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Elizabeth Debicki: The Aussie actress quietly taking over Hollywood

Photography by Lorenzo Agius

Elizabeth Debicki: The Aussie actress quietly taking over Hollywood

The enigmatic Australian actress with a European pedigree was born in Paris, trained as a ballerina and is now quietly taking cinematic and theatrical audiences by storm with her impressive body of work.

Elizabeth Debicki: The Aussie actress quietly taking over Hollywood

Elizabeth Debicki is apologising over Zoom. “I’m really sorry… Is the leaf blower loud? My neighbour has just started gardening!” Noise from next door is just one of the perils of doing online video interviews with actors in isolation. “It’s a brave new world!” the actress remarks, as – thankfully – the whiny engine sound floating in through her window cuts out.

At least this new form of journalistic voyeurism affords a peak into Debicki’s living room, which is white-walled and minimalist – no expensive art or purposefully arranged, well-stocked bookcase behind her. It’s something of a blank canvas, which is also something you might say about the blonde-haired, pale-skinned actor – an intriguing mix of European heritage and Australian upbringing, with a cut-glass accent that defies placement.

Debicki is something of an enigma. She’s fiercely private and doesn’t do social media. “I’m not really an internet-y kind of creature,” she tells me. Leave that to her followers – like those who set up an Instagram account, @elizabethdebickinators, with shots of Debicki reclining her 6’2” frame on expensive-looking chaise lounges or sitting in the front row of Paris Fashion Week.

In less than a decade, Debicki has cultivated a career of exquisite taste. “I’m picky,” she says. “There have been lots of things I’ve said ‘no’ to doing.” But when she says yes? She’s done Shakespeare on screen in Justin Kurzel’s bloody take on Macbeth. She’s hooked up with Marvel, coating herself in gold paint to play the alien, Ayesha in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. And she smashed it as the Polish-American who turns to crime in Steve McQueen’s heist thriller, Widows.

She was named the recipient of the 2019 Women In Film Max Mara Face of the Future award; but ironically, hers was one face that had already well and truly arrived. “Actors, we always feel like we’re on the cusp of doom!” she says, although Debicki’s world is anything but doom-laden. This post-COVID movie season, she starred in Tenet, a top-secret espionage tale from Christopher Nolan, the blockbuster director behind Inception and Interstellar.

The world of espionage

It’s not Debicki’s first foray into the world of movie spies. She pitched up in Guy Ritchie’s suave remake of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and was a part of the ensemble in the sensational TV adaptation of spymaster John le Carré’s The Night Manager, playing Jed Marshall, the trophy girlfriend to Hugh Laurie’s arms dealer.

Debicki with Hugh Laurie in ‘The Night Manager’

Her own tastes skew more retro. “I love the old Bond films. They have a charm to them. Sometimes action movies are a bit too fast for me. I’m like an old lady!” On Tenet, Debicki was very much part of the action – one sequence, glimpsed in the trailer, sees her on a sleek-looking sailing vessel. “I’ve never really done that sort of thing on film. Having a trainer tell me what to do is deeply out of my comfort zone,” she says. “I don’t like it. But I did it. I did all of it. I knew I was going to have to engage in and learn these new skills, or find myself in a place that I would otherwise never choose to be in.”

Debicki was also down with the secrecy surrounding the film. “There is such a joy when you get to watch something that you really, really get to be surprised by. And I think that is precious, because we have so much information all the time. We’re exposed to so much content. And I love the idea that people don’t know anything and they’ll go and sit down – eventually – in the cinema and watch it.”

At least Debicki seems ideally suited to front a spy movie like Tenet; she even has a collection of passports to make James Bond green with envy. “My dad is Polish. And my mum’s family are all English,” she says. “It is handy.” If only she had US documentation, she could put down roots across half the globe. “I need, like, one more parent – American! – and then I would be fine!” she chuckles.

Still, it suits her existence. “I have quite a nomadic life,” she says. “We sort of grew up like that.” Debicki was born in Paris, where her “bohemian” parents – both ballet dancers – met while performing in a show. Her mother and father relocated to the Melbourne suburbs when she was five, but those early years in France took root in her. “You grow up with a sense of broader horizons than the one you’re presented immediately with,” she says.

The actress in ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E’

Much to her parents’ chagrin, she stopped speaking the French that she’d grown up with – partly as a way to fit in at her new Aussie primary school. She did, however, show an early interest in the arts – specifically ballet. “I learnt ballet my whole life,” she says. “It was the family trade. But I stopped dancing when I went to acting school. Until the age of 17, I was doing it – not full time – but every day. But I kind of always knew I wasn’t going to do it professionally – I’m really tall after all! So that stopped my ballet dreams quite early. But then I went to acting school and it just felt like a natural profession for me.”

