Catching her breath: Why Elizabeth Debicki is moving to London
I am hurrying around a curved road trying to find my way into historic Lindesay House in the harbourside enclave of Darling Point, where Elizabeth Debicki is waiting for her Sunday Life interview and fashion shoot. Suddenly The Great Gatsby actor materialises above me like a serene druid priestess, standing in a shapeless black smock on a stone retaining wall between two garden urns. Sydney Harbour glitters before her in the late summer heat, but Elizabeth appears lost in a moment of private meditation, her eyes closed and her pale face upturned to the sun.
Elizabeth wears Christian
Dior dress. Earrings, pendant
necklace and rings from
Greene & Greene Antiques.
When we meet a few minutes later, inside the Gothic-revival mansion, I find a far more practical Elizabeth on the phone to removalists to organise shipping her belongings to London.
My initial impressions of the 27-year-old – that she's both practical and contemplative – are perhaps an indication of the in-between place Elizabeth finds herself. She's taking a break from work for the first time in six years, and in a reflective mood as she prepares to embark on a new life.
"Change can be really painful, leaving things behind can be really painful," she says as we sit outside on wrought iron chairs in the shade. "I've had a bit of time to take stock – to realise it's okay to just take a breath, to decide what you want to do and follow through."
By fully committing to London after years of back-and-forth, Elizabeth is taking charge of her life for the first time since her career exploded five years ago with Gatsby.
wears Bianca Spender
dress, earrings from
Greene & Greene
"It signifies making an actual choice, because I've been so fortunate to be so busy," she explains. "But the flip side of being so busy is that you don't make any choices for yourself. It's been gloriously chaotic and now I feel like I need a little nest."
Elizabeth drew on that nomadic lifestyle for her latest role in the film adaptation of Tim Winton's novel Breath, in which she explores how loneliness and dislocation can affect the human psyche. "I think that isolation can be a vicious beast and it can take hold of people in a pretty savage way," she observes.
Beautifully shot, Breath is highly evocative of 1970s Australian surf culture. During filming, the birdsong, the quality of the air, the wild coastline around Denmark in south-west WA and even the vegemite Saladas on set all struck a chord with an Elizabeth nostalgic for her home country after spending so long overseas.
"It was so good for my soul," she says. "I feel like if you're an expat and you watch this movie, your heart will kind of break for Australia."
The eldest child of ballet dancers who met in Paris, Elizabeth describes herself as an "emotional melting pot", which she attributes to her mix of Polish and Irish heritage. "My family are very intense and passionate," she says. "They feel things very deeply."
They moved to Melbourne when she was five, setting up a chaotic, creative, bohemian household – her mother would be choreographing dance routines in the kitchen while Elizabeth and her younger sister and brother roller-skated down the hallway, pillows strapped to their bottoms. Their father regularly took them to the theatre on Friday nights.
"The house was very alive, there was always a lot going on," Elizabeth remembers. "I used to go over to other people's houses where that wasn't the case and it just looked so … calm. Then all my friends would come over to my house and go, 'Oh my god, your house is the best!' Now I'm extremely grateful for that sort of nest that was so colourful. It certainly gave me stamina and endurance for the business – the sense that anything goes and people speak their mind."
Chanel dress. Rings
from Greene &
Chair from Ici et Là.
Elizabeth credits her poise and composure to years of ballet training and her mother's insistence on good posture. She says, "I think my parents were aware that, because I was going to be so tall, if I slouched it wasn't going to be good for me. So I'm really grateful for that slapping on the back of the head!"
Elizabeth looks back on her younger self – the responsible, studious, eagerto-please teenager who always felt slightly out of place at school – with sympathy. If her year-10 drama teacher saved her mental health by assuring her it was okay to be an actor, being accepted into the Victorian College of the Arts at 17 changed her life.
dress. Ring and earrings from
Greene & Greene Antiques.
"I always loved being on stage when I was young and doing my ballet concerts," she says. "It just became clear to me that was my happiest place. The kick you get out of that connection with a faceless crowd, nothing beats that kick, and I felt that when I was really young."
Elizabeth achieved her goal of performing with the Melbourne Theatre Company upon graduation, then was plucked from obscurity by Baz Lurhmann for The Great Gatsby. "It was the highest of high blessings. I will never not be grateful for him as a human being, what he taught me, the experience, the exposure of it."
That breakout performance as Jordan Baker kick-started a Hollywood career which has included roles in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Everest and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2. She's also appeared in two acclaimed miniseries, The Night Manager for the BBC and a local ABC production, The Kettering Incident. "Being an actor is the most glorious thing in the world and my purest joy," she says.
Elizabeth has spent these years shifting between anonymous hotel rooms, strange movie sets, red-carpet events and endless long-haul flights. Even her accent has become stateless, mixing an American drawl, clipped British tones and Aussie slang.
"If I had to find an image which best summed up my life in the last six years, it's me bent over a suitcase, crying, holding up a North Face coat and a bikini, being like 'I don't know what I neeeeed and it's too much and I'm tired,' " she mock-howls. "I'm done with that chapter."
Working on the films you want to make has a flip side, she explains. "You're in a city you don't know, you're living in a hotel, you don't have any roots there, you can go for days and days without talking to anyone."
Yet it is precisely that sense of displacement that helped her identify so strongly with her character, Eva, in Simon Baker's film version of Breath.
An American whose aerial skiing career was destroyed by a knee injury, Eva now spends much of her time prone in a beach shack on the WA coast, while her surfer partner Sando (played by Baker) acts as a guru to two young grommets, Pikelet (Samson Coulter) and Loonie (Ben Spence).
"The pain and depth of her loneliness, the sense of being detached from something you were, being geographically isolated and every day having to stare into the abyss of 'Who am I?', and 'I don't like myself now' – yeah, I suppose that resonated with me," Elizabeth says dryly. "I really felt for her. I understood why she did what she did in the story."
The way Eva's loneliness manifests in her relationship with Pikelet makes for uncomfortable viewing, but Elizabeth refuses to be drawn on potential controversies. She says she simply accepted Eva's actions as part of the coming-of-age storyline.
"There is such a fragility and relatable vulnerability to Pikelet as he's growing up and I think Eva just becomes a piece of the puzzle that he becomes as a man," she says. "And I think that the way Simon has directed the film and their relationship has a lot of truth in it."
Miu Miu dress and
shirt. Ring from Greene &
Elizabeth's new home will be a flat within an easy walk of Soho, in central London. She's already inveigled her sister, an interior design student, to help furnish and decorate the place, and is planning to take up ballet again. "It's a long time since I put on some ballet shoes. I'm going to be like the elephant trundling around the room!"
Elizabeth has just wrapped two films: Steve McQueen's Widows, and Vita and Virginia, in which she plays Virginia Woolf. She's enjoying her first substantial break from work in years, reflecting on her life choices.
Inspired by the wave of female empowerment ignited by the #MeToo movement, Elizabeth is confident about the woman she is becoming. "I feel like I'm a work in progress," she says. "I feel like that's the way you want to be as a woman. There's a beauty I think to accepting you've got to learn. There's a kind of surrender to it in my life at the moment.
"I'm really open to what will come, I am grateful for what has been. The person I was a year ago is very different to the person I am now. I'm grateful for that evolution."
Breath opens in cinemas on May 3.
Fashion editor: Penny McCarthy. Photography: Hugh Stewart. Hair: Travis Balcke using Balmain Hair Couture. Make-up: Kellie Stratton using YSL. Fashion assistant: Tatiana Waterford.
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