To land her role as a girl raised off-the-grid in a state park in Leave No Trace, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie took matters into her own hands. The New Zealander grabbed a few key props, borrowed a bunny rabbit, and hit play on her GoPro. A few months later, she had the part. Debra Granik's film, which is based on the Peter Rock novel My Abandonment, follows a veteran father with PTSD, who believes the best way to live and raise his daughter is as far away from society as they can safely manage. The authorities intervene, as they tend to do; what follows is a story about finding your place in the world. For W's annual Best Performances issue, McKenzie reminisces on what she learned in survivalist boot camp, why she's grateful to be an actor, and her dream superhero role, should the spandex come calling.
Tell me about Leave No Trace.
Leave No Trace was directed by Debra Granik. It was originally called My Abandonment. Our wrap present was these amazing rain jackets by Carhartt, which is the same brand as the rain jacket I wore in the film. They embroidered My Abandonment on them, because it was still called that then.
How did My Abandonment, or Leave No Trace, come to you?
I can't remember if I read the script before I did the first audition or afterwards. I couldn't fly over to America to meet with Debra or the casting directors in the room, so I just did it on tape. We had a lot of props—a bucket, a toothbrush, a sleeping bag, and my little sister's best friend's rabbit, Coco. What else? I had a Go-Pro, which I held in my mouth, and I went on a run through the New Zealand bush with my dog. Sent that off as well.
And then they gave you a call and said, "Wow, why don't you direct the movie?"
[Laughs.] No, that's, that's Debra's job. I met her eventually just on Skype. And we just talked about the script, and the audition, and improvising some scenes.
When did she tell you that you had the part?
Six months after my first Skype with her, during Christmas time. I got a call from my agent and my manager that I got the part, and it was really exciting. A couple months later, I flew to Portland, Oregon, and we filmed in the forest.
Had you met Ben Foster yet?
I met him at the beginning of the rehearsal process, which was two weeks; we were working with wilderness survivalist trainers. I hadn't Skyped with Ben before I got to America, so I was really nervous because their relationship is such an important part of the film.
Did you learn anything from the survivalists?
A lot of it, I've forgotten, to be honest. But it's just so important to learn how to survive on your own and get back down to the basics. Knowing how to make a fire and shelter and where to find water and all of that kind of stuff, and just being quiet as well. Not disturbing the animals or the plants, but just listening, and being really conscious of what's going on around you.
Can you make a fire?
I was so determined to get it. Nicole and Ellen, the trainers, said I was, like, seconds away from starting a fire, but my hands had these massive blisters on them from doing it. I was just hurt so bad, I had to stop, but I was so close.
Well, let's ask some questions about civilization. What was the first music you ever bought?
It was either a Katy Perry or Lady Gaga CD. I remember listening to Lady Gaga in my best friend's car, and we were belting out the lyrics. We didn't know them off by heart, but they were in the CD case.
What was the first audition you ever booked?
I think the first film I ever did was a a New Zealand film festival film called Existence, where I played a little girl called Scraps. It was set in a post-apocalyptic future, and the water was really acidic, so you couldn't touch the water. But I've been acting for a while. My mum coached at the New Zealand Drama school, so the first acting job I ever had was when I was a newborn, and she used me as a prop in the production of Into the Woods that she was directing.
Did you always want to be an actress?
Not at all. When I was younger, I thought I was just sick of it, and I wanted to do so many other things. I wanted to work with animals, and travel the world. But when I was 13, I did a film called Consent, about a lady called Louise Nicholas. It was just really eye-opening to me; it was such an intense story. I realized that acting is an opportunity to have a voice and to make a difference, and see the world, and have an amazing time and become so many different peoples, and have experiences that I would never have otherwise, and go to places that I would never go to if I wasn't acting.
Did you have a favorite film growing up?
My Neighbor Totoro. Which is a Hayao Miyazaki film; he also did Spirited Away, and Howl's Moving Castle. We named our dog Totoro. We call her Toto for short. She's really cute, but she's crazy.
Do you have a karaoke song?
Probably something from Mamma Mia, “Money, Money, Money.” Actually, when I was younger, I made up a new version of it. I won't sing it, but the lyrics were, "Mamma Mia, I've got diarrhea. Plop plop." I won't go on, 'cause it's really bad.
And do you have a secret skill?
I can sew. I mean, I'm not amazing at it, but I can do it. I don’t know... on set, I'm really good at picking out little details or continuity problems.
If you were a superhero, which superhero would you be?
Is there any superhero that can change into different things? Like become a bird, or become a fish, or become a chameleon? Or I'd like to run really fast. Like what's his name, from The Incredibles? The young boy with the blonde hair, which looked like what I just had for the photo shoot?
Dash. I'd like to run really fast. Or Elasti-girl.