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Actress Mia Wasikowska, star of Crimson Peak, grew up in the gaze of a camera lens, in a family of photographers. By Steve Dow.

Crimson Peak’s Mia Wasikowska in sharp focus

Mia Wasikowska in 'Crimson Peak'
Credit: Courtesy Universal Pictures

A spectral figure in the night approaches and captures the small girl’s image. The flash awakens her. Soon, she will become aware these photos require performances. The child learns she is both object and subject of the gaze.

The images graduate to staged tableaux of family life before the same maternal eye, processing connection, longing and loss, as family members grow and travel and briefly intersect again.

In one digital 90cm x 90cm print, taken in 2011, Mia Wasikowksa is in the foreground, chest deep in a lake’s water, eyes closed, shirt buttoned to the neck. Older sister Jess stands in profile, breast partly concealed by feeding son Oskar. Brother Kai is a distant figure, in sunglasses. The scene looks baptismal.

In our interview, first on the line from New York, and later from London, Wasikowska, who has just turned 26, names an earlier favourite photo taken by her mother, Marzena, an accomplished Canberra-based artist.

Mia, then 7, and Kai were sleeping in the family’s Canberra home: “It looks like he’s whispering in my ear, and it’s really sweet,” she says.

During promotion for her 19th role in a feature film, Guillermo del Toro’s visually arresting Gothic ghost story Crimson Peak, we discuss her own visual art influences.

“Everything I know about photography, and images, comes from my mum, from a really young age,” says Wasikowska. “Just teaching us how to see things, even just through posed photos.

“My relationship to her photos changed a lot over the years. When you grow up with something, you don’t think anything of it. When I was a bit older I thought, ‘Wow, these are really spectacular. They’re beautiful photographs.’ ”

Did being the subject of her mother’s gaze take away her self-consciousness? “I guess so. It was just something we weren’t even aware of. It was just so normal.”

Marzena Wasikowska was born in Poland but left in 1974, at age 11, for Australia. The day Marzena arrived in Canberra with her own mother, on a bus from Melbourne after three months at sea, the temperature hit 40 degrees Celsius.

Yet the filmic sensibility of a colder clime was in the DNA: Marzena loves the introspective lighting in the films of Roman Polanski, Thomas Vinterberg and Paolo Sorrentino. Mia’s connection to her mother and that European sensibility is such that, despite being born in Canberra, she gets described in official press materials as “Polish-Australian”.

Mia and her siblings did not take the name of their father, the Australian-born photographer and collagist John Reid, an Australian National University researcher of connections between artists and science. Convention was never the family’s priority: John and Marzena did not marry until their three children were adults.

Marzena describes her Hasselblad as “the other offspring, the storyteller and scribe”. The camera was usually by her side when the family moved to the Polish city of Szczecin for a year in 1998.

It was Mia’s first time in Poland. She was eight. It was a lonely time that called for fantasy. “I was very obsessed with imaginary friends. My mum remembers me doing that. I think it was just a particularly isolating time. Just having a whole bunch of imaginary kids walking around, pushing prams, and holding hands.”

In Canberra, Mia and her siblings asked for a dog, but weren’t allowed to have one. Later, they started rebelling and bringing home rabbits and fish. Marzena’s memory of this time, recalled in a recent interview with Photofile magazine, is her three children began “revolting” against the visual family heritage “with a concerted retreat into dance and the performing arts”.

About five years ago, Marzena and Mia travelled Europe. They “ran around” galleries, because Marzena wanted to look at the Manets. Their travel complete, Mia then picked up Marzena’s camera.

“She instantly bonded with it,” Marzena recalled. And with that, Mia began turning her lens on the world.

 

Mia Wasikowska started ballet training at nine, at the Canberra Dance Development Centre, and thought it would be her life. She loved the full body experience. Loved that it was non-verbal. But she worried about achieving physical perfection, even if by her teens she was practising 35 hours a week.

She’d go for auditions, only to be met by the pedantic measurement of waist, knees, calves and thighs. “I loved dance, because it was a whole body experience,” she recalls from New York. “It was expressive and becomes emotional and connected very much to your body, and gets you out of your head. So it’s a very addictive, therapeutic thing.”

Then came her spur ankle injury at 14, which forced her to rest up for a few weeks. She never went back to dance.

When she talks now to her sister Jess, a dance teacher in Canberra who studied at the Victorian College of the Arts, does she feel regret? “No. I feel really happy that I got out of that world. I really love seeing dance and I do occasionally miss it. Acting definitely suits me a little better.”

Despite hating drama class – the rowdy kids got the attention – Mia would lock herself in her room, researching acting, and phoning and writing to try to get an agent. She was almost embarrassed by this seemingly unattainable ambition. But at 15, she landed her first acting job, playing a character in two episodes of the TV drama All Saints.

Perhaps her fascination for narrative storytelling is a gift from her father. John Reid has been telling the one about the Fishman since 1988, the year before Mia was born. Reid says he discovered the humanoid figure in the Deua National Park, 100 kilometres south-east of Canberra. Reid emerged from a cave at Wyanbene with exposed 35-millimetre film that “revealed a human-like figure swimming in the stream”. He gathered more Fishman images over the years.

