Cover Girl: Elizabeth Debicki
As anyone who ever went to drama school, studied theatre or auditioned for the school play will know, one of the things you’re first taught is the “quiet power and depth of the supporting role”. When you’re a kid, you assume it’s offered as some kind of consolation for not snagging the lead.
Not true. Consider Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet, Rizzo in Grease, Freddie Miles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (or Philip Seymour Hoffman in most of his films, really…) Supporting roles are there to give great gravity to a story, but beyond that, they are also indicative of an actor’s talent, depth and appetite for risk.
It was in 2013’s The Great Gatsby that Elizabeth Debicki’s talent came to light. The film launched her career and earned her an AACTA award for her portrayal of gossipy socialite Jordan Baker. At the time, Debicki was fresh out of the Victorian College of the Arts and her audition was the third one she’d ever had − a pinch-me moment to top all others? You bet.
Next came a role opposite Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in Sydney Theatre Company’s The Maids (for which she nabbed best newcomer at the Sydney Theatre Awards), another in Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Gift, and some small on-screen roles, before director Guy Richie came knocking, casting her as the main antagonist in spy-comedy The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
More recently, we’ve seen her star opposite Tom Hiddleston in the acclaimed UK miniseries, The Night Manager, in Foxtel’s The Kettering Incident, and we await her performance in Simon Baker’s film adaptation of the Tim Winton novel Breath. Of course, that’s just a summation of her career to date, but you get the drift: Debicki is busy.
Today, we find her shooting the epic blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in LA. It’s Independence Day in the States and her first day off in a while, she says, her crazy-luminous skin making me doubt she’s as tired as she says she is…
“We’re shooting at Paramount studios,” she says with a huge smile. “It’s lovely to have a base here and work on a real studio lot – it’s got that old Hollywood feel about it.” A statement that many an actor could roll off to appease the studio, sure, yet her animation over working on such sacred cinematic ground is obviously genuine. The 25-year-old has a lot of respect for the craft and the shoes that have walked the sound stages before her. She is an actor’s actor.
Pictured above: Rebecca Vallance dress
Born in Paris to a Polish father and Australian mother, both of whom were ballet dancers, Debicki moved to Melbourne as a young child, and her youth was a theatrical one. She too trained as a dancer, until falling hard for the theatre. “I don’t think I ever had that ‘flip’ moment, where I realised I ‘wanted’ to be an actor,” she insists.
Instead, she always just knew that acting was for her. “At the risk of sounding cheesy, I was always doing that thing you do as an actor in your brain, you know? Living in a fantasy land. I kind of assumed one day I would be able to do that for a living,” she shrugs. “I grew up in a thespian-y household, so the idea that you could make a living as an artist wasn’t a foreign concept. It was what I knew, so I already had it in mind.”
Was there ever a more practical fallback career? “No. But I did get into law school and was thinking about being a lawyer – I’m very good at debating and formulating ideas and trying to sell people on them…” She pauses. “But then, that’s also just another way of describing acting,” she says, laughing again.
Arguably, one of the most taxing roles so far for the elegantly-poised blonde was the role of Anna in the chilling and incredibly compelling series The Kettering Incident, which recently aired on Foxtel and was filmed in Kettering, south of Hobart in Tasmania − far from the comforts of Paramount Studios and sunny rays of California.
Part gothic horror, part slow-burn psychological thriller, Kettering has a similar feel to Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, Nordic Noir series The Bridge and French supernatural drama The Returned, topped off with a dash of Aussie brutality and sci-fi mystery. At its centre is Anna, a highly-strung, mentally-unsettled character, with a slight prickliness − not the most lovable protagonist. She’s also perpetually cold, wet and fraught (and spends a good amount of time crawling along a forest floor).
“Oh man! Anna was a difficult role to play; the physical toll it took on me was serious,” admits Debicki. “Her mental space is very dark and very lost − she is such an isolated creature. It’s kind of the quandary of the actor in a way: how far down the rabbit hole you can go before you realise you’ve even fallen in at all.”
