In just a few short years, New Zealand actress Thomasin McKenzie has become one of the world’s biggest up-and-coming performers. She has lead roles in two soon-to-be-released blockbusters, with Edgar Wright's Last Night in Soho and M. Night Shymalan’s Old. Thomasin is back in New Zealand promoting her latest film The Justice of Bunny King. Re: Journalist Baz Macdonald caught up with her about her career this far, and beyond.

In some ways, Thomasin was destined to be a great performer. She comes from one of New Zealand’s most famous acting families. Her mum Miranda Harcourt was the star of one of New Zealand’s biggest TV shows of the 80’s, Gloss, and has gone on to have an acclaimed career as an acting coach, theatre and film creator alongside her husband, director and writer Stuart McKenzie. Thomasin’s grandmother Kate Harcourt was made a Dame for her contributions to the arts in New Zealand through her work as a performer on stage, screen and radio.

“It is definitely in my blood,” Thomasin says.

“I started off [acting] when I was very young, more as a way for me to earn pocket money so that I could buy Sylvanian Families and Bratz dolls. Then over time I became more passionate about it - about the stories, the storytelling, and the chance to learn so much beyond my typical education.”

Many of her childhood memories are of road trips across New Zealand as her parents toured theatre productions. She says performing was so ingrained that she hadn’t thought of it as a career opportunity, but more as “this is life - this is what my family does”.

Thomasin McKenzie and Essie Davis in Thomasin’s latest film, The Justice of Bunny King

“Then I did Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story, a New Zealand film, when I was 13. That was the first time that I really had a taste of maybe making something out of this career for myself.”

In 2016, when Thomasin was 16, she was cast in the American film Leave No Trace - directed by Oscar-nominated Debra Granik. Her performance as the daughter of a nomadic war veteran immediately garnered attention, with describing it as “a breathtakingly confident debut”.

Since then, Thomasin has been cast in an increasing number of high-profile films, from Jojo Rabbit and The King in 2019, to Lost Girls alongside Amy Ryan on Netflix in 2020, and lead roles in Edgar Wright and M. Night Shymalan’s films Last Night in Soho and Old this year.

Thomasin says partly the roles she picks are driven by a desire to collaborate with talented people, but also by films that will have a meaningful impact.

“When I first started getting recognition for acting, I remember saying that my main goal was to work on movies with important messages behind them - that was the main thing I wanted to do, and still want to do,” Thomasin says.

“For me, a big thing with acting and film is making other realities of life accessible to people who may not have been exposed to that. Seeing those experiences in film really helps you to build empathy and open your mind."

This was part of what drove Thomasin to her latest project, the New Zealand film The Justice of Bunny King, directed by Gaysorn Thavat and written by Sophie Henderson. The story follows Bunny, played by Australian actress Essie Davis, a mother trying to get her children back from the foster care system. Thomasin plays Tonyah, Bunny’s niece who is struggling with her home life.

“I was drawn to the topics within it - the housing crisis, social inequality, and the struggle Bunny goes through just to spend time with her kids. She goes through so many obstacles and struggles, and makes many mistakes in the film, but it is all in the name of love. I thought that was really beautiful.”

“For Tonyah, my character, her struggle is that she is being abused by her step-dad. She is not listened to, not believed. That is not an unusual thing for women to experience in this world. So I really wanted to touch on that.”

Even though international film opportunities are flowing for Thomasin, she says she will always come back to be part of New Zealand films like The Justice of Bunny King.

“The New Zealand film industry is where I started, and it is something I am always going to come back to. It’s so important to support your local industry, which we have learnt a lot about over the last year with Covid. Also, just supporting the people I love, and have known and grown up with.”

Essie Davis and Thomasin McKenzie in The Justice of Bunny King

As to her next move, Thomasin says that she wants to continue to push herself as a performer, both in the style of film and characters she picks.

“I think I am quite a naturalistic actress, and I sometimes struggle to break out of that quietness. I would like to do something that challenges me to be loud, or maybe obnoxious or over-the-top.”

“I’d really like to do fantasy - maybe play a fairy or an elf or something. My entire life my biggest dream has been to be someone tiny. I want to be two-inches high.”

Maybe a live-action Thumbelina?

“Yes! That would be great,” Thomasin laughs. “If there are no tiny characters, I don’t want to do it.”

You can see full-sized Thomasin in Justice of Bunny King in New Zealand cinemas on July 29.

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