There have been more than twenty film versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, but none starring a local Canberra girl in the title role. In 1903 May Clark played the first screen Alice, the longest film ever made in Britain at the time. At a whopping 12 minutes, it was considered far too long by most distributors, and was cut up and screened in episodes. Hard-pressed for actors, director Cecil Hepworth cast his wife as the White Rabbit and the Queen, and dragged the 15-year-old May Clark away from her duties as a runner and studio secretary to be Alice.
Since this silent portrayal, Alice has been through some remarkable transformations. In the 1950’s she had the full Disney animation treatment, colourfully singing less than memorable musical numbers like “What Genus are You?” In the 1960’s she fell through a television set and ended up with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. In the 1970’s she found herself mini-skirted in a porn-musical wonderland, and in the 1980’s (in a gorgeous stop-motion Czech version) she fell through a bucket into a wondrous land of rubbish. To top all that, only a year ago an American cable-television channel repackaged Alice as a 20 year-old judo master who finds herself in a futuristic crime-world battling the Queen of a casino. Yet whatever the screen interpretation of the two books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, few people remember the names of any of the actresses who have played the curious young lead.
That’s about to change. After a stellar rise through the Australian and American film and television industries, Canberra actress Mai Wasikowska is set to play the most high-profile Alice of all time – in Tim Burton’s US$250 million extravanganza. Re-imagined as a nineteen year old who revisits Wonderland a second time to escape an unwanted engagement, Wasikowska finds herself at the bottom of Burton’s wacky rabbit hole in the company of Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry, Anne Hathaway and Christopher Lee. Yet neither the star-studded cast nor Burton’s distinctively original version of the story seems to phase the very level headed teenager: “She’s such an iconic character,” says Wasikowska in her quietly spoken voice, “and there was always going to be a certain amount of pressure in finding out who she is at nineteen, but the Alice in the book is the backbone of the character and for us it was case of stripping away the baggage that came with Alice in Wonderland and making her Alice the teenager.”
Only just out of teenage years herself, Wasikowska was not that long ago headed for a career as a ballerina. “I really didn’t expect to end up in film,” she says surprisingly. “I danced very intensely for many years, and just before I made the switch to acting I was dancing about 35 hours a week, leaving school at lunchtime to attend the programme.” At 14, however, Wasikowska found the emphasis on achieving physical perfection too demanding. “I loved ballet but it increasingly felt like I was trying to achieve something that was unattainable. I was really connected to the emotional side of dance, and at the same time ballet started to grate I became interested in film and realised that films were about real life and about imperfection and the things that go wrong. I loved the chance to do something where I wasn’t expected to be perfect.”
Wasikowska kicked off her new career as a 15 year old in a couple of episodes of All Saints, lapping up the new medium and learning from those around her. “I was really lucky with the people around me in the first few productions I worked on” she says fondly, “and I learned a lot from the other actors and directors. I missed a bit of school, but madly caught up when I came back to Canberra – and the school was really wonderful helping me.”
Wasikowska continued to juggle school and acting for a couple of years, picking up roles in the Australian films Suburban Mayhem, September and Rogue, always with strong notices for her work, and with a nomination for a Young Actor’s Award at the 2006 AFI Awards. But when the Americans became interested in her, things got a bit more complicated. Trying out for roles by tape, Wasikowska had picked up an American agent who regularly sent her scripts. At 16 she landed the part of a troubled teenager in the HBO series In Treatment, playing opposite Gabriel Byrne. It meant moving to Los Angeles for an extended period, and giving up school in Canberra for correspondence study, not an easy decision. “I was really glad that my mum was able to come with me, and my brother and sister came in their holidays, so I felt like I had my family with me, but it was a big change.”
With excellent reviews for her portrayal of Sophie in In Treatment, Wasikowska was able to find more work in the USA, playing the part of a young Polish girl in Defiance, starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber, and last year playing a young aviator in Mira Nair’s biopic of Amelia Earhart. In the meantime, Wasikowska had been through the biggest casting session of her life – a long and world-wide audition process for Alice in Wonderland. “I sent over a video audition for Alice in February 2008, and then in June I went to the UK and did four more auditions. It was a very long process, and when I finally heard that I had won the part I was so excited, it took a couple of days to sink in.”
Tim Burton calls Wasikowska an “old soul” and cast her because of an inner quality she manages to get across on screen. “Because you’re witnessing this whole thing through her eyes,” he says, “it needed somebody who can subtly portray that.” And it’s clear that Wasikowska and Burton were on the same page from the beginning. “Tim and I had a very similar understanding of Alice” says Wasikowska, “what she was going through and who she was. I feel she has a strong internal life. She is a deep thinker and an observer of the world, and I think I am the same – which is why I am an actor.”
And clearly one of the world’s most sought after. She has just finished working on Gus Van Sant’s new feature film, and is due to play the lead in a new screen version of Jane Eyre. Yet despite the time away from Australia, Wasikowska knows where home is. “Whenever I’m not working I always come back here”, she says. “Home is definitely in Canberra.”