Mia Goth: ‘I always felt it’s plan A or I’m f**ked’
The actor on staying in character and why starring in Emma is a rite of passage
Definitely not on Instagram: Mia Goth. Photograph: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty for Vanity Fair
No matter how many times you’ve seen Mia Goth on screen, once you encounter her in person, her striking, otherworldly appearance is completely disarming. Maybe you just have to see those saucer eyes and pneumatic lips up close to realise that her doll-like features are not the result of some fantastic CG chicanery.
Long-time Goth watchers may recall the Miu Miu campaign that was banned in the UK for presenting “a child in a sexualised way”, shot when she was 22. At 26, she remains surprisingly girlish. Friendly, and speaking in high pitched, cut-glass vowels, she couldn’t be a better fit for Harriet Smith, the best friend and plaything for the titular heroine of Jane Austen’s Emma. Goth is one of the best things in the new film adaptation, co-starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Josh O’Connor, Miranda Hart, and Bill Nighy.
“I’m English so I’ve known Jane Austen my whole life, whether I want to or not!” says Goth. “I studied Pride and Prejudice at school. And I feel that being a British actor and having an opportunity to do something like this does feel like a rite of passage. But it had to be the right movie. I’ve seen period dramas that don’t move me at all and that are really boring. But other period dramas are iconic and make you feel great. Meeting the director Autumn de Wilde sealed the deal for me. I was blown away by her and how inspired she was by the story and how in love she was with the characters. And I knew that and her punk rock sensibility would make a really interesting mix.”
Mia Gypsy Mello Da Silva Goth – as it says on her birth certificate – was born in London to a Brazilian mother and Nova Scotia-born Canadian father. She moved with her family to Rio when she was a few weeks old, and then to a remote farm in Canada, but returned to London for schooling. “Most of what I say and think is quite English,” she says. “I’m always apologising and saying: ‘After you.’ I’m very expressive and emotive. I feel that’s my South American hot bloodedness. But I’m also very sensible. I love routine and being a good citizen. So I guess that’s Canadian. I definitely had a nomadic upbringing. My first name is actually Mia Gypsy and that’s because my mum felt I was going to be moving around a lot. She thought that would be quite fitting. Moving around definitely comes with its own sort of education. It sparked my interest in people and how they differ from country to country.
“Growing up in Brazil and Canada and England and going to school in all three countries, I was always fascinated by how different the kids were from school to school, or town to town. At one point in the process of trying to find myself, I would adopt different personalities to fit into whatever environment I was in. I think that was my first introduction to character really and performance.”
Those aspects were already, as she notes, in the blood. Her grandfather is the artist Lee Jaffe and her grandmother is the Brazilian actress Maria Gladys, a soap opera star.
“I was exposed to that world very early,” says Goth. “Some of my earliest memories – I’m thinking about when I’m four-years-old – are being on sets, and watching lots of people all working towards one thing. And the alchemy of that. And watching my grandmother at the centre of it all. So I always had a curiosity about it and I started auditioning when I was 16. There was never a plan B. I always felt it’s plan A or I’m f**ked. I still have no plan B.”
I desperately wanted to be on that set
In 2013, still in her teens, Goth got her big break simulating graphic sex and relieving herself on Charlotte Gainsbourg in Lars von Trier’s controversial five-and-a-half hour erotic melodrama Nymphomaniac.
“I wasn’t nervous at all,” she shrugs. “Well, maybe on the first morning on the drive there. I was 18 years old. And at 18 you are completely fearless. I desperately wanted to be on that set. It was my first movie and I had been auditioning for two years. I knew who Lars was and the sort of films that he made and I was just so hungry for that. One of the happiest times in my life was on that set.”
How did her friends and family respond to the various onscreen, well, defilings?
“My parents are very young still and they are fans of Lars,” says Goth. “They are very liberal thinking in that sense. They were more than happy for me to be in the film. I wasn’t going into all the details all the time, but they trusted me and they trusted Lars. I think it probably helps that the friends that I grew up with are not in the industry at all. They like films but they don’t really understand the impact that Lars von Trier has had on cinema. They just thought it was cool.”
An impressive turn alongside Martin McCann and Olwen Fouéré in The Survivalist was an immersive experience for the young actor. Shot over six weeks on a disused Royal Air Force base in Belfast, Goth didn’t shower or bathe during the production of Stephen Fingleton’s compelling dystopian drama.
“It was intense but really fulfilling,” she recalls. “It was a very small concentrated film about three people in a cabin essentially trying to survive. I loved it. It’s my favourite sort of film, where the plots are quite small and character-driven. So you are very focused on performance. Stephen Fingleton is a great director, I think, and I had extraordinary co-stars. I learnt so much from them and from that experience.”
For Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s 1970s horror classic Suspiria – in which Goth stars alongside Dakota Johnson and Tilda Swinton as a young dance student who uncovers occultish horrors at her prestigious academy – Goth trained with choreographer Damien Jalet so extensively that Guadagnino claimed that, by the shoot, she wasn’t playing a dancer; she was a dancer. These days, having chalked up a series of outstanding performances in Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness (2016) and Claire Denis’s High Life (2019), she’s a little less method in her approach.
“There is definitely a change in my process,” says Goth. “I know what works for me. When I was filming The Survivalist, I felt that I had to stay in character all the time. I was terrified to break out of it, even when I was back in my hotel room. But I found subsequently that’s what serves me best, is to have a rest. You’re working with your body all day. So a little self-care goes a long way.”
I think it’s really important for an actor to maintain a veil of mystery
In addition to Emma, Goth has just completed work on Karen Cinorre’s directorial debut Mayday, concerning a female military unit locked in a mysterious conflict. The film co-stars Juliette Lewis and Grace Van Patten.
“I feel like I’ve always been drawn to films that matter,” says Goth. “Obviously as a young kid I loved films like The Lion King and Free Willy. But I remember being about eight years old and watching 21 Grams and The Dreamers. Those films left a big impression on me. I never had any interest in Harry Potter or Twilight. I wanted to watch movies that were more human, I guess.”
Against her ascending career, she remains surprisingly private. Even her high profile marriage to Shia LaBeouf between 2012 and 2018 began with an unpretentious Las Vegas ceremony officiated by an Elvis impersonator and ended with a quiet, amicable divorce. And unlike most sometime models of her age, she’s definitely not on Instagram.
“I intend to keep it that way,” she says. “I think it’s really important for an actor to maintain a veil of mystery. I think after we are all kind of losing that in this day and age and it’s hard to lose yourself to a character if everybody knows everything about your life. Some of my favourite films are films like I, Daniel Blake. You lose yourself in that film because you don’t know anything about the actors. You don’t know what they have for breakfast. That’s very powerful. It’s very important to maintain your integrity. Social media and the attention that goes with it can be empowering. But I already spend enough time on my phone. Something like Instagram would leave me so anxiety ridden. Am I posting the right photo? Am I saying the right thing? Am I using the correct punctuation? My mind would explode.”
Emma is released Friday, February 14th