Mia Wasikowska and How The Quietness of Acting Remains Unrewarded

By  · Published on February 9th, 2017

It’s Time To Give Mia Wasikowska The Recognition She Deserves

The lack of Hollywood award recognition towards Wasikowska’s work mirrors Hollywood’s, and the film industry’s, tendency to reward transformation over subtlety.

Twenty-two years after his first Academy Award nomination for his role in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar. Rather than placing an importance on the actor’s ability to play a character convincingly, however, the win reestablished a long-time tradition that only when an actor suffers for their art ‐ for example losing a lot of weight ‐ are they worthy of being rewarded. Matt Zoller Seitz describes this “acting-as-punishment” as “the most extreme possible variant of the tendency to mistake Most Acting for Best Acting,” and Pauline Kael notes in her reflection of 1980’s Raging Bull that suffering for art “isn’t acting, exactly.”

Acting should ‐ mostly ‐ come from within. Yet the continuous recognition of outward display over inward subtlety in the awards circuit suggests otherwise. Amy Adams has yet to be rewarded with an Oscar, with her snub for Arrival this year reinstating the tradition of transformation in favor of nuance. As Arrival’s producer Shawn Levy states: it’s an “inarguable fact that Amy Adams’ performance is in every frame of the film, and is pervasive throughout the soul and heart of the film.” Her performance in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi drama does not just lend itself to a few dramatic scenes in which Adams can loudly display her craft in acting, but is instead reserved for the course of the film, making not just her acting better, but the film as a whole. Adams prioritizes the aforementioned “soul” of the films she is a part of over how she can make herself be most heard, seen and remembered as an actress.

There is an actress that is part of one of the highest-grossing films of the decade, has worked with directors from Guillermo Del Toro to Park Chan-wook, and has held her own against the likes of Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Fassbender. Yet, in spite of this, her work remains largely unrewarded, often because of her ability to draw on what lies within rather than what is surrounding her. This actress is Mia Wasikowska, and the elusiveness of the characters she portrays and the subtlety with which she plays them reflects what types of performances are recognized and why.

It would be easy to say Wasikowska’s unique crafting of her characters makes her work stand out from the “louder” performances that grace both large and small screens daily. However, the very thing that makes Wasikowska’s talent so great is her ability to not stand out. Through her characters, the actress maneuvers around and within her films often as part of the film rather than separated from it. Her subtlety ensures it’s her characters that taken centre-stage rather than her acting choices. The importance in returning to her past performances ‐ both new and old ‐ can be seen through the actress’ choice in characters to portray: the observer. The reason Wasikowska’s work remains largely unnoticed by the major awards that can make an actress’ career is because her work to this date is the embodiment of what awards shows often overlook: the art of subtlety.

In Wasikowska’s U.S. breakthrough In Treatment, she plays the suicidal teenaged gymnast Sophie, who has weekly treatments with the show’s main character Dr. Paul Weston (Gabriel Byrne). Having come from Australia, Wasikowska’s ability to not only convincingly play her character but also relate to her and her situation begins what is a collection of work that is shrouded in authenticity. Most actresses inevitably face portraying their character with superficial emotion, due to the distanced experiences between actress and character. However, Wasikowska instead internally become her characters. In Treatment is a perfect starting point to see this personal subtlety. Instead of accounting for the lack of relation between her and her character through external references, for example hair, makeup, and props, Wasikowska’s thoughtful portrayal of Sophie always seems to come from within. Moreover, Sophie ‐ a self-reliant character who is misunderstood, in the middle of the enigmatic border of teenager and woman ‐ is a character Wasikowska seems drawn to throughout her filmography.

Following In Treatment is Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right and the billion dollar-grossing Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Where the former film reflects the independent film choices Wasikowska would make later in her career, the latter emphasizes the actress’ ability at playing characters with a quiet thoughtfulness, detached from Alice in Wonderland’s needless use of frivolous CGI. Burton has described how, for Alice, he wanted someone with an “old-soul quality,” stating:

“Most Alices are just a precocious girl wandering through things. I wanted somebody who had a gravity to her, an internal life, someone where you could see the wheels turning. I always like it when I sense people have that old-soul quality to them. Because you’re witnessing this whole thing through her eyes, it needed somebody who can subtly portray that.”

