Vogue revisits our cover stories from 2017. Read our full interview with Bella Heathcote from the August issue.
Actress Bella Heathcote stars in our special tribute to Dior haute couture in celebration of a new Australian exhibition.
“Bella! Bella!” utters Italian photographer Paolo Roversi in his native musical timbre, his six-foot frame bearing down over the lens of his Linhof camera. A crew of 10-plus people is crammed into the top floor of his Paris studio, peering over Roversi’s shoulder for a glimpse at his subject, the Australian actress Bella Heathcote. Heathcote – an ethereal beauty with flawless creamy skin, a rosebud pout and big blue eyes – is currently reclining on the floor. Swathed in a pastel-hued tulle haute couture dress from Christian Dior (whose 70-year history will be celebrated this month at the National Gallery of Victoria; see story on page 134), she is more than living up to her name. She looks as though she’s assumed the part of a winsome heroine from a fairytale, embodying the unbridled femininity and romance that Maria Grazia Chiuri channelled into her spring/ summer ’17 collection of embellished, air-whipped diaphanous dresses in powdery shades of mauve and soft pink.
Hours before, a very different Heathcote arrived on set. Wearing a crisp white shirt and wide-legged Madewell jeans with her hair pulled back into a ponytail, she could be mistaken for a pretty crew member. She had no minder and an unguarded ease about her as she introduced herself to everyone in that killer Aussie accent while apologising for being late. (She’s horrified to think that anyone might believe it is her fault – for the record, it was the driver who was tardy.) The word “normal” bubbles up in my mind, but I stamp it out: natural is better.
When considering her wide-eyed beauty, it’s odd to think that Heathcote’s nine-year career thus far has tended to lean towards roles or projects on the macabre end of the spectrum. She would be a shoe-in for a Disney princess or at least one of Sofia Coppola’s languid leading ladies. Yet, Heathcote began her career playing class bitch Amanda Fowler on Neighbours, before taking on Johnny Depp’s love interest, Victoria Winters, in Tim Burton’s camped-up gothic comedy Dark Shadows; the ass-kicking update of literature’s best-loved sister Jane Bennet, in the Jane Austen fan-fiction film Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; and then caustic model Gigi in Nicolas Winding Refn’s sexy thriller Neon Demon. More recently, she surfaced as Leila, one of Christian Grey’s cast-off submissives in the Fifty Shades follow-up Fifty Shades Darker, her face unrecognisable, pale and gaunt and hidden behind a curtain of chestnut hair. All in all it’s a CV at odds with what appears to be a perfectly sunny Australian disposition.
“There is a flip side that,” says Heathcote, laughing at this assumption the next day over brunch in the Paris cafe Claus. “I mean, I wouldn’t say that I’m depressive, but there’s another side, and what drew me most to acting was that I realised it was a safe place to have my feelings. In Fifty Shades Darker, I liked playing Leila because she was so disturbed – she was much further down that spectrum than any other character I’ve played.” Today, Heathcote has arrived dead on time wearing the same chic white shirt, an anorak and a leather backpack. She’s bright-eyed and humble, almost embarrassed to ask the waitress to change a menu item ever so slightly – she wants almond milk instead of cow’s milk.
Heathcote’s latest project and the main topic of our chat today, which has her bursting with pride, is certainly a departure from the horror/thriller genres. Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, directed by Angela Robinson (who Heathcote describes as “bubbly, smart, passionate and on it”), tells the story of the Dr William Moulton Marston, an American psychologist who invented the polygraph and who created the character of Wonder Woman. Heathcote has a starring role as Olive Byrne, Marston’s former student who joins the professor, played by Luke Evans, and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) in a polyamorous relationship. The arc of the film, she says, means this is the first time she’s played a character who truly evolves. “Olive starts off as this somewhat naive, open and sensitive college girl who then grows into a mother with a successful career,” she enthuses.
With this year’s blockbuster success of Wonder Woman and the rapid rise of third-wave feminism, the story of the making of this legendary superhero is getting a lot of traction. Marsden himself is also remarkable not just for his views on relationships, but as an early advocate of feminism. “He believed women should work and even that they should enjoy sex,” says Heathcote, who shares intimate scenes, though “nothing graphic”, with both Evans and Hall. On the subject of polyamory, Heathcote says she relied mostly on Robinson’s script and interpretation of her characters. “It worked with these three, because they balance each other out,” she explains of the trio’s dynamic. “Rebecca Hall’s character is quite mercurial, and so Marsden and I manage her. Then he can just be loopy and spin off into the ether, and we both ground him. And my character has a lot of love to give.”
Hall observes of her co-star: “Bella is really special. She’s not pretentious, there’s no bullshit with her and she’s just hilarious – we were giggling together within five minutes of meeting each other.”
Photographed by Paolo Roversi, styled by Alex White, Vogue Australia, August 2017.
