Sunday Movie Review: Elizabeth Debicki rises to the challenge in ‘Tenet’

It was Christopher Nolan’s producer and wife, Emma Thomas, who suggested he watch Steve McQueen’s “Widows” and take a look at Elizabeth Debicki. She’d been blown away by her performance as the beleaguered Alice and thought the Australian actor might be right for the female lead in “ Tenet.”

Nolan was impressed, too. But Alice, he said, was “the exact opposite” of what his “Tenet” heroine Kat needed to be. Kat is an art buyer, the wife of a powerful and controlling billionaire and a kind of regal, enigmatic and Hitchcockian presence. Alice was not.

FILE – Actress Elizabeth Debicki appears during a portrait session at the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival, in Venice, Italy, on Sept. 7, 2019. Debicki stars in the Christopher Nolan film “Tenet.” (Photo by Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP, File)

“But then I started looking at Elizabeth’s other work and I realized she’s one of these great actors who you don’t realize how many things you’ve seen her in until you start to put it together,” Nolan said. “For somebody who’s as striking looking as she is, Elizabeth is and has such an extraordinary presence, the fact that she can reinvent herself for each role, it’s really remarkable.”

So they arranged a meeting with her, where she insisted on reading for them, even though they weren’t asking her to do so. And just like that the role was hers.

Debicki, 30, wasn’t aware of any of this at the time, however, and she’s grateful for it. Although some actors might dream of being “offer only,” she actually loves the process of auditioning.

“I like the grit of going in as an actor and proving yourself to these people and earning the thing,” she said. “That exchange to me feels like a good starting-off point.”

A trained dancer who started in the theater, Debicki broke out in a big way playing the sporty Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” and has been working non-stop ever since, transitioning seamlessly between massive productions like “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” to small indies and art house fare.

But she knew “Tenet” was going to be a different kind of challenge. When she read the script, she remembered thinking “I’m going to have to get really fit,” and she wasn’t just talking about physically. Debicki called it “Nolan stamina,” which she likened to a holistic resilience.

Over the course of the six-month, seven-country shoot, she would find herself racing on an F50 catamaran in the English Channel, in an epic car chase down a six-lane highway in Estonia as well as having to mine deeply distressing anger in her scenes with Kenneth Branagh, who plays her very, very evil husband, Sator.

She admitted that she was particularly intimidated by the F50 scenes.

“Those boats, I didn’t even know that they existed… I was really chicken about it in the beginning,” she said. “It’s kind of a gift of Nolan as well, who in every sense pushes you out of your comfort zone.”

Because of the intensity of it, the duration and the simple fact of being so far away from home, she and her co-stars became quite close. Branagh, she said, really helped her through the days when they’d have to shoot a particularly intense argument. And John David Washington, who she calls JD, became a travel companion.

“I think that we helped ground each other in just sort of being human on either end of a shooting day. And I was very lucky to have them,” she said. “They’re really beautiful people.”

The whole experience was like a whirlwind, she said.

“It felt like we fell into like a wormhole, like a Christopher Nolan alternate dimension and came out the other end of it and created something that asked, I guess, sort of all of your faculties really to be functioning all the time,” she said. “As an actor… that’s what you’re looking for. You’re looking for that kind of challenge because it does it does really push you.”

In lockdown, she’s been able to slow down for the first time in a while.

“This year is the first time I stopped for a long time and, um, slept,” she laughed.

But she’s getting another formidable challenge soon too. She was recently cast to play Princess Diana on the fifth and sixth seasons of Netflix’s “The Crown,” a show she is very familiar with as a fan. Her good friend Vanessa Kirby played Princess Margaret in the first two seasons.

“I just remember thinking this is like the next stage of television,” she said. “It’s just the most remarkable show.”

But she’s staying mum about her preparation plans for the moment. Only that she’ll start diving into the Princess of Wales, “slowly, carefully.”

“I don’t want to give any secrets away,” she smiled.

Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: