Career

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie - NZ's brightest new actor at just 17

With three generations of actresses, the Harcourt McKenzie household is full of drama. Its youngest star, 17-year-old Thomasin, is set to appear in Taika Waititi’s latest flick.

Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie hugs her poodle, Toto, and stares out of the living room window wistfully, pointing to an expansive view of Lyall Bay below. Turning to her 91-year-old grandmother, Dame Kate Harcourt, the young actress says: "There was a huge pod of dolphins out there the other day, Grandma. The neighbours brought their binoculars over so you could see them, but you were out."

For the past decade, three generations of the McKenzie Harcourt family have shared this home perched above Houghton Bay, with 260-degree views of the wild south coast and the airport in the distance. The young actress's father, Stuart McKenzie, stands at a frying pan in the open plan kitchen, concocting a vegan soup for his family. Last year, 17-year-old Thomasin became vegan for ethical reasons, so he's happily expanded his cooking repertoire.

On a typical evening in the Harcourt McKenzie household, there are few signs that this schoolgirl is one of the country's hottest screen talents. In May, Thomasin spent a few days at the prestigious Cannes film festival to publicise her role in US director Debra Granik's indie film, Leave No Trace.

Screening in the NZ International Film Festival starting on July 19, the story follows a homeless father, Will (Ben Foster), and his daughter, 13-year-old Tom (Thomasin), who are found living off the grid in a rainforest in Portland, Oregon. When authorities pluck them from their hidden world, Will and Tom embark on an increasingly challenging journey in search of a place to call their own.

When the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, reviewers raved about Thomasin, with IndieWire's most anticipated Sundance Film preview article saying: "The last time Granik found a teenage actress to anchor her film, it was Jennifer Lawrence [in Winter's Bone], and early word is that New Zealand-born McKenzie could be yet another breakout."

The smell of frying onions wafts through the open-plan kitchen and living space in the three-generation household. The family's acting legacy began 80 years ago, when at the age of 10, Dame Kate performed in a school play at Hawkes
Bay's Woodford House.

Thomasin's mother, Miranda, an actress and acting coach, taps on her laptop at the dining table. Dame Kate, who's still being cast in roles despite her age, smiles and says: "I'm very proud of Thom."

Upstairs is where all the drama happens, where Miranda talks in a booming voice as her husband clatters in the kitchen. Eleven-year-old Davida, a young actress too, watches television. Nineteen-year-old Peter, a second-year politics and law student, also lives at home.

Down a flight of stairs, Dame Kate's apartment is quiet and low-key, and it's where Thomasin sleeps in a bedroom with pastel pink walls. It's dotted with photographs; an image of a young Miranda with flaming red hair sits near one of Thomasin and Peter as young children.

Thomasin has a particularly close bond with her grandmother, and has been sharing the converted flat with the veteran actress for the past couple of years. She sits at Dame Kate's piano and begins playing a song. Every Friday, Dame Kate drives Thomasin to her piano lesson.

"Grandma is one of the most important people in my life," smiles Thomasin.

The three generations living here are extremely close. They've lived like this for the past decade, when Dame Kate moved out of her Wellington townhouse and into the home she bought with her daughter and son-in-law.

Is this a model for family life? Miranda nods. Aware her mother is in her 10th decade, they're united in their love for her. "Kate is like a teenager. She's the most irresponsible, uncontrollable one," she laughs. "It's a very fluid environment at home. It's got a lot of life in it."

Miranda and Stuart have jointly raised their three children amid busy freelance careers. Stuart also has an older daughter, Sara. It's a parenting model that Miranda grew up with. Her late father, Peter, was a broadcaster and writer who ran the house while Dame Kate acted and worked full-time as a publicist at Downstage Theatre.

"Dad was happy wearing an apron and heading down to the supermarket," says Miranda.

An unusual arrangement in the 60s and 70s, it's standard for this second generation of parents.

"We chop it up," says Miranda. "Sometimes it's Stuart working; sometimes it's me. It's always creative work, whether it's coaching, advising, directing or writing. We have a completely shared parenting journey, where I do the laundry and he does the cooking."

Miranda runs an acting school for teens, Rata Studios, in Wellington, which her children have deliberately avoided attending. "One of the reasons we sent Thomasin to Samuel Marsden [College] is because there's no drama. She has quite enough drama in her life as it is. It's in the water at our house."

For years, Thomasin avoided an acting career, put off by her parents, who told her stories about their credit card debt.

"I heard too much about it, about how it was feast or famine."

When Miranda was acting director at Toi Whaakari Drama School, her daughter made her acting debut there as a baby, when she was used "like a prop" in a theatre work. Thomasin later starred in the Wellington film Existence with her brother.

It was the film, Consent, about rape victim Louise Nicholas, that was a turning point. Aged 13 at the time, playing a young Louise was an experience that convinced Thomasin to turn acting into a vocation.

"It was a really important story, and it gave me a chance to make a difference and make people aware about this awful thing that had happened."

Thomasin's other major role was in Shortland Street, when she played Pixie Hannah, a teen with bone cancer. She still gets recognised in the street as 'Pixie'. She now has three agents – two in the US and one here – two managers and
a dialogue coach, and knows she's set for a life of travel and upset routines.

Twelve years ago, Miranda uprooted her family to Philadelphia for three months while she worked as an acting coach on the film The Lovely Bones.

Last year, it was Thomasin's turn to go away, and she spent nine weeks in Portland from April for Leave No Trace. Working 10-hour days, six days a week, she appeared in virtually every scene. "We lived in a tent in the forest and that was so much fun to film," she says.

Her mother taught her about a coaching technique – 'hug to connect'. Each day on the Portland set, Thomasin and co-star Will Foster hugged for about two minutes, feeling each other's heartbeat. "We also did the hongi. It was really amazing. It made us so close. It was really important that we bonded and that our bond felt authentic in the film."

For the past seven years, Miranda has primarily worked behind the scenes, carving out a successful career as a coach of A-list actors. At 4am the day she spoke to NEXT, she had set her alarm and was up to coach Hollywood star Nicole Kidman by Skype. "She's so lovely. She could only do it at that time as she needed to sort her kids."Kidman made special mention of Harcourt in her Emmy thank-you speech, when she won a gong for her role in the TV series Big Little Lies.

Last year, Miranda coached Joaquin Phoenix on set in Italy for the film Mary Magdalene. She's currently working on two Australian films and, with Stuart, a "big-secret" Hollywood TV project.

Like her daughter, Miranda fell into a performing arts career. First acting at the age of four, it was her role in the 1980s television drama Gloss that shot her to national fame. Although she went on to spend more than 40 years acting in film, TV and theatre works, she says "my passion has always been to teach".

Last year, Miranda and Stuart co-directed the Margaret Mahy film adaptation The Changeover. Dame Kate starred in the film, playing the role of Winter, the older witch. Made a dame in 1996 for her services to theatre, she also starred in last year's World of WearableArt (WOW) show.

"I might return to acting when the kids leave home," says Miranda, "but acting is so incredibly intense and immersive. That's not easy when you're a mother of three."

Thomasin has three exciting confirmed roles ahead. She will play Elsa, a 15-year-old Jewish girl, in Taika Waititi's upcoming film Jojo Rabbit. The Fox Searchlight production, which Waititi is writing, directing and starring in, tells the story of Jojo, a German boy who struggles to fit in and has Hitler as his imaginary best friend. Waititi is playing the imaginary Hitler, while Scarlett Johansson will play Jojo's mother, who's working for the Resistance.

Thomasin will then play Timothée Chalamet's sister, Philippa, in David Michod's film adaptation of the Henry V story The King. Finally, she'll head to the Australian outback to play Mary, Ned Kelly's girlfriend, in the film The True History of the Kelly Gang. Directed by Justin Kurzel, the young actress will act alongside Russell Crowe and George McKay.

Her mother says: "She's really excited. We can help her, but ultimately it's her making the decision."

Thomasin thinks she'll take a gap year next year pursuing acting opportunities before going to university. Her mother imagines she'll end up in Los Angeles "at some stage".

As Stuart puts the final touches on the soup, we chat about how an actor is affected by the roles they play. When Thomasin left the Portland film set at the end of a long day, she'd go for a jog in an attempt to shrug off her screen character.

"When I was playing Pixie on Shortland Street, I was playing a girl with cancer and for a long time I actually thought I had cancer. Audiences are convinced you're the character too – it really messes with your mind. This time, I was trying to avoid that."

Verbatim, about prisoners' stories, stayed with Miranda for years. "I still have scars and traces from every role," she says.

When I ask Dame Kate if any roles have intruded on her, she says, "I don't think so."

The family share a wicked sense of humour. Her daughter quips back. "Not Winter in The Changeover? You don't think you're a bit of a witch?!"

"We cast you in that role because you exemplified witchiness, Kate," pipes up Stuart from the kitchen.

"Thank you Stuart," smirks Kate.