Elizabeth Debicki on 'Tenet' and Why Her Character Is Anything but a Damsel in Distress
Since her breakout role in 2013’s The Great Gatsby, Elizabeth Debicki has quickly become one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood. This point was reaffirmed in early 2019 when celebrated auteur Christopher Nolan cast Debicki as the female lead of his mystery project we now know to be Tenet. Since she’s still relatively new to the business, the Australian actor continues to experience more and more firsts as a person and performer. Whether it’s her upcoming role as Princess Diana on The Crown, her first portrayal of a modern icon, or Widows director, Steve McQueen, being the first director to help her embrace her 6-foot-3 height on-screen, Debicki also credits Nolan for her most enduring and most physically demanding role yet.
In Tenet, Debicki’s character, Kat, is blackmailed by her estranged husband, Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), and she must comply with his numerous wishes if she wants the freedom to see her son, Max, as she pleases. The role has led some critics to label Kat as a “damsel in distress,” something Debicki agrees with to an extent but ultimately and rightfully rejects.
Heat Vision breakdown
Debicki tells The Hollywood Reporter: “Some people have said things to me about how she’s captive or that there’s a kind of victim situation. And I don’t deny it because what I loved, in a way, was that it was really drawn into her in the beginning and we do find somebody who’s become victim to the circumstances of her relationship with her husband. But what I also found intriguing and what I found to be really there, written into the character, was someone who had sort of become victim or almost prison to her own thinking about herself, what she was capable of and what she could or couldn’t do.”
Debicki points out that her character’s arc merely begins in a place where she’s being held hostage, and as the film progresses, the character changes and rediscovers her agency through trauma.
“She does go on this enormous, psychological, often very high-octane, traumatizing, at times, experience that does change her significantly,” Debicki further explains. “It changes her in the sense that she becomes aware that she does have agency over herself and over her own ability to survive something. She has this resilience to her, and I love that that was presented to me through this role and to the audience, I hope. In this genre, what we see her go through and what we see her do is not always a given.”
In a conversation with THR, Debicki also discusses the many dark scenes between her and Kenneth Branagh, the “scary” foiling catamaran sequence and the unique “vibration” of a Christopher Nolan set.
So I’ve seen the film three times now and each viewing has been more rewarding than the last. Since you’ve read the script, shot the movie and presumably seen the film as well, would you say that you’ve got a pretty good grasp on the intricacies of the film?
Yeah, I would. I mean, I wouldn’t like to explain it to a theoretical physicist, and at times, I still get stumped trying to simplify it, which is interesting to try and sort of summarize it into a neat bundle. But I would say that by now, I do, and it’s like I have the ultimate cheat sheet. I had the script, which was sort of a blueprint of Christopher Nolan’s brain, really. And then, I had my castmates, who also had the blueprint, and we had the experience of making it piece-by-piece-by-piece. It’s really interesting because I have seen it and when I saw it for the first time, there were moments of the film, even some that I was involved in, where it was almost like experiencing it for the first time, despite the fact I’d made it. For instance, we shot the car chase sequence for about three weeks in Estonia on a highway that we shut down from whatever hour to whatever hour, and we built that second by second. Every single second of cinema was as important as the other. And even though I was involved in that and I practically lived in that car for three weeks and I did all the little moments of stunts and all the emotion in that sequence psychologically for that character — watching that sequence was almost the first time I really understood the complexity of it. It’s almost like the thing has to come apart completely when you’re making a Nolan film, and then, when you watch it, you have the true pleasure of watching it sink into place, if that makes sense. It’s a very interesting experience.
I really appreciate a challenging blockbuster like Tenet since most tentpoles are immediately digestible. I like being rewarded through multiple viewings as well as my own research. When you’re really intrigued by a complex movie or series, are you someone who will rewatch and do the legwork necessary to unpack the material?
