Elizabeth Debicki: Nolan’s worlds are nothing we have seen before
The Australian actor talks about being part of Nolan’s mind-bending film, Tenet
A Christopher Nolan film, regardless of its extent of success or positive reception, is a topic of conversation. This is not just for the audience, but also for actors who are part of his ambitious projects. Elizabeth Debicki, known for her roles in The Great Gatsby and Widow, shares this sentiment and speaks about how memorable it was to be part of Nolan’s Tenet, that is hitting Indian theatres on December 4.
What drew you to Tenet?
I wanted to work with Christopher Nolan. That was the drawcard of all drawcards, really, because I have grown up watching his films. I have found them to stand far apart from what other people make, because of how he integrates concepts, because of how entertaining his films are. They are so thematic, and the scope of filmmaking so huge. His worlds are nothing we have seen before.
Can you describe your character and how she fits into the story?
I can’t answer that question right now (LAUGHS). But I understand the intention behind Chris’s secrecy because cinema is his art form, and he is a true auteur who understands that it needs to be protected. How amazing that you sit in the dark and have the film unfold and have revelations appear in the way that the filmmaker intended them to! How more amazing when this happens without any noise or information clouding your experience? Could you imagine watching Memento and knowing where that film was heading? The entire film would be a different beast. But when watching a Chris Nolan film, you really, truly do not know where he’s taking you. I live for that: getting thrown into an abyss and letting the storytelling form in front of your eyes.
What is it like to be on a Christopher Nolan set?
It’s pretty extraordinary as an actor to have somebody hold a space as intense for you to work in, as Chris does. He understands instinctively that actors need to trust him and need an environment that’s going to support them when they are pushed into that moment where they have to create. You have to have something incredibly pressurised in order for a diamond to be created.
Being on his set can be rigorous and there’s a speed and efficiency to it, but at the end of the day, I don’t really know what else you really want as an actor because if you are going to give yourself over to a scene or a character or a story, you want it to be happening in the setting that Chris creates for you as the performer. So, to answer your question, it’s extraordinary to be on a Nolan set and be involved in creating imagery that people haven’t seen before. You always want to transcend what you have done earlier, and this gave everyone the chance to rally together to do that.
You are part of an ensemble of talented actors in this film, including John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Kenneth Branagh…
As an actor you are one piece of a whole, and so much of your experience of making something is determined by other people’s personalities and their attitudes toward work. I was with these actors every day whose performances I respected and who I found to be beautiful to work with. We were truly bonded by the end of this movie because we were on it for a long time and we experienced a lot of things together in many different countries, so it was really amazing. I love them deeply.
It was an honor to act opposite Kenneth Branagh playing his wife. I have always loved his work. He is something of a national treasure in England and is seminal to the landscape. You can tell him I said that (LAUGHS). But the most joyous surprise was how he is an extraordinary human being, kind and sensitive, and one of the funniest people I have ever worked with. I felt like I was part of a team with him—we found our rhythm and we supported each other a lot. Then, there’s John David Washington… I mean, honestly, I can’t say enough good things about him. His role is physical, and I’ve never seen anybody with that level of discipline. He was a leader of men in making everyone smile. And Robert Pattinson is obviously a fantastic actor, but also an hysterically funny person.
You mentioned working in many different countries. Could you talk about the challenges and benefits of filming around the globe?
It was challenging because of issues like jet lag, and during the time we were in Estonia, the sun was setting at around midnight, so the world felt upside down. But for me, working with these people who I came to love so much, it felt like we were a travelling circus—when we finished at one location, everybody would just get on the plane together and we would fly across the sky to a new country. Every time we landed in a different country, it was almost like we were making a new film, and there was this communal spirit amongst the entire cast and crew. We worked hard through different conditions—weather, heat, cold, whatever it was—and there was just a sense of unity. I thank my lucky stars that we got to make this film last year, because it was a completely different time, and we just took for granted that we could just get on a plane and go to seven different countries to create this film.