Though we’ve all heard dark stories of that happening to actors, it’s rare for one to talk about it, but Debicki is circumspect about it. “Yeah, well, pulling yourself out − de-roling − is as much of an art form as getting into the character,” she shrugs. “Because if you can’t successfully do that, it really takes a toll on you and your life. I would like to say, ‘Oh, I just popped in and out,’ but it really got in my bones – it was all consuming.”
Despite potentially falling into a hole, it’s this fear, heart palpitations and all, that drives Debicki’s desire for a role. “I’m attracted, in a really sort of masochistic way, to things that really challenge and frighten me,” she says. “I will really, really actively hunt things down, and then, if I’m actually given the role, it’ll put the fear of God in me, and I’ll think, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with it?’”
She tells me that some roles reveal layers she didn’t know she had. “There’s a lot of upheaval in your life when you’re starting out as an actor,” she sighs. “You get on the plane and you land somewhere and think, ‘I don’t actually know where I am. I don’t know anyone and if walked out of my apartment I wouldn’t even know where the grocery store is.’ There’s a constant gypsying − it can just leave you a bit dizzy.” Because it takes one to know one, I sense a slight addiction to chaos in Debicki, living just under her controlled surface.
Essentially, the role of the actor is akin to that of a hunter, a seeker, a gatherer. It’s a constant search for truths, layers, identity and versions of self. It so often happens that when you interview actors, they’ve already been given a checklist of what to say or as, I like to call it, “Hollywooded”. Debicki does not have that, or maybe she does but is good at improv.
In conversation, I note this refreshing candidness and she laughs, knowingly. “There’s a funny thing when you start doing interviews as an actress,” she says, pushing back her hair. “You kind of think, ‘Should I be projecting something other than what I am?’ It’s like doing auditions. You think, ‘Do I go in and do what I think they want from me? Or do I go in as myself?’” Debicki’s personal approach is simple, and, by all accounts, Australian: offer yourself, and if they accept you, great. If not, so be it.
“You just might as well be candid,” she shrugs. “The women I respect in this industry are those who are honest about what it is and what it means to pursue what we do for a living, without the fluff talking. There are enough myths perpetuated in this industry, I wouldn’t appreciate reading an article about an actor saying, ‘It’s all wonderful and you wake up every day and you ride to work on a unicorn!’” she laughs. “Because it’s not that at all.”
Pictured above: Akira shirt; Miléa swimsuit; TOME skirt
As a writer, I also have a checklist. If you’re interviewing Sarah Jessica Parker, for example, there’s some kind of shoe talk. If you’re interviewing Elizabeth Debicki, you’re almost always required to ask her about working with (and potentially being “the next”, if you read the headlines) Cate Blanchett.
“To be honest, I’m just so grateful that I got to work with Cate in theatre,” she says. “The beautiful thing about theatre is that you have four, five weeks in a laboratory-like space where you get to watch other actors’ processes − it’s very different to a film.” She continues, “Cate is this amazing combination of intelligence and dignity, but is probably the hardest-working person I’ve ever met. There was a sort of epiphany to that, in a way. For instance, I’ve never worked with Meryl Streep, but there’s something to do with her as a craftswoman, you feel like there’s a little bit of magic, some kind of voodoo going on,” she laughs. “But I’m sure if you worked with her, you would see that there’s process, skill, craft and probably a shitload of elbow grease. That’s what I really learned from working with Cate.” Debicki pauses for thought. “I also learned probably the most valuable lesson [about acting]: you have to be fearless and you have to take a risk, otherwise nothing is truly worth doing, it’s not really worth watching, and it definitely won’t be interesting.”
When it comes to her own career, Debicki is definitely a risk-taker: “I suppose there is a fear as an actor that if you take a risk, you have to ask your audience to go along with it and is it going to pay off? You never really know. But you have to do it. It’s not a sure thing that people will like it, because it’s not formulaic, but all you can do it go for it.”
Words by: NOELLE FAULKNER for JONES magazine
Styling by: THELMA MCQUILLANfor JONES magazine
Photography by: SIMON LEKIAS for JONES magazine