Most girls read Charlotte Bronte’s classic, British novel Jane Eyre in their teen years, but actor Mia Wasikowska waited until she was legal. “I’d just gone home to Australia,” the Canberra native says, “and it was the first time where I had no school. So I made a list of books I was going to read and Jane Eyre was on it.” By the time the twenty-one-year-old hit chapter five, she was hooked, e-mailing her agent fishing for scripts. “A month or two later,” Wasikowska remembers, “she emailed back with a script and told me the director would like to meet me. It was really a case of great timing.”
For Cary Joji Fukunaga, it was less about timing than range. The director was fresh off his gritty, 2009 directorial debut “Sin Nombre,” which chronicled the migration of facially tattooed Mexican gangs. “It makes perfect sense to go from grave social drama to nineteenth-century corsets and horses,” the thirty-three-year-old jokes. “What I didn’t want to do following ‘Sin Nombre’ was do another film like ‘Sin Nombre.’” Choosing his Jane was a narrower search. “Mia was the right age,” he says, before a touch of his peripatetic Jane’s suitor, the curt Mr. Rochester, slips in. “She had this really interesting face,” Fukunaga says, “she could be really pretty or she could be really plain.”
“I feel really lucky,” Tim Burton’s Alice says of tackling two of British literature’s greatest heroines back-to-back, “but it also makes you the target of the bull’s-eye.” But lest this young thesp, outranked only by Leo DiCaprio on last year’s Forbes list of Hollywood’s highest-grossing actors, come off like a gal who tosses down a classic novel as soon as she takes a meeting, Wasikowska stresses how important the book was for her on set. “I read it again before we started filming,” she explains, “underlining and marking spots, really preparing as I read it.”
Her approach to the script is similar. “I like to read it a lot of times,” she says, pushing her dark blonde bangs out of her eyes. “Especially when you’re dealing with period language, it’s important that it feels natural and it sits inside you somewhere because it’s a language we don’t use anymore. I like to know it very well, because with research, you build the framework of the character and then you fill the rest in with yourself and your own experiences, emotions, and understanding.”
That shading Wasikowska brought to her character could be the only uncharted territory for Fukunaga. “When we started location scouting,” the director recalls, “I was a little surprised by how many of the houses we’d been looking at had already been filmed, more than once.” He laughs, adding, “Alright, how do we make this fresh?” But as he worked on the material, that concern fell away. “More than anything,” he remembers, “I started to ask myself, ‘How am I going to remain faithful to Charlotte Bronte’s novel?’ That was my main concern. And it’s a dark story, with many chiaroscuro elements.”
“The way that it is structured is really interesting,” Wasikowska says of “Tamara Drewe” screenwriter Moira Buffini’s adaptation, which fractures Bronte’s 1847 narrative. “Immediately, you start asking questions like who is she and what’s going on? You’re instantly drawn into it, so that’s really smart.” Wasikowska sums up the challenge of adapting this material: “The book is Jane’s internal monologue from start to finish,” and the actress wonders aloud how you put that on film “without having her talk all the time.”
“A lot of things help with that,” she says of the initial stiffness of the language when her Jane does talk. “The corset,” she begins, laughing “Everybody talks about the corset, but it’s totally true how hideously repressive it is. It affects your breath, voice, and the way you stand. It’s the beginning of repression.” Wasikowska jokes that this manifested at craft services. “Do I have the muffin or do I have the water?” she asks. “You have to sacrifice because there’s only a small amount of space.”
The accent also helps Wasikowska find character. “Once I establish an accent,” she says, “I can’t imagine a character without it. It adds a different challenge and dimension. It may be why I like doing accents. It’s another aspect that takes you away from yourself and brings you into someone else’s voice.” As to whether this is an internal device, like character motivation, or an external one, like that corset, is a question Wasikowska hedges. “I guess it’s both,” she answers. “If I externally use a different accent, then internally that affects something, but it’s the same with the costumes, which are a physical thing, but become so mental as well.” And with that, she’s back to the corset. “Just the pain of being in that thing all day,” she says as an agonized expression washes over her clear, barely made-up face.
Wasikowska, whose Australian father and Polish mother are both photographers, also embraced the form. “I took a lot of pictures,” the actor, next up in Gus Van Sant’s “Restless,” says of her time on the “Jane Eyre” set. “I love having another creative outlet that I have more control over and photography’s been a really therapeutic way making art. We get a lot of downtime. There’s a lot of waiting around between setups, and that’s fine, but I like doing stuff in that period.” Her best shot? “The most interesting composition is when you’re in the center of something,” she says, describing photography, but also the eye of the Eyre-icane. “There’s all this attention focused on you. There’s a camera in your face and a boom above your head. And often that’s the perspective that isn’t seen. That’s what I try to do with my photographs.”
Video: Courtesy of Image.net and Focus Features.