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06 November 2012

Elizabeth Debicki

Should You Find Yourself Involuntarily Glancing Seaward, Flip the Charleston for Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby

No one’s seen the film—not the press, critics, and certainly not Elizabeth Debicki, the young actress set to star as Jordan Baker. No one knows for sure when Baz Luhrmann’s $125 million 3D crack at Gatsby is going to be released. Summer 2013? Warner Bros. originally slated the film’s nationwide opening for Christmas Day 2012, in time for the awards season, but delayed it due to “production conflicts.” What does that mean exactly? Was Luhrmann’s first cut a disaster? Did someone finally tell him he’d lost it? Who knows what’s going on?

What we do know is filming wrapped earlier this year and that a trailer surfaced in May, set to Kanye West’s tune “No Church in the Wild,” which would be an odd choice of non-diegetic scoring for a Gatsby remake by any director in Hollywood not named Baz. We’re treated once again to Luhrmann’s wild “High Concept” imagery, fireworks showering down an unreal sky and in the midst of a clamoring choreographed party taking place on a vast black-and-white marble-tiled mansion floor, the requisite star-studded cast. Luhrmann veteran, Leonardo DiCaprio, plays a towering furrow-browed version of Gatbsy, leaning over the baluster, glowering over the whole swinging affair. Tobey Maguire is Nick Caraway, the narrator of the novel—a type of golly-gee transplant Maguire has more or less played the last ten years of his career, and seems perfectly natural beside Leo’s bombastic Jay. And Carey Mulligan is Daisy, because, well, she has that old-timey feel. One inspired bit of casting was the then unheard of Australian lass, Elizabeth Debicki, as the golf-cheat, the fast girl, Daisy’s dear pal, Jordan Baker. In the few shots she’s in in the trailer she’s captivating: a lithe flapper beauty with a jet-black bob, in Miuccia Prada dresses. Her sudden rise to this level of Hollywood is just as mysterious as the production she’s a part of, but maybe a little more wholesome, a little less fraught.

Two years ago, Debicki was six months out of University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, with one Australian comedy under her belt. She submitted an audition tape to Luhrmann for the role of Jordan Baker but it seemed unlikely she’d be cast in the big-time Hollywood film, obscure as she was, so she put it “out of mind,” and focused on sending more auditions into the void. But then the phone rang. Luhrmann liked what he saw, and Debicki was on the next jet to L.A. to audition in the flesh. It wasn’t until she was back in Australia, rehearsing for a play with the Melbourne Theatre Company, that she learned she got the part.

“It was kind of like a strangely out of body experience,” she says. “I was on the phone and I knew that Baz was talking to me, and I felt like I was sort of on the ceiling watching myself struggle to comprehend.”

She was 20 years old. Three months later, filming started in Sydney, and then, time began to fly.

“I keep telling people, when they ask me, that I’m 21. I might just be 21 forever now,” says Debicki. Her annus mirabilis had come to an end just a few days before our meeting at Locanda Verde, a glam Italian taverna in Tribeca she visits whenever she’s in the city.

We sit down to a wobbly table in the dark wooden dining room, as she claims the jetlag of her recent flight from Australia has finally hit—but even at a quarter to 9, she looks immaculate. Her hair is a light gold, her pale skin translucent, her cornflower blue shirt almost the exact color as her eyes. She recommends the granola or the pancakes, but opts for toast and a poached egg instead.

In person, her presence is arresting. She is certainly all of her six feet, but delicate, and her carriage so light, so proper, she seemed to glide to our table. Unfazed by the uncertainty of its surface, she sets her elbows and spreads jam on her toast. She doesn’t seem aware I’m already regarding her as a Hollywood starlet, and I can’t help but feel that she’s living in the calm before a storm she doesn’t see coming. After all, this is Gatsby. This is Baz Luhrmann’s Gatsby. This is Baz Luhrmann’s 125 million dollar 3D remake of Gatsby. Which could be a disaster, a smash hit—or nothing at all.

