The Star of Leave No Trace on Being the ‘Next Jennifer Lawrence’

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During Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie’s callback for Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, she had to improvise a scene where her character, Tom, interacts with a rabbit. So the 17-year-old McKenzie, a New Zealand native, went to her next door neighbor’s and got an actual bunny. “They must have just expected me to pretend I was holding a rabbit or something, so they might have gotten a bit of a shock when I was actually holding a real-life rabbit,” she laughs.

McKenzie doesn’t say whether that was the moment that clinched her the part, but it’s in line with the tender performance she gives in the film. When we first encounter Tom, she’s mostly content living off the grid with her father Will (Ben Foster) in a Portland park. She forages for mushrooms and finds joy in reading an old encyclopedia. But after she and Will are discovered, she begins to reevaluate her upbringing — and understand the PTSD from which her father is suffering.

Granik’s last narrative film, Winter’s Bone, launched Jennifer Lawrence into fame, and Leave No Trace seems poised to do the same for McKenzie. When Vulture hopped on the phone with her, she was in Prague shooting Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, and she had just finished her scenes for the Timothée Chalamet–starring Henry V drama The King. But she took some time to describe how she decided to enter the family business — and the time she almost got arrested on the way to Cannes.

Your mom and your grandmother are actors and your dad is a playwright. When did you decide this was the career for you?
My whole family has been doing it for my whole life, so it would make sense that I would become an actress, too. But when I was younger, to be honest, I did not want to be an actress at all. I wanted to be anything but an actress. I think when I was 13 I did a film called Consent about a New Zealander called Louise Nicholas who had been raped when when she was young. It was a really intense story. I played young Louise in that. I had to do some pretty intense scenes. But, after that, I realized that acting is not just a performance or it’s not just a way to become famous or something, it’s an opportunity to make a difference in the world and tell people really important stories and things that really need to be heard. And teach people things as well in a non-forceful kind of way.

What was the audition process for Leave No Trace?
I live in New Zealand, so I couldn’t really fly over to America, to New York, to meet with Debra to do the audition in person. So we did a self-tape. I sent it off to the casting director and hoped for the best. Then a little while later, I got a recall, and I got to Skype with Debra and do some improvisation scenes. And then another little while later, I Skyped with her again. I was thinking it was kind of a “catch-up Skype” or a “Hello, do you still look the right age for it” or something. She started talking to me and saying, “When you’re here, we’ll have to get you some really thick jackets because it’s cold.” I was really confused because I didn’t know I had the role yet. And I was going, “What is going on?” And the next day my agents called me and were like, “You got the part!” And I was like, “Ahhh!”

What were the improvisations that you had to do?
There were two. One of them we did in the studio, because it was a conversation between Will, who is played by Ben Foster, and my character. And the other one was one with a bunny, and that was the scene with Isaiah Stone. I went down to my next door neighbor’s, my little sister’s best friend’s house, and we used their rabbits, and just kind of filmed me holding the rabbit and talking to the guy.

What kind of prep did you have to do for filming? Did you have to learn the survival skills that Will has taught Tom?
Before I even went to America, I did a lot of climbing trees and walking around the native New Zealand bush, and just thinking about the role. I also started writing a journal because my character, Tom, she kept a journal and she wrote down notes that she got from encyclopedias or notes about mushrooms that she found. So I started a journal as well.

When we got to America and actually started the rehearsal process, we did wilderness training and we learned about camouflaging, and we learned about what plants you can or can’t eat or if you use them medicinally. We learned about signals from birds. I learned about mushrooms and using knives and making fires. It was a whole lot of stuff that Tom would have been taught by Will, stuff that was really vital for the whole backstory of their lives. And I also got to work with bees, and I got to hold them in my bare hands and to see around the hive and feel the warmth of the hive and smell it. Just watch and observe the bees as well. It was really cool. It was a really intense preparation process. It was amazing.

Was Ben doing that along with you?
The first time I even Ben met was the first day of the wilderness training, and he’d gone an hour earlier than me out into the bush with the survivalist trainers. He made a shelter. And then when I got there, he said hi, and then walked me out into the bush and he let me be the first person to try his shelter. And then we spent a lot of time together during the wilderness training and all the rehearsing and everything.

What was his shelter like?
During the sequence when they’re running away from the social-work people and it’s cold and Tom has given up walking, he builds a shelter. It was that kind of a shelter, a camouflage one with sticks and ferns and everything.

What was the actual filming of that sequence like? Was it really cold?
When we were filming the scene where they were supposed to be cold, it was actually really hot. So the challenge was trying to act to be cold and pretend to be shivering and pretend hypothermia. But I loved working and filming in the forest. It was so beautiful and you become really aware of sounds and things. There’s a lot more to look at rather than filming on a set where it’s manmade. You’re in nature and looking at nature and being really aware of where you’re stepping and what you’re touching. It was amazing being able to film in that kind of environment.

Did you and Ben do anything else to establish your father-daughter relationship?
Right before we did the first scene, I did two acting techniques that my mum had taught me. One of them is called “hug to connect.” We just hugged each other for a minute and just got comfortable around each other and didn’t feel embarrassed about touching each other — like, I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about hugging my dad. We also did another thing called a hongi, which is a traditional Maori greeting where we touched noses and foreheads and we shared breath.