With all its flaws, Alice in Wonderland, and indeed its sequel Through the Looking Glass, is about a young woman coming to terms with the new world around her. While there are moments of physicality each films’ denouement fight scenes, the main action (and emotion) come from the reactions on Alice’s face.

Following on from Alice in Wonderland, Burton’s sentiment of why he chose Wasikowska as Alice is something that is true of her later films. There’s 2011’s Jane Eyre (directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga), Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Maps to the Stars (directed by David Cronenberg), and Park Chan-wook’s thriller Stoker. What ties each of these characters together is that, like Alice, they are faced with new experiences. In Jane Eyre, the titular character internalises her new, unknown world as she grows into adulthood and begins to experience love. Meanwhile, the exploration of celebrity in Maps to the Stars and the vampire romance Only Lovers Left Alive see Wasikowska’s Agatha and Ava block out their internal world through vices such as taking drugs and sucking blood. These characters are learning from their new, shared experiences, yet they each internalise it differently. And that is what Wasikowska’s acting ‐ unknowingly or not ‐ aims for and achieves.

However, this internalizing of the external world is also why her acting is likely to go unnoticed by the major awards shows: her approach is too subtle, her characters not loud enough. Rather than her performances being readily available in the physical realm to see the work that went into the characters portrayed, Wasikowska’s work is more like Amy Adams’, that of Adams in The Master and Junebug, and another actress whose performance has been unrecognized recently with Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of the reporter Christine Chubbuck in Antonio CamposChristine.

For the LA Times, Wasikowska describes how she likes to “think of [herself] as an observer,” and for The Guardian she discusses how she likes to work “inside out,” eventually “building a character psychologically,” describing that “the most important direction she was ever given is ‘the thought really counts.’” Often, Wasikowska’s best acting comes when she is silent. In Stoker her characters’ silent looks to both the camera and disturbed characters that surround her speak more to how the titular character, India Stoker, feels than any dramatic monologue. As Kira Cochraine notes, “unlike the majority of actors, her characters live palpably behind her eyes.”

It’s this very idea of characters living behind the eyes of an actress (or actor) that is problematic for awards nominations. Most awards seem to recognise acting that is transformative and renders the actress/actor unidentifiable, and, while this form of acting can be exceptional and appreciated ‐ for example Marion Cotillard’s performance in La Vie en Rose — it leaves the question of whether there is room, or indeed time, for the quietness of acting to be recognised. Due to the fact Wasikowska’s characters live behind her eyes, it means these figures are not immediately accessible to the audience since the actress holds a personal secret between herself and the character. What is needed, then, is time to think and, to use the words of Wasikowska, “observe” the characters.

The more subtle acting means it’s harder to recognise what makes the performance truly great. Zoller Seitz talks about how “DiCaprio at his best is so good that you don’t catch him acting, or you don’t think of what he’s doing as acting, even though it is,” and it’s because of this inability to “catch” these kinds of quiet actors acting that their craft can only really be fully appreciated when looking back at their work. Wasikowska’s acting in Guillermo del Toro’s gothic romance Crimson Peak does not seem obviously extraordinary, yet when comparing her franticness in Richard Ayoade’s The Double and her ability to make the audience dislike her as the eponymous figure in Madame Bovary, the range the actress has becomes clear. As Helena Bonham Carter says of her co-star: “Mia is quietly extraordinary.” It’s this quietness that will ensure her characters are portrayed thoughtfully and from the internal, while also leaving the actress as an intrinsic part of the film, “disappearing into a role,” rather than a part separate from it that easily allows audiences to identify the role of the actor. With Wasikowska’s work, as well as the best work of Adams, DiCaprio, and Cotillard, there is no competition as to whether its the film or the actor who is most loud. Instead, the acting, the cinematography, props, and so on, become one. Wasikowska’s work does not need award recognition as the films and characters left behind are enough, yet this quiet acting is much needed, and the lack of recognition for her acting emphasises the importance placed on transformation over subtlety.

The characters the actress portrays are often blurred within the different elements of filmmaking, for example editing and direction, making it unclear to audiences whether it is the acting, the editing, or the direction that makes a film like Jane Eyre so great. The answer is, usually, all three. However, it’s the thought Wasikowska brings to her characters that showcases the actress’ concern towards her characters, and ensures they exist through emotion rather than exist through the physicality of Wasikowska herself.

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Freelance writer based in the UK.