I think so. I think I am. I mean, I can say honestly that with Nolan, I have repeated the films and I have returned to them. And sometimes, it’s the comfort of knowing it. It’s interesting that his films have become comfort food in a way, cinema comfort food, and I think it’s to do with the calibre of the filmmaking. Every time you sit down to watch The Dark Knight, you get this incredible experience. I feel like every time I watch Heath’s (Ledger) performance, it reveals some new sort of nuance to me. I really had to go back to Inception multiple times and let the layers of it sink in. I still kind of rediscover moments of Dunkirk; I’ve watched it a few times now. I’m trying to think of other films where I really had to watch them several times in order for them to sink in, and I guess there are pieces of performance that I have watched multiple times... For instance, I would go to (John) Cassavetes when I just need to think, or not think, you know. So I’ve definitely returned to those performances multiple times and that kind of jazz. But I guess it’s really the auteurs, in a way, that you do go back to. Or the performances of the actor where you just feel that they somehow are seminal to your thinking about the craft, and so you have to go back to them because they feed you something.
Was there a particular moment during your first few days on set where you immediately understood why Chris has the reputation that he has?
Yes, I think so. It was sort of evident from the beginning, the way that the machinery around the film runs. It sort of whirs at this intense speed and frequency which is pretty unique to Chris and how he thinks and how people around him think. He summons the best in the field, really. Jeffrey (Kurland), our costume designer, and then, [DP] Hoyte (Van Hoytema), who’s such a genius and such a brilliant person to work with. Our stunt coordinator, George Cottle, is such a legend of a guy, but he’s also so talented. That stunt team was so committed to the sequences. Watching JD (John David Washington) learn those sequences when we were in prep alerted me to what we were making. I actually was an absolute stalker and would go and watch him and the way he prepares for things because he’s such an amazing athlete. But one of the first days on set for me was a scene between Ken (Branagh) and I; I think there’s a press shot of it going around where there’s a big table laid out full of weaponry and the scene that happens around that table. Now that you’ve seen it three times, I think you know the one I’m talking about. That was one of the first things we shot, and not to sound too sort of esoteric, but the vibration of his set is very unique. It really pulsates. It’s very focused. There’s also an edge to it. There’s an edge to the sense of it. It’s interesting. There’s almost a precariousness and by that I think I mean, as an actor, you feel like you could really push it in any direction. Wherever you land, it’s going to be somewhere that Chris is going to mold it and direct it. But yeah, it’s very interesting when I think back to making it all the way through; even the stunt sequences where you usually think your stunt double does everything and then you just sit in, reverse the car one meter and end up looking really cool, but you actually feel quite detached from the musculature of the thing you’re making. But Chris, he doesn’t do that. I think that’s because you are involved in every little piece of it, and there’s an ownership over it. But there's also a wildness to it like when he crashed a plane into a building. You sort of go, “This is mad! This is completely mad!” (Laughs.) Of course, it’s all completely under control, but it’s wild.
During your Widows press tour, you did a group interview for AOL’s Build series in New York, and it was one of the better press tour interviews in recent memory since you and Viola Davis were quite candid. At one point, you even mentioned that Steve McQueen was the first director to urge you to embrace your height on-screen. So, along those lines, is Chris responsible for a particular first as well?
Interesting. I want to think about this because I’m sure that there is a very clear answer to this. I mean, my height thing with Steve was really something. It was one of those epiphanies that dropped in about something that hasn’t necessarily been brought to your attention, that you are compensating somehow. Height is sort of directly correlated to your personal power, which I think was the thing I was probably talking about in that AOL sequence that I really felt that Steve unlocked. And I guess along that vein, what Chris asked of me in this role, and I suppose perhaps the durational element of making his film. … I remember before we had started shooting, we were looking at a big board with all our locations pinned up on it, and we were looking at the opera house in Oslo. We were also looking at the other places that they were going to shoot, the yacht and all that stuff. And Chris looked at me and he said, “You’ve never really done anything for this long, have you?” And I said, “No, not really.” I’ve done TV, but nothing that was going to require me to be on set like this every day. And I think that he, by giving me this part and asking me to do it and also the intensity of the role, I think there was something about it that was a precipice in a way, isn’t it? You have to step into it and there’s growing pains along with that. It stretches you and it challenges you. And knowing from the get-go that Chris believed in my ability to do it, in a way, creates the psychological space for you to own that about yourself as an actor, if that makes sense. And in a way, you do grow in your craft if you are fortunate enough to have somebody open up that space and say, “Okay, now you walk into this. I’m interested in what you’re going to do with it, and I trust you to do something with it.” And I suppose that that, the intensity of that, was potentially a first for me.
