Pin It

Mia Wasikowska on cinema’s most shocking moment of the year

The ballerina-turned-actor discusses her role in Judy & Punch and why she likes playing angry women

There’s an incident 20 minutes into Judy & Punch that tells you what kind of human being you really are. The “moment”, which I won’t spoil, is a sort of slapstick Rorschach test: a sick joke that’ll appeal to some and terrify others. At the press screening, I cackled amidst stunned silence; on my second viewing, there were gasps, laughs, and a critic next to me who buried her head in her hands and murmured, “Oh my God, how could they do that?!”

One person familiar with the extremities of the reactions is Mia Wasikowska. “It’s definitely a divisive moment,” the Australian actor (and Dazed 20102013 cover star) informs me with a grin. “I’ve sat through screenings, and I’ve gone: Any minute now, it’s going to happen. Which way is it going to go?” She’s pleased that not only did I chuckle, but that I felt remorse immediately afterwards. “The laughter is also in the discomfort. But, yeah, the penny drops, as the baby does.”

Ostensibly, Judy & Punch reimagines the origins of a misogynistic puppet show that evolved into an embarrassing British seaside tradition. Really, though, writer-director Mirrah Foulkes pulls the strings on an utterly bizarre comedy that shifts genres every few scenes and satirises the hypocrisies of movie violence. Wasikowska and Damien Herriman (who played Charles Manson in both Mindhunter and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) star as Judy and Punch, two minor celebrities whose marionette show is a smashing hit with alcoholics. Behind the scenes, there’s a dog, a portion of sausages, and some non-puppet knockabout action.

The previous night, Wasikowska walked the red carpet with Foulkes at the London Film Festival. Today, she’s sat opposite me in The Soho Hotel. One attendee tweeted, “Judy and Punch features maybe my most WTF moment of the year… absolutely no one knew how to react.” So, business as usual for Wasikowska. The former ballerina could cash in with Hollywood junk if she wanted to, but evidently prefers to work with risk-takers like Jim Jarmusch, Park Chan-wook, David Cronenberg, Gus Van SantSpike Jonze and, now, Foulkes.

What’s more, if anyone enjoyed Wasikowska loading a rifle in Stoker or weaponising a shovel in Crimson Peak, the second half of Judy & Punch sees Judy exacting revenge on her especially shitty ex. Does she enjoy tapping into her inner rage? “I do, actually!” the actor says cheerfully. “It’s fun to play emotions that I find hard to express in real life. It’s therapeutic to play really angry women as opposed to subservient, sweet women.” However, Judy is not a female Punch. She regroups with a gang of mostly female outcasts and puppeteers a more thoughtful payback. “It’s not just acting like a man, or doing what a man does to be powerful. It’s Judy doing what Judy would do.”

“It’s fun to play emotions that I find hard to express in real life. It’s therapeutic to play really angry women” – Mia Wasikowska

Wasikowska, in my mind, is a timeless performer. Half her filmography consists of period-dramas that span centuries, and the rest – particularly genre fare like The Double and Only Lovers Left Alive – allows her to radiate an otherworldly quality that can’t be taught in acting school. She thus fits seamlessly with the movie’s mischievous anachronisms. “It wasn’t a language I’d read before,” she recalls of Foukes’ script. “It wasn’t historically accurate. It took creative license visually with the costumes. It’s not a film you go, ‘Aha! But that didn’t come into the year 18-da-da-da!’ It’s its own fantastical world.”

The scaremongering themes proved appealing, too. Punch, a white man of high social standing, successfully frames two servants for the murders he committed. They are sentenced for hanging without a trial. Wasikowska notes, “That final speech of Judy’s is where she says, ‘Today the witch is me, but you all know that tomorrow it could be you.’ That’s so fitting. There’s this sense of real misplaced fear within the world. You can look at individual cultures here, America or Australia, even. I think it’s called unconscious othering. Someone is different to you, so you’re scared of them, or you hate them, or you don’t make them a person. It’s probably timely for every time.”

That said, male celebrities ousted during the #MeToo era have also complained about “witch hunts”. Could someone misinterpret their well-meaning feminist film? She considers this, then shrugs. “If you’ve got a very small amount of emotional intelligence, then maybe.”

Although Judy is the brains behind the partnership, it’s self-mythologising Punch who receives the top billing. Is this a comment on sexism and male egos within the film business? “As an actor, I was very aware of it,” Foulkes tells me separately in an identical hotel room down the corridor. “Look, I think everyone has their own version of feeling ‘other’, whether that’s being overlooked because of your gender, sexuality, or race. Now I’ve started directing and writing, I feel stronger and better at calling people out on it. But I’m lucky. I can’t bemoan how hard done I’ve been as a woman in the industry, because I’ve been supported by so many people. Of course, I encounter it, and I try to move through it.”

Acting-wise, Foulkes’s credits include Top of the LakeAnimal Kingdom and The Gift. As a director of shorts, she was – and still is – part of the Blue-Tongue Films collective alongside David Michôd and Joel Edgerton. She knew Wasikowska through mutual friends in Australia and reached out for her debut feature. “I don’t think Mia’s often given a chance to be playful,” Foulkes says. “So we pushed those elements. The real risk with Mia is, you put a camera on her, and she’s so beautiful and compelling in her stillness. I can imagine filmmakers – certainly for me – get seduced by how compelling that is, and forget to ask her to go into different places.”

So Wasikowska’s acrobatic sequences involve, at one point, soaring through the air and landing with a somersault. “You’re balancing severe darkness and black humour,” Foulkes explains. “I was curious how far you could go in those big, bold hero moments.” Hence a quoted line from Gladiator? “That was a joke for myself. Punch is such a megalomaniac he thinks he’s in his own superhero movie. We had to get Ridley Scott to sign off on it, actually – I only found out a few days before we shot the scene that the producers were frantically trying to get permission.”

Wasikowska’s mainstream breakthrough in 2010 involved two American movies, The Kids Are All Right and Alice in Wonderland. At the moment, though, she’d rather stay in Australia, where Judy & Punch was shot. “I occasionally audition but I haven’t for a while,” Wasikowska says. “I feel less ambitious these days.” How come? “It just changes as you grow up. I’m not interested in spending the next ten years in hotel rooms.”

So has her process changed from, say, Tracks, which is my favourite performance of hers? “I loved that book and felt such a connection to Robyn Davidson, I didn’t need to analyse it. I’m thinking of when I was 17. I wrote (diary entries) and did questionnaires as the character. I did more research and was more intellectual about it. Now I just trust the material. If you connect with the director, hopefully it’ll translate.”

One future avenue is stepping behind the camera. Wasikowska has written and directed two shorts, Long, Clear View and Afterbirth, the latter of which involves a protagonist who’s scared of harming babies. It’s also a plot point in her three most recent movies: DamselPiercing, and Judy & Punch. “I’d never put that together,” she says, sitting up straight. I apologise for the IMDb psychology. “I should look into that. I do think babies are the ultimate symbol of vulnerability.”

Wasikowska doesn’t comment on whether infants are involved in the mysterious feature she’s scripting at the moment. “I want to direct it,” she says. “I feel like I’m not really a writer. A lot of actors make films because they want to get into the nitty gritty with actors. Maybe it makes me a bad actor, but I want to hire actors I trust – and then I’m so excited about the visuals!” She laughs. “I’ve always felt like I’m more of a picture person than a word person. I obviously want good dialogue, but things usually come to me visually first. I love the idea of visual poetry.”

Until then, Wasikowska has a few films waiting to be released, including BlackbirdThe Devil All the Time (her third time co-starring with Robert Pattinson) and Mia Hansen-Løve’s highly anticipated Bergman Island – or, as I do not say out loud, “Løve Island”. In Hansen-Løve’s ghostly drama, a filmmaking couple embark on a writing retreat to Faro Island, the barely populated landmass where Ingmar Bergman lived and shot several masterpieces. “It’s amazing and eerie,” Wasikowska remarks about the remote area’s infamous aura. “Everywhere looks like one of his movies. I visited his house!”

Wasikowska is full of compliments for Hansen-Løve (“brilliant, calm and generous”) and her co-star, Vicky Krieps (“just fantastic!”). Not so much for Bergman himself. “He’s got a lot of problems, that man. As much as I love his movies, I don’t like idolising him as a person, because I think he was probably a heinous person to be with. And a lot of that makes me really uncomfortable, because he’s idolised like a god. And a lot of that makes me feel totally icky. But his films are great.”

Towards the end of our conversation, we spend far too long raving about the Bergman references in Marriage Story (like everyone, she would love to work with Noah Baumbach) and she observes that Judy & Punch captures what she describes as a “distinct Australian humour”. Wasikowska then backtracks. “Actually, it doesn’t fit into any particular culture. It’s very ‘Mirrah’ in its humour.”

Which brings me back to the movie’s shocking incident. “I think it’s macabrely really funny,” Foulkes says. “And then that’s followed by the most brutal scene in the whole movie, with the beating.” I did not laugh at the beating, I clarify. “That’s it. It’s about playing with tone. Clearly, I haven’t made a film that’s a pro-domestic violence. The main message of the film is to look to how we relate to violence in popular culture.”

At festivals, Foulkes continues, human politeness means directors tend to receive positive feedback after screenings. But a few detractors have approached her. “There have been people who have been offended by the darker elements,” she admits. “And that’s cool. I struggle with sustained and gratuitous violence in films. I had no idea how violent the film was until people started talking about it to me. You get a little desensitised as a filmmaker. But if you wrap it in comedy, the absurd and satire, you can get away with certain things. I understand it’s not for certain people, but I stand by everything.”

So am I fucked-up for laughing at what Wasikowska deems the “pivotal moment”? “No, I love it when people laugh at that,” Foulkes expresses with glee. “It is a fucked-up scene. But I do believe that one of the purposes of art is to explore things from a different perspective, and I do believe it’s really important to be able to laugh at things, even if they’re really fucked-up.”

Judy & Punch opens in UK cinemas on November 22