Watch this face

Welling­ton school­girl Thomasin McKen­zie makes waves in Hol­ly­wood

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - FRONT PAGE -

“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.

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