Heathcote was born in Melbourne and named Isabella after Italian actress Isabella Rossellini (who she greatly admires). Bella was adopted as a nickname. “People started calling me Izzy at school, and my mum was like: ‘We are not having this.’ So it was Bella,” she says, laughter rising in her throat. “But then Twilight happened and everyone, or everyone’s dog, was called Bella.” She has an older brother, Sam, and childhood hummed along nicely until their mother passed away when Heathcote was just 12. This tragedy still clearly marks her, but it was also the catalyst that swayed her towards acting classes, as a way to manage her grief. She caught the bug, and after high school, she signed up to study drama at National Theatre Drama School. “What I had learned at school in no way resembled human behaviour, and I needed three years of drama school to strip it all back,” she says. Her father, a lawyer, had hopes she might follow in his footsteps, and while she managed to juggle work in his firm alongside her studies and a part in Neighbours, she made no bones about her real desires. “I just couldn’t imagine anything else,” she says.
The actress’s first significant role was playing Brendan Cowell’s love interest in the World War I film Beneath Hill 60. Cowell and Heathcote were friends, and while Cowell had recommended her to director Jeremy Sims, he recalls insisting on no special treatment. “But Sims called me right away, saying she was incredible, beautiful, but also strong and tough and with this presence,” Cowell remembers, adding: “Bella was perfect for those women during wartime: she is a survivor, she’s a tough little nut.” The role secured Heathcote the Australians in Film Heath Ledger Scholarship in 2010, which transported her to LA at the age of 23. “It was a whirlwind, and it wasn’t scary at all, because I was so busy meeting people,” Heathcote says of her arrival in Hollywood. “For the first time, I felt like an actress. An unemployed actress, but still an actress.”
She didn’t stay unemployed for long. Back-to-back jobs lined up, including Dark Shadows with Burton. That film’s mega-watt cast, she admits, finishing a spoonful of granola, was intimidating. “I couldn’t talk to Eva Green [who played the witch Angelique Bouchard] for the first four months of filming, because I was terrified of her! She was so chic and super-cool. I remember being in a press conference and a journalist asked her: ‘Who was a better kisser between Johnny Depp or Daniel Craig?’ Eva answered: ‘What a boring question’, and then let the silence hang there awkwardly. It takes balls to say that, to just sit back and think: ‘I’m going to let you feel uncomfortable about your stupid question.’”
Such proximity to big names means that Heathcote has also witnessed the challenges of super-stardom. While filming Fifty Shades Darker in Toronto, a quiet lunch with Dakota Johnson turned into a frenzied autograph session as fans swarmed Johnson. “We just had to leave,” she says, adding with a shrug: “You don’t want that life.” Heathcote is also equally cautious about subscribing to the idea of having “made it”. “The year after that I moved to LA and worked non-stop. It was quiet, and scary. I hadn’t cultivated a life in LA yet. Acting was my hobby in Australia and then it became a job, and I didn’t know what to do in my down time,” she recalls. “Since then I have been more cautious about my feelings.”
This candid talk is typical of Heathcote. As she continues to build her profile, she wants to “be herself, as much as I can”, she says. A quick survey of her social media portrays an approachable young actress with 112,000 followers – her images are “unfiltered”, or at least without any of the discernible Hollywood gloss. “I was quite late to the game with Instagram and I felt gross about it in the beginning – it felt like rampant narcissism,” she says. “I find the things that get the most likes, like selfies – well, I find that bizarre.” Instead, Heathcote’s photos are a collage of everyday moments, movie news, feminist messages, book recommendations and good times with close friends like Phoebe Tonkin, Lily Collins and Nick and Susie Cave. In the mix is her signature irreverent humour and self-deprecating manner. “I try not to think about it too much, but I also try and post when I’m not wearing make-up or when about experiencing a feeling that isn’t necessarily positive,” she says thoughtfully. “I know people that have so much pressure to have this perfect life. I find that terrifying.” “Humility is very fashionable, but Bella is brutally down to earth,” Cowell says of his friend. “It is not a performance.”
Nonetheless, Heathcote is the first to admit that she has some wonderfully surreal moments to share right now. She’s about to fly to Greece with her fiancé, New Zealand-born director Andrew Dominik, for a two-week island-hopping holiday to celebrate her 30th birthday. Dominik, who is almost 20 years her senior, proposed at Christmas – slightly earlier than planned. “I found out by accident,” she says, laughing. “I was on my way to the gym and when I put my stuff in the car I saw this ring sitting on the ground under the tyre.” She holds up her hand to reveal a sizeable diamond. “I ran inside and woke Andrew up. He was like: ‘Where did you find that?’” We both lost it: I was laughing until I was crying and we couldn’t talk for about 45 seconds. Then he said: ‘Well, I guess the cat is out of the bag, will you marry me?’” Heathcote’s face lights up when she thinks back to the moment. “I remember going to Whole Foods afterwards and there were queues and people were fighting, and I was like: ‘La-la-la, oh, go ahead of me.’ I was so happy!” As we get up to leave the cafe she says there are no wedding plans as yet, and after her break she’ll head back to Vancouver to shoot season three of the TV series of The Man in the High Castle. But for now, it’s just two weeks of swimming in the Med. She grins at the thought, shoulders her backpack and waves goodbye, weaving her way through the streets of Paris.