A Canberra Times journalist accompanied Reid on an expedition to try to find the Fishman last year, speculating that Reid is the Fishman. “Fishman is more a fine art discovery as opposed to a scientific discovery,” explained Reid.

“He has a much more environmental approach to photography, and we would do a lot of camping,” Wasikowska says of her myth-making father. “His pictures are very different to my mum’s, but have their own beauty.”

The family camped each Christmas in tents in bushland on the NSW South Coast, in what became Eurobodalla National Park, “like a poor man’s holiday home”, she says. One year, they camped there for two months. “It’s this cove where the lake meets the sea and every couple of years it opens up and there’s a channel. It was wonderful, being connected to outside and having that freedom.”

This experience may explain her affinity with lone Australian camel trekker Robyn Davidson, whom she portrayed in Tracks (2013). Making that film allowed Wasikowska to be in the same time zone as her family.

“I hate the feeling when I’m overseas, away from Australia, that I’m trapped, blocked by an ocean from getting to the people I love,” Wasikowska confessed to Glenn Close, her co-star in the 2011 film Albert Nobbs, in Interview magazine last year. “That gives me anxiety.”

She spends what little downtime she has in New York with her boyfriend, US actor Jesse Eisenberg, whom she met when they starred in The Double (2013).

Close has fond memories of John Reid and Marzena Wasikowska putting together a book of photos on the making of Albert Nobbs, in which Close played the transgender character lead, while being “incredibly impressed” by Mia’s own photography.

Mia’s image of director Cary Fukunaga and actor Jamie Bell, taken on set while they all worked on Jane Eyre, was a finalist in the 2011 National Photographic Portrait Prize. The same year, Marzena had a finalist portrait showing Mia in dark glasses with a pregnant Jess and Jess’s partner, Danny Wild.

Mia loves the work of photographers Lee Friedlander, Roger Ballen, Mary Ellen Mark and William Eggleston. For her finalist photo, she used a little digital Canon camera. “It’s the best digital camera I’ve had, because it has a fast shutter.”

She also has a Leica, as well as her mother’s Rolleiflex. “I really loved it, and I was new to the square format, so I really learned. I really like her Hasselblad, but I feel much more instinctively inclined to use the Rolleiflex.”

Two years ago Mia decided against a plan to enrol in the esteemed Rhode Island School of Design, where her application to study photography had been accepted.

“I think I was looking for something a little more permanent,” she says now. “Since then I’ve got an apartment in Sydney. I think that’s what I was looking for: a little stability or a sense of home beyond the film sets.” If she ever does get to university, she’d like to study art history.

Mia’s acting choices, meanwhile, are never less than interesting: the destructive daughter of a Hollywood family in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars, and swashbuckling author Edith Cushing in Crimson Peak – both ghost stories.

Wasikowska says del Toro takes an anti-Hitchcock approach by showing what we fear. “When the ghosts appear in Crimson Peak it’s so evident that it’s such a shock. In David’s film, you don’t even know they’re ghosts.”

Is she attracted to unusual characters because she is unusual? “Possibly, yeah. I just go for whatever I have an emotional response to.”

Del Toro told Collider during the gruelling six months on set: “She’s nice, so shy and so young, and I go, ‘Aw, fuck. I’m a bastard,’ because she does go through a lot, the character.”

Is she shy? “In films, those very big personalities, maybe in comparison I appear shy,” says Wasikowska. “As a child, I didn’t feel very confident in large groups, but if I was with a friend, I was very rowdy and excitable. I wasn’t ever super-confident in school. In class I always felt a bit intimidated, so it’s always a bit of a surprise to be an actor.

“There’s this misconception that acting is for the very outgoing, loud people but, you know, it attracts all different personalities.”

She expands on the shyness question in our second interview: “I feel a bit more confident in myself now, I guess, but there’s still situations where I don’t. I don’t have an extroverted persona in a public sense, but I definitely don’t feel shy with my friends and family.”

Younger brother Kai Wasikowski – he uses the masculine form of the same Polish surname – is now in his second year studying photography at the Sydney College of the Arts. Mia admits it has been a while since she took a still camera onto a film set.

However, 2013 saw the release of her directorial debut with Long, Clear View, one of 17 short films based on Tim Winton’s short story collection The Turning. It’s the story of a lonely boy, Vic Lang, with compulsive habits such as snapping his teeth each time he passes under a street lamp. “We were allowed to do whatever we wanted with it,” says Wasikowska.

Wasikowska’s boyfriend Eisenberg has admitted to obsessive-compulsive habits such as the avoidance of stepping on cracks, but inspiration came from her family.

“My brother and sister and I started talking about our neuroses as kids, and then it just became very funny, the strange things we’d do. It became this shared neurotic childhood tale. That film’s probably a good indication of some things we did.”

This year Wasikowska has directed a new short film, After Birth, featuring Emma Lung. Does she now have ambitions to direct a feature?

“Yeah, I would love to do that. I’m not in a major hurry. It’s whatever comes up at the right time. I’m open to things.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 31, 2015 as "Sharp focus". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Sydney-based arts writer and the author of Gay: The Tenth Anniversary Collection.

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