On Movies: Mia Wasikowska talks about her role in the creepy new "Stoker"

Nicole Kidman as Evie Stoker , chilly, distant mother to Mia Wasikowska's India. MACALL POLAY
Nicole Kidman as Evie Stoker , chilly, distant mother to Mia Wasikowska's India. MACALL POLAY
Posted: March 11, 2013

'It's definitely an uncomfortable film," says Mia Wasikowska, who stars in the creepy psychological reverie Stoker - and whose character is both the source and the object of much of that discomfort.

India Stoker has just turned 18 - on the day her father dies in a mysterious accident. She lives with her mother, a frosty and distant Nicole Kidman, in a beautiful house in the country. And then, at the funeral for her father, an uncle she never knew - Uncle Charlie, an effortlessly sinister Matthew Goode - appears.

And life in the Stoker home becomes very strange indeed.

"As a film about a young girl's reality, there's a part of her that I understand and I identify with - the more universal feelings of loneliness, and isolation, and desire," Wasikowska says about her India. "And then there's a part of her that's a mystery to me. As it will be to most people, I imagine."

Stoker - which opens Friday at the Ritz East and Rave Motion Pictures/NJ - marks the English-language debut of South Korean auteur Park Chan-wook, he of the exquisite mise en scene, the turbulent psychology, and the joltingly brutal violence. His Vengeance trilogy - Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance - is the stuff of cult fervor. In his homeland, and in cinema circles around the world, Park is a god. Or "director Park," as Wasikowska calls him.

"I had heard of him and Oldboy, but I hadn't seen his films when I signed on," confesses the actress, acknowledging that perhaps that was the wrong way to go about things. "So I signed on and then did a director Park marathon. . . . I was so excited. I think he's brilliant. He is a real original. He has a very unique vision. . . . And this was a really strong story. It's fascinating to get an intimate peek into the lives of these three family members."

More intimate than some might like. But while lots of unsettling stuff happens, or seems to happen, in Stoker, not the least being an attempted rape and a series of murders, the film has a rhapsodic beauty about it. It's full of slo-mo shots of the natural, and unnatural, worlds that India walks through in a state of - well, what is her state, exactly?

"Director Park wanted the film to have a dreamlike quality," Wasikowska explains. "And people have completely different interpretations of the film as a whole . . . . It really does leave things open to question. Even to question whether Uncle Charlie is completely a product of India's imagination."

Wasikowska says that before they started filming in and around Nashville, Park gave each of the leads a giant book of storyboards. Taking a page, so to speak, from Hitchcock, who conceived every shot before he arrived on set, Park had the entire film drawn out in elaborate detail.

"Director Park storyboards the whole movie before we start filming, so we were given a giant booklet of every single shot in the film, start to finish. And although that changed during the shoot, due to timing and circumstance, the film remains very true to that original vision."

Wasikowska, 23, hails from Canberra, Australia. She started acting in Australian TV when she was 15. She came to the attention of Hollywood after appearing as Sophie, the suicidal teenager in the 2008 season of the HBO series In Treatment. A few years later, and she was in a multiple-Oscar nominee ( The Kids Are All Right), had the title role in a new and beautiful Jane Eyre, and starred in Tim Burton'sAlice in Wonderland, the second-highest-grossing film of 2010.

It's the kind of career arc that might be recognizable to one of Wasikowska's fellow Aussies - her Stoker mom, Kidman. She, too, started off in Australian TV as a teen, before making the move to movies, and to Hollywood.

"Being a young actor from Australia, she was a huge role model for me," Wasikowska says of Kidman. "It was pretty wonderful and quite surreal to end up on a set with her, and she was so incredibly open, kind, and warm, and really took me under her wing. It was just an amazing thing to work with her."

Open, kind, and warm, it should be noted, are not applicable descriptions of Kidman's Evelyn Stoker.

"Luckily, off-camera, our relationship was very different," Wasikowska says, laughing. "Nicole is not a Method actor."

Following Stoker, which was shot in 2011, Wasikowska went to work on The Double - about a guy ( Jesse Eisenberg) who goes nutty when he runs into his doppelgänger. And then on to Tracks, in which she stars as a woman who goes on a 1,700-mile trek across the deserts of Western Australia with her dog - and four camels. And then on to Only Lovers Left Alive, a vampire movie from New York indie king Jim Jarmusch - not the guy you'd expect to be making a vampire movie.

"It's about a couple who have been together for hundreds of years," Wasikowska says. A couple played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston. "I play the sister of Tilda's character, who comes in and disrupts things.

"I think it's going to be awesome."

Tommy Lee Jones on postwar Japan. On the horn from L.A., Tommy Lee Jones - butt of a Seth MacFarlane joke at the Oscar ceremonies two weeks ago, where he was nominated for best supporting actor for his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens in Lincoln - has a short break from a daylong shoot.

It's a commercial for Japanese television, kind of like the Bill Murray character in Lost In Translation shooting a commercial for Japanese television. Only Jones didn't have to go to Japan.

"The product is Boss Coffee," Jones says. "It's their equivalent of Red Bull, I suppose. Manufactured by the Suntory Beverage Company." (In fact, Murray was pitching Suntory Whiskey in his ad.)

Is Jones big in Japan, as they say?

"I don't know," he cracks dryly. "I'm the same size in Texas as I am in Japan."

The subject of Japan is not beside the point. The veteran actor is in movie theaters right now in Emperor, playing Douglas MacArthur, the five-star general, in the earliest days of the occupation of Japan after World War II. Decisions about who to bring to trial as war criminals - the country's military leaders, but also the godlike emperor, Hirohito - must be made.

Matthew Fox plays the general's aide, assigned to sort out this business. But Fox's character, the real-life Gen. Bonner Fellers, has another agenda in the movie: he was in love with a Japanese exchange student before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and now, in the wake of the atomic bombs that devastated two Japanese cities, he hopes to find his girl.

"The movie, of course, is not about Douglas MacArthur," Jones says. "It's a love story . . . . It's both a personal and historical study of East meeting West, but the personal story is the most important."

Jones is getting set to direct again. He made the beautiful contempo western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a half-dozen years back, and now he's doing another western, this one based on Glendon Swarthout's novel The Homesman.

"I don't know if I'm going to keep that title or not," Jones says. "It has to do with the Nebraska Territory in the middle of the 19th century, and the Homestead Act, and what people were willing to endure for some free land. And the effect of the Homestead Act on the women who went west as homesteaders."

Those women, says Jones, will be played by Hilary Swank, Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, "and Grace's mother, Meryl Streep." Shooting begins late this month.

Jones is being called back to the set for his Japanese ad.

And how does that Boss Coffee go down?

"Can't really say," Jones responds. "I don't drink coffee."


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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