For the January issue of V magazine, I met my newest fashion obsession: The saucy, sweet and utterly Australian Bella Heathcote. Below are some of Ben Weller’s images of the actress and my story.
When the bright-eyed and impossibly gorgeous 24-year-old actress Bella Heathcote made her red carpet debut in a splashy Gucci dress at the Cannes Film Festival last May, many assumed it was her Cinderella moment. Here was this fresh-faced new thing from Australia who got lucky and scored a part in cult filmmaker Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, as the love interest of none other than Johnny Depp. But to hear Heathcote tell it, the experience was hardly a fairy tale. “Oh, yeah, I remember that,” she laughs with a hearty twang. “The Gucci people didn’t want me to move off the carpet because they wanted a shot of the dress, but the photographers wanted me to get the hell out of the way because they wanted pictures of the famous people. It was hysterical and humiliating, which is how I think it should be.”
It’s a relief to hear some self-deprecation in her voice, to offset the beautiful-girl cliché. (Burton actually cast Bella after he saw her runway-caliber looks in a magazine.) Not only that, but she’s fun! Asked to define Australian culture, she deadpans: “We like to drink.” And she’s discreet. When pressed—and I mean really pressed—on some juicy Johnny Depp gossip, she’ll only profess that “he has a dark sense of humor, he’s really generous, he’s really normal, and he doesn’t have any pretensions. Look, he’s just a nice guy, okay?”
Heathcote grew up in Melbourne with a lawyer father who was hardly impressed by filmmaking and not much interested in his daughter making a vocation of it. “So I did a year of college, and he was happy I tried,” she sighs. Then she was off, making a few independent films and doing a brief stint on the cult TV program Neighbours. “That was a good learning experience. It’s a soap opera, so it’s a pace I’d never seen. One take, two takes if you’re lucky. They churn it out.” She played Amanda, a school bully. “That’s a tip: if you’re going to be on a soap opera, be the baddie. It was hilarious.”
Her road to Hollywood was a quick one, helped in no small part by a compatriot that she never had the chance to meet. In 2010, she won the Heath Ledger Scholarship, a fund for Australian performers set up after the actor’s death, in 2008. She credits the scholarship—for which she applied online, first sending in her reel and then meeting with a jury panel—with igniting her career: an unofficial benefit of the contest is the opportunity to network with nearly every Aussie in the business. The prize was $10,000 and a round-trip ticket from Sydney to L.A. “But, luckily,” she says, “I never