Australian actress Mia Wasikowska stars as "Jane Eyre." (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
Of all the stars Mia Wasikowska saw at Vanity Fair's exclusive Oscar party last month, Justin Bieber was the one she found most fascinating. There he was, in all his pint-sized teen idol glory, scurrying around the Sunset Tower with Disney star Selena Gomez in tow.
"They were just, like, snickering and running away somewhere," the actress, 21, recounted.
But unlike Bieber's legion of screaming tween fans, Wasikowska wasn't interested in the romantic status of the pair. Instead, she was struck by how many partygoers also seemed unable to tear their eyes away from the young singer.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, how do you handle that?'" she said. "I'm so curious about people like that."
Indeed, Bieber's world is one Wasikowska can scarcely imagine — and most definitely doesn't want to be — living in. Despite her leading role in last year's blockbuster "Alice in Wonderland," she's still not the kind of actress people recognize.
When she arrived for an interview last week at the Venice cafe she had selected for lunch, no one gawked at her unfussy look (an outfit of muted colors, just-brushed cropped hair and Mary Janes). She curled into a wall while waiting for her table, looking at the eccentric artist types filling the place.
It was almost as if she were still playing the role of Jane Eyre, the 19th century English literary heroine who Wasikowska takes on in a new film based on the Charlotte Brontë novel, out in Los Angeles on Friday. Quiet and even meek on the surface, both the character and the actress harbor less obvious passions.
"Sort of a pot of boiling water with a lid on it," as "Jane Eyre" director Cary Fukunaga explained it.
"I like to think of myself as an observer," said Wasikowska. "And the whole experience of 'Alice' sort of made me be observed, so that was occasionally uncomfortable. It was sort of on a level that I've never experienced before. At times, it was kind of scary. ... Once you're put out there in the public eye, people feel a certain ownership over you. It's interesting feeling out of control of your identity."
Despite her feelings about fame, Wasikowska has been working in the public eye since she was a teenager in her native Australia, where she had a role on a popular television medical drama. Her first break in America came with a turn as a suicidal gymnast on the HBO series "In Treatment." She attracted enough notice to land a number of films, including "Alice" and last year's Oscar-nominated "The Kids Are All Right," in which she played the daughter of Annette Bening and Julianne's Moore's lesbian couple, in addition to "Jane Eyre."
If she hasn't already cemented her place as one of Young Hollywood's leading actresses, the next year should do it. In the coming months, she has a slew of diverse parts in a number of high-profile projects. There's Gus Van Sant's "Restless," her first real romantic leading role; "Albert Nobbs," a drama written by Glenn Close and John Banville and directed by Rodrigo García; "The Wettest County in the World," a Depression-era crime drama in which she's cast opposite Shia LaBeouf; and "Stoker," a film directed by fanboy favorite Park Chan-wook with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.
Asked to describe what it was like working with Wasikowska, a handful of filmmakers and actors all came back with essentially the same response.
"She's shy," said Van Sant.
"She's totally not self-promoting," added Close.
"She's not the person who is looking to be the center of attention," echoed Fukunaga.
Or, as her "Alice in Wonderland" costar Helena Bonham Carter put it: "Mia is quietly extraordinary."
But is she really as timid as everyone imagines?
"I think so," copped the actress, pausing for a moment on the thought. "I mean, there's a certain amount of performing that goes on, but I don't know. Do people think I'm shy? I am in situations."
While she has become more comfortable in Hollywood, she doesn't want to move here permanently and still spends any time she has off with her family back in her hometown of Canberra. There, she mostly sleeps and reads.
It was at home that she became transfixed by "Jane Eyre," e-mailing her agent after only a few chapters to find out whether anyone was developing the project into a film. The famous book has, of course, been on the screen numerous times before: Since 1910, there have been 18 feature versions, plus nine television versions.
Overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the past incarnations, Wasikowska didn't watch any of them. But she still felt a pull to the character that she wasn't able to fully articulate.
"Often, if I read a story and I'm moved, I have an understanding for a character and I don't really know why," she said. She's been in relationships before, but none as intense as the one between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, played in the new film by German-born actor Michael Fassbender.