Thomasin McKenzie has stunned critics and audiences with her deeply felt performance as Tom in “Leave No Trace.” The young actress has already earned some major accolades including the National Board of Review’s Breakthrough Performance Award and nominations at the Independent Spirit Awards, the Gotham Awards and the Online Film Critics Society Awards.
McKenzie recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Sam Eckmann about adapting to life in the woods for “Leave No Trace,” working with her onscreen dad Ben Foster, and her newfound awards attention. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: Thomasin McKenzie, you are part of this incredible movie, “Leave No Trace,” and the film, I keep wanting to go back to watch it ‘cause it’s very powerful and resonates on several different levels. When you first read the script, what was it that first grabbed you about it?
Thomasin McKenzie: First of all, I really loved that it was a story about a dad and daughter. That is the first thing that jumped out at me when I read the script, that there was one scene where they mention the mother and that was it. I loved the fact that the mother wasn’t there. I loved that it wasn’t the focus. The focus was the relationship between the dad and the daughter because it really is a love story between a dad and a daughter and I love that about it. I also really loved that it’s really a film about the goodness in people. There’s no evil bad guy antagonist. It’s a group of people trying to do what they think is best, and I really love that about it, too. Those were the two things that really jumped out at me when I read the script for the first time.
GD: The setting of the film, a large portion of it takes place in the wilderness, in the Pacific Northwest, and I heard for your audition tape, when you sent in your audition, you got props, you got a real rabbit to do the rabbit scene. What made you want to attack it in that way?
TM: I think we just had a lot of fun with that audition. I loved the audition and I loved the script so much. My mom helped me out and also a lady called Lauren Taylor helped me out, to film it, and we loved it and we wanted to have fun and we wanted it to be unique. We wanted to do it so that it would be apart from the other auditions, that there was something about it maybe that Debra [Granik] would watch and go, “Oh, that’s different” and hopefully she liked it, which I guess she did, ‘cause I got cast. One of the scenes that I had to do with a recall, it was a rabbit. I don’t have a rabbit but my little sister’s best friend, Betsy, she had a rabbit called Coco, so we walked down the street to their house and did the scene with Coco the rabbit. I also filmed a weird version of a self-portrait where I went out on a walk through the native New Zealand bush and I was holding a GoPro in my mouth that one of my best friends had lent me, and you can see my dog in the background of the video and we’re just running through the bush. I sent that through as well because it’s a film where nature plays a really big part of it. We just had fun with the audition and made it special.
GD: And clearly it worked. Your character, Tom, certainly doesn’t have a GoPro and doesn’t have any technology or social media. They’re all living out there with these survivalist skills, really basic living quarters and skills. Was it difficult to get into the headspace of someone when you’ve grown up with social media and technology constantly? Was it difficult to strip that away?
TM: That’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that before. It was difficult, and how we went about that aspect of things was that Debra had an idea that maybe I didn’t use my phone for all of the rehearsal period and then we took that idea further and I didn’t use my phone except for maybe half an hour some days, for the entire shoot. So I took a break from my phone to try to experience Tom’s life better because she didn’t have any access to social media at all. It was hard. I live in New Zealand and I was filming in America, so with having limited access to my phone, I wasn’t able to call my family whenever I wanted to. I wasn’t able to talk to my friends, so it was hard, but it worked. It really worked and now I’m trying to go on my phone less because of that. But it’s hard.
GD: Debra Granik, the director, she doesn’t make movies all that often. There’s pretty big gaps between them. They all have this naturalistic element to them. Often her style is very naturalistic. Did she give you anything in that vein? Was there anything she offered you about the character, like an insight that was very helpful to you?
TM: I’m not sure anything was specifically said along those lines, but Debra and I worked really closely together. We really collaborated with each other and went through the script and cut out a lot of the dialogue or changed some of the words. We really talked about it and we just had a lot of fun doing it together. There wasn’t anything specific that she said about it, but we could just understand. There was just a nonverbal communication. We just understood that that was the vibe of the film.
GD: I talked to your co-star, Ben Foster, a couple weeks ago, and he was talking about the ways you trained in survivalist skills to live outdoors and he was actually able to teach you some of those as a pseudo-rehearsal process. What was that like for you to experience that with your co-star that you had to be out there with?
TM: It was great. I think that’s something that really helped with the chemistry between Ben and I is that we were learning so many new things together. Ben has done a lot of movies where he’s worked with guns or he’s had the knowledge of what it would be like being in a war or he had the knowledge to play a veteran, Learning a lot about making fires and collecting water and being camouflage and a bird language, we were learning so much together, which I think really helped with the relationship between us, ‘cause we started on the same level. But Ben did also teach me a lot of things. He was the first one to arrive at the wilderness survivalist training. He got taught how to build a hut by Nicole and by Ellen, the survivalists, and once I arrived to the training, I got to test out his hut and he told me how he did it and stuff.
GD: That’s a great process. And not only are you out there with these survivalist skills, you’re in a setting where you don’t have your phone, it’s all very new, and you’re also with an actor who’s a really experienced, fantastic actor, who has a lot of films under his belt. Was there anything that you guys did to connect or get on the same level other than the survivalist skills?
TM: We did a couple exercises. One of them was called “How to Connect.” This is a technique my mom uses where we just hugged each other for a minute, which sounds really awkward, but we just stood there in each other’s arms and at first, there was tension, and then by the end of it, it was a different kind of energy between us. We felt really comfortable with each other in each other’s space. Our breathing got into sync while we were hugging each other. I could feel his heartbeat. We did that to help with the connection and help with the chemistry. We also did something called a Hongi, which is a Maori greeting, Maori are the native indigenous people of New Zealand. We touch noses and foreheads, and it’s about sharing breath. So we did that as well as another way to connect with each other. They’re really intimate exercises but it really worked, because it meant that I wasn’t embarrassed to hold his hand or touch the arm hairs on his arm or whatever.
GD: That definitely resonated onscreen and you mention your mom, Miranda Harcourt, and you come from a very large acting family, or film family, in New Zealand. Did they impart any wisdom other than that? Did they give you any advice to go off and shoot this in America?
TM: They have given me a lot of advice throughout my whole life, but I’ve learned so much from them just by watching them, watching them do their jobs, just seeing their techniques and observing it all, learning through osmosis. I don’t know old I would’ve been, maybe 10 or something, my mom and dad were touring a play that they were doing and so me and my siblings toured with them and again, just watching them do their thing I learned a lot. A lot of what I’ve learned from them has been nonverbal. It was just from watching them. They always remind me to stay grounded and to stay myself and just to be humble and enjoy it.
GD: Growing up around all that, does that mean you always wanted to be an actor?
TM: No, not at all. Because I’ve been surrounded by it so much, at first I was not that keen on it. I know I wasn’t always passionate about acting. I didn’t think I wanted to make a career out of it. I thought it was just putting on a performance and then that was it. I didn’t realize that throughout acting you can communicate really important themes or ideas. You can tell important stories. You can make a difference, and entertainment, the film industry, is such an important part of life. I think it was World War I and probably World War II as well, people used movies and comics as an escape. Now I look at entertainment as just being such an important thing and a way you can teach people things and learn things yourself. I wasn’t always into acting but after I did a really cool project when I was 13 that told a really important New Zealand story, that’s when I got into it and started loving it and I’m happiest when I’m acting.
GD: That reminds me, ‘cause you said something earlier about how the film for you is largely about the goodness in people and one of the things that really surprised me and struck me was it upends the viewer’s expectations of what is necessary in life and what makes people happy, so I’m curious to know, did it change your perception of people at all to go through that process?
TM: I think so. I think it did because people who are watching “Leave No Trace” and hadn’t read the script or I guess a lot of people have told me they thought someone was gonna come in and just be really horrible. The audience thought that there was gonna be a bad guy eventually, but there wasn’t. I think that is an important reminder to people that yes, there’s a lot of negativity in this world but there’s also a lot of goodness in this world. It’s just important to remember that, and that has changed my view, changed how I see people, I think, ‘cause now I try to see the goodness in people and if someone is rude to me or something, I go, “Well, maybe they’re having a bad day.” First and foremost, it’s important to look at someone and try to see their goodness.
GD: This performance has recently caught on. A lot of people are responding to it. You won the National Board of Review Award for Breakthrough Performance and you’re a Gotham nominee and an Independent Spirit nominee. What does it mean for you to have gone through this experience out there in the woods with Ben Foster and then all this time later it gets recognized?
TM: I don’t even know how to put it into words. Throughout this whole publicity and press, that whole process, the whole time I’ve been really honored that people are reacting to “Leave No Trace” like this and I feel really empowered and excited that I’m able to make people feel things. It’s such a weird idea that I made someone cry or I made someone laugh and not just someone, but big groups of people. So yeah, the whole response has been incredibly exciting and really surreal. It’s amazing.
GD: As we wrap up I wanted to ask about one particular scene because it’s a scene that made me cry. That last scene between you and Ben Foster when you really just have to say goodbye without ever saying much in the scene, I asked him about it and I wanted to get your view on it as well of what that process was like. You shot the whole film in order, I heard, and then you have to go through this thing where you leave the person that you’ve gone on this journey with. So what was that day like for you?
TM: It was a really stressful day. I think that was the only day on-set during filming where I really was nervous and scared and I wasn’t in a very good mood, to be honest, because we did film it in order and it became really real and I really felt like I was living Tom and I felt really connected to her and the idea of her having to say goodbye to her dad, I was thinking about, “What if I had to say goodbye to my dad?” It’s really painful. It was a really hard scene to film, but it’s a really important part of the film. It’s an empowering part for Tom as well because at that moment she’s taking the lead and she’s saying, “Look, I want to go out and live my own life. I accept if you can’t be there with me on that journey.” It was also really hard ‘cause it was saying goodbye to Ben as well. I loved acting with him.
GD: It’s certainly ingrained in my mind for a long time and it’s a great way to send that film off and thank you so much for sitting here with me talking today and I hope your luck on this award season continues.
TM: Thank you so much. Thank you for wanting to talk to me in the first place. Nice to meet you.