I thought it was really cool how Chris utilized your height to unlock the SUV during the freeway chase. How many takes did you need to pull it off given the odd angle?
Well, I have incredibly long legs, so I think I got it on the first go. (Laughs.) I was so thrilled about it. (Laughs.) The other thing that no one would ever know about that sequence and many sequences in this film is that Chris and Hoyte were always so physically involved in every beat and every single frame of the film. I’m pretty sure that we were all jammed into the car; Hoyte was definitely in there with the camera. It’s an incredible shot because he’s there in the passenger’s seat, and he swivels the camera around to follow my leg as I find the door switch. When we were setting the shot up, I remember just absolutely loving it. I mean, if Steve (McQueen) helped me own my height, then that was the first time someone genuinely used the length of my legs to save my own life. (Laughs.) It was a joy.
Since Ken Branagh is as nice as they come, did you get the sense that he felt a great deal of distress while shooting some of your intensely disturbing scenes together?
The way I could probably sense the effect it was having on Ken was how gentle he was around the scene. On either side of action and cut, he was incredibly gentle. There was a real softness there and a real sensitivity, and I would say that he would often check in on me. In a funny way, when you play an estranged married couple for so long, you get to read each other very intimately and you become very aware of when the other person is perhaps struggling with something or if their mood drops or if they’re tired. It’s interesting; it’s sort of like a marriage, in a way. There were moments where I could tell that he was aware of what he was putting on-screen and the intensity and darkness in that character. And he knows me, and he knows that I’m a sensitive human being, obviously. And within that role, I received a lot of that energy; it was literally poured straight into my mind, body and soul. So I think that’s where I would see it manifest in him because he is really one of the nicest people on the planet.
Kat lives at the mercy of Andrei (Branagh), and the Protagonist (Washington) uses her as a pawn in his chess match against Andrei. Because of these circumstances, I was quite fond of how her arc resolves to say the least. I know it’s tough to talk around, but was the completion of her arc immensely satisfying to play given what she went through to get there?
It was, yeah. Let’s just say I was really looking forward to those sequences. (Laughs.) I knew that I was eventually going to play through those psychological shifts in her and that’s what I loved so much about the role. Rather than getting into specifics, it’s sort of easier to talk around, in a way, and to say that when I read her, I found her to be very complex. Some people have said things to me about how she’s captive or that there’s a kind of victim situation. And I don’t deny it because what I loved, in a way, was that it was really drawn into her in the beginning and we do find somebody who’s become victim to the circumstances of her relationship with her husband. But what I also found intriguing and what I found to be really there, written into the character, was someone who had sort of become victim or almost prison to her own thinking about herself, what she was capable of and what she could or couldn’t do. And then, she does go on this enormous, psychological, often very high-octane, traumatizing, at times, experience that does change her significantly. It changes her in the sense that she becomes aware that she does have agency over herself and over her own ability to survive something. She has this resilience to her, and I love that that was presented to me through this role and to the audience, I hope. In this genre, what we see her go through and what we see her do is not always a given.
There’s a beautiful foiling catamaran sequence in the film involving you, Ken and John David. Did the three of you do catamaran training together?
We actually sort of did, yeah. I found those boats to be most challenging and actually quite scary. To be on one of them was deeply out of my comfort zone. To be in the English Channel, which was freezing. To be with those sailors, who are obviously world class. I’m not entirely sure you can hear it in the film, but when those boats would lift up out of the water, they’d make this incredible sound. It’s interesting because the first time we were training on it and we heard it, we didn’t know it was coming. We heard it lift up out of the water and we all heard a different thing. Ken said it sounded like a crowd cheering, and JD said it sounded like kids or something. And I said, “Oh my god, it sounds like people are screaming.” (Laughs.) So maybe that’s akin to my psychological experience on that boat, but it really was a very strange experience. I don’t need to do it again, but I’m really glad I did it. And I’m really glad I got through it, actually, because it was surprisingly challenging. I mean, those people obviously train for years and years and years to be able to do that, and that’s sometimes what happens in film; you get this crazy crash course on a skill set you never would’ve had to become accomplished at.
Tenet is now available at movie theaters and select drive-ins nationwide.
by Cathy Whitlock