bella heathcote: neon demons and vicious beauty
What do Nicolas Winding Refn, Miuccia Prada and Alexander Wang have in common? They’re all fans of Bella Heathcote, the bubbly blonde Australian actress who looks set to take this year by storm.
Nothing quite prepares you for the joviality and guffaws of Melbourne-born actress Bella Heathcote. She's heartily laughing as she tells i-D that she's on her way to the car shop in her adopted LA. "I smashed my side mirror. I damaged it well in that respect!" she says, jolly about not writing it off in a more serious way. Cars are a good place to start with Bella, since one of her big movies hitting cinemas in 2016 is directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the man behind one of the best ever cruising movies, Drive. Bella loves the Ryan Gosling-led film and says that when she was cast in Winding Refn's upcoming The Neon Demon ("a horror film about vicious beauty" and "the electricity of Los Angeles", according to the director), she started "driving round LA, listening to the soundtrack." Imagine that: you've been hand-picked by one of your favourite directors (now "Nick" to Bella), you're breaking the Hollywood you came from Australia to crack, and now you're revving around the giant, gridded plain and magical hills of LA listening to epic, ethereal electronica. Talk about the feels!
Like most actors, 28-year-old Bella's career didn't start in the rarefied world of the movie industry's most celebrated auteurs though. Instead, she got her break on Aussie TV show, Neighbours. It may be an after-school soap opera, but Neighbours has historically been the perfect platform for young Australian talent to show casting directors that they can shine on screen: the Hemsworth brothers, Margot Robbie, Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce all cut their teeth on Ramsay Street. Did Bella always have one eye on Hollywood though? "I don't know that I had thought as far as LA, but my dream was mostly to have an acting job so I could quit my job at the law firm, because I was taking time off to shoot Neighbours, then going back to do admin and just hating my life. I wanted to do acting full time." Now that she's pulled it off, she feels "so, so good!" and flips the bird at the work she had to do to support herself before: "Fuuuuuck that office job!"
Bella's big movie breakthrough came in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows where she shared the screen with a stellar cast that included Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Eva Green, Jonny Lee Miller and Chloë Grace Moretz. "I guess that was pretty high profile," she jokes, "but it didn't light the box office on fire! It was really cool to be like, 'I'm in a Tim Burton film' though." The film, in which she pulls off prim pussy bow blouses and 60s garb, was arguably the reason she was cast in Miu Miu's spring/summer 14 campaign shot by Inez & Vinoodh. Endorsement from Tim Burton certainly suggests you have something special and strange about you, and Mrs Prada surely paid attention to that. Bella took her place in the campaign alongside a crop of heavyweight emerging talent, including Elizabeth Olsen, Lupita Nyong'o and Elle Fanning.
Last year, Bella had another brush with the high fashion world, when Alexander Wang asked her to walk in his final Balenciaga show. "The walk was really fun, but during the lead-up, I was like, 'What the fuck!? I'm no model.'" Bella squeals. "But there was something about it that was really exhilarating. It was a bit like acting, or being on stage - a similar feeling, walking out there and having a full-on adrenaline rush." So how did she get asked? "I wasn't mates with Alexander. Maybe someone else couldn't do it and I was called in…" she says, self-deprecatingly.
Bella's Miu Miu mate, Elle Fanning, is the lead in The Neon Demon. The film is inspired by the true tale of Countess Bathory, a late 16th century Hungarian aristocrat who killed virgins so she could bathe in their blood to absorb their beauty. Fanning plays an aspiring model whose youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women. Bella says she's "on full secrecy" about the film, but we do know her character Gigi "is obsessed with the way she looks. She's obsessed with anything external, and she'll do anything to preserve or enhance her beauty." It can't have been hard finding inspiration for the role in famously beauty-obsessed LA, but Bella says she actually got more insight for her character from model and co-star Abbey Lee - not because of any extreme vanity on Abbey's part, but because "she was a huge model, and she's seen it all!" By "all", we assume she means narcissism, envy and desperation, hopefully not youth-enhancing blood baths!
The role was a big change from her previous acting gig (also out this year). Bella filmed Pride & Prejudice & Zombies (PPZ) - a movie inspired by the best-selling book that makes Jane Austen heroines fight an undead hoard - just before The Neon Demon. "It was a very sharp contrast. Jane to Gigi is a pretty big jump! The feeling of The Neon Demon is so much darker, and that kind of feeling permeates the set as well." PPZ also involved beauties and barbarism, but is instead a comedy, killer romp, awash with heaving bosoms, Regency curls and daggers in garters. It's a who's who of hot young talent, most of it British (Lily James, Suki Waterhouse, Douglas Booth, Sam Riley and Matt Smith all appear) and has a feminist slant - Bella, like the rest of the female cast, gets to kick ass while the men look wimpy on the sidelines.
"That was probably the best memory of any job I've had," Bella says. "I love that cast! The tone of the film works. I love the fight sequences, particularly the ones with the girls. It makes it a lot easier when you love the cast. You don't have to fake a feeling, because it's there. It felt like we were all sisters and good mates, which makes it safe to mess up, try different things or do fight scenes when you're feeling insecure about your fighting skills!"
With a globalised film industry and location shoots all over the world, moving to LA almost seems unnecessary these days, but most actors still head there for the agents, the studio bosses and the enviable lifestyle. Bella is certainly enjoying being part of the canyon-hiking, juice-supping yogi crowd, but admits, "Then I go do a job in London or New York and become a full-blown alcoholic!" On the whole though, she likes the healthy lifestyle there, although she tries "not to get too crazy with it." On her Instagram, she has a message for all the manic, body-obsessed warrior posers: "Yoga is not about tightening your ass. It's about getting your head out of it," she writes. Which sums Bella up pretty nicely: the Melbourne girl has remained remarkably grounded for an actress who's fast winning over the world's greatest designers and directors.
Text stuart brumfitt
Photography beau grealy styling nicolas klam
Hair Johnnie Sapong at Jed Root. Make-up Darlene Jacobs at Starworks Artists. Photography assistance Porter Count. Styling assistance Ali Miller. Production Pippa Mockridge.
Bella wears dress Courrèges.