12 July

Feature: Elizabeth Debicki for The Observer

To have everybody on the planet in their own homes, not able to see their friends, and collectively yearning for something – I think it’s very interesting for our species,” says the Australian actor Elizabeth Debicki, who is speaking to me in a slow, low voice over the phone from her house in Los Angeles. She has something of an other-worldly manner, part of what makes her so compelling on screen, and says she is in the garden, where she has “never spent so much time staring at lavender plants before. Brain restructuring itself.”

It is the early part of lockdown, before America’s cases of coronavirus start making it the worst-hit country in the world, and we were supposed to be meeting in the flesh to discuss her new film, Tenet, the much-hyped thriller from Christopher Nolan, who made Dunkirk, Interstellar and various Batmans, and which also stars Robert Pattinson, Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh. But it has been held back until August, when we might be able to watch the 3D World War Three spy thriller in cinemas.

Wild as the project sounds, the experience of shooting it was an unexpected kind of preparation for the isolation of lockdown, explains Debicki, because much of her time was spent “living in an apartment in Estonia for months, a hotel in Bulgaria, not seeing anyone from my real life. So maybe, in a funny way, I’ve been a little bit in training for this for a while. I’ve spoken to a few actor friends of mine about this – perhaps we already have coping mechanisms for being away from our lives.”

Debicki’s previous film roles include Ayesha in the Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 (she will return for the third instalment); the hilariously forbidding villain in Guy Ritchie’s The Man from UNCLE; and playing Virginia Woolf in Vita and Virginia, but as for her part in Tenet, “It’s really tricky, I sort of can’t… I can’t really tell you anything about it,” she says. “I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t, and I’m sworn to secrecy.”

She can, however, discuss the brilliant BBC drama series The Night Manager, based on the John le Carré novel, in which she co-starred, in 2016. It still comes back to me in flashes: Hugh Laurie playing an arms dealer and Debicki his girlfriend, Jed. (At 6ft 3in, she is taller than him, which only added to their beguiling power dynamic.) I tell her it had me on the edge of my seat for six weeks. She agrees that it was “a good TV show, I’m very proud of that. Also, it delivered me Hugh Laurie, which… What a gem. What a treasure of a friend!”

Yet the real treasure from that production, as well as seeing Laurie play a tricksy bastard and Tom Hiddleston crisply outwit him in turn, is what Debicki did with her part. What seemed, on paper, like a rather typically thinly sketched female character (young, blonde, a few lines and fewer clothes) became something altogether more powerful in her performance. I could not take my eyes off her eyes: where were they looking, what did they see? What did she know, and what was she trying not to know? Apparently I wasn’t alone in this – a certain Mr Le Carré had to hand it to her after watching the series that she had created a better character than he had. [More at Source]

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