Phebe Wahl Phebe Wahl | October 22, 2020 | People Features
Whether portraying intellectual ingenues or the people’s princess, actress Elizabeth Debicki reigns supreme on the screen thanks to her mesmerizing nobility.
As actress Elizabeth Debicki comes on the line, her voice emerges amid a fog of muffled noise. “I’m in L.A. with some air purifiers going because it’s just a very, very sad time right now on this side of the world,” she says of the California wildfires currently devastating the area. “Give me a moment and we will start this properly.” She pauses, then intentionally recenters to fully dive into our conversation. The world might be burning around her, but Debicki is laser-focused on the path forward.
The metaphor is clear to anyone who has witnessed Debicki’s arresting presence on screen. At a statuesque 6 feet, 3 inches, the Paris-born beauty is the child of two ballet dancers who raised her in a suburb of Melbourne. Her own ballet training and intense drama studies at the Victorian College of the Arts might account for her regal comportment, but it’s her piercing intellect that creates the majestic moments that truly captivate.
Debicki earned acclaimed praise from the very start in projects ranging from her celebrated portrayal of Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, Steve McQueen’s Widows, television series The Kettering Incident and The Night Manager, as well as blockbusters like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. The stunner was even able to steal the screen from none other than Mick Jagger in The Burnt Orange Heresy—no small feat. In fall’s Tenet, Debicki earned critical acclaim for her emotional range playing Kat, the estranged wife of Kenneth Branagh’s character. The Christopher Nolan film was the first tentpole film to open in theaters as the world emerged from stay-at-home orders and has grossed over $250 million.
“I think we’re really in need of a new stimulus, new information that isn’t negative—that is something artful, that captures our imagination for a period of time, that is a stimulus outside of ourselves,” she says of Tenet’s positive reception amid the arid entertainment landscape. “To have the opportunity to offer something for people to do that’s kind of pure escapism has been lovely. I was truly honored to be somebody who could be involved in the thing that might have given people relief for a few hours of the day… and in that communal experience... because I miss people, and I think people miss people, and they miss being around people and just sharing,” she continues. “Even the locations, the fact that we shot it in seven countries is so perfect because people have been predominantly in a 5-kilometer radius for however long,” Debicki explains. “That’s the beautiful thing about cinema too—sort of like being in a hotel room—it’s like there’s nothing around you to remind you of your real life. And that can be bliss when everything has been crashing down upon you for six months.”
Debicki admits that at first she felt the pressure of being in one of the few films to actually release in theaters at the time. “But I quite quickly came around to the fact that this year is about surrender, and… you can’t really control very much of anything anyway. This is exactly what it needs to be. This is how it’s supposed to be experienced—and I think, for the most part, people have felt the same, like it was a gift to go to the movies.”
Clearly a deeply reflective optimist, Debicki is still digesting the lessons of this unusual time. “It’s been a crash course in life,” she says. “I can’t complain because my family and loved ones are OK—and that is not something that everybody or many people can say right now. It’s been the longest time for me to not have actively been on a film set,” she shares. “All the energy has to recenter itself somewhere, and for me it recenters itself on myself because I don’t have small children to look after; I don’t even live in the same country as my family.” Debicki feels the year has also shed light on systemic challenges. “I’m not American, so being here through this year has been very eye-opening,” she says. “I think what we’ve seen come to the surface are things that have obviously been systemically an issue for a long time.”
Next, Debicki will portray Princess Diana in the final two seasons of The Crown. “She’s like a symbol—like a magical person,” she marvels. “I’m coming to understand more intimately how she existed and still exists very profoundly in collective consciousness,” she says of diving into the role. “I think it’s amazing that from age 7, I would remember somebody who had no actual impact on my life as a child in Australia—and yet I was very aware of her presence in the world. I remember seeing her face on magazines. My mother was very aware of her, as I think a lot of women close to her age were. She really followed her quite intimately because she represented something extremely human and extremely symbolic.”
