Yes, 22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence is the young actress with the Oscar. But if you’d driven up in a Lamborghini and asked a large portion of English-language film critics who was, without question, the best actress in her early 20s, we might just as easily have offered up 23-year-old Mia Wasikowska, the star of “Stoker,” opening here on Friday.
Both actresses were virtual babies when they started. Both, despite their relatively tender ages, are practically grizzled veterans.
Lawrence was 15 when she did her first made-for-TV movie, a grand old 17 when she played one of the kids on “The Bill Engvall Show.”
Wasikowska was 15 when she made her first made-for-TV movie in Australia. And just as Lawrence has made a huge impression with so many of her films, so has Wasikowska. In particular, she was extraordinary playing the title role in what many think the finest adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” that has been made.
And that is no small thing, as Wasikowska admits when she explains why she chose not to see a single one of the many previous film versions before making director Cary Fukunaga’s 2011 “Jane Eyre.”
“I chose not to. I didn’t want to be influenced,” Wasikowska said recently over the phone. “I didn’t want to do something different just for the sake of doing something different. I didn’t want to complicate things for myself. Also it was overwhelming how many there were. I wasn’t sure where to start if I even did get into it. So I chose not to.”
The result of her blissful ignorance is the most vulnerable and yet steely Jane Eyre you’re ever likely to see on film.
She’s still not sure where to start years later. “I’d be interested in seeing them now, but I haven’t seen them yet.”
Much better known to the world’s moviegoers, unfortunately, was her starring role in Tim Burton’s crowded and misbegotten version of “Alice in Wonderland.”
“Alice,” she says now, “was exposure on a level I’d never experienced before. I wouldn’t rule out doing another big movie. I’d only do it, though, if I liked it and felt passionately about it. I don’t rule out any genre. I mostly do the projects I like.”
About Burton – who can be a great film artist or merely a bankable “brand” depending on the film – Wasikowska said, “I really like him. He’s a very visual director and has a very strong visual sense. He really creates a world that your character lives in. He’s also, by the way, a lovely person.”
A different experience was working with South Korean director Park Chan-wook on his much-awaited first English language film “Stoker.” He is among the admitted influences on Quentin Tarantino. His films are noted for being both visually immaculate and more than a little brutal.
A former film critic, Park has said that he wanted to become a filmmaker after seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” (a rite of passage inside the sensibilities of film folks for more than 50 years). “Stoker” bears more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s 1943 film “Shadow of a Doubt” in which Teresa Wright suspects her uncle, played by Joseph Cotten, is a serial killer.
“They’re very different films tonally,” Wasikowska says about “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Stoker.”
Park is the first director Wasikowska worked for who conveyed his direction through a translator.
“I believe he understands English, but we always worked through a translator,” Wasikowska said. “Originally, we weren’t sure how that was going to go. It ended up being very easy, very seamless. It wasn’t anything we even really noticed after a couple of days.”
She admits it was “a completely different experience,” but “I never thought it stifled communication or anything.”
Among the things that have made Wasikowska so powerful an actress in her abundant work is her ability to convey an inner life on the screen without doing anything overt to do so.
It’s quite uncanny to watch. Her way of explaining what she does, though, is this:
“Usually, when I read the script, I form an image of the character in my head and I just sort of mimic that with the performance. I try to just imitate the way I see them in my head. It’s more of a visual thing for me. One thing I’m learning is that acting is increasingly technical. It’s all sort of like a series of muscles you need to know how to use – and how to trigger. That’s always helpful.”
With mastery as self-evident as it is in so many of her films – most recently “Stoker” – the Australian actress needs only big breakout roles to be a household word a la Lawrence now.
It might have happened with a planned film of Patricia Highsmith’s once-scandalous “lesbian novel” “The Price of Salt” with fellow Australian actress Cate Blanchett.
Unfortunately, though, “that movie has kind of fallen apart. And that’s a shame because I love Cate Blanchett as an actress so much. I think she’s brilliant.”
So shortly after her phone conversations with members of the press about “Stoker,” Wasikowska was going back home to Australia to be, as they say, “between projects.”
Until such time as someone is able to entice the veteran young actress back on screen to do what she does as well as just about any other actress her age in the English speaking world.