Watch this face
Wellington schoolgirl Thomasin McKenzie makes waves in Hollywood
“You can fake buzz and you can create press,” Mitchell Gossett says into a headset 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 should know. A talent manager with Industry Entertainment, he has a solid reputation in the movie business for discovering young actors and guiding them to international success. Besides, he saw exactly what happened in Utah at January’s Sundance Film Festival, when an unknown 17-year-old New Zealand girl in a small-scale film compelled some of the most powerful heads in cinema to turn her way. That girl was his client of 10 years, Wellington’s Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, and the movie was Leave No Trace – a family drama shot over seven weeks in the Oregon rainforest.
Shot, mind you, by Debra Granik, the director who eight years ago cast an undiscovered Jennifer Lawrence in the suspenseful backwoods movie Winter’s Bone. That film went on to reap four Oscar nominations and establish a major star out of its young lead. It was accepted, then, that whoever won the teen role of Tom in Granik’s new film would bag the part of the decade and invite the full glare of media and industry attention at Sundance.
“It’s really extraordinary she got that role without meeting the director, or the other actor,” Gossett goes on, with the emphatic certainty of an established Hollywood player. “They worked together on Skype, they had conversations. 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,” he repeats. “To me, that’s unusual.” t’s a sunny morning in leafy Karori where, it’s fair to say, nothing out of the ordinary often happens. Dogs are being walked before lunch, and retirees are drinking coffee in the mall.
Behind the brick walls at Marsden, Karori’s most exclusive school, girls with ponytails wearing regulation bottle green are walking in groups between classes, streaming past an upright banner reminding them that Marsden Girls Excel. Striving higher is the school motto, with Ad Summa carved in stonework above the door.
Even so, it’s an unlikely place to meet a Wellington teenager being tipped for the kind of movie stardom that comes to a New Zealander only once a generation (Anna Paquin; Keisha Castle Hughes). But here she is.
“I got back from America,” Thomasin smiles, “and two days after that I was at school again. Pretty much the day after I got back I had to go stationery shopping.”
Carrying a laptop covered in stickers and wearing her lace-up school shoes, it’s true Thomasin looks like any other Year 13 student here. She’s shy and softly spoken and seems abashed, at times, to be interviewed in view of other girls.
Still, she has an undeniably filmic face, with the recognisable, aquiline nose of the Harcourt acting family and the clear gaze and defiant chin of an earlier generation of actor – maybe a young Jodie Foster. But she’s living an ordinary life, today at least; and until Leave No Trace is released in late June, that’s the way she likes it.
“To be honest, I think I haven’t quite processed the response [the film] has gotten,” she says, thoughtfully. “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?’
“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. So not many people have seen me in the film.”
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,” Thomasin says.
“I still have that top; it’s one of my favourites and it’s got such a cool message. Wearing it is a real tribute to what’s going on at the moment in the media, and me
“A small amount of people have seen it and are so excited about it… the rest of the population is like, ‘Who is this girl?’”
wearing that was a point, to demonstrate what kind of person I am.”
Who Thomasin is has been the talk of Hollywood since the movie premiered. In it she 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 industry bibles Variety and Vanity Fair. The Hollywood Reporter singled her out as a breakout star of Sundance and after that, 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,” Thomasin says. She grins in recognition at a friend, who is pulling faces at her through a window. “You don’t want it to affect how you see yourself.
“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 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, Thomasin gets on an early bus with her 11-year-old sister Davida each morning, signs up for badminton, lawn bowls, dragon-boating and touch, looks after the younger girls as Co-Head of Marsden’s primary school, and helps out as Co-Head of Drama. As top scripts fly thick and fast in Hollywood and her management there and in Auckland field increasingly exciting calls, she’s carefully and deliberately keeping it real. With a little help from her parents. M iranda Harcourt is sitting in her driveway with her director husband Stuart McKenzie, who she’s just collected from the airport. She’s talking to me on the phone and watching her 91-year-old mother, Dame Kate, visit the mailbox. “She hasn’t seen us yet,” Miranda says, fondly. She’ll finish this interview before going inside to what she describes as an unstructured “film family” life.
There are no illusions about the acting life among the Harcourt-McKenzies. They agree it’s unstable and insecure. Stage, screen and radio doyenne Kate famously counselled Miranda against becoming an actor – advice Miranda ignored, becoming a leading screen presence, voice artist, director and latterly, acting coach. With clients including Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, her techniques are in hot demand all over the world. Still, Miranda is neither Thomasin’s coach or manager. She and Stuart are supportive and engaged, but hands-off.
“I think it’s really important that for me and Stuart, we’re in the same business but Thomasin’s got her own
Thomasin with her grandmother, veteran actress Dame Kate Harcourt.