Through a Glass Darkly

Photo: Georges Antoni

‘Black Swan gave me chills,” says Mia Wasikowska, who, bundled up in gray cashmere and clutching a hot cup of tea in the café of the Waldorf-Astoria, is, in fact, shivering. She’s obsessed with Darren Aronofsky’s film for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, there’s her own history with ballet: The 21-year-old actress used to train for 35 hours a week in her hometown of Canberra in Australia. She quit at 15, in part because of the “fluffy and pink” eternally adolescent bubble young dancers are kept in. “And the mothers. And the purity,” she adds. “It was a lot about achieving perfection in your body in ways you can’t really change or control. It’s a cruel kind of thing to be a part of, to expose yourself to such criticism, on such a finite level, down to your big toe or your ankle. It really can erode your self-esteem.”

Being an actress is a cinch by comparison, she says. “Everyone thinks I’m nuts when I say this, but it’s easier to be a young actor than it is to be a dancer. ­People say actors feel the pressure to be thin, too—to be pretty or blah blah blah.” Wasikowska shakes her head and laughs. “And it’s like, ‘You know what? Not really.’ Not to the same extent. Dancers are hard-core. They’re insane.”

The other reason she’s stuck on Black Swan is because it shares DNA with her latest film, Jane Eyre (opening March 11), which stars Wasikowska as the title character, a young woman who, like Natalie Portman’s Nina, is vulnerable and somewhat lost, confused about what’s real (is that a voice in the ­attic?), and intimidated by an older, powerful man (Mr. Rochester, played by Michael Fassbender). Cary Fukunaga (Sin Nombre) has directed the film with a handheld camera, natural light, and Gothic shadows; it is more physical, more frightening, more emotionally wrenching than other updates of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel—the black swan to lighter versions. “Nina and Jane are two girls trying to make a connection in a dislocated world, trying to find something,” says Wasikowska. “That perpetual preteen thing is a repression [for Nina]. But for Jane, it’s all repression. It’s inside herself. The book is her internal monologue, the whole 500 pages of it.”

Wasikowska’s introduction to American audiences was nine high-wire episodes on the first season of HBO’s In Treatment. She played a teenage patient of Gabriel Byrne’s psychotherapist, a tough gymnast struggling with the sport’s rigor and pressure—a role she could identify with. Confined mostly to a couch, she delivered pages of complex dialogue with an exhausting range of ­emotion—from sullen guardedness to deflective irony to explosive anger—­opposite one of the cagiest, quietest actors on television. “There was nowhere to hide,” says the actress, who was 17 at the time. “But I think my excitement compensated for my fear or something.”

On the basis of that performance, she would land two parts: Annette Bening and Julianne Moore’s daughter in The Kids Are All Right and the title role in Tim Burton’s 3-D Alice in Wonderland. Suddenly, after one low-rated cable show, she was acting on a green-screen set with Johnny Depp. “The prop guys would draw little eyeballs on the tennis ball that was supposed to be the Cheshire cat. I wish I’d had my camera.”

Wasikowska is the middle child of parents John Reid and Marzena Wasikowska, who are both photographers. Not long ago, her mother, who is Polish, gave her an old Rolleiflex, and that has led to a compulsion for chronicling life on the sets of her movies. She asked that wardrobe sew a secret pocket into her Jane Eyre costume so she could keep her camera with her. She digs into a big handbag for her iPhone and thumbs through images: spontaneous portraits of her co-stars Judi Dench (Mrs. Fairfax) and Jamie Bell (St. John Rivers) and a frankly terrifying shot of Fassbender, looking painfully gaunt as Mr. Rochester. “The age difference between me and Michael is kind of magnified in this film,” says Wasikowska. “His ­Rochester is dangerous.” She moves on to a shot of Late Show With David Letterman’s greenroom (“It’s so skanky-looking!”), and an off-kilter, black-and-white photo of the director of her next film, Restless, peering at her through a lens: “Gus Van Sant, one-eyed monster.”

What attracts her to photography is that it’s acting’s exact opposite. “It isn’t dependent on other people telling you when and where—and it’s really fun.” Still, she’s serious about her work: Photographer Mary Ellen Mark, whom the actress met through Alice, is now a mentor and reviews Wasikowska’s photos by e-mail.

All her life, she says, she’s been impatient with herself. “At 14, I would be like, ‘Oh my God, my career … It’s over! I’m practically 95! I’ve lost all my chances!’ I don’t know where it came from, but I always had a sense of, like, doom. Like I hadn’t done enough.” No worries on that front—at least for the next year, which includes a list of films as wide-ranging and unconventional as her first three. In addition to Restless, in which she plays a terminally ill teenager, she just wrapped Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close; she’s about to start production on The Wettest County in the World, a southern crime drama with a screenplay by Nick Cave; and she’s joined the cast of the thriller Stoker, opposite Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. “I like doing things that are really scary or intimidating,” she says, “and then you kind of conquer it.”

Wasikowska admits that it took a while to feel part of the acting community. “When I first started, it wasn’t my world,” she says. “Over four or five years, it’s become my world and I am part of it. And that’s a really interesting transition to make—from being an outsider to an insider.” Wasikowska laughs. “Or almost an insider.” She rolls her eyes. “Or, whatever.”

Through a Glass Darkly