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Golden time for Elizabeth Debicki as Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens

It was a strange time for Elizabeth Debicki. A kind of career limbo, except she didn't really have a career at the time.

When the 20-year-old was cast in The Great Gatsby as an unknown straight out of drama school, the media coverage began about her being the next big thing. But it was two years before the movie came out, so no one knew whether all those stories about her being the next Cate Blanchett or Judy Davis were just so much puff.

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"As a young actress or an actor, you're often the next someone or you're going to replace this person or you remind someone of that person," Debicki says. "I was always aware it was a label that the media will put on you because they need to call you something.

"My way of approaching my job is to be open to what the universe throws you and keep ploughing on and challenging yourself in terms of roles and the decisions you make but when Gatsby wasn't yet released, that was a strange limbo period of my life. I think a lot of actors experience that when they make their first film and you're waiting for it to come out. And Gatsby was particularly delayed."

Part of the uncertainty was being new to the game. Debicki, who was born in Paris, raised in Melbourne and trained as a dancer until switching to theatre, had never studied acting for the camera at the Victorian College of the Arts. Suddenly, after just a small role in the comedy A Few Best Men, Baz Luhrmann cast her as Jordan Baker opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan and Tobey Maguire.

"There's a lot of fear when you're a young actress," Debicki says of that time. "You don't know how someone will respond to you. Or if they will at all."


Six years on, Debicki has established herself as an actor of international standing, radiating intelligence and poise. She has been acclaimed in theatre (The Maids in Sydney and New York and The Red Barn in London) and in television (The Kettering Incident and The Night Manager), while building a career in film after an AACTA Award for Gatsby (Macbeth, The Man From U.N.C.L.E and Everest).

Now she has a key role in one of the year's biggest Hollywood movies – playing high priestess Ayesha in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

The first instalment of the Marvel comic book movie was a mega-success three years ago. Breaking the superhero mould with its warm-hearted humour and cheesy soundtrack, it centred on a band of alien misfits headed by Star-Lord Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), green-skinned assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), muscle-bound Drax (Dave Bautista), tree creature Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) and racoon Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper). This time they go on another intergalactic adventure to discover the secrets of Quill's family background.

Debicki's role screams Oscar in one sense – the character, a member of a genetically modified race called the Sovereign, looks like a golden statue. Gold skin, gold eyes, gold costume, gold jewellery, gold throne and gold handmaidens.

"She's a magnificent gold creature," Debicki says. "She rules her planet with an iron fist and she's quite an extreme character.

"When I walked on set and saw her throne room, the place she rules from, I was absolutely gob-smacked. It was like a space opera set on steroids."

Debicki says half the enjoyment of the movie was working with the behind-the-scenes team to create the character's look – "something Elizabethan but also very operatic and very new age" – but concedes she does look like an Oscar.

So there were never any concerns about the fatal effects of all that gold paint, given what happened to one of James Bond's love interests in Goldfinger?

"Oh god, I didn't even know that," Debicki says. "Now I'm worried."

Pause. "No, I did know that. I managed to forget that fact. But the make-up team are so incredibly kind and caring of their actors. I'm sure it was safe."

Writer-director James Gunn, who jokes that the look is "a subliminal message to the Oscar voters out there", went against his usual policy when he cast Debicki.

"I did a very strange thing with Elizabeth," Gunn says. "I auditioned one woman who I'd asked to audition who was fantastic. Then I auditioned Elizabeth who was perfect. I actually couldn't imagine anyone being better for the role than her and I cast her on the spot.

"It was one of the easiest processes I've ever had casting, especially since I'm the guy that must have looked at a couple of hundred people for Peter Quill, that looked at a hundred people easily for the other big role in the movie, Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff."

Gunn goes so far as to describe Debicki as "one of the greatest actors that I've ever worked with". As Ayesha, she's "incredibly powerful and intense" and "she played a snob very well, which is what Ayesha is at her core, and she did it in a fun, appealing way".

Gunn, who confirmed this week he will write and direct a third Guardians movie, deflects a question about why Australian actresses are suddenly villains in Marvel movies, with Debicki in Guardians and Blanchett in the coming Thor: Ragnarok.

"They're both fantastic actresses," he says. "But calling Ayesha a straight-up villain is hard for me. She's definitely not a compassionate or empathetic being but she's not a traditional villain in terms of how she sees the universe."

Debicki found joining such a huge movie a challenge, especially compared to the intimacy and immediacy of being on stage.

"When you're on set on your first day on something like Guardians 2 – obviously everyone had worked together before and I was the new kid at school – that's very exposing and can be quite scary," Debicki says. "That's when I draw on my theatre training to try and ground myself into the world in the blink of an eye, as opposed to a four or five-week rehearsal process."

Debicki's statuesque height – different sources have her at either 188 or 190 centimetres – has been accentuated in the movie. Gunn wanted her to tower over Pratt, who is almost as tall, so he put her in lofty platform shoes.

"I don't think I've ever been cast for my height per se," Debicki says. "If anything, it's probably more of a hindrance. But then you come across a director like James Gunn who loves actors so much. He wants to use everything about you to its greatest advantage.

"When you have something unusual about you – and for me it's my height – you can elevate that to create a really graphic image."

Debicki is happy to keep mixing up stage, film and television work.

"What I've loved doing so far is shifting between television, film and theatre because all three of them feed you in a very different way and provide a different set of challenges and you need to flex different muscles."

A television series lets her live with a character for four or five months. Film is all-consuming. And theatre is familiar territory, working with language and connecting immediately with an audience.

But the fear of auditioning – the subject of a fascinating chapter in Bryan Cranston's A Life In Parts that Debicki read recently – continues even as she has more promising films heading for cinemas, including Simon Baker's Breath and The God Particle, the third instalment in the Cloverfield series.

"Auditions are terrifying," Debicki says. "Your job is to make yourself vulnerable and put yourself on the line and expose yourself. And, of course, the more you want something and you don't get it, the more it hurts."

Her philosophy is to really go for roles she wants. "I think that desire, that's the thing that propels you into people's spheres, whether that's writers or directors," she says. "You have to back yourself as an actor because there isn't anybody else doing that for you. You are this sole entity roaming the globe trying to get work."

Pause. "Apart from my lovely agent."

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 opens on April 25.