The next Jennifer Lawrence could very well be in our sights. At least, that’s what critics coming out of Sundance have been saying for months.
Director Debra Granik helped launch the Oscar winner’s career with 2010’s Winter’s Bone, so her new teen lead of Leave No Trace, Thomasin McKenzie, can understand why some are anticipating another star-making performance. “I think it’s cool people have been comparing me to [Lawrence], but also I’ve got my own acting style,” McKenzie says. “But I’d love to be like her. I love her. She’s cool.”
Audiences can get a sense through EW’s exclusive clip, above, from Leave No Trace why movie taste-makers are fawning over this 17-year-old Kiwi actress. Her subtle, powerful performance as Tom, a young girl living off the grid with her father (Ben Foster), led to roles in WWII satire Jojo Rabbit from Taika Waititi (the Marvel director who made Thor cool again) and Netflix’s Shakespeare-based The King alongside Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson. So now a girl, once set on steering clear of acting, is jet-setting to New York for press tours and to the U.K. and Czech Republic for movie-making.
“It is so much fun!” she remarks of all the traveling. “I had never been to Europe before… Now I want to see more and more.”
Her grandmother Dame Catherine Harcourt, mother Miranda Harcourt, and father Stuart McKenzie formed their own film family dynasty in New Zealand through acting and directing. McKenzie, already wise beyond her years, took to the craft while filming a movie called Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story. Though only 14 at the time, she was acting out a true tale involving “rape and abuse of power in the police force,” and she realized the industry could be more than just “fame and fortune.”
“For me, [acting is] about telling stories and sharing things that need to be heard,” she says. “And also, you can educate people through acting and telling those kinds of stories, which I love, and it made me realize I had an opportunity to make a difference in the world.”
McKenzie’s career got a jolt from The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, yet you probably didn’t even know it. Her bit role involved a scene where Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel brought her character Astrid back to life, but Peter Jackson ultimately cut the moment — having filmed way too much footage for a two-and-a-half-hour movie. “There is still a part of it where I’m in it, but you’d only know if you [already] knew,” she says. With Leave No Trace, McKenzie gets a lot more to work with.
When casting her lead roles, Granik looks for an actor who can offer his or her own “personal insights,” someone who shows a “willingness” to put in the work and to “research” the character. For Granik, a film is “not a ready-made thing.” The actors, she notes, “are going to be informing it so hugely that I need to see some sign there that that’s exciting for them.” It’s in that sense that McKenzie shares a similarity to Lawrence; both actors possess these qualities.
Having auditioned for most of her roles over Skype, McKenzie’s first in-person meetings with Granik and Foster roughly coincided with her first day of wilderness training, which entailed making fires “without using matchsticks or lighters,” collecting water, listening to bird calls, and the like. She hadn’t conferenced with Foster prior to rehearsals either, which brought another level of pressure.
“He looked a lot different than I thought he would because he seems to transform in every role he takes on,” McKenzie recalls. “I can’t remember exactly [my first impressions] because I was really nervous, but he was a really nice guy.”
Foster was already thinking about fatherhood from expecting his firstborn with Orange Is the New Black‘s Laura Prepon, and McKenzie was dealing with the “grief” that comes from being away from her own family while on set in Oregon. So the pair naturally bonded on and off camera. McKenzie also mentions using a “Hug to Connect” technique with Foster that her mom handed down, “where we just hugged for two minutes right before the first scene to get in the rhythm of each others’ breath and to feel each other’s warmth.” This was followed by a traditional Māori greeting exercise — Māori being the indigenous people of New Zealand — “where you touch noses and foreheads and you close your eyes.”
She and Foster needed to be fearless touching hands and hugging, since Leave No Trace — an intimate, character-driven piece — is fueled by this father-daughter relationship. The “film fanatics” out of Sundance (i.e. critics and casting agents) quickly took notice of their performances, McKenzie acknowledges. Hence her newfound bankability. She calls it “surreal and crazy and very exciting,” but she’s interested to see what the general public thinks of her work. All this hype has been happening in a vacuum, as Leave No Trace doesn’t open for the masses until June 29.
McKenzie doesn’t have too much time to sit and think on this, though. A day after our conversation in New York, she hit the road again to film more projects, including Jojo Rabbit.
Waititi already showed the world his spoof of Adolf Hitler in the film, about an awkward German boy (Roman Griffin), his single mother (Scarlett Johansson), and his imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi). But McKenzie’s role as the girl who upends the boy’s world views remains elusive.
McKenzie, a fan of Waititi’s Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, remembers how the eccentric filmmaker was “pointing out artworks in our house to his friends in the Fox studio” during the second round of auditions over a video conference. She says, “What I adore about his films is their unique but inclusive humor, which often conveys quite dark themes like betrayal and loss.”
Not even Lawrence can flaunt that on her résumé (yet).