How do you improve upon a Liam Neeson heist movie? By making the film not about Liam Neeson, but about Viola Davis, and Elizabeth Debicki, and Michelle Rodriguez, and Cynthia Erivo. In Steve McQueen's multi-layered Widows, the four women team up to carry out one last $3 million job; for Debicki's Alice, the challenge serves as an alternative to sex work. Throughout the film, the Australian-born actor is equal parts vulnerable and intuitive, with a little physical comedy thrown in, and we watch as Alice learns that she, along with everyone else in her life, has vastly underestimated herself. Here, Debicki gives a debrief of her Widows audition, remembers the tightest dress she's ever worn, and cements her place in this year's Best Performances issue.
What was the first professional job you auditioned for?
I think it was the first job I got, which was an Australian comedy called A Few Best Men. I had three lines in it, and they cut two of them. The one that stayed in the movie is something about a sheep. I played a secretary. I was really pleased about it. I remember that my dressing room was in the back of a car; funds were scarce. But I did get to meet Olivia Newton-John and that was a big deal then because she's an Aussie legend.
When was your first brush with coming to America?
To screen test for Baz Luhrmann for The Great Gatsby, which was about my third audition maybe. I got on a plane and flew to L.A., had one night in a hotel and then I woke up the next morning for the screen test so I marched over to the Chateau Marmont. I just remember the curtains billowing while I did a screen test with Toby [Maguire]; Baz was running around after us with a little handheld camera and we were jumping on the bed and there was a golf club and it was just madness.
And what was Cannes like?
Doing Cannes is always strange, but doing Cannes with Baz Luhrmann is like Cannes times a hundred. You know what I'm really grateful for? At the time, I was in rehearsal with the brilliant Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert for a play called The Maids. One of the days before I left, I told Cate I was nervous. My first red carpet was Cannes, so it was baptism by fire. I remember Cate saying, "It doesn't get any crazier than Cannes. But beware of the Disney music that they play when the cast comes onto the carpet."
What did you wear in Cannes?
It was a pinky-ivory dress designed by Alex Perry. It was very tight, and boned. I couldn't bend a portion of my body, and I remember shoving my hand down the front of it during the film so my ribs could expand. I have never worn a dress that tight ever again. You learn fast that breathing is very important for one's comfort.
Tell me about Widows.
Widows is Steve McQueen's latest film and it is about three women who lose their husbands at the beginning of the film. Their husbands are involved in organized crime in Chicago; they sort of scoop up one more woman and complete the final heist because their husbands have left them in massive debt.
How did your audition go?
I put myself on tape while I was in Australia in my friend's garage, ‘cause I am all about the glamour. I remember putting a lot of eyeliner on, and picking out some hoops. A few days later, I flew over to L.A. and read for Steve in person. I was completely terrified. Good terror, though. Sort of the best terror.
When did he tell you you had the part?
It was pretty unorthodox, actually. After I did two quite intense scenes, Steve sort of said, "OK. That's enough. Sit down and I will make you a cup of tea." I remember macaroons were on the table. Then I got in the car, and my phone rang about an hour later. That’s when Steve offered me the part.
I love that you were taller than Lukas Haas and that you were controlling the situation a lot of the time. At one point you sort of pushed him down, which I thought was great.
It is a really interesting relationship that Alice has with Lukas's character David. She has this really deep, intuitive sort of intelligence that she doesn't really know she possesses until she has to figure out how to read people and get something from them. So it turns out that David is completely useful for their heist plan, and their power dynamic shifts.
And were you always tall?
I was small once upon a time. But I was always tall for my age. At about 12, I really shot up, which I minded because I felt different to all my friends, and I slouched a lot on one hip. But my parents are dancers, so they used to just come up and grab my shoulders back.
Were you ever a dancer yourself?
I was a dancer for many years, and I thought I was going to be a ballerina. I once went to a summer school for the Australian ballet, and I was taller than my teacher. So I remember thinking I'm gonna have to rethink this plan. I did a lot of contemporary dance until I was about 17 and then I went to acting school.
Have you ever done any musicals?
When I was a kid, the first musical I was in Oklahoma. I was like, farm child number eight. It was a community theater show. Some of my best work.
Do you have a go-to karaoke song?
I always go for Queen, but then I regret it because I can't sing it. But if I’ve had enough to drink, I get really overly ambitious and pick Queen, or a good musical number. I love West Side Story; “I Feel Pretty” is never a bad choice for karaoke.
Did you have posters on your walls as a child?
I had glow-in-the-dark Disney Princesses. I also had a poster of Norah Jones.
Did you have any aspirations to be a singer?
No, I should take classes. We did a little bit in acting school. My grandmother was a soprano, and I came from a singing house. That's when you know people are loving each other and not cross or something. I love a good shower sing.
What do you sing in the shower? Queen?
Usually I end up singing musical songs. A Chorus Line is always good. “Nothing” is an excellent shower song.
Where was your first kiss?
My first kiss. That's terrible that I can't remember. It just flew by. The one I really remember, I really, really loved him. And it was by a river. I completely, one hundred percent planned it. It was all my doing. I was not letting that not happen.
Were you nervous?
Oh yeah. And I had braces, which were sexy. It was a great time for both of us.
What is your secret skill? Something that would surprise people about you.
I have this strange, intuitive thing where I always call people when they need me to call them. Or when I think of them, texts spring up. It's like a weird psychic relationship I have with text messaging. I also can remember dates photographically. And darn socks.
Are you good with names?
No, but I never forget a face. But I constantly forget names. Which is half the skill.