From Shorty Street to super-stardom
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is still a Wellington schoolgirl – but she’s already making waves in Hollywood and is on the fasttrack to worldwide fame, writes Leah McFall.
TEEN Kiwi actor Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie is creating a serious buzz around Hollywood and already drawing comparisons with A-list stars such as Jennifer Lawrence.
‘‘You can fake buzz and you can create press,’’ talent manager Mitchell Gossett says from his office near the Hollywood hills, ‘‘but there’s nothing better to create buzz than superb work. And that’s what happened at Sundance.’’
Gossett has a solid reputation for discovering young actors and guiding them to international success and saw exactly what happened in Utah at January’s Sundance Film Festival, when the then unknown 17-year-old Harcourt McKenzie in a smallscale film compelled some of the most powerful heads in cinema to turn her way.
That movie was Leave No Trace – a family drama shot over seven weeks in the Oregon rainforest by director Debra Granik. Granik is the filmmaker who gave Jennifer Lawrence her break in Winter’s Bone, which went on to reap four Oscar nominations and establish a major star out of its young lead.
‘‘It’s really extraordinary she got that role without meeting the director, or the other actor,’’ Gossett says.
‘‘But her work is so overpowering that even an auteur like Debra saw what she needed to see without ever having to meet Thomasin in the flesh. It’s really extraordinary that somebody could get that role while going to school in Wellington.’’
Back in leafy Karori at the exclusive Marsden school, Year 13 student Harcourt McKenzie is pretty humble considering she’s being tipped for the kind of movie stardom that comes to a New Zealander only once a generation (Anna Paquin; Keisha Castle Hughes).
‘‘I got back from America and two days after that I was at school again. Pretty much the day after I got back I had to go stationery shopping.’’
And although her homegrown screen credits include Pixie Hannah on Shortland Street, the title role in the hit children’s web series Lucy Lewis Can’t Lose and a young Louise Nicholas in a television docudrama Consent: The Louise Nicholas story, she’s happy to live an ordinary life – at least until Leave No Trace is released in late June.
‘‘It feels weird that only a small amount of people have seen it and raved and are so excited about it when the rest of the population is like, ‘Who is this girl?’ she says.
‘‘It was just such an awesome response that people liked it, but that was in America and in a smaller, kind of film fanatic community; and casting directors and agents and whatever have seen it but not the general public.’’
The red carpet at Sundance had been scary, and she’d felt the pressure of attention and the need to present herself well. There were wonderful moments, too – when the 2800-strong audience gasped to hear her speak on stage in a Kiwi accent, after she played an American so convincingly on screen. And she was glad she’d worn a simple white T-shirt with the slogan STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER for the press.
‘‘Debra, the director, was so stoked about that because she’s a feminist and really passionate and stuff, and she loved that I wasn’t wearing a spaghetti strap kind of thing,’’ Harcourt McKenzie says.
In Leave No Trace, Harcourt McKenzie plays Tom, a 13-year-old being raised in the woods in survivalist mode by her father Will (Ben Foster), a traumatised army vet unable to cope with civilian life. Her performance earned rave reviews in Variety and Vanity Fair, Hollywood Reporter singled her out as a breakout star and six of Los Angeles’ most prestigious agencies scrambled to represent her.
‘‘With the reviews, you’ve got to be careful not to read all of it because you don’t want to get a big head, or some of the reviews may not be very good,’’ she says. ‘‘That’s why it’s important for me to come back to school. It’s really grounding. I’m not always showing off about what I’ve done or whatever. I think it allows me not to get carried away with the whole business of it. If I’d stayed
With the reviews, you’ve got to be careful not to read all of it because you don’t want to get a big head.’ THOMASIN HARCOURT MCKENZIE
in LA much longer, I was getting so much praise, so many people wanted to meet me, then it’s easy to get arrogant about what you’ve achieved.’’
Instead, the teenager returned home and now daily gets on an early bus with her 11-year-old sister Davida, signs up for badminton, lawn bowls, dragonboating and touch, looks after the younger girls as Co-Head of Marsden’s primary school, and helps out as Co-Head of Drama.
Although she has the perfect Kiwi film pedigree thanks to actor mother Miranda Harcourt, director father Stuart McKenzie and 91-year-old grandmother, Dame Kate, her parents say they are supportive and engaged, but hands-off, about the youngster’s burgeoning career.
‘‘We’re in the same business but Thomasin’s got her own talent, her own intelligence, her own instincts, and what she needs from us is parents, not a film director and an acting coach,’’ Miranda Harcourt says.
‘‘If she has a thought or an issue or a question, then she’ll come to the Stuart and Miranda library. But she’s definitely her own person.’’
When she’s acting, says Harcourt McKenzie, she feels joy.
‘‘For me it’s the best feeling when you’re doing a scene and you’re becoming someone else. When I’m really into the scene I completely forget about all the things going on around me ... It’s so fun to play with being another person, and to play with different emotions that you don’t always get to feel. I just love it, and I’m so happy when I’m doing it.’’
Her family don’t talk about acting at dinner; they probably talk more about politics, she says. Her dad does the cooking and she’s eating a vegan diet right now, mainly because of her belief in the right of animals to be farmed without cruelty. She’s not taking acting lessons, and she’d been auditioning so regularly that when the big call came from Granik last year, she didn’t immediately realise she’d won the role of a lifetime.
‘‘I thought the call was just a catch-up, to see if I still looked the age,’’ she admits.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie at home, above, with her grandmother Dame Kate Harcourt, and, left from top, on screen in Shortland Street, Contact and Leave No Trace.