“Cate Blanchett is a genius, but that’s not who I am”
ON BEING THE NEXT BIG THING
The most revealing moment in Stellar’s conversation with Elizabeth Debicki comes in the form of a question, rather than an answer. Talk turns to the comparisons made between her and another actor, the celebrated Cate Blanchett. In between sips of tea, Debicki asks whether such comparisons are usually made between male actors. Her point is clear – it’s far less common for men to be compared to more seasoned actors.
“Men are allowed to be their own creature, their own formation,” she says. “That likening to someone else [for women], it’s there because the unknown can be scary and not nearly as palatable. It’s safer if we are able to label. If someone presents themselves in a way we’ve never seen before, heaven forbid, we don’t like it or it challenges our idea of femininity.”
If, at 26, Debicki speaks with the authority of a veteran, it’s because after only a few years, she’s already notched up an impressive body of work. And it’s easy to see why; she has the kind of presence that commands a room. She strides confidently across the bar to find the quietest corner for our interview, and makes a waiter blush when she compliments his accent.
Debicki has been touted as the “next big thing” in acting since graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2010. Her breakout role came in 2011 when she was cast as Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, and took home an AACTA for Best Supporting Actress. Since then, she’s worked in the theatre, TV and film, garnering awards and critical acclaim, and starring alongside Blanchett in a 2013/2014 staging of The Maids in Sydney and New York.
“We could not be more dissimilar, and then in many ways similar,” Debicki says. “It is a huge compliment [to be compared to Blanchett], I’ll never deny it and I think Cate’s a genius actress. She’s a unique, amazing creature, but it’s also not who I am. I am my own person.”
IT’S CLEAR DEBICKI is intent on expressing herself through her career choices. Last year saw her star in two hit TV shows, The Night Manager and The Kettering Incident, for which she picked up her second AACTA. Onstage, she starred in The Red Barn, which she says was the fulfilment of a lifelong
dream; both to be in a work written by theatrical heavyweight David Hare, and to tread the boards in London.
And her 2017 is no less busy, with four films slated for release. Two are big
budget sci-fi productions, God Particle and Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. The other two are lower-budget movies, with more emotionally driven roles; she plays Eva in the adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel
Breath, and co-stars in thriller The Tale. Debicki appears completely undaunted by taking on blockbusters. “Both are sci-fi and very involved in terms of green-screen work,” she says. “One of the actors on God Particle said it feels like the imagination Olympics. It’s a huge challenge and so different from
Breath, where my character’s life is in a beach shack and everything’s real.
“What I loved about the Guardians set was how easy and breezy it felt. [Co-star] Chris Pratt is so lovely and sweet, but a brilliant comic mind as well.”
She shot all four films back-to-back last year, on top of her theatrical run in The Red Barn. “I played so many different types of women. That’s what I’m looking for,” she says.
Yet the intensity of her schedule eventually caught up with her. “All my family came to [visit me in] London and I had five days off from the play. I promptly caught the flu,” she says.
But Debicki isn’t the kind of person to let a bout of illness mess with her plans. “I decided to invite about 11 people over. We all ate Christmas dinner off our laps – I cooked 12 different birds in the oven. I’m like a Polish mother, I push food on people. It was a really amazing year – I learnt a lot.”
Nikki Barrett, the casting director who put Debicki forward for The Great Gatsby and
Breath, says the actor’s talent was evident from their first meeting.
“She was only a few weeks out of the VCA, but already carried incredible authority and intelligence onscreen,” Barrett says. “It was a formidable role to take on so young, but she held her own.”
Debicki has also just been named an ambassador for the upcoming Longines Golden Slipper Carnival, part of the 2017 Sydney Carnival, and will be a special guest for the Longines Golden Slipper Day on March 18 at Rosehill Gardens. And she’s throwing herself into the role with as much gusto as an acting gig. “The more I learnt about the Longines Golden Slipper Day, the more I realised it’s an important day on the racing
calendar in terms of the horse that wins and its lineage,” she says.
While dressed in autumn race-day looks for the Stellar shoot, Debicki reveals she’ll be working with an as-yet-unnamed local brand to create an outfit for the occasion. “I’m excited to collaborate with a designer – there are so many iconic [race-day] looks,” she says. “I want to shake it up.”
At 1.9m tall, the actor is a natural clotheshorse. When she was being cast in The Great Gatsby, she was given a wardrobe full of Prada gowns to choose for her audition. Her training in ballet – both her parents were dancers, but she gave up ballet for acting – has given Debicki both poise and the ability to hold poses for the camera, which make her a designer’s dream. “Fashion is so much a part of what actors do,” she says. “You work on a project, then you promote it, which is so tied up with red carpets and fashion. I decided to embrace it; use it to say something about myself: you don’t have to adhere to any status quo.”
It’s this love of fashion that has led her to a more nuanced response to the #Askhermore campaign, which has been championed by actors such as Lena Dunham and Reese Witherspoon. While its purpose is to see women questioned about more than their fashion choices on the red carpet, Debicki is happy to show off her gown, too. “Usually when I wear a dress on a red carpet, I love it deeply. [#Askhermore] is about, ‘Let’s not talk about me as an object and don’t judge me out of 10.’ I’m all for that, I’d prefer if we left that bullsh*t aside, but I’ll talk about the dress, because I feel strongly about it.”
Debicki also feels strongly about the need for more women in her industry, both in starring and production roles. She’s been vocal about how much she enjoyed working with a female director on The Night Manager. “It’s the argument, ‘We need more stories driven by female protagonists, and more women to direct and produce them.’ Statistically, we know so many films are made about men and the women are secondary.
“We’re still hanging on to the MGM studio system – it’s, ‘Are you a Marilyn, or are you a Hepburn, or a Bette Davis; a thinker or the body?’ I say, just smash it all together and let women be their own thing. Let’s not compartmentalise women anymore.”
The 2017 Sydney Carnival runs from March 11–April 15; theatc.com.au.
“I use fashion to say something about myself: you don’t have to adhere to any status quo”
ELIZABETH WEARS Gucci blouse, gucci.com.au; Bottega Veneta skirt, (02) 9239 0188; Suzy O’rourke beret, suzyorourke.com.au; Bulgari jewellery (worn throughout), bulgari. com.au; (opposite) Christian Dior dress, (02) 9229 4600; James Perse knit, net-a-porter. com; Nerida Winter hat, neridawinter.com; Longines watch, (03) 8844 3300; Alexander Mcqueen shoes, harrolds.com.au
ELIZABETH WEARS Prada trench coat, skirt and belt, (02) 9223 1688; Neil Grigg hat, neilgriggmillinery. com; Balenciaga shoes, harrolds.com.au; (opposite) Hermès top and skirt, (02) 9287 3200; Suzy O’rourke headband, suzyorourke. com.au
HAIR Koh using O&M MAKE-UP Sarah Tammer using Nars at Mecca Cosmetica
Shot on location at The Old Clare Hotel
STAR TURN Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby.