J-Law-Like Rise of Thomasin McKenzie

This January, Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik returned to Sundance, to premiere her follow-up narrative feature, Leave No Trace. And she again brought with her a precocious talent in a role that could be the catalyst for another major breakthrough: the 17-year-old New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie, playing a teen who lives off the grid with her dad, a PTSD-stricken veteran (Ben Foster), in the lush forest surrounding Portland, Oregon.

Finding another Jennifer Lawrence in the rough wasn’t simple. After a series of taped auditions over the course of several months (including an improvisational scene employing a neighbour’s rabbit as a prop), McKenzie got on Skype with Granik – and the director suddenly stopped speaking in hypotheticals: “When you’re over here”; “when I see you.” It was only then that McKenzie realised she had been cast.

Granik, apparently, saw such an affinity between the young actor and her character that, at the beginning of rehearsals, she changed the name of the role from Caroline, as she’s called in the novel on which the film was based, to Tom, McKenzie’s own nickname. It is a fitting marriage of actor and character: McKenzie grew up hiking and climbing trees in the rural areas surrounding her native Wellington, in a country that’s practically synonymous with famous adventurers.

As the movie approaches its climax, McKenzie, whose reserve throughout the film belies a ferocity that lurks just below the surface, tells Foster, “The same thing that’s wrong with you isn’t wrong with me.”

Those moments – the “vulnerable and just interesting and delicate ones,” as McKenzie described them – were her favourites. Though she grew up the third of four children born to an actor and a director, and she made her stage debut as an infant (as a prop in her mother’s production of Into the Woods), she was initially reluctant to enter the family business.

Until now, McKenzie has mostly worked in her home country (among her credits is a small role in Peter Jackson’s epic The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) but Leave No Trace has already begun to change that.

After a trip to Cannes, McKenzie has left for Prague to begin shooting Jojo Rabbit, the World War II satire with Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell, directed by Thor: Ragnarok’s Taika Waititi, and then to England to play Timothée Chalamet’s sister in The King.

It might seem as though she is embarking on her own J. Law-like rise, but McKenzie gently resisted the comparison. “We’re individuals,” she said. “She’s got her style, I’ve got my style.”

Original article by Katherine Cusumano, W, June 28, 2018.

Photo by Nadine Ijewere.

Tags: Debra Granik  Jennifer Lawrence  Leave No Trace  Thomasin McKenzie  W (magazine)  

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