THOMASIN MCKENZIE | A Forest Bird Never Wants a cage
It’s a family affair. upon meeting actress Thomasin McKenzie for our interview, I am also introduced to her parents and little sister, the lot of them blue-eyed and sporting charming New Zealand accents. As a journalist, interviewing actors can feel like a series of high-voltage blind dates. An absurd exchange of personal questions between two strangers; one of whom is assigned a book report of the interaction, the other never calls again. In this particular instance, it feels like we’ve skipped a few steps. I’m already meeting the parents. Maybe this is a different kind of date—I feel like a middle schooler being dropped off for a well-supervised afternoon with a friend.
The feeling remains as we wave goodbye to her folks. With her hair down and a big red heart printed on her shirt, the eighteen-year-old actress has a sort of sweetness about her, a youthful, adventurous vibe that makes me nostalgic for slumber parties and long summer days outdoors. Perhaps surprising, then, that she’s become known for roles that veer towards the intense and weighty, but the determination and thoughtfulness you can glimpse in her ice blue eyes explains it. “I like films that are gritty and raw and real,” she tells me. “Films that are intellectually challenging.”
Her first starring role, as “Tom” in last year’s Leave No Trace, directed by Debra Granik, certainly fits the bill. The story follows Tom and her father, a veteran suffering from PTSD (Ben Foster) who retreats from the chaos of the modern world to live life off the grid with his daughter. Their quiet existence is uprooted after they are discovered in the forest, and they try to preserve their sense of family as everything around them changes. McKenzie’s performance is subtle yet expansive in range. She is able to relay nuanced emotion in a character that speaks very little, though when she does speak, she sports a flawless American accent. “I was on set basically every single day for, like, five weeks,” she says. “So it was a lot of work. But it was such an incredible experience.”
McKenzie goes on to humbly reject my calling her the star of the film. “I never felt like I was the star of it,” she says. “I don’t know, I never thought about that side of things. I was just doing the job and being the character and having a good time doing it.” Though she’s a natural, clearly at home in front of the camera, she tells me that acting wasn’t always the dream. McKenzie grew up in the showbiz orbit. Her parents—the very ones I had just met inside—are writer/director Stuart McKenzie and actress/acting coach Miranda Harcourt. McKenzie is also the granddaughter of New Zealand actress Kate Harcourt, who has been on the silver screen since the early 1960’s and is still acting at the age of ninety-one.
Originally, McKenzie worked in cinema simply because it was the ol’ family business. She did voice overs and short films for pocket money, but growing up in the harbor city of Wellington, New Zealand, she was more concerned with her friends, playing the piano, and spending time in nature. “I was bored of it,” she confesses when I ask her about her perception of the industry as a child. “It was all ‘acting, acting, acting,’ and I was over it.” That was until McKenzie was cast in Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story. Thirteen at the time, she played a young Louise in the true account of her sexual assault. The gravity of the role challenged McKenzie in a way that made her change her view on acting. “I realized that I have such an amazing opportunity to make a difference and to tell important stories,” she tells me, her blue eyes shining as she recalls the moment.
That sense of excitement has only grown as she’s come into her own as an actress, moving from small parts to complex characters and leading roles. “I’ve just fallen in love with acting,” she continues. “I’ve fallen in love with having different experiences, turning into different people, and going places I would never go otherwise.” It was this change of heart, paired conveniently with a well of natural talent, that has led McKenzie to a point in her career where she has four films set to release in 2019 alone.
Settled at a table outside the cafe, McKenzie and I can still see her parents sitting inside through a window. I catch her father’s eye and we exchange a smile and a wave. “My parents have been a real guide for me through this whole journey, this acting journey,” McKenzie says. “I’m very lucky to have them. I’m lucky their jobs don’t require them to be in the office or anything.” McKenzie has even had the opportunity to work with her parents before. In 2017, she had a small role in The Changeover. Directed by her parents and based on the novel by Margaret Mahy, the film follows sixteen-year-old Laura (McKenzie) who discovers that she possesses supernatural abilities, and wields them against ancient evil forces who are besieging her brother. “We are hoping to work together again in the future,” McKenzie says. “We’re just trying to figure out if there’s a project out there that we want to work on.”
At the time of our interview, McKenzie is finished filming for the moment, and she, her parents, and her little sister are soon returning to Wellington. But there will be plenty of opportunities to catch her in the near future, at least on the big screen—2019 promises to be her biggest year to date, a resounding vote of confidence from the Hollywood movers and shakers, a signal that a new star has arrived. Details on the projects are mostly limited to teasers, snippets of Variety gossip, and IMDB synopsies (I regretfully couldn’t score a screener), but we know she’ll be appearing alongside Timothée Chalamet, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, and Joel Edgerton in Netflix’s loose adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Henry plays; in the Liz Garbus-directed drama Lost Girls; sharing screen time with ScarJo and Sam Rockwell in Taiki Waititi’s WWII-era dark comedy Jojo Rabbit; and with Russel Crowe in The True History of the Kelly Gang.
The workload is exhausting to even contemplate, and now that she’s through it, the projects now in post, McKenzie is looking forward to a well-deserved vacation with her family. “I just want to relax,” McKenzie says, “and not feel like I have to do anything.” She’ll hang out with her friends, play the piano, spend some time in nature—a nice reprieve before getting back to the family business. She smiles at the thought, but there are still a few loose ends Stateside, this interview is only one example. At that, our “playdate” is over, mom and dad exiting the café to scoop her up for her next appointment. They say a cheerful goodbye, and the charming foursome head out the door. I half-wish I could join them in Wellington.