The Neon Demon star talks to us about our collective dystopian reality
Director: Zoey Grossman
DP: Will Jobe
Music by Robert Schwartzman
Editor: George Manzanilla
Bella Heathcote is conversing with a pale yellow computer screen. On my own screen the doe-eyed actress looms large in a smart navy blazer with red anchors on the lapels. There’s a moment of confusion before I realize that my webcam has been blocked with a small square of Post-it note – a moderately ridiculous and undoubtedly paranoid precaution. Heathcote laughs at the situation as I rip the square of paper away, but isn’t dismissive of the initiative.
“Do you watch Black Mirror?” she asks me, referencing Charlie Brooker’s eerie telemovie series. “There’s an episode about where it all goes pear shape for this kid who should have covered her camera.” It’s a dystopic start to an interview, but then Heathcote has populated her fair share of dystopias, and not a few hellscapes. Not only with her entry into Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle – an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative history, but also in projects like Dark Shadows (2012) opposite Johnny Depp, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), and The Neon Demon (2016). In spite of the latter film’s oak tree dialogue and cliché-ridden plot, Heathcote landed the most memorable moment of the visually rich bloodbath — a scene involving an undigested human eyeball and seppuku with a pair of scissors.
In person, Heathcote, 29, couldn’t be further removed from the psychopathic narcissist of that role. She has a dry, deadpan sense of humor, is uncommonly up-front, and swears like the Australian that she is. After winning the prestigious Heath Ledger Scholarship, Heathcote made Los Angeles her home. Yet, ironically most of the friends she’s made are Australian, “When I first came out here, every time I tried to make friends it was really difficult,” she tells me. “It was always, ‘Ok I can meet you two weeks from Thursday, on the West Side, between twelve and one.’ With all my antipodean friends you can call them up and be like, ‘Hey do you want a coffee?’ And they’re like, ‘I can’t do it today but do you want to go tomorrow?’”
“It’s also the sense of humor I think we share, I feel like some of the American people I was trying to be friendly with in the beginning would take offense at things I’d say,” she offers angelically. In the interest of digging deeper into the theme of friendship for this, the Girlfriends Issue, I ask Heathcote if she can give me any examples of offence she might have caused to budding pals, “Well this one bitch…” she jokes. “I just found myself qualifying what I was saying a lot, or telling people, ‘I’m trying to be funny right now.’
Although lighter on deadpan comedy roles than it perhaps ought to be, Heathcote’s career has involved some big projects with influential directors, including David Chase of The Sopranos fame in Not Fade Away (2012); a rock’n’roll coming of age, wherein Heathcote was a compelling and multi-dimensional teenage muse. I ask her what lessons the famous directors have imparted. “You have to take responsibility for your own performance,” she answers decisively. “It’s not necessarily [the big] directors that grilled that into me – it’s more the ones that weren’t so great and I guess I just showed up pretty naïvely, thinking you show up and do what you’re told. Like they’re the great and wonderful [Wizard of] Oz and they have all the knowledge.”
I ask her to elaborate on taking responsibility and she rubs her brow thoughtfully. “If the director is telling you something that doesn’t feel right, you should speak up and not just go with it.” It sounds like a quintessentially ‘Hollywood’ lesson, and when I ask when it hit home, Heathcote blushes, “Maybe like last year,” she says earnestly, “And it took a job that was really difficult but I feel like I grew up because it was the first time I was in conflict with the director and I basically had to stand up for what I believed my character was.”
Her upcoming roles form an interesting pair. This year Heathcote will play Olive Byrne in Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, and Leila, a former submissive, in Fifty Shades Darker. Byrne was the real-life inspiration of Wonder Woman, and lived in a polyamorous relationship with Mrs. and Dr. Marston – a psychologist and the inventor of both the comic book heroine and the lie detector test. I ask if the characters were in opposition. “No, because something that was explored in Professor Marston was dominance and submission,” Heathcote explains. “I think that Olive might have started out as more of a submissive but she grew into a dominant role. So they weren’t that different. With Leila I just played her like a girl who was going through a really bad breakup and had no tools to deal with it.”
For most girls, girlfriends are probably their main instrument for dealing with breakups, and dystopic though they may be, new technologies are amazing for keeping loved ones close. I ask Heathcote how she keeps her non-L.A. friends in orbit. “It’s all so fucking easy now,” Heathcote admits, before spooling off on the various apps that she and her Australian-based friends communicate with. Our conversation turns to Skyping, and trash-talking technologically incompetent old people. “This is going to be us one day,” Heathcote laughs, “our grandkids are going to be like, ‘Ha! They can’t even work the whatever-it-is.” I describe to Heathcote my willingness to abandon my phone for a Wikipedia brain implant: “I don’t know dude,” she cautions me, “I feel like you need to watch more of Black Mirror. I just watched this episode and it totally spun me out. Your entire memory is on a hard drive. So we can have this conversation and I could walk away afterwards and rewind it, and replay it, and wonder how did I do, and zoom into your face, and ‘what was that reaction right there?’ It wrecks all these people’s relationships.”
Rewinding our conversation on my iPhone, and listening to it, and rewinding it, and writing it down, I fear that this dystopia might already be upon us – our lived moments already splintering into endlessly replayable facsimiles. At the least, whatever unravelling techno-nightmares await us, Heathcote seems likely to populate them with the button pressed to play.
Written by Gus Donohoo
Photographer: Zoey Grossman
Stylist: Sean Knight
Hair: Rob Talty for Forward Artists Using IGK
Makeup: Mai Quynh for Starworks Group using M.A.C Cosmetics
Manicure: Stephanie Stone for Nailing Hollywood using M.A.C Studio Nail Lacquer
DP: Will Jobe
Digital Tech: Evan Strange
Lighting Assistants: Phil Sanchez and Alex
Location: Hudson Loft, Los Angeles