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The actress Thomasin McKenzie is an introverted performer, imbuing her characters with a quiet intensity rather than fighting for the camera’s attention. “It takes a lot of effort from me to be‘ big’,” she tells Esquire over Zoom, from her family home in Wellington, New Zealand. “Even when I feel like I’m doing a massive performance, I watch the film and it’s so much smaller than it felt in my head.”
For her next role, the 21-year-old, who is endearingly sweet yet preternaturally sage, in the way actors who have worked alongside adults from a young age sometimes are, had no choice: she had to go big. McKenzie leads the cast of the flamboyant horror film Last Night in Soho, a technicolour extravaganza from Edgar Wright, the treasured British director behind Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver. The actress plays Eloise, a goofy aspiring fashion designer who dreams of moving to London. Once there, she is transported to the Swinging Sixties where she encounters Sandy (played by the similarly elfin actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who screams, sobs and smokes with the same vigour as she did in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit), only to find the fluorescent lights and glamour of the city are a garish nightmare from up close.
McKenzie is the daughter of an actress, Miranda Harcourt, and a director, StuartMcKenzie, and the granddaughter of another actress, Dame Kate Harcourt. Her early years in New Zealand were spent running around the acting school where her mother taught. A savvy nine-year-old, she initially entered the family business as a side-hustle, performing for pocket money so that she could buy new toys. “I used to collect erasers, which are rubbers but I call them erasers because in America rubbers are condoms and it’s not a good look to say you’re collecting condoms,” she laughs. “I was really obsessed with Sylvanian Families, too.”
McKenzie’s breakout role came in Debra Granik’s 2018 Leave No Trace, about a PTSD-afflicted father who lives off-grid in the woods with his daughter, a part McKenzie fit so perfectly that, watching the film, it feels as though Granik had come across McKenzie by searching the forest before they started filming. The director pulled off the same trick once before, plucking a teenaged Jennifer Lawrence from obscurity for the revered Winter’s Bone. McKenzie’s performance in Leave No Trace earned her comparisons to Lawrence, a strange thing for an 18-year-old who had grown up on The Hunger Games to contend with. Admired performances in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit and M Night Shyamalan’s Old followed, and now her slate of upcoming projects features some of the biggest names in filmmaking.
McKenzie was shooting her compatriot Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, about a pair of warring brothers on a ranch in Montana, when the pandemic halted production in early 2020. She went back to stay with her family in New Zealand, settling into a bubble far away from the noise she had grown accustomed to. “After Leave No Trace it was hard to take stock,” she says.“The lockdown was a great moment to pause and reassess what kind of stuff I wanted to do. I don’t do films because of how big they might be, I’m just living every day.”
Last Night in Soho is Wright’s love letter to London’s most louche and libidinous enclave, which dazzled him as a teenage boy from Dorset. The closing credits feature shots of the city captured during the pandemic, when the streets were terrifyingly empty and the pubs were —more terrifyingly still — shuttered. “It paints a good picture of what Soho is: the good and the bad,” McKenzie says of the film. Wright issued a list of 1960s films for her to make her way through to get a sense of the tone he wanted, with horror classics like Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as British kitchen-sink dramas Poor Cow and A Taste of Honey all featuring. “I’m not naturally a horror watcher,” she says. “He had [Dario Argento’s terrifying 1977 film] Suspiria on the list but I couldn’t do it. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea.”
Last Night in Soho is in cinemas 31 Oct
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