When asked what she thinks was so magnetic about the late princess, Debicki poetically muses on her ability to radiate positivity. “The thing that is universal is a combination of kindness and compassion and her ability to illuminate—illuminate people or issues, to draw awareness. That was an incredible power, which I think she used extremely intelligently and compassionately.” Debicki notes that this ability to bring awareness to charitable causes is Diana’s true legacy. “You have this gift of attention, and if you choose, you can bring an enormous amount of positive attention and education to issues that need to be reexamined or examined at all, like the things that [Diana] did for the AIDS crisis and what she did for the land mine crisis. She made extraordinary movement in those areas, which were often very taboo. There are only a few people, really, who come into that level, who have that kind of standing in our collective memory and really raise people up around them. It’s an extraordinary gift, and I really think she had that.”
The casting is, of course, spot on not only for the striking resemblance and charismatic presence Debicki shares with Diana, but also due to her own humanitarian efforts. As a global ambassador for Women for Women International, the actress advocates for female survivors of war. “The work is important to me because it is about women first and foremost,” she explains. “Their approach is entirely about sustainability and adapting the approach depending on the group of women they’re dealing with. … It is about creating a source of sustainable income and... creating a community where there wasn’t a community before,” she adds. “The isolation was so gripping and so profound. And now, it’s been completely eradicated because they know their neighbor. It seems like a basic thing to say, but sometimes I think in communities that have been so damaged by war and the trickle-down trauma of war—which is often sexual violence that has been used against these women—there’s a huge amount of pathology that is about believing you are alone and you must endure it on your own, and it’s not true.”
Isolation is a theme that deeply resonates with Debicki this year more than ever. “The transition from isolation into community is so universally understood. I mean, we’re sort of going through it in 2020,” she says. “The difference between being entirely on your own or being able to see a friend and go for a walk down the street, that makes you regain perspective on yourself—even on your self-worth. It’s a very real, tangible effect.”
In the year ahead, Debicki will also produce and star in a spy thriller based on the real-life story of Nancy Grace Augusta Wake. As an Australian, Debicki marvels that she had never heard of this unsung hero or her valiant efforts. “I grew up in the Australian school system, and I took history for 12 years… and I had never, ever heard of her, which really struck me as extraordinary because what she did and what she truly was able to achieve within the French Resistance forces was exceptional,” she says. “She was awarded several medals of honor… and she was enormously instrumental in a number of huge victories for allied forces.”
Debicki is deeply dedicated to working for more representation in her industry. “I think the No. 1 thing to strive for—and it’s not a given; it’s not easy—is authentic representation. We need to confidently strive for a cross section of humanity. Women don’t have that cross section of representation, so I think we’re craving it all the time. I’m always looking for it when I’m reading scripts,” she says. “My hope is that it will become something that women of all ages can reference and enjoy watching this woman on screen who really existed. She was an actual hero. And women don’t necessarily get to see heroes on screen who really existed. I think men have been given the pleasure of watching themselves in that light for many, many years.”
When asked what she hopes for the future and her industry, that introspective intellect and intense focus pierce through the fog and noise again. “What I hope for the industry is kind of what I feel in general. I feel that they’re quite interwoven, and I suppose that it’s got something to do with an ability to listen in a slightly different way,” Debicki says. “I think it has something to do with deep listening—which is kind of about understanding that you don’t always have the answers—and that you may not have been asking the right questions. Essentially what I’m interested in and excited about is content that is diversified and that is about a multitude of different kinds of human experiences,” she says. “It’s basically about representation, but representation for representation’s sake doesn’t really work. It requires a huge amount of listening. I think that takes time and a different kind of muscle and a different kind of patience. What we’ve seen happen is everything kind of grind to a halt, and it’s been extremely confronting to people because of so many different issues. There’s the opportunity to shift because we’ve had to stop,” Debicki shares. “I know personally, this year has been difficult and taught me a tremendous amount about what I potentially can do better. And for me, that has something to do with really listening and understanding that I don’t really know very much—and I may never really understand completely another experience—but if I can use some of my energy to try to comprehend it and at the very least be compassionate toward it and understand that it does actually exist, then I might evolve. And that’s what we need to do.”
Photography by: Charlotte Hadden/Contour RA by Getty Images