Barely a year after graduating from the VCA, Elizabeth Debicki landed a major Hollywood role in Baz Luhrmann’s remake of ‘The Great Gatsby’.
By Dan Rule
Few recent drama graduates could boast receiving an invitation to audition from legendary Australian director Baz Luhrmann. Even fewer could lay claim to being cast for the part. For 21-year-old Melbourne actress and Victorian College of the Arts (VCA) alumna Elizabeth Debicki (BDramArt 2010), it’s an experience that she is unlikely to forget.
Indeed, cast in the role of Jordan Baker for Luhrmann’s Hollywood remake of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby in early 2011 – alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carry Mulligan and fellow Australians Joel Edgerton and Isla Fischer – Debicki’s rise to film’s biggest stage has been more rapid than even she could have imagined.
“I sent in a tape from Australia and, as with most auditions, tried not to think about it after that,” she recalls. “I received a phone call about a month later, telling me that Baz would like me to test for the part of Jordan. I flew to LA and auditioned in the flesh, and flew home straight after.
“It was very, very surreal, and with the amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins I'm surprised I remember any of it at all.”
Currently based in Los Angeles, Debicki describes the experience as a “whirlwind” befitting a “more than ample” learning curve. “You cannot prepare for the unknown,” she says. “You can work on technical things as an actor – dialect, research of the period – but that is all textbook stuff in a way. When you get on set, it all sort of flies away and you learn to be in the moment and work with whatever comes your way, whatever is required of you to make the scene work, to tell the story.”
Debicki’s love for acting runs deep. Her enrolment at the VCA in 2008 – where she was awarded the Richard Pratt Bursary for outstanding acting students in the second year of study in 2009 – followed a childhood marked by a love of theatre, dance and music.
Born in Paris, she moved with her family to Australia when she was five. She learnt to dance from a young age and fell in love with “the stories of classical ballet”, which she cites as having a profound effect on her “as a person and an actor”. She recalls going to see The Australian Ballet’s performance of Giselle, which would become a favourite. “I was obsessed with the ballerinas who danced the part of the Willis, the dead lovers who have died from broken hearts. I suppose that’s a little macabre but it’s a brilliant, epic idea made manifest in white tutus.”
Being onstage “always felt natural and the most inspiring place”, but as she matured, Debicki’s interest shifted increasingly toward the theatre and the power of the live performance. “There is nothing like the electricity that can be generated in the theatre,” she urges.
She recalls her time at the VCA with great fondness and credits the teaching staff with nurturing and shaping her career in a positive direction. “VCA drama was my home for three years,” she says. “I was taught by some incredible teachers, experienced so many varied styles of theatre training. I was surrounded by amazing, interesting people and took in so much new information every day. It was a very solid, diverse training, I am very grateful for my experiences at VCA.
“As Tanya Gerstle (MDramArt 2008) said to my company early on in our training, everything is information, everything and everyone has an effect on you when you are in a state of learning and training.”
It’s a mantra she has applied to her short but extremely active career since. Whether it was making her filmic debut in the role of Maureen in the Australian-British comedy A Few Best Men (2012), or working alongside DiCaprio, Maguire and the like in The Great Gatsby (to be released internationally late this year), it has all been part of a wider education.
“Of course, I had never worked on anything of that scale before Gatsby,” she says. “It was an incredible learning experience and there was a lot of wisdom to be reaped from everybody I worked with on the film.
“I was very blessed to work and spend time with such an incredible cast.”
But while acquiring knowledge at large is fundamental to any field or craft, her advice to fellow VCA students centres on an area a little closer to home.
“Nobody can be you, think like you, sound or dance like you,” she urges. “Sometimes I think as students we can get caught up trying to emulate…but the most powerful thing you have to offer your art form is your individual self.”