Mia Wasikowska: I got in trouble for an Irish accent before

Alice in Wonderland made her a star but she prefers to stay out of the limelight

Mia Wasikowska is pondering the moment she became properly famous. A decade ago, the Australian actor, then best known for a recurring role on In Treatment, was cast as the title character in Disney's lavish Alice in Wonderland. Everyone expected the film to do well. Nobody expected it to eat the world alive. A billion dollars later she found herself in ferocious demand.

“I’ve done nothing since that was quite so massive,” she says. “It was great. But it was daunting. You had that sudden interest in your life after coming from obscurity. That wore off quickly. Suddenly, nobody was interested.”

I didn't have any scandals that gave me street cred or that made me fun. I didn't know how to navigate that interest. And that was daunting... When you get attacked it hurts

I find that an odd comment. Wasikowska has not turned out for Marvel or Star Wars. She has been in few other box office smashes. But she hasn’t gone away either. She has been both Madame Bovary and Jane Eyre on the big screen. She was the pale protagonist of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak. This month she turns up in the fascinating, odd Judy & Punch. She has done a good job of staying in the frame.

“I didn’t have any scandals that gave me street cred or that made me fun,” she explains. “I didn’t know how to navigate that interest. And that was daunting. It didn’t feel like it had to do with me as a person. It’s all about the perception of you. It is very impersonal. When you get attacked it hurts. But you feel it could be someone else being attacked.”

Blonde, neat, precise in her movements, she rations her words while making a genuine effort to engage with every question. There is no sense of swagger or theatrical bravado about her. It is easy to believe that she found fame a threat and a burden. I wonder if she consciously backed away from high-profile projects that might have attracted gossipy attention.

“I think I did. I felt uncomfortable with that interest,” she says. “I even felt uncomfortable with the pace. You’re going all the time. But you don’t know how you got where you’re going. You’re working all the time: the next film, the next film. Did I make a choice at any stage? I felt conflicted about whether I wanted to take the next step. As a young person, you keep going anyway.”

Wasikowska has come a long way in her 30 years. She was born and raised in Canberra to Marzena Wasikowska, a Polish photographer, and John Reid, who worked in collage. It sounds like an eventful childhood. When Mia was eight, Marzena moved the family back to Poland for a year, an experience that, when she became an actor, helped her connect with different world views. She has enjoyed playing with accents ever since. Her first creative outlet was ballet, but, like many before her, she soon suffered twists and twinges.

“I loved ballet. I wanted to do that. I did have an energy,” she says. “But I also realised I didn’t have the right body shape. Even as a 13-year-old you knew if you were in with a chance or not. I was injured. But I knew that I wouldn’t get where I wanted to go anyway. Then I discovered that acting was a close cousin to ballet.”

Wasikowska's own determination to keep control is, perhaps, showing through. She doesn't want to give in to the studios. She doesn't want to give way to Gozzip.com

From early on, she brought an acute intelligence to her performances. She can crumble with the best of them, but there is no avoiding the quiet determination in her Emma Bovary and her Jane Eyre. Wasikowska’s own determination to keep control is, perhaps, showing through. She doesn’t want to give in to the studios. She doesn’t want to give way to Gozzip.com (or whatever).

Her first step to proper stardom came when she secured the role of a troubled gymnast in the HBO series In Treatment. I am willing to bet that co-star Gabriel Byrne, who plays the wise psychotherapist, treated her with respect. He is the nicest man in show business.

“He was so lovely. Very kind,” she says. “He did have advice. He said: ‘You have to do theatre. You have to do theatre.’ And I was like: ‘Hmmm?’ But he kept saying: ‘You’ll love it. You’ll love it.’ I wasn’t sure. But I have just finished doing theatre and I was thinking of him. I just did Lord of the Flies in Sydney and that was an amazing experience.”

You can see all her gifts in Mirrah Foulkes's upcoming Judy & Punch. This is the sort of film movie stars make when they care more about good work than giddy attention. Mixing Angela Carter with bits of Terry Gilliam, the picture, set in an imaginary nowhere, interrogates the misogynistic and misanthropic origins of, yes, the Punch and Judy show. It's a hoot. And it allows Wasikowska to work through a very serviceable Irish accent.

“I like doing accents,” she says. “Sometimes you get in trouble for them. I think I got in trouble for an Irish accent before. I won’t draw your attention to it.”

That might have been her turn as a maid in Albert Nobbs.

“Yeah, Albert Nobbs. I loved that. Dublin was great. I do like the cold. People apologise for the drizzle. But I like it.”

This may be a cheap speculation, but I wonder if her way with an accent – let's leave the distant Albert Nobbs aside – is connected to a childhood in busy, multiracial Australia. That nation has, over the last two decades, delivered a dazzling array of actors. All are happy to play American, British, Irish or whatever else is asked of them.

“My mother speaks fluent Polish,” she says. “In Australia, we have British and American television everywhere. It’s cheaper to import than make. I grew up watching… Mrs Bucket? What’s it called? Yeah, Keeping Up Appearances. We were obsessed with that as kids. I like that as an actor. An accent is just another way of getting away from yourself. I feel that most of my friends are an immigrant of one sort or another. But we still manage to be incredibly racist.”

Oh, does she think that about Australia?

“I do unfortunately,” she sighs. “I don’t feel comfortable with the gloating that we’ve all ‘moved forward’. I live in an echo-chamber. I hear what I want. But then the elections prove life is different. I think I don’t know anybody who’s racist. Then this incredibly right-wing government comes back into power.”

Yet she has stayed in the home country. In the days of global digital communication it is, for an actor, easy enough to live at a remove from LA or New York or London. Auditions can happen online. Shooting takes place in all corners of the earth. But I suspect that, even if that had not been the case, Wasikowska would have resisted the draw to the Dream Factory. She seems to be consciously placing herself outside the maelstrom.

“I like all that, but I am not crazy about it,” she says cautiously. “As you get older your ambitions change. I don’t feel ambitious now. Maybe I am more ambitious for other things in my life. I don’t really like the lifestyle. I am over all that gypsy, nomad thing. I spend more time at home in Sydney. If it all goes pear-shaped that won’t be terrible.”

I get no sense, however, that she was scarred by her experiences as a teenage actor. More than a few have been damaged by abuse in that world.

“I guess nothing was going to stop me,” she says. “My parents were definitely supportive. No, I don’t think so. When you are young and ambitious you maybe don’t see these things. Then in hindsight you realise things. That’s how it was for me. Things definitely have changed since the #MeToo movement.”

Good to hear. Few people would be better placed to report back from that battlefield. So, it’s not all talk? There is real change on the ground?

“I think so. When it first happened I was cynical,” she says. “I thought: yeah, everyone knew that about Harvey Weinstein. It will blow over. He’ll be back making movies in five minutes. I was surprised to see it unravel. It’s not going to turn back again. There will always be predators. But it will be harder to get away with certain things. People are held to account. There is more awareness and respect.”

Wasikowska isn't withdrawing from the business. In the next few months we will see her opposite Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth in Mia Hanson-Løve's tantalising Bergman Island. Judy & Punch, mixing fantasy with harsh truths, is well worth seeking out. But she seems to have her priorities straight. Her immediate plans involve getting back to the garden in Sydney and preparing for a long, hot summer. She has probably earned the cliché "reluctant star". Would she advise any other young person to follow her path?

“I would never want my child to do it,” she says. “The perception is very different to the reality. You do get massive boosts of self-esteem, but I think it’s better to get those from friends, having fun and being regular. I would say: think if you really want to do it. You can have as fulfilling a life doing the simple things.”

Sensible words. Stitch them into cloth and frame them.

Judy & Punch is released on Friday, November 22nd

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist