Mia Wasikowska on ditching the Disney Princess cliché

It’s been six years since the 2010 Disney live-action adaptation of Alice in Wonderland hit the silver screen and Mia Wasikowska, the film’s star, has experienced a world of change. When Tim Burton first directed her in the blockbuster, Wasikowska was a young woman still on her way to becoming a household name in Hollywood. Now, at 26, with more than 20 movies under her belt, she’s light years away from that person. When she walks into a West Hollywood hotel, sporting a pixie cut and a white Marni blouse, you can sense her confidence. It’s an earned assurance, as the Australian actress has taken on roles in beloved films such as Madame Bovary, The Kids Are All Right and Crimson Peak with a kind of Tilda Swinton-ian aplomb.

As her performance in Maps To The Stars attests, she plays weird well. But in 2013’s Tracks, she offers audiences something different: a grounded performance with relatable anxiety. Her next challenge is to revisit Alice—the role for which she is best known—in the upcoming Alice Through The Looking Glass. Aside from the obvious earning draw (the first film grossed more than $1 billion, which her new paycheque is likely to reflect), Wasikowska returns to an Alice that is nearly as evolved as she is. This time around, she is world’s away from emulating anything that remotely resembles a Disney Princess cliché. “In the first film, Alice was quite uncomfortable and awkward—she was very much finding her footing,” says Wasikowska, leaning toward me as we chat. “In this one, she has spent over a year travelling and being the captain of a ship. She has been productive and is feeling very empowered. She is more sure of herself. I can associate with that.”

Six years seems like six decades in Hollywood and to paraphrase Alice author Lewis Carroll, sometimes forever is as long as “just one second.” For example, when Wasikowska first began chatting up the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and trading barbs with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Instagram was a questionable, fledgling app that most stars avoided like the plague—Wasikowska still does. Instead of sharing images with everyone online, she’s been spending time directing her own film, Afterbirth, her first major release, which is part of a short-film series called Madly.

“She wants to put her energy into the craft of moviemaking,” says Alice producer Suzanne Todd. “Although we would love for her to jump into the world of social media, it’s what sets her apart and, perhaps, what has helped keep her out of the headlines for the wrong reasons. She’s grown into a woman who has been able to avert a lot of the scrutiny and criticism that comes with being in the business. I think it’s because she keeps her cards close to her chest when it matters—it kind of makes her an accidental role model.”

Director James Bobin was brought in to reinvent Wonderland, and he sees Alice 2.0 as a feminist. Wasikowska agrees: “At the time the film is set, it’s much further behind than we are now. She had very high expectations for her role in society—the expectations of her were so low. She didn’t want to just submit to getting married and being a wife.”

To help further elevate Carroll’s hallucinogenic Wonderland, costume designer Colleen Atwood, who won an Oscar for her work on the first Alice, returns with her signature weirdness. In this version, Helena Bonham Carter appears as a Gareth Pugh-inspired Red Queen, fitted in couture-ish armour, which looks like it’s made of plants and vines. A new character called Time (played by Sacha Baron Cohen)—made to represent life’s hours—also gets a wing-shouldered outfit, which seems plucked from the closets of a Russian czar and a whirling dervish. This time around the wardrobe budget more than doubled, which gives young audiences an eye full, but the hidden themes of the script give it a depth that adults can connect with. “The message is to not mess around with time or obsess or fix things that have happened,” says Wasikowska. “It’s more about appreciating what’s happening now. I have a similar relationship in terms of trying to appreciate the now and not dwell on what’s happened.”