Before Debicki set out to study theatre at the University of Melbourne’s Victorian College of the Arts, she had one of those ‘sliding doors’ moments in life. “I was very, very nearly going to law school,” she explains. “I got two law scholarships and was about to sign on the dotted line and then got a call saying I’d been accepted into acting school, so I didn’t go.” Her parents were duly concerned about her choice, given the less-than-stable nature of a career in the arts. “They desperately wanted me to do something ‘non- thespy’. They wanted me to be a real person with stability, which I shunned.”

With Debicki and her younger sister and brother to support, the family weren’t well off by any means. After her father had seen his ballet career reach its natural end, he’d taken a job backstage at a theatre. After graduating, Debicki’s first job was for the Melbourne Theatre Company, playing a bereaved mother on stage, “which felt like the biggest thing I would ever do”, she says. “I couldn’t believe someone was employing me, paying me money to act, which I still sort of can’t get my head around sometimes.”

Following a screen debut in marital comedy A Few Best Men alongside Olivia Newton-John and Rebel Wilson , she won a career-making, life-changing role in Baz Luhrmann’s wildly ambitious take on The Great Gatsby. “I got ‘Gatsby’ about three-and-a-half-months out of drama school, which was a massive shock,” she recalls.

Mario Cotillard and Debicki in ‘Macbeth’

After screen testing in a Melbourne hotel, Luhrmann saw Debicki’s tape and liked it. One 36-hour round trip to Los Angeles later, where she did a second screen test, she returned to Melbourne and then … nothing. She was kept waiting for a month before Luhrmann personally called her on her cell phone and said: “Would you like to be part of our little play?”

For Debicki, playing socialite golfer Jordan Baker alongside Leonardo DiCaprio was like a dream. “It was such an immense job, the scale of it. Baz doesn’t do anything by halves! I was 20 … and I just thought, ‘This must be what it’s like on a film set.’ To have like 400 extras dressed up every day, shooting one page [of the script] for six days … I didn’t question any of it. I suppose that’s the bliss of being naive or ignorant.”

It threw her into “this bizarre year”, co-starring in the Sydney Theatre Company production of Jean Genet’s The Maids with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert – two queens of stage and screen. Then she went to Cannes with ‘Gatsby’, got cast in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Macbeth and took The Maids to Broadway for a successful run.

The Hollywood Reporter called her performance as the middle-aged dowager “fearlessly vulgar and funny”. Debicki had arrived. “Actors are constantly sort of fighting this funny identity battle,” she reflects, “because you’re constantly changing as a human being and then the work you want to be doing is changing and then you’re trying to get that work or be seen for that work.

“It’s a constant kind of ‘to and fro’. I mean, I wouldn’t have it any other way because I have quite a short attention span and I think it suits the way my brain works in a way, but it’s also a strange … I guess you’re just constantly in flux. It’s interesting.”

Cool, calm and collected

In person, Debicki doesn’t come across as easily distracted. Calm and assured, her answers are eloquent and thoughtful, even if an aura of cool reserve ensures she’s never going to tell you whom she’s currently dating. But what’s she like around her family? “I can be very bossy and opinionated!” she giggles. Particularly, it seems, when it comes to her brother and sister. “I’m very much a mother to my siblings … especially when I was younger. It was very easy for me.”

Like most, Debicki has felt the tension of the pandemic and the struggles of lockdown. “What I do know with absolute certainty – speaking for myself and humanity – is that we really are going to need – when we are allowed – to congregate. We’re going to really be craving experiences that we can have together. I don’t think I’ll ever take going to the theatre or going to the cinema for granted ever again. I think people will need that.” Debicki is certainly doing her bit.

 

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After Tenet, she starred in The Burnt Orange Heresy, an art-world thriller shot around picturesque Lake Como in Italy. “It could not be further away from making a Nolan film. It was much more chilled,” she says. The film co-stars none other than the “extraordinary” Donald Sutherland and Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger. She recalls being dumbstruck when she met the musician in the make-up room as he munched on chocolate biscuits. “You just think, ‘You are Mick Jagger!’” It’s another cast-iron character to add to the collection.

Most recently, she has been cast in The Crown season six at Princess Diana opposite Dominic West who plays Prince Charles.

Like so many in the industry, Debicki wants to make empowering choices, to portray women who aren’t simply adjuncts to the male narrative. “I’ve been around this sort of patriarchy … I’ve seen it. I’ve seen women who aren’t educated. I’ve seen what that can do to someone’s prospects and their sense of self-worth.” That’s her all over; stealthily changing Hollywood from the inside.

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