Elizabeth Debicki: I’m a mining actress, trying to find what’s underneath and bring it out

The Australian star set Tom Hiddleston’s heart racing in The Night Manager
– now she’s the lead in an Aussie take on Scandi-noir

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Elizabeth Debicki’s career reminds me of Uma Thurman’s, and not just because both are so tall, and so extravagantly beautiful, that they look like people from the future.

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One minute, Debicki was the surprise newcomer, giving a spirited but wry and subtle performance as socialite Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s film version of The Great Gatsby – a big break she describes as “strange and unusual. Many factors contributed to it, mainly Baz, who throws the net out so wide. It was, like, my second audition out of drama school.”

Cinephiles said that she stole the screen from Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan. Next, for the rest of us, there she was as Jed in The Night Manager, stealing the screen from the likes of Tom Hiddleston, Olivia Colman and Hugh Laurie. Jed was an archetype in some ways – the bad guy’s moll, missing her son, smiling wide, bleak smiles at a malevolent Laurie – but simultaneously unusual, ten warring emotions under every expression, haunting sadness in every gesture.

Now her leading role in The Kettering Incident, which was actually filmed in Tasmania before The Night Manager, feels as natural as casting Judi Dench as M. She plays Anna Macy, who has fetched up as a doctor in London, having left her backwater Tasmanian birthplace 15 years previously, but is now back on home territory. And while it starts with notes of the supernatural – UFOs, disappearances, a dream-like pace – a detective story emerges that will inevitably invite comparisons with Scandi-noir.

“You don’t really get the sense of pace, when you’re reading something, but I knew it was going to be a slow burn,” she recalls. “I was always doing so much that I didn’t really think of it being slow, it was an onslaught for me. It’s sort-of like The Killing or The Bridge, in that procedural way, but the characters are interesting enough that you understand it chunk by chunk, peeling until you get to the core.” 

In fact, she didn’t watch either of those Nordic thrillers until after she’d made The Kettering Incident. “I’m always late for every party, but I’m actually glad this time, because I probably would have been heavily influenced by them – I’m obsessed with The Bridge. Instead, I did my own version of what Anna was, she’s quite raw in a way, and she unravels really interestingly.”

The Kettering Incident

She did something similar in The Night Manager, though as performances they couldn’t be more different: she created a character you would never have become so attached to on the basis of John le Carré’s original novel.

“When we set out to make The Night Manager, we were all very aware that in the book – and John le Carré doesn’t mind me saying so, he’s said it to me before – Jed was quite lacking in dimension. I just don’t think she was his focus. Also, in that genre, women just become a strange projection of male fantasy, they don’t seem to think or feel anything; if something ripples their surface, they instantly recover. And you wonder where their soul is, really. I wouldn’t know how to play a role like that, I’m more of a mining actress, trying to find what’s underneath and bring it out.”

Debicki wasn’t mining on her own in trying to bring to Jed a meaningful fragility rather than an expedient vulnerability. “Susanne [Bier, the director] would never have put a female role in a spy show who wasn’t multi-dimensional, who didn’t have an inner life. It worked with Olivia [Colman, who played Tom Hiddleston’s grumpy, pregnant spy-runner, a man in the book] and it felt quite organic while we were doing it.

“But watching it back now, there’s this interesting strain through the story, about motherhood, maternal instinct and maternal love, what the meaning of life really is. You need that when you’re dealing with a story about the arms race and men killing men, and men looking for meaning. We didn’t sit down and say, ‘We’ve got to make that character interesting,’ she just became interesting. It’s partly Susanne herself, a woman so full of love and her own secrets, and deeply intelligent.”

The reception to The Night Manager, or more precisely, her role in it, crept up on her as the series progressed, even though
 many critics had predicted it would become hugely popular. “We were a bit flummoxed, as well as delighted,” she says. “It’s an interesting thing with film and TV, you can never judge what the climate is, what the world is doing at that moment, for the show to make that kind of impact.”

She’s not naive – one of her first roles was opposite Cate Blanchett and Isabel Huppert in an Australian stage production of Genet’s The Maids, which she describes as “the best acting class ever” – but drily calls the rest of The Night Manager cast “a pretty epic line-up of your nearest and dearest national treasures”, and says she’s glad that she hadn’t seen Broadchurch before they started filming, otherwise she’d have been more intimidated than she already was by Colman. She also shares in our national consensus that Hiddleston is basically perfect.

The Great Gatsby

Her acting trajectory is a formal one, and reads like that of a 1950s starlet. During her degree at the Melbourne College of Arts, she won a bursary for outstanding work in her second year, which she says didn’t mean anything, beyond “that it was a scholarship to the final year of school, which is amazing when you can’t withdraw 20 dollars from your bank account”.

It meant rather more than that, since it landed her an agent, accelerated her career and showered her on audiences across three continents. “I’m beginning to recognise that how people’s careers look from the outside is very different from how they feel on the inside,” she says archly. “For an actor, six months of not working at the start of your career feels like an eternity. That’s the thing that rises to the surface for me, when I think of how it began.”

But what makes the Melbourne-raised actress want to live over here? She recently spent time at the National Theatre in David Hare’s The Red Barn. “It’s a strange thing, being Australian, you feel that you can roam around forever. In London, I felt that anywhere you turned your creative energy, you would be rewarded. Another thing that struck me was how incredible the audiences are. We sold out a play on a Tuesday night. It’s two degrees outside, but people will get on a tube and go and see a play on a Tuesday.”

I suspect there are quite a few cities where Debicki could sell out a one-woman mime, outdoors, about the plague. The Kettering Incident requires no such privations; all you need is your sofa and a high tolerance for mystery, luminously drawn.

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The Kettering Incident is on tonight at 10pm and 11.10pm on Sky Atlantic