviest talent spotters would have recognized the name “Mia Wasikowska” among a list of up-and-coming actresses. But having previously appeared in several shorts, television programs and indie features, Wasikowska suddenly is everywhere. She stars as Alice in Tim Burton’s worldwide hit, Alice in Wonderland; was nominated as one of MTV’s 2010 “Best Female Breakout Stars”; plays a lead role in Gus Van Sant’s upcoming Restless; made the cover of Vanity Fair; headlines as another titular heroine in Cary Fukunaga’s upcoming Jane Eyre; and plays the pivotal role of Joni — so named by her lesbian parents after Joni Mitchell — in Lisa Cholodenko’s Focus Features release, The Kids are All Right. And all that before she turns 21. Indeed, Wasikowska’s rapid fame has even caught her by surprise — “It feels really weird seeing me on a movie poster,” she told The Guardian.
From Dance to Film

Most people who seem like overnight successes actually aren’t, and Wasikowska is no exception. She has been performing since a very early age in her hometown of Canberra, Australia. The daughter of a Polish photographer mother, Marzina Wasikowska, and Australian painter father, John Reid, Wasikowska studied ballet as a child and then, at 14, shifted her focus to acting. She explains to the Times of London, “I was doing 35 hours a week, and it became so much about physical perfection that it kind of beats you down and grates on your self-esteem. I loved performing, and I was watching all these amazing films, like Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue. What I liked most about them was that, unlike ballet, they were about imperfection and all the things we, as human beings, do wrong. I became really attracted to that, because it seemed to be much more about real life than ballet.”


Before she made her name in Hollywood, Wasikowska was a rising star in the Australian filmmaking community. After that decision to leave dance for film, she signed with an agent and then went up for auditions, landing a role in an Australian hospital show, All Saints. Other parts quickly followed, ranging from a killer gator horror flick, Rogue, to September, a drama set in 1968 dealing with Aboriginal issues. In the latter, Wasikowska plays the girl who comes between two teens — one a white Australian and the other an Aborigine. There was also another titular role in one of the best shorts in recent years, Spencer Susser’s I Love Sarah Jane, in which a 13-year-old boy pursues his girl crush (Wasikowska) in a post-zombie apocalypse world. In another edgy film, 2006’s Suburban Mayhem, she turned in a supporting part that landed her the Australian Film Institute’s Young Actor’s Award. Now, between movie shoots in Europe and in the U.S., Wasikowska returns to her family home in Canberra, where she still has her own room. “I don't consider myself a starlet or a Hollywood person,” she told Australia’s Courier Mail. “When I'm in LA, I'm there for work and then I leave and join the rest of the world. I like keeping that balance. I haven't decided where to base myself, but coming back to Canberra grounds me. It connects me back to the real world, reminding me there's a sphere outside filmmaking and it's not all that people do and think about."

In Treatment
Wasikowska’s Australian parts were in dark, gritty dramas — worlds away from the teen comedies that many young American actresses do in their early careers. So, when it came time to work in the States, it was natural that Wasikowska would play a character like Sophie, a troubled teenager in HBO’s emotionally intense In Treatment series. She left school in Canberra, enrolled in correspondence courses, and traveled to Los Angeles for three months with her mother to do the show. In Treatment, created by the filmmaker Rodrigo Garcia and based on the hit Israeli series Be’ Tipul, was an actor’s dream — one-hour episodes in which a character confronted their fears and frailties in a weekly session with therapist Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne. Sophie was “Wednesday’s child,” a suicidal teen athlete. In a series studded with established actresses like Embeth Davidtz and Dianne Wiest, Wasikowska was tagged as the show’s break-out discovery. Wrote James Poniewozik at Time Magazine’s “Tuned In” TV blog, “Wasikowska is flat-out stunning as the Olympic hopeful who, seeking therapy after a car accident that may have been intentional, gradually reveals a heartbreaking story while fighting Paul—slyly, charmingly, sometimes cruelly—every step of the way.”
Down the Rabbit Hole

After her stunning arc on In Treatment, Wasikowska was sought after by producers and directors. She appeared opposite Daniel Craig in Edward Zwick’s World War 2 movie, Defiance, and played a young aviator in Mira Nair’s Amelia, but it would be her next part that would make her a worldwide star. With a budget estimated at almost $200 million, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a risky update of a classic children’s tale. For his movie, which was ported over to 3D during post-production, Burton updated the characters, returning a now-older Alice to the world of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen she visited as a child. Burton auditioned dozens of young actresses for Alice until he settled on Wasikowska. Explained Burton about Wasikowska’s appeal, “I always like it when I sense people have that ‘old soul’ quality to them.” Indeed, from the beginning the actress had a mature take on Lewis Carroll’s work. While she remembers the books from when she was a child, a more memorable impression was made by another version of the tale. As she told the Times of London, “My other encounter with Alice was the Czech director Jan Svankmajer’s version, a stop-motion animated film, which is incredible. When we were kids, my mum would pop it in the VCR player. We would be disturbed, and wouldn’t really understand it, but we couldn’t look away because it was too intriguing. So I had kept that feeling about Alice, a kind of haunting feeling.” The film was a worldwide smash — less than two months after opening it grossed over $300 million worldwide. And while Burton’s 3D theatrics may have split the critics, they all were bewitched by Wasikowska. Wrote Rick Groen in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, “The true three-dimensionality here is the old-fashioned kind – Wasikowska’s fully rounded performance. Throughout the technical razzle-dazzle, we keep returning to the pallor of that face, the gravity in those eyes. She’s the ballast in all this free-floating imagination, giving the picture weight and ambiguity too – the near-woman in retreat from the impending world of Hamishes back to childhood’s fragile fancies.” Todd McCarthy, Variety’s veteran critic at the time, concurred, calling Wasikowska “an actress of willowy, Gwyneth Paltrowesque beauty but, more important here, of a pale but powerful resolve that confers upon the picture any gravity it may possess.”

The Future of Mia

As Alice in Wonderland continues to score with audiences around the world, Wasikowska’s next pictures are waiting to be released, and she’s already on set in her next leading role. First up, from Focus Features, is Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right, in which Wasikowska plays the teenage daughter of lesbian parents played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore. When she and her brother, played by Josh Hutcherson, decide to find their sperm-donor father, a casually charming Mark Ruffalo enters the mix to make all question their family values. In post-production is Restless, from Gus Van Sant, in which she plays a teen focused on mortality. Written by first-timer Jason Lew and produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Bryce Dallas Howard, the project was described by the producers as “a contemporary and distinctive take on young love.” She told The Guardian, “Van Sant is fantastic. I felt so liberated on set because I was encouraged to act like a young person He wanted me to have fun and be myself; it felt like I was in college." And then there’s Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre director Cary Fukunaga’s take on Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 tale. Wasikowska plays the orphaned governess, and Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Hunger) her imposing employer, Rochester. When asked by the Australian blog Movie Mazzupial what attracted her to the part, she says, simply, that she was excited by the change of pace. “I love doing things that are different from anything I’ve done before. It keeps it interesting, doing different things in different ways. I look forward to finding lots of different characters that challenge me and to also give something back to the audience.” As her career so far has more than proven, audiences will have many new characters to look forward to from Wasikowska in the years to come.


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