Evening Standard Interview

‘I want to keep a sense of mystery’—Thomasin McKenzie on trying hard to stay out of the spotlight

As Last Night in Soho was introduced to the world, its star was happily at home with her family on the other side of the planet. And, Terri White discovers, that suited the actor – who doesn’t give a damn about the fame game – just fine

Thomasin McKenzie suddenly bursts into laughter. We’re only a few minutes into our conversation, but the sound of her mum and sister singing ‘Mamma Mia’ in another room is too much for the actor. It’s the house she has been in for three months solidly, the one in which the 21-year-old experienced the biggest moment of her career to date just weeks before.

It should have been the event that announced to the world that Thomasin McKenzie — as the star of British director Edgar Wright’s psychological thriller-meets-horror, Last Night in Soho — had most certainly arrived. But instead of standing on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival — cameras flashing, cheeks aching, shoes pinching — McKenzie sat in her parents’ home in Wellington, New Zealand, some 11,500 miles away as the film premiered without her.

Because even as Europe opened up and everyone flew (or sailed) into Italy, McKenzie’s hometown remained in lockdown. ‘I would have really loved to be celebrating Last Night in Soho on such a grand stage,’ she says, just prior to the singing. ‘But I loved seeing the photos and the interviews. It looked like the whole team was feeling a lot of love, which made me happy.’ But did she feel sad: to sit and watch it happen without her? ‘Yeah, definitely,’ she nods. ‘The main thing for me is that I felt quite guilty to not fulfil my commitment to the film’.

Though McKenzie understandably describes watching on as ‘bittersweet’, it’s clear that being at home for an extended period — as she has been since wrapping on the BBC adaptation of the Kate Atkinson novel Life After Life in mid-July — is a rare treat for the actor. And as also becomes clear when we talk, the life she lives at home is somehow even more of a rarity.

The ‘Mamma Mia’ singing is a fairly commonplace low-key family activity. McKenzie talks about a TikTok challenge she did the night before with her brother and sister. Of her love of reading and her dog, Totoro, (the name inspired by her favourite director, Hayao Miyazaki, and his film My Neighbour Totoro). She says one of her favourite things in the world is jumping in the back seat of her parents’ car as they run errands. She smiles: ‘We sing a lot of Moana, a lot of Disney hits.’

It’s this close family and that quiet life to which McKenzie comes home after finishing each job. She is painfully aware that the next time she leaves it will be for a long while, likely until the end of next year. She thinks about how her siblings, particularly her younger sister, might change in her absence. ‘I came back and she’s grown up — she looks completely different, she’s taller than me now,’ she says of her return in the summer. ‘So, I need to take this time in before she changes again.’

It was partly the strength of family ties that turned McKenzie on to Last Night in Soho. The film opens with teenager Ellie saying goodbye to her grandmother as she prepares to leave her hometown for fashion college in London. ‘I’ve lived with my grandma my entire life,’ McKenzie says with obvious affection for the woman who also makes guest appearances on her Instagram. ‘My grandma lives downstairs, and my bedroom is right next to hers, so she’s played a huge role in my life. And so, I wanted to do this film as a tribute to her in a way.’

But that’s not the only affinity McKenzie feels with Ellie, who arrives in a bright, Technicolor London with stars firmly imprinted on her eyes. ‘Making her way to the big city with big hopes and dreams, I related to that,’ she affirms, specifically referring to life after Leave No Trace, the critically acclaimed 2018 indie film that announced McKenzie to the movie industry, if not quite the entire world. ‘I [was] similar to Ellie in arriving in a big, exciting, crazy, loud place and trying to get my bearings a little bit in the world’.

You sense that those bearings were firmly grasped during Soho’s shoot in the summer of 2019, a formative experience for the actor who was still only 19 years old. McKenzie didn’t know London well, having been once before for just two days. She describes that extended period as a ‘pretty brutal entrance’ before correcting herself: ‘Not brutal, an intense entrance. It was three weeks of night shoots — running, sprinting terrified through the Soho streets — and members of the general public looking at me like I’m a mad woman, dealing with drunk people in the middle of the night refusing to get out of the shot…’

As much as the film is a headfirst dive into the dark underbelly of Soho that’s revealed at night, the actor didn’t immerse herself in the nightlife of the city, saying she not ‘a massive pub-crawler type person’. But that doesn’t mean she entirely escaped the rough edges of the city, describing seeing ‘a man being pinned to the pavement by two big bodyguards, and he was screaming as if he was possessed’, one night while walking back to the Greek Street apartment where she was staying during rehearsals. ‘It genuinely looked like he was about to explode into the Hulk or something,’ she says with wide eyes. ‘It was really scary; that was my first experience of the London nightlife.’

