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“When I watched Leave No Trace for the first time, it was such a weird experience because I felt like I was watching myself grow up,” says Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, the 18-year-old New Zealander who stars in the Debra Granik film, as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. The fast-rising talent, who has shot four films in the year since the Sundance premiere last year of Leave No Trace, a drama about a PTSD-afflicted father living with his daughter off the grid, continues: “It is a slow-burner, and it’s really quiet and nothing massive happens. It’s not like a Marvel thing or anything where there’s explosions and it’s all building up to something. So I loved it, but I was nervous because I didn’t know how people were going to respond to it.”
The response to the film exceeded all of McKenzie’s wildest hopes. It has a rare 100 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Former President Barack Obama recently named it as one of his favorite movies of 2018. And McKenzie was nominated for the best breakthrough actor Gotham Award; won the best breakthrough performance National Board of Review Award; is nominated for the best young actor/actress Critics’ Choice Award and the best supporting actress Spirit Award; will be honored with a Virtuoso Award by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival; and is a serious contender for a best supporting actress Oscar nomination. “The whole experience has just been really new and amazing,” she gushes. “I’m lucky to be going on this journey. I’m lucky — incredibly lucky — to be over here [in America], being young, and having the career I’ve had so far. I’m very, very lucky.”
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Check out our past episodes featuring the likes of Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, Justin Timberlake, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Trevor Noah, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Carol Burnett.
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McKenzie was born and raised in New Zealand, and is “a third-generation actress.” Her grandmother is still acting at 92, her mother transitioned from acting to coaching young actors and McKenzie, along with her younger sister, is now carrying on the family tradition. Up until five years ago, though, acting professionally was the last thing McKenzie wanted to do. “Since I’d been surrounded by acting my whole life,” she says, “I wasn’t that interested.” Still, she notes, “because of my family, I’ve had an agent in New Zealand for as long as I can remember,” and she had done voiceovers, commercials, short films and even a small “blink-and-you-miss-it” part in the Kiwi-shot The Hobbit “for pocket money.”
The game-changer for her was a role she played at 13 — a rape victim, no less — in the 2014 TV movie Consent. McKenzie’s mom had been coaching other young actresses to audition for the part while McKenzie listened in, and then something about the social value of the project prompted the youngster to express an interest in auditioning herself. She did so and got the part. Five years later she explains, “That’s when I fell in love with the research, what acting can do, the effect that you can have on the world or on the audience — and also I fell in love with just the acting side of it, being able to transform into different people, have different experiences. I mean, I look at acting as a way of being able to understand people and understand lives that I don’t live. So I just fell in love with the whole thing.”
From there, McKenzie dove into a series of projects, often playing “quite intense roles” — such as a girl battling cancer on a primetime soap opera called Shortland Street and a girl with a physical disability on a kids’ series called Lucy Lewis Can’t Lose — and also starring in a short film for Alice Englert, the daughter of Jane Campion, a close family friend. Then, halfway through 2016, she was sent sides for a film, adapted from a book called My Abandoment, that was written and would be directed by Granik, whose last film, 2010’s Winter’s Bone, which McKenzie had seen, was nominated for the best picture Oscar and catapulted to stardom one Jennifer Lawrence. “I read it and fell in love,” she says, and sent in an audition on tape. “I was honored to be even auditioning for Debra Granik. It was just crazy to me that she might see a video of me doing this audition.” McKenzie then got a recall (“I started crying”), Skyped with Granik, was asked to retape the scenes and do some improv (she sent in GoPro footage of her walking out in the New Zealand bush to show that she, like her character, possessed a “love for nature”) and then six months later learned, via another Skype call with Granik, that she had gotten the part. “I was just over the moon,” McKenzie says, “but I didn’t cry this time!”
The actress prepped for the production by doing accent coaching, writing a journal, and studying and drawing animals, nature and mushrooms. Then, having been to America only once before, at age 6, when her mother served as the acting coach on Peter Jackson‘s The Lovely Bones, McKenzie headed to Portland, Oregon, where she and Ben Foster, who plays her father in the film, had a 30-day rehearsal period that included wilderness training from survivalists, lessons with a beekeeper and, at McKenzie’s suggestion to Granik, unusual bonding techniques called hug-to-connect and hongi. “What really helped with our relationship was we were learning things with each other,” she reflects, and notes that a considerable amount of dialogue was cut from the script because the two actors grew to be able to convey feelings without words. By the time cameras started rolling, McKenzie’s character Caroline was renamed. “Debra called and said, ‘Would it be okay if we changed her name to Thom?'” she recalls. “My nickname is Thom.” McKenzie said it was fine.
The film was shot in-sequence — a rarity, but helpful for telling this particular story of a relationship that undergoes big changes. And while there were many intense days, there were also fun — and funny — ones. For example? “I was standing there holding this rabbit,” McKenzie recalls. “It’s a beautiful rabbit and I love animals, so I was in bliss, I was having a really good time. And then all of a sudden there was this explosion and the rabbit pisses all over me!” Even funnier? A reporter to whom she previously told the story misunderstood what happened and wrote that it was McKenzie who had exploded — emotionally!
The journey since Sundance has taken McKenzie to Cannes and Karlovy Vary, not to mention all over the U.S. on subsequent promotional tours and film projects. In the last year, she has walked more red carpets, been photographed more and been asked more questions than in her entire life. And she has handled it gracefully. “It has helped me to understand that I’m not here for the fame or the stardom,” McKenzie insists. “I’m doing them for the acting and for the storytelling side. That’s the side that I love. And that’s the part that makes me happy.”
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