Hometown: Wellington, New Zealand
In Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, McKenzie is Tom, daughter to Ben Foster’s PTSD-affected Will. Unable to cope with society, Will has carved out a subsistence off-grid life with Tom in wooded parkland outside of Portland, Oregon, until authorities intervene and threaten their isolated idyll. Those survival skills are also the real deal. “We learned about what things you can find in the forest to eat,” McKenzie says. “How to camouflage yourself, how to listen to birds’ language, how to build shelters, and how to make fires.”
Comparisons to Granik’s other wilderness drama breakout star, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, may be ham-fisted since McKenzie’s style is all her own, but based simply on talent level, they’re much deserved. McKenzie goes toe-to-toe with the accomplished Foster and more than holds her own. Bringing her own bonding techniques to set—a Maori head-touching ritual, and an extended hugging method borrowed from her actress mother Miranda Harcourt—the two actors spent much of rehearsal in companionable silence. “It was easier for me because I was doing an American accent,” McKenzie laughs. “But also I think it really let the emotions come through, and didn’t force people into understanding things.”
The result is an intense impression of the quiet strength of their father-daughter symbiosis, and of Tom’s steely will. “Tom had to be quite determined and courageous to leave her dad and to go on her own journey,” McKenzie says, “and to accept that her dad wasn’t well. And I think I, too, in some situations, am determined.”
WHEN & WHERE
You’ll see McKenzie next in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, in which she plays the Anne Frank-like character Elsa. “Taika wanted me to watch Heathers and Mean Girls as my research because my character was actually a bully at school, and he didn’t just want her to be a victim.”
Then there’s David Michôd’s Shakespearian-style The King with Timothée Chalamet, Ben Mendelsohn and Robert Pattinson, and The True History of the Kelly Gang with Nicholas Hoult, Charlie Hunnam and Russell Crowe.