“I can’t tell you how many times people have said to me—even people I don’t know very well, people I meet at like dinners or whatever—they say to me, ‘It’s like my favorite book,’” Debicki says, her accent stretching the word into a luxurious favvvvv-rit. “Like saying to me, ‘You better not, you know, screw it up.’”

One thing is certain: she did not screw up the look. Photos of Debicki, from the production and the little we see of her in the trailer, show a girl transformed into a beautiful relic, as though an old turn of phrase had stepped from one of Fitzgerald’s pages into life.

“It was helpful to look so different,” she tells me. “First of all, it was really fun to have someone dress you up and look in the mirror and you don’t recognize yourself, but also really helpful to feel so far removed from the modern day me,” she says. A self-proclaimed “research nut,” Debicki found the decade’s revolutionary fashions—the shapeless frocks and short hair—transformative. “It makes you move differently, think differently, feel differently.”

The “modern day” Debicki, however, is in full possession of an up-to-date enviable style. A single black cube by Sydney designer Gala dangles on a long chain from her right ear (“two,” she says, “is a bit much”), balanced by a matching ring on the opposite hand. Everything about the way she presents herself is equally measured and mature. The way she speaks is rhythmic, her voice low and her accent smooth and refined. Syllables stretch out and linger as she thinks, or sometimes just for effect. When she stumbles onto an idea she likes, her voice falls to the faintest whisper. But maybe stumble isn’t the right word. Maybe she alights on idea. After all, she’s been a ballerina her entire life. (Her parents were dancers, too.) In fact, she didn’t plan on being an actor—“I did go through high school thinking, you know, I could be like a butcher or a baker or whatever,” she says—but after graduation, she realized acting was the only option for her.

“Imagination is pretty important as an artist and I think sometimes actors are just people who have overactive imaginations,” she says. “I’ve always kind of done that thing in your head that you do when you’re acting, you sort of imagine things, or you imagine other people, or you read a book and you sort of become fully obsessed with it or consumed by it, and I think that whatever that sort of thing is just developed into me wanting to become an actor.”

Though she’s experienced on the stage, Gatsby was a crash course in acting before the camera. Lessons came by way of studying her co-stars on the monitor. To capture her character’s relative indifference to the era’s social mores—though it seems quaint now, much of Jordan’s outré behavior was scandalous to reading audiences in the 1920s—Debicki worked closely with an etiquette coach, hounding him with questions on how to properly cross her legs or enter a room, and then doing the opposite. “I had to be aware of what the rules were and then try to push them.”

When it comes to the set, Debicki is coy about the details, quickly changing the subject to the too-sweet orange jam on her toast.

“I definitely had surreal moments,” she finally offers, after further prodding. “I had a few moments when I was reading the book on set and I looked up and what I was reading was exactly what was happening. And that was pretty strange, like very weird,” she says. “The cast started to become the characters [to me], so I’d read ‘Daisy sits on the couch’ and I’d look up and Daisy was sitting on the couch.”

Just like she won’t divulge too many details about Gatsby, Debicki is mum about her next gig, but mentions that she’s eager to work in film, theater and television, and to travel more. It’s not hard to imagine all the ways her life will change when the film is finally released, the increased media attention—a life in the scrutinizing eye of the public. But Debicki has the right frame of mind to enjoy it. Her astrological sign is the lion, Leo, and, as the zodiac indicates, Leos love to be centers of attention. If they’re shy and sensitive one moment, they’re exuberant the next. Confident and creative. Born performers. Rule breakers. Divas—people like Slash, Haile Selassie, Debicki.

“We’re complicated,” she says, milking every bit of drama out of that last word. (An understatement.) I ask her if her co-stars gave her any advice or warning. She asks, earnestly: “About what?”

Stylist: Peter Simon Phillips
Hair: Diane Gorgievski
Makeup: Andrea Black
Photographed at Sydney Dance Company
Beauty Notes: Prime Solution and Vibrant Cream Color in VC03 by Sensai by Kanebo and Eyeshadow in Cyber gold and Cyber copper by Estee Lauder. Volume Powder by Sachajuan.

This article originally appeared in Flaunt Issue 124 – The Mother Issue.

Written by Heather Corcoran

Photographed by Justin Ridler