Tim Burton is back in theaters Friday with Alice in Wonderland but, unlike the filmmaker's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this bookshelf adaptation veers from its namesake source material in major ways.
We spoke about that and other matters with Aussie newcomer Mia Wasikowska, 20, who has the title role in the film, which also stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover and Alan Rickman.
Question: The film is called Alice in Wonderland, but really this is neither a pure adaptation of Lewis Carroll's writings nor a remake of previous films. This is a whole new story, correct?
Answer: It's a completely different and new story, but it has a lot of the same characters in it. It has the same feel of the original stories, but it's really fun to explore a story that goes further and imagines what all these characters would be like several years down the tracks. Alice doesn't have a recollection of her first visit there. She's gone back and is discovering this world and finding herself again in this place that she doesn't even remember.
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Q: There are very few directors who have a style and vision that is instantly recognizable — perhaps Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino are on that list among contemporary filmmakers — but there's no question that Tim Burton is at the very top of that list. If you walk into a theater where a Burton movie is playing, you know it right away. That must make him an intriguing figure for actors.
A: Absolutely. It is so cool to be part of his vision, to be able to start a project and see it all the way through to the end. It's almost like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was such a fan of his films growing up, movies like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. He has such a distinct style and a distinct sense of humor. And working with him it's been such an amazing thing to see something first on the page and then watch it become real as he brings it to life. He has such a cool energy too.
Q: This movie took you into the world of green-screen moviemaking. I visited the set, and it was a little disorienting just walking around; it messes up your depth perception. Was it a struggle for you in any way?
A: It is really strange. But Wonderland itself is bizarre and weird and comical and confusing, so it's appropriate that, as you say, we were in this green-screen environment where it doesn't always make sense to you. Things were just really odd and weird, and I suppose that was suitable to what we were working on. It put you in the right frame of mind. And it made you rely on your imagination more.
Q: Tim's background is an artist and, as you say, he is so visual in his storytelling. When he's working with the actors, does that help him or handicap him in communicating what he wants from the performances?
A: We had a very similar view as to how Alice should be played, so we were on a similar page right from the beginning, which was very helpful. He's very precise and clear and patient, and that was exactly what I needed as far as direction in this kind of film because it was so complicated (in the filming process). One of the most interesting things about Tim is that he does communicate visually, but he is also very precise and uses a language that people can identify with. In that way he is a real genius.
Q: You're at the start of your career, but in this film you're performing with an elite and experienced cast with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, etc. Coming in, was that something that allowed you to relax a bit or did it have the opposite effect?
A: They were all so wonderful and made me feel really welcome. It would seem intimidating to work with such big names, but then each, individually, were such lovely people that it only made me feel comfortable. It was wonderful.
Q: What was your sense of Johnny Depp, specifically?
A: He is such a cool guy. He has the humanity to keep this sense of self. He's very kind and generous and so smart. To be able to watch Johnny — just like with Tim — as he takes something from the page to reality and how hard he works and what he brought to it and how much he brought to it, it's amazing.
It is inspiring too that he does things in a purely joyous way and has fun with it all because so often there are people who seem disgruntled. To keep that love of what you do is so important. And watching him and Tim work together is fun. They have a very deep rapport. Watching them, it's like they speak their very own language.
Q: Coming into this project, I'm sure you made a lot of decisions about what you wanted to do with the character and maybe a few about what you didn't want to do with the character. What were some of the things you didn't want to do with your Alice?
A: That's an interesting question. I suppose I would say I didn't want to bring in a lot of the baggage that is associated with Alice in Wonderland and just find the Alice that a lot of girls would identify with. I want to make her identifiable. She's at a crossroads in her life. So many people have an idea of how Alice should be played, and there are these images in the public mind about her, but I wanted to keep to my own ideas of how she would be and be true to that in the performance. The most important thing was to find the girl beneath this iconic figure.