Interview: Mia Wasikowska
“But you’re not a country doctor!” Emma Bovary’s sudden, severe reproach to her husband, Charles, marks a pivot in Mia Wasikowska’s rendering of this surely intimidating part. Her voice rises without warning, about 40 minutes into Sophie Barthes’s adaptation, the characters sitting quietly at table. Emma has her reasons, but her discontent has simmered without comment amid earlier provocations, as when Charles waves off some food she has worked hard preparing. So why now? The performance cleaves to such enigmas rather than dispelling them, implying emotions without inflating them. Wasikowska carries Emma’s feelings into crisis at brief, sharp moments we cannot predict, then subdues them during long interludes where another interpreter might have flaunted more frivolity, greater lust, deeper ire.
This is the Wasikowska Way, if such a formulation is even possible, 10 years into an eclectic career: favoring the taciturn, coaxing us toward her characters, building a mystery rather than proffering a map. Emma Bovary collapses spectacularly but, as embodied in this version, she prompts us to question what exactly drives her downfall, when precisely it becomes inevitable, and how fully she means her words or grasps her circumstances. Other Wasikowska characters, as in Stoker (13) or Maps to the Stars (14), are savvier chess masters, maintaining their guard while putting one over on everyone around them. Ultimately, they get everything they want, or enough of it.
Wasikowska herself is a quietly formidable strategist. At 25 years old, she has assayed several icons of European literature: Emma Bovary, Lewis Carroll’s Alice, a particularly fine Jane Eyre, and, in Richard Ayoade’s The Double (13), a puckish spin on a Dostoyevskian cipher. She has shown a Kidman- or Huppert-like zeal for collaborating with singular auteurs (Park, Jarmusch, Cronenberg, Cholodenko, Van Sant, Burton, Nair, del Toro) and has already tried her own hand at directing. Of the 18 segments in the 2013 Australian omnibus The Turning, hers seems the sprightliest, evoking the fleet and febrile whimsy of early Jane Campion shorts like Peel or Passionless Moments. Then a darker, more static finale shifts the episode’s center, changing its relation to the three-hour whole, to subtly chilling effect.
I begin my conversation by thanking Wasikowska for her intrepid choices, and for being so protective of her characters’ entrancing privacy—even as it is now my errand to plumb their secrets a little, and hers.
How important was it to you that Emma be fully “readable” to the audience? Or more generally, how do you decide what to disclose or not disclose about the character you have come to know?
I guess I think about it in a different way. I form an intuitive idea about the character and then try to copy the way it feels in my mind. I’m never totally aware of what “reading” an audience might have—and everybody reads things so differently anyway. So I try not to think about it too much in terms of how people will interpret it but just go with what feels right in the moment for the person I’m playing.
You’ve said your involvement in Jane Eyre (11) really began with your being a fan of the novel, and that you sought out any scripts that might be circulating. Was that true in this case as well?
Yeah, definitely. I like the book so much and it’s such a treat to play a character who presents so many emotions that put her at a distance from her world then, but also from our world now. She’s very jealous. She’s got lots of rage, but then she’s also very idealistic. It’s quite fun to play emotions like those that put a character at a certain remove from what’s around her.
One intriguing aspect of this Madame Bovary is that it often conjures a precise sense of period or place, but then—even within the same scene—other aspects like the casting make the film seem less beholden to any one time or region. (Wasikowska, who is Australian, shares the screen with Henry Lloyd-Hughes, who is English; Rhys Ifans, who is Welsh; Paul Giamatti and Ezra Miller, who are American; and Dardenne staple Olivier Gourmet, who is Belgian.) Given what you’re saying about Emma’s emotions, did you feel obligated to evoke a specific milieu or moment in history, or were you seeking a different resonance?
Mainly we were taking Sophie’s lead, and she wanted this to be a very classic interpretation but also to keep our natural accents. Well, I did a sort of American accent, because she wanted us to speak either like Americans or, for the people who were British, to keep those British accents. So she wasn’t precious in that sense and didn’t want to make an issue of us all speaking any one way. That was quite freeing. But then it was also very classically shot and very true to the novel and the time, in all the other dimensions.
I appreciated the bold adaptation choices in the script—to eliminate Charles and Emma’s child, for example.
Yeah, me too!
So given the film’s impulses to adhere to Flaubert in some ways but break fairly decisively in others, did that drive you to work strictly from the screenplay as its own freestanding version of events, or did the entirety of the novel still serve as a resource for you?
The novel, I think, was always the beginning for everybody, but then inevitably you lose some things and keep others. Many of those choices, of course, were made before I was really a part of it. To me, it all worked. Everything Sophie chose to do in terms of the script was so clever, and I think helped to keep the film focused on Emma’s emotional life and her battles.
The hunting sequence feels so decisive for Emma—in this version, she’s buying gold damask curtains the second it’s over. Her vigor in transforming her life is suddenly so pronounced, but so much is at stake during the hunt that it’s hard to trace the exact prompt for her new behavior. For one, it’s her most elevated social outing thus far. She also grows more acquainted with the Marquis (Logan Marshall-Green), who will become her lover, and we further sense Emma’s identification with the hunted animal. Which aspect of the scene would you foreground in terms of why it ultimately affects Emma so much?
Well, the main thing, which continues to happen all the time for Emma, is that something she expects—an ideal, maybe, or a fantasy that she has in her mind—yields to a reality that is very, very different. Her actions always kind of result from that disconnect. She’s constantly trying to fill a void. She’s in an emotionless marriage, she’s very alone, she can’t connect to people. All her behavior and all her actions result from just what she feels in a given moment. And I find it very sad, when people just aren’t—well, when they aren’t given any tools to figure out a way to live, basically. She just stays stuck in this tangled mess of her own emotions.
One moment I found especially sad is when she’s outside with Léon near the end of the movie and she pronounces that “all men are evil, every one.” I wonder if she really thinks that, even just in this moment, or is she just so desperate for any answer that might explain her predicament? Or is she just trying to say anything she can to get a rise out of this man who is renouncing her so forcefully?
I think she feels constantly deserted, but she also doesn’t help herself. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. She’s not really able to be there for the people with whom she’s in relationships, or to look after them. There is nothing like a two-way street, anywhere. Inevitably people leave her—they see her as kind of going nutty, and she can’t summon any resources herself.
I’m curious how or if your approach to acting has changed at all since you’ve been working as a director.
Not too much, but I really loved being able to make that short film. When you’re an actor, you’re just one piece of a very large puzzle. There’s a limit to your involvement, which is absolutely fine. I wouldn’t want any more power than I have as an actor, but to have the outlet of directing is really fun—to have a project that is wholly your own. I got to assemble my own group of really wonderful people from Australia to work on that. But I don’t think it’s changed my approach to acting itself.
As an actor, do you like being in dialogue with people like the cinematographer and the costumer, or do you prefer responding to creative choices they’ve made independently?
I do like collaborating, but I also feel I’ve been working with such wonderful people that there’s nothing I could even add to what they’ve already imagined. As much as possible, we still find ways to feed off each other, but really, across the board, everyone on these films I’ve been doing has just been incredible. Costumes, especially, are so important, especially on a project like Madame Bovary. Every color was so representative of Emma’s place in her journey. Those designers, Valérie Ranchoux and Christian Gasc, were such an incredible team.
I particularly loved that they allowed you to repeat outfits. Even as Emma is spending too much or growing too acquisitive, it’s not like she’s got a different gown in every scene. You are watching her work within a limited repertoire, although we understand her to be exceeding her means. You don’t see that kind of thing a lot, especially in period movies like this.
Definitely. It was really nice, too, to have that consistency—to experience, for example, having to take back the very same dresses we’ve actually seen her wear.
Dilating out from Bovary a bit, but staying on the costuming theme… enquiring minds are dying to know if you got to keep your gloves from Maps to the Stars.
That’s so funny! I didn’t! I should have. They’re so stingy, they never let us keep any of the costumes. But for sure, those gloves were completely great.
Swerving back to another period role, I remember that incredibly generous moment when Meryl Streep, upon winning a Golden Globe for The Iron Lady, used her time at the podium to insist that everybody watching owed it to themselves to see you in Jane Eyre. Do you remember this?
Oh, that’s so lovely.
So, given Meryl’s enthusiasm, plus your willingness to work with so many different directors and across so many genres and tones, do you feel there was one specific project that prompted other actors or filmmakers to see your work differently—or where your own process took a decisive turn?
The most significant project for me was really the first thing I did in America, which gave me all the subsequent opportunities. I did this show in HBO called In Treatment, which was my first time being able to work in America, and that in itself opened up so many doors. Without that, I just don’t know where or how I ever would have crossed the border. And it was all so new to me, and so exciting.
The films you seem to gravitate to obviously have to fight for their spot in the marketplace. You’re all under such pressure to promote these smaller movies and keep them visible, so is there a project that makes you feel especially proud or pleased when people approach you about it?
Recently, I really loved The Double and Maps to the Stars. Those are two of the most fun experiences I’ve had. I think they actually did well, too, but they aren’t what people usually mention when they talk to me. I loved those characters, but also all the people with whom I made both films.
Going back to The Turning, which was adapted from Tim Winton’s collection of linked short stories, certain figures recur across the segments, albeit played at different times and by different actors. How much freedom were you all given to develop your own Vic or your own Carol? Were you working mostly in isolation, or were you at all aware of how others were interpreting those same characters?
We pretty much worked independently from each other. I’m not sure if other directors worked more closely in tandem, but we all chose or were given one of the stories, and then we enjoyed creative license to do whatever we did. Everybody had their own producer, in addition to the project’s overall producer, Rob Connolly. He obviously saw what each of us was doing, but otherwise it was all very free and up to us, including how we each adapted our story. What an amazing opportunity to be given.
It’s quite an opportunity for a viewer as well, to be exposed within one project to so many voices and still feel like it’s a coherent tribute to one book. Even within your sequence, from little shard to little shard, you play in such different ways with sound, color, editing, camera perspective…
I know! We did storyboard it all, but we definitely had fun with it, too. I so enjoyed doing that project. I think it was probably the greatest time I’ve had, in a working context.
So given all that palpable fun you have, pushing all the elements of film in such playful ways, does that suggest you’re eager to direct again? Are you excited to work with a whole new toolbox?
Oh, yeah, I’d love to. But, you know—at some point. I’m not particularly in a hurry, but if something came up that seemed appropriate for me, I’d love to do that again.