Soho is just one of four McKenzie films out this year. There were three in 2019. One in 2020. This is a young woman who has grafted since working as a child actor for pocket money. She acknowledges the relentless pace of her career prior to the pandemic, speaking of ‘two solid years that were work, work, work’. And while McKenzie might speak with the thoughtfulness and maturity of a woman twice her age, she is only just out of her teens.

‘I was quite young and still figuring out who I was, and who I wasn’t really,’ she says of that period. ‘I wasn’t staying very present or documenting my experience or reflecting on everything I was going through, so lockdown was a good opportunity to slow down and take stock of where I am. And I realised, it’s been a crazy couple of years.’

You could argue that this perspective and self-reflection is unnecessary at such an early point in her life and career, but it’s something McKenzie seeks, maybe even needs to make sense of her place in the world. ‘Now I’m learning and trying really hard — even though it’s really stressful at times — to stop and take a beat and put things into perspective because sometimes it gets a bit much,’ she says before stressing: ‘But I’m incredibly, incredibly lucky to be doing what I’m doing.’

Even with her family in the business (her mother and grandmother are actors, her father a filmmaker), this path wasn’t a given. In fact, McKenzie didn’t much fancy being in the same industry. So much so that when her grandmother asked what she wanted to be, McKenzie said, ‘Zookeeper, vet, something to do with animals. And at the end I said, “But I definitely do not want to be an actor.”’

Why? For the simple, very relatable reason that most of us wouldn’t want to simply tread, unthinking, in our parents’ footsteps. ‘It can really put you off when people say you’re doing this because of them,’ McKenzie says. ‘Everyone wants to establish themselves in their own right and I definitely felt that for a while, but maybe that’s why I did so much stuff, did so many films, so many projects, because I really wanted to establish that I work hard for this. And that I’m not taking it for granted and that I’m not only doing it because my family [are] doing it’.

As it turns out, McKenzie was unable to resist the pull of the job — landing her first paid gig at nine — saying, ‘I fell into it I suppose’. A beat and she considers a little more: ‘I really do think I’m made for this job. When I’m acting is when I feel my happiest and most creative and when I feel meaningful.’

Acting went from being a means to an end to a calling for McKenzie when she was 13 and played real-life sexual abuse survivor Louise Nicholas in the film Consent. ‘It definitely was a turning point,’ she says. ‘It’s not just pretending, it’s a really meaningful job. It’s a big responsibility to be able to play with people’s emotions or make them feel something. And you can really do great things through this job.’

Alongside the meaning that McKenzie speaks of — the creativity and profundity — there also comes good old-fashioned fame. Has that been scary for the actor? Everyone suddenly knowing her name after Jojo Rabbit and Leave No Trace? ‘It wasn’t scary because even now I don’t feel like everybody knows my name,’ she insists. ‘I think maybe it’s because I live so far away from the madness of the Hollywood world that I just feel very separate from it. I can go out and no one recognises me, nobody knows my name.’

Maybe so, but fame must surely now be an unavoidable consequence of doing a job she loves — particularly with Last Night in Soho set to propel her to new levels of global recognition. ‘It’s unavoidable to have people paying attention, I suppose,’ she says. ‘I guess it just depends how you react to that attention. I’m not the kind of person who’s really going to feed into that level of fame. I’m quite a private person; I’m not a super-public figure, that’s not where I feel comfortable. And I don’t want to be so well known that nothing I do is going to surprise anybody. I want to keep a sense of mystery so that when people see stuff I do they can actually be reacting to the character and not be reacting to me.’

The next character that McKenzie will dissolve inside is Kerri Strug, the (again real-life) American gymnast she’ll play in Olivia Wilde’s Perfect. Shooting is due to start next March for what she describes as the ‘biggest physical challenge in a role I’ve taken on’. After that, there’s a film in New York that she says has ‘not been announced so I can’t tell you, if I told you I’d have to kill you…’ she bursts into laughter.

‘Not really, I’m not that kind of person!’ She’s not. She’s really, really not. In fact, Thomasin McKenzie is probably the least likely person to kill you, ever. But she will laugh with you. And if you’re really lucky, she might just sing ‘Mamma Mia’ with you.

Source: Standard.co.uk

Welcome to Thomasin McKenzie Fan, the latest online resource dedicated to the talented NZ actress Thomasin McKenzie. Thomasin has been in TV shows like "End of Term", "Shortland Street", "Bright Summer Night" and "Lucy Lewis Can't Lose". She has also been in films such as "Leave No Trace", "Jojo Rabbit", "Last Night in Soho", "Old" and "The Justice of Bunny King". This site is online to show our support to the actress Thomasin McKenzie, as well as giving her fans a chance to get the latest news and images.
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