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Mia Wasikowska seeks self-discovery off the beaten track

Mia Wasikowska and Adam Drive star in Tracks, which follows a young woman who leaves behind a life in the city to complete a solo trek across the sprawling Australian desert.

Mongrel Media

It happens to young women all the time, in cities and small towns, in this hemisphere or another. They're walking down the street, occupied by their own thoughts, and a man tells them to smile. Some are friendly, some say it as a come-on, but the implication is clear: Women are public property. Their job is to look decorative and be accommodating. And if they're not playing along, a man has permission to correct them.

I bet you plenty of men over the years told Robyn Davidson, the Australian travel writer, to smile. I bet you she ignored them. Davidson liked wandering, but she also liked solitude; she wasn't crazy about encumbrances and the expectations of others. That attitude is the reason that dog-eared copies of her seminal book, Tracks, have been tucked into the backpacks of countless women travellers since it was published in 1980.

Davidson, who was born on a cattle station in Queensland in 1950, didn't set out to write a book. She set out on a journey. For two years, she lived in the rugged town of Alice Springs, training camels and saving money. Then, with only a dog and four camels for company, she took off walking, across the deserts of west Australia, bound for the ocean. Nine months and 2,700 kilometres later, she arrived. The article she subsequently wrote for National Geographic became such a sensation (along with photographs by Rick Smolen, who had driven out to shoot her on three occasions during the nine months) that she followed up with a book.

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Last week, a film version opened in select cities, directed by John Curran (The Painted Veil), starring Mia Wasikowska as Davidson and Adam Driver as Smolen.

Curran, 53, had first encountered Davidson's book in his early 20s, when he decided on a whim to leave his native New York and move to Australia. "All the women I met were reading it," he told me last September, when Tracks premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. "It spoke to me of that age when you're out of school, but before reality. You get this panic of, 'If I don't do something radical to push myself now, I'm going to fall into complacency.'"

In the intervening years, several directors had tried and failed to make a film version of Tracks. The story was too interior. It had no real ending. Davidson had struggled with depression, and dramatic things had happened in her life – when she was 11, for example, she learned, all in one day, that her mother had committed suicide, she was moving, and her beloved dog was being put down. But she wasn't self-analytical; she didn't provide tidy reasons for her journey. She certainly wasn't, as some American directors had tried to make her, a divorcee walking to mend a broken heart, or a fired careerist out to find herself.

"Robyn is a complex character, and her gains in the story are small," Curran says. "She makes a friend. She opens up a little bit." But he believed that the truth was enough; that Davidson's prickly self-reliance, which made the book so beloved, could translate to the screen. Eventually, he met with Davidson and received her blessing. (Even then, she didn't make it easy. For instance, she never told him the story of her mother's death; he happened upon an old clip of her talking about it at a writers' festival.)

It also helped immeasurably that the one actress in the world ideally suited for the role agreed to do it.

Not only is Wasikowska an Australian – "If I'd cast an American, they'd have killed me down there," Curran says – and a major talent (The Kids Are All Right, Jane Eyre, Alice in Wonderland). She's also a pretty prickly chick herself. I've interviewed her a few times, and she has no problem saying very little to reporters.

"Mia is mysterious, guarded, very smart," Curran agrees. "She watches. She's like Robyn in a lot of ways. She doesn't come into a situation loud and gregarious, and take over. She sits way back and figures everybody out. As an actor, you have to push her hard to go bigger. She had a specific take on Robyn, and kept her in a range that was more contained than I'd envisioned. But as the shoot went on, I could see that she was creating a tension, where you're in suspense waiting to see any little break."

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"I never had any trouble understanding Robyn, or her desire to be out there," Wasikowska said, in a separate interview. "I understood that people wanted stuff from her that she didn't want to give them. So when we got some feedback from these old, male financiers – 'Why is she such a bitch? You've got to make her more likeable' – it was the same story all over again." She laughs. "When they asked, 'Why would she do this?' I wanted to answer, 'To get away from you.'"

Davidson also gave Wasikowska her blessing (which was crucial to the actress), and spent a few days teaching her how to wrangle her camel co-stars. "That was the nicest part for me, just being out there [in the desert] with them before the whole hullabaloo," of filming, says Wasikowska, who is 24, about the same age Davidson was when she made her trek.

Wasikowska was already familiar with roughing it in the bush: Though she grew up in Canberra, she spent her summers camping near the south coast, with the same five families year after year (they still go). "It's a wonderful thing to be wild for a couple of months, to just wash in the sea," she says.

She also loved shooting in her home country, which she hadn't done since she was 17. "I've spent so much time abroad, but I'm not necessarily at peace there," she says. "I've always felt that if something goes wrong, I want to know I can walk home."

Tracks arrived at a key point in Wasikowska's own journey. "I like that Robyn doesn't feel the need to be so polite to everybody when she doesn't feel like it," she says. "I've been trying to find the balance between being professional and not being pushed around. It's easy to be pushed around as an actor, more so than people realize.

"I'm normally the person who says, 'Mm-hmm, sure,' and then go to my hotel room and be angry. But I did a certain amount of learning, through Robyn, how to stand up for myself, and how to not always be obliging and biddable. It was great to start to learn to sometimes say no. For my soul."

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She'll smile when she wants to. Not on command.

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