Elizabeth Debicki on her latest role, life-changing movies and finding your own voice

Actress Elizabeth Debicki talks to Martha Hayes about empowering career moments, stealing her character’s clothes and playing it cool in front of Mick Jagger

Elizabeth Debicki must think I’m stalking her. I first met the Australian star best known for the hit BBC spy drama The Night Manager three years ago when she was living in London. This time, we meet in LA, where she’s been based since the beginning of the year. ‘How’s London?’ she enquires with a smile, standing 6ft 3in tall in a flowing Grecian-style dress and velvet ballet flats.
I tell her I’ve actually just moved here to LA, too. Then, it turns out we live down the road from one another. ‘Get out!’ she says.

But it speaks volumes about the 29-year-old Widows star as she thoughtfully reels off recommendations for the best coffee, yoga and flowers in the area, when she knows we should be discussing her new role as the latest recipient of the Women in Film Max Mara Face of the Future Award. The next time I see her (stalking, much?) is later that evening at a chic cocktail party thrown by Max Mara/Woman in Film in her honour at the legendary Chateau Marmont – the very hotel where Debicki auditioned for her first Hollywood film, Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Working the room in an oversized cream trouser suit, this cool chameleon is an affirmative far cry from that nervous ingénue…

As well as honouring you for your (obvious!) acting achievements, Face of the Future commends your ‘timeless style and grace’. How would you describe your own style?
‘Changeable. I change and assimilate culturally wherever I am, which is part of my personality, I think. I can be in London for 12 hours and it’s like jeans, coat and boots. It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining, that’s it.’

I can vouch for that because I’ve met you in London.

‘And then in LA, I’m like, “Who am I?” I’m all peasant and flowy.’

You’ve just played Virginia Woolf in Vita and Virginia. Of all your characters, whose wardrobe have you coveted the most?

‘Jed in The Night Manager. I was going to say Jordan Baker 
[The Great Gatsby], but I’d nick all of Jed’s stuff because I could actually wear it. She had the best nightwear 
I’ve ever seen; the most beautiful nightgowns. I tried hard to steal them.’

Have you ever taken a souvenir home?

‘Jed wore this amazing necklace I don’t think anyone noticed – maybe if you freeze-framed and zoomed in – but it was so important to me. It was a little skull on a gold chain with 
a diamond in one eye, and I just loved that I knew it was hers, unlike all the other Richard Roper-bought jewellery.’

It’s a very interesting time for women in film. How confident do you feel in your own voice?

‘The older I get and the more experience I have, the more it becomes apparent that your truest strength is to speak with your own voice. It’s scary to be authentically yourself.’

Why do you think we find that so difficult?

‘I think it’s natural, when you’re trying to stake out a place within a particular industry, to have role models. But the flip side of constantly looking upwards is feeling unworthy. If you’re always being comparative and believing you’re coming up short, that’s destructive. It’s important to think, “One day, I will…” For me, [my role models] were always women who carry themselves with integrity, but make interesting art. That’s a powerful but difficult dynamic to strike up in your own life.’

‘The older I get, the more it becomes apparent that your truest strength is to speak with your own voice. It’s scary to be authentically yourself’

 

Has there been a particular turning point in your own career?

‘I think it’s only with hindsight that you understand what was a turning point. If you actually felt the penny drop, you should probably check yourself, like, “Whoa, you’re doing OK, but you’re not that great.” [Laughs.] It’s an interesting schism between knowing quietly inside yourself that you’re worth being heard, but challenging yourself so you don’t plateau. I look back at certain moments that empowered me and it’s always about the people I worked with.’

What springs to mind?

‘Making Steve McQueen’s movie Widows was a huge moment in my personal life. I can remember when I first saw Hunger [2008] and thinking, “I don’t know what this is, I’ve never seen a film like it.” There are images in that movie that never leave you. So then I meet this man [McQueen] and he gives me a job. Then the work starts. And the work is, “How do I rise to the challenge of what he’s going to ask of me and how do I do it so that I’m proud of it myself?” You can never be in control of how someone receives your work, but you can know in the moment whether you have done yourself justice.’

You’re about to start filming Christopher Nolan’s thriller Tenet, but before that we’ll see you in The Burnt Orange Heresy with Mick Jagger…

‘Meeting him was surreal. We were shooting in a villa in Lake Como and one of the big, old kitchens had been turned into a make-up room. And someone was like, “Mick’s on set, he wants to meet you.” I walked in and he was standing there, hopping from one foot to the other eating a chocolate biscuit. He was just really excited to hang out. You flatline in your brain when you meet someone like that. You just think, “You are Mick Jagger”, 
you don’t hear anything else.’

Elizabeth Debicki is the 14th recipient of the 2019 Women In Film Max Mara Face of the Future Award

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