Photographer: Bill Viola
Stylist: Patrick Mackie
"I’ve been practicing in my bathtub,” Margot Robbie said as she arrived at the Long Beach, California, studio of the artist Bill Viola. Viola, who was the subject of a major retrospective this past summer at the Grand Palais in Paris, is known for his thematically epic videos—he is concerned with nothing less than life and death—and, heightening the biblical overtones, he often uses water and fire in his work. On a cool, early-fall day, Robbie, an actress on the brink of major stardom, would serve as his muse: She would slowly be submerged in water. “I am so excited,” Robbie continued. “I’ve been holding my breath to see how long I can go without turning blue.”
Last year, Robbie burst onto the screen in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street as Naomi, the self-invented sex-bomb spouse of the corrupt stockbroker Jordan Belfort, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. She epitomized a key element of the American dream—the trophy wife. Her character could have been a walking cliché, but Robbie gave Naomi sharp edges beneath the smooth, lacquered exterior; she was not only fantastic-looking, but also canny and self-protective.
Nearly every actress in her 20s tried out for the part of Naomi and, like the others, Robbie, who is Australian, submitted a tape of herself performing three scenes. Scorsese has a history of casting interesting, unknown actresses in his films—among others, Vera Farmiga in The Departed and Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear—but Robbie was not optimistic about her chances. She was in London, about to start work on another film, About Time, when she got the call saying Scorsese had liked her tape. She flew to New York and arrived for her audition wearing an outfit that she thought seemed perfect for Naomi: jeans and boots. “The casting director took one look at me and said, ‘Go down the street and buy the tightest dress and highest heels you can find,’” Robbie recalled. “‘That is Naomi.’ I came back dressed like that and read for Marty and Leo. Those heels were killing me, which is what I remembered most.”
Her performance in Wolf changed everything for the 24-year-old actress: During Oscar season, she became a red-carpet darling (“I try to channel old-school Grace Kelly,” she told me) and soon after was cast in Focus, which opens in February, as an aspiring thief who is groomed by a more experienced hustler, played by Will Smith. A tale of con artists in love and at war, Focus is a highly entertaining popcorn movie, but, again, Robbie added layers of insecurity, ambition, and desire to what could have been a mere stereotype. “I now know how to steal a watch when someone’s wearing it,” Robbie admitted proudly. “It’s an excellent talent to have.”
Viola, 63, was dressed in a short-sleeve shirt and loose khaki pants. He greeted Robbie warmly. As she usually does when preparing for a role, Robbie had done her homework and studied up on Viola’s art: his nude portraits of an elderly man and woman inspecting their bodies for disease and decay with a flashlight; Everyman types caught in a deluge of water; men and women trapped in what might be a funeral pyre. For “The Dreamers,” his underwater series, Viola has filmed men and women of all ages submerged in a tank. The subjects can look content, anxious, determined, lost. “The work is very emotional,” Viola said enthusiastically. “It brings out surprising waves of feeling.”
Robbie was taken into the adjoining room, where a bathtub-like tank was positioned on a platform. She looked happy at the sight of water. Growing up on Australia’s Gold Coast, she said, she lived in the pool: “It’s not about being rich, but everyone back home has a pool. And I was a total water baby. My mom couldn’t get me out—she’d put my dinner plate at the end of the pool, and I’d eat my meals in the water.”
At 16, Robbie was cast in her first professional role in an independent film, and as soon as she graduated from high school, she left home for Melbourne. Her rise was rapid: Within two years, she had a part on Neighbours, the popular national soap opera that has been something of a rite of passage for every Australian actor, from Russell Crowe to Chris Hemsworth. “I was on the show for three years,” Robbie told me. “And I spent the entire last year saving my money and practicing an American accent.” When her contract ended, she moved to Los Angeles, where she was cast in Pan Am, a Mad Men–inspired show set in the ’60s about the adventures of four stewardesses. Although Pan Am was canceled after one season, Robbie did not go unnoticed.
“I learned a lot about pain and suffering during Pan Am,” she joked as she changed out of her shorts and cropped shirt into a pale green gown created for the Viola project by Rodarte’s Kate and Laura Mulleavy. “We had to wear very constricting period-correct girdles and bras. After that, I learned to read a script with an eye toward the undergarments.” She smoothed out the embroidered lace gown, which was strewn with crystals, pearls, and sequins. It looked as if it had been living in the ocean and had, perhaps, once been worn by a mermaid.
“You look wonderful,” Viola said as they walked over to the tank. Slowly, Robbie lay back in the water. “I am trying to project serenity,” she said after she came up for air. “I am pretending that I’m lying at the bottom of a stream in a peaceful state.” Viola studied the results on a large screen. “Margot looks like a Siren out of Greek mythology,” he said. “I see her as an alluring goddess who might delight or destroy.” Robbie smiled. “I’m glad it works for you,” she said. “And if it ends up meaning something to someone, all the better.”
Hair by Renato Campora for Wella Professionals at the Wall Group; makeup by Tyron Machhausen for Chanel at Bridge Artists. Executive producer/assistant director: Kira Perov. Producer: Genevieve Anderson. Director of photography: Harry Dawson. Key grip: John Brunold. Gaffer: Vincent Wrenn. Special effects supervisor: Giuliano Fiumani. Technical director: Alex MacInnis. Set decorator: Blake Viola. Editor: Brian Pete. Fashion assistants: Hester Hodde, Rebecca Brandy.