Following in the footsteps of a real life hero

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson in Tracks
Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson in Tracks
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Mia Wasikowska took the chance to make a homegrown film about Australia, playing one of the last great explorers of the 20th century. Tony Earnshaw reports.

Call it timing. Call it kismet. All the various elements that make for a perfect combination came together to everyone’s satisfaction in Tracks, the story of Robyn Davidson’s epic trek across the barren desert of western Australia.

It took nine months for her to walk 1,700 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. En-route her companions were her dog, Diggity, a train of camels, an Aborigine named Mr Eddy and, at various points on the route, a New York photographer named Rick Smolen.

The story is quintessentially Australian and one known and recognised by Aussies all over the world. Much of that awareness came courtesy of a spread in National Geographic magazine in 1978.

Two years later came Davidson’s own memoir of the epic trip.

It has taken 34 years for her story to make it to the screen. And much of that was down to Davidson’s reluctance to let it go. She didn’t want her story to be given the Hollywood treatment.

Producer Emile Sherman, one of the Oscar winners behind The King’s Speech, went after the rights and, after some considerable time, secured them. Then the real hard work began.

Davidson herself was immensely protective of her story and the phenomenon it had become since the 1970s. Once part of the Australian school syllabus it had become a seminal part of national culture. She knew that, too.

The crucial aspect in bringing the various parties together was Mia Wasikowska. After the triple whammy of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre and Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids are All Right the 24-year-old is one of the hottest talents on the grid.

As far as Davidson was concerned, Wasikowska was the one. Her casting topped off a layer cake of pure Antipodean cream that followed the hiring of John Curran as director. It had to be shot in Australia, too, making it a wholly Australian production.

Davidson was fully involved with the film from the get-go but was wise enough to recognise that it would not be entirely faithful to the book. The clincher, however, was Wasikowska.

“I’d always wanted her and I said to both John and Emile, ‘If we can get Mia that would make me very happy,’ and I certainly haven’t been disappointed,” she admits.

The two women met early on in the process when they travelled to South Australia to meet the camels that Wasikowska would use in the movie. The actress admits to being nervous at the prospect of meeting the person she would be playing and was worried about the reaction she would get.

She needn’t have worried. Unbeknownst to Wasikowska Davidson had lobbied for her. All that mattered from then on was being accurate and truthful to the experience.

“I was quite anxious to meet her before we started filming because I wasn’t sure how she’d feel about a movie being made about her and the person playing her,” recalls Wasikowska.

“But then I met her and she was so incredibly warm and kind and really, really open about the experience. I was just so relieved when I met her because I was so in awe of her character and her journey and her story and just really loved it. Being able to actually have met her and to now have a friendship is probably one of the greatest things that I’ve taken away from this film.”

Like her real-life alter ego Wasikowska found herself becoming defensive of the character she was playing. What’s more Curran found himself deferring to her in matters of decisions involving the film because he wanted to capture her interpretation of Davidson, not his own.

Wasikowska’s thought process chimed with her director’s, as she reveals.

“When I read the script I immediately felt a strange connection to Robyn’s character. I can’t quite explain why, but I was really fascinated by her and felt like I really understood her at that particular time in her life.

“I think it’s an amazing thing to do, in a time when it’s increasingly difficult to live in the moment and be in the here and now. Everything we do sort of facilitates the future or addresses the past, with technology and the pace that we go at in a modern society.

“To a certain extent it’s a polar opposite thing, sort of being on a film set. Every now and then I’d be like ‘Bah! If only the cameras weren’t here,’ which is similar, I think, to how she felt being documented during her journey.”

Curran and Wasikowska were in agreement on many things. Top of the list was that the key to unlocking the movie of the book was to let go of the book. It was a challenge they both relished and were uneasy about.

“We both loved the book and I have a huge amount of respect and love for Robyn the character from the book, so I think the challenge there was sort of letting that go but keeping the essence of it or the core kind of sense of who she was. “John’s style is quite naturalistic. He likes to set up the things that we need in the scene then give us the space, the freedom and then capture it as best he can. He’s not precious about the material; he’s very open to us and our own interpretations.”

Being back in her homeland allowed the Canberran to wallow in a side of Australia she had never before experienced. And given her rising status in Hollywood – she can currently be seen in The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg and will play Alice once more in Through the Looking Glass – she may never get the opportunity again.

“It was amazing to travel to quite remote locations where you don’t usually get a chance to spend so much time. It’s been really nice to be back in Australia – sort of connecting to my own country.”

• Tracks (12A) is on nationwide release.