Did the accent come naturally to you? What was it like building Tom’s persona outside of these technical things?
Well, in terms of the accent, I’d done accent coaching for a long time before I even auditioned for Leave No Trace. So it didn’t come naturally but I’d done a lot of work on it, which obviously really helped to make this film feel real. Actually, when this film premiered at Sundance, there was a Q&A after the first premiere and I up went onstage and started talking in my New Zealand accent and the crowd was kind of shocked because they didn’t realize I was a New Zealander, because they’d only ever heard me talking in my American accent. Obviously the accent worked. In terms of building the character of Tom, it just really came down to the wilderness training and keeping the journal and being in the forest and being in Tom’s mind-set.

Was there a favorite thing you learned?
Pretty much everything I learned in the wilderness training and working with bees I loved, and I’ve tried my best to remember and keep with me. But I think working with the bees and being able to hold the bees in my bare hands. It sounds really weird, but it was just a really surreal, a unique experience. That feeling I’ve really kept with me because it was such a grounding feeling. I was holding these tiny little lives that had the potential to kill me if they wanted to or if I made the wrong move. When I get older, I really want to have a beehive now. Maybe next time I’m in Portland I really want to work with the survivalists again as well, and do another course with them.

How did you find Tom’s journey over the course of the movie? You see how she comes to understand what her father is suffering from and how she realizes she needs something different from that.
One big factor of that whole transformation and that story arc was we actually filmed in the right order, which really helped. It was weird for me watching the film for the first time really seeing myself grow up physically and also mentally as well. I only started doing research about PTSD and about the war and how that affects the children of survivors from the war when Tom really became mentally aware of what was going on with Will. So that realization was very true for me, because I didn’t fully understand that at the beginning of the shoot.

Debra’s last narrative feature is the movie that launched Jennifer Lawrence. Did you think about that all? Did that add any pressure?
Definitely I thought about it. I’d watched Winter’s Bone beforehand. I knew Jennifer Lawrence’s career kind of stemmed from that film. That was definitely something that was on my mind throughout the filming and throughout the publicity and going to all the festivals and everything. I’d definitely say it did add some pressure, but it’s been really important reminding myself and trying to remind the public that we are two very different people, two different actresses. We’ve got our own styles and techniques. She’s awesome. I love Jennifer Lawrence. I think she’s hilarious and goofy and just really cool and talented. So I’d love to be like her and have a career like her, but also I’m a different person as well. It’s been important reminding myself of that as well.

Of course! Speaking of festivals, I was looking on your Instagram and I noticed you posted something from Cannes and you said “nearly got arrested.” What is the story behind that?
Cannes was the first time I’d ever gone to Europe so I was pretty nervous just because of that, just because I’d never been to that continent before. When we flew from New York to Heathrow, to the airport in London, on our way to Cannes, we were going through security in Heathrow and my bag got pulled to the side to get checked by one of the security people. I thought probably [it was] my metal water bottle again or something, because that’s what it had been the last two flights I’d taken into America and nothing had really come out of it apart from I had water in my water bottle. So the guy searches through my bag and he finds a bullet in my bag, which I had completely forgotten was there. It was a bullet I picked up on my boyfriend’s farm back in New Zealand, thinking, Oh, wow, this is a cool souvenir. I don’t know, I just thought it was cool there was a bullet. And I’m completely against guns, by the way. I picked it up and I just put it in my bag thinking it was cool. And then I forgot it was in my bag and I took that same bag on to carry on with me and there it was.

So they found it and they freaked out and they called the police. We had to wait for an hour and the police came and talked to me. It was so scary. My dad and my mum and I were all thinking the whole time, Oh my God, they’re not going to let us go to France, they are going to send us back to New Zealand, this is the end of the trip. But the police were really nice and they let me off. They didn’t even give me a special warning, they didn’t write it down on my passport or in my record or anything. They were just like, “Don’t do it again.” So that was my “nearly got arrested” story. I was crying. I was on the verge of tears the whole time. It was the most horrible experience ever.

You have two movies in production now. One is Jojo Rabbit, the Taika Waititi project, and the other is The King, David Michôd’s movie with Timothée Chalamet. What are you working on right now?
At the moment I’m in Prague for Jojo Rabbit. And last week I was in London working on The King. I’ve done all my scenes for that. Just working on Jojo Rabbit with Taika Waititi and Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell; I met Rebel Wilson yesterday and I was so nervous about it. I ran away and hid behind a tent because I was so scared to meet her.

Why were you so scared to meet her?
Because it’s Rebel Wilson! She’s amazing! She’s so cool.

The log line for that movie, which is about a boy in Nazi Germany who has Hitler as an imaginary friend, is so wild. What has your preparation process been like for that?
I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to answer that. It’s known that the story is about World War II and Hitler and Nazis. So just doing some background research and just thinking about life back then, life for the Jews and how they were affected. And also thinking about how that’s relevant at the moment with discrimination and different racial groups really having a hard time at the moment. Just thinking about that, too.

Leave No Trace’s Star on Being the ‘Next Jennifer Lawrence’