Eileen star Thomasin McKenzie tells City A.M. why London still beats New Zealand, how she looks after her mental health when working on dark projects and what Anne Hathaway taught her
Thomasin McKenzie’s performances have, until now, preceded her name. The New Zealander had memorable supporting turns in Jojo Rabbit, The Power of the Dog and Last Night in Soho, but this week the release of Eileen, a taut psychological thriller starring McKenzie marks her first leading role in a feature film, opposite Anne Hathaway.
Eileen is a murky, memorable drama, an investigation of trauma told through the lens of two strongly contrasting women. It’s about obsession, sexuality, loneliness and what drives us. Anne Hathaway gives a confident turn as psychiatrist Rebecca, but Eileen, a young secretary at a prison in 1960s Massachusetts, is the tougher, deeper role to play. You find yourself asking more questions about Eileen with every scene that passes, with McKenzie laying clues about a woman who appears timid but is capable of darkness. “It was a challenging headspace to get into because Eileen is a character who’s been deeply hurt,” McKenzie says.
“She doesn’t think very positively of herself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of leaning too much into that kind of negativity and headspace. I had to do a lot of self care and to make sure that I was keeping myself and my own thoughts in check and just being kind to myself.” McKenzie’s Instagram is perhaps another clue at self-care: it features a catalogue of funny cat pictures. During our chat the 23-year-old cradles a fluffy little dog called Tilly. Not just cats, then? “She’s about the size of a cat,” McKenzie laughs. “I’m dog sitting!” If Eileen sounds bleak, that’s because it is. Shot at the outbreak of the Omnicron variant in 2021, quarantine and isolation protocols in New Jersey, where it was shot, were “particularly intense”, as was trying to get the film wrapped on a tight budget.
“I tend to do roles that are quite intense, so I’ve just learned that I have to take care of myself so as not to take on those characters’ emotions or thought patterns or behaviours,” says McKenzie. “I often find that that can happen even though I definitely wouldn’t consider myself a method actor. I don’t need to completely inhabit the character in order to do a good performance – that can lead to unhealthy behaviour. Why does she gravitate to such intense roles? “I don’t intend to,” she laughs.
“It just seems to happen. Usually those roles are the most complex ones and I like the opportunity to dive deep into a character’s mindset and figure out what’s going on.” Physical training for a film that was shelved around the time of the Eileen shoot gave McKenzie “a really great escape” from the mental gymnastics of playing Eileen. “It forced me to take care of my body,” she says, alongside meditating and reading. Scenes in which she and Hathaway grind sensually on the dance floor will draw tabloid attention, as will the couple’s intimate scenes as they draw closer together. Oscar winner Hathaway, 20 years McKenzie’s senior, led the way with the moves.
Anne Hathaway empowered me. She taught me to speak up when I’ve got an idea
“Luckily Eileen wasn’t a very good dancer so I didn’t feel any pressure to be a good dancer and I was able to just follow Anne’s lead. I always get nervous when it comes to dance scenes and I seem to dance in every film I do. On my last shoot there was a scene where I was dancing by myself and I was pleading with the crew, ‘Guys, please, can you dance with me behind cameras so I don’t feel so alone?’ But none of them did and I was so betrayed!” The key, she says, is to “just push through”. “Part of acting is being put in awkward situations. You have to come to terms with the fact that you’re going to embarrass yourself a lot and that’s fine. For Eileen, for that dance scene, it was great that Anne is a great dancer already. It was on her to sell what she was doing and it was on me just to follow along.”
Hathaway would suggest ideas to director William Oldroyd to make scenes look or feel better, a confidence and assertiveness McKenzie feels she has learned from The Devil Wears Prada actor. “I tend to take a step back and be more quiet when the scene is being choreographed. I’ll do my job with the acting but when it comes to the blocking [how actors stand in scenes] I just leave that to the director or the other actors. “But I really admired Anne – she’s very proactive and she’s not afraid to say, ‘I think this would be a good idea…’ I felt empowered watching her and learning from her to speak up when I’ve got an idea.”
Elsewhere, Thomasin McKenzie is currently filming Joy opposite Bill Nighy and James Norton, a film about three trailblazers of IVF pregnancies. And she’s in production on fantasy series Gossamer opposite Forest Whitaker and Richard E Grant, curating a not-bad CV for 23. Staying where the work is, she’s planning on sticking around in London for the foreseeable.
“I love being here,” McKenzie says. “I’ve felt very drawn to London ever since I did Last Night in Soho. I got to know Soho quite intimately on that shoot. We spent so much time running around the little alleyways and hanging around on Soho corners and seeing the darker side of the city, but also the excitement and the thrill of it. I’m really happy here, it’s a very exciting place to be.”
Eileen with Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway is in cinemas from 1 December
Read more: Why Anatomy of a Fall is film of the year and an early Oscars 2024 contender
Read more: Napoleon starring Joaquin Phoenix is a fun, dark popcorn blockbuster but falls short of Ridley Scott’s best