For Mia Wasikowska, unfamiliarity breeds contempt
December 15 2019 10:26 PM
ACTION: Mia in a scene from Judy & Punch.
ACTION: Mia in a scene from Judy & Punch.


Australian actress Mia Wasikowska trained as a ballet dancer in her teens before switching careers. In 2010, she was the highest-grossing film star in the world after playing the lead in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and starring alongside Annette Bening and Julianne Moore in The Kids Are All Right. She has since starred in Jane Eyre opposite Michael Fassbender and as the writer Robyn Davidson in Tracks. Now she plays Judy in Judy and Punch, Mirrah Foulkes’s unruly, subversive, feminist take on the traditional puppet show.

How was it working on Judy and Punch?
It was a rough shoot. Low budget Australian filmmaking is full on. We had babies, dogs, horses, puppets — so many uncontrollable elements — but got through it. Melbourne weather is notoriously horrible and [meant] we were unable to drive down to the location — an artist’s estate. The cast and crew had to trudge down a very steep slope and we were stuck there for a couple of days.

What is the moral of Judy and Punch?
Judy gives a speech in which she says the witch might appear to be her today, but everybody lives in fear that tomorrow they might be perceived to be witches. It is a brilliant message that pinpoints the fearmongering happening here [in the UK] and in America.

Was it difficult to get Judy’s emotional reactions across with such an economical script and speedy plot?
It was hard to get the emotional content because the film jumps between humour and drama. But we thought it was very important for the dramatic moments to hit, to be a counterpoint to absurdity. We wanted to make the film a conflict for the audience — like the puppet show itself. You’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.

You’ve just turned 30 – do you feel like laughing or crying?
Weirdly, I feel better about turning 30 than I did approaching it. Twenty-eight was harder. I measure my life in terms of age; I envy people who don’t. For me it’s about asking, have I stopped long enough to choose to do what I’m doing?

Your career has been pretty nonstop since you gave up ballet. Why did you jump tracks?
I was desperate to be a ballet dancer. I was super in love with it but it became evident I’d never become a prima ballerina, I didn’t have the right body. It was devastating to realise that. It speaks of the toxicity within ballet — I was 14 and tiny. I remember one audition where they did not watch anyone dance, just checked our proportions and flexibility. I was heartbroken. I was probably a lovely dancer.

I first saw you in the HBO drama In Treatment playing a stressed teenage gymnast. You were brilliant and obviously knew how that gymnast felt.
In Treatment was my first job in America. Over the 10 years, I’ve been in the US, the people who made In Treatment — Rodrigo Garcia and Sarah Treem — have become milestone people in my life. Then came Alice [the Tim Burton film] — another turning point. The transition to Hollywood was difficult in having to let go of control of how I was perceived. It’s embarrassing to admit you care, but as a 20-year-old you do. Pimped out to a world of press, you can feel picked apart. Before, no-one knew me.

How Australian do you feel when not in Australia?
I staunchly stay in Australia and love being there but I’m not a patriot. My mum is Polish and I have seen her struggle, seen the negative side to our culture in terms of bigotry. She gave me empathy for people outside classic Aussie culture — I especially feel empathy towards our Indigenous culture whom we’ve displaced and continue to undervalue and disempower.

Do you get homesick?
I do. I’ve an underlying anxiety when overseas because I can’t swim home. I want to be on the same land as everyone I love. I particularly miss the floral smell of Sydney in spring.

Your parents are photographers… Have you inherited their visual sense?
I have been obsessed with photography and taken photos from the perspective of an actor on set. Filming Jane Eyre, they even sewed a secret pocket into the bustle of my skirt for my camera.

What advice would you give an actor starting out?
If you really, really love it — keep going for sure. But my perspective on ambition, determination and pushing has changed in the past couple of years. I’ve done this job for 10 years all over the world. It’s a bit of a cliché but, after a while, it leaves you feeling hollow. I’m looking forward to being back in Sydney. I feel more of a pull to be in my own community where I can have consistency and friends because, although acting is a really awesome job, the perception is different from the reality. Unless you are able to work with the same people again, it is really lonely and a lot of upheaval.

What is freedom?
Knowing you have choices, never feeling beholden to any person, place or thing. Knowing who you are. It’s a big conflict to slow things down or not take work because most of the time you’re being told how lucky you are, how brilliant it is, how cool that you get to travel. You feel so terrible thinking, actually, I hate it.

Of all the characters you have played, which comes closest to you?
I’m going to subvert this question: none of them. Yet there is an element I identify with in all of them. I think it’s fine to hate your characters –— if they’re total a-------s.

You have done some directing?
I directed a short film about a little boy with nervous tics from The Turning by Tim Winton, who is brilliant. It was such fun, so much better than acting. It was wonderful to be able to create a world. I’d love to do more directing.

What do you find relaxing?
Gardening. I’m really anxious right now because I’m not sure if my housemates are watering my veggies — tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins, zucchini, spinach, radishes… And there is my dog. I wrangled my brother into sharing a dog with me — in Sydney. His name is June. June — let me just put it out there — was originally a boy’s name. He’s big and fluffy and gorgeous and I can’t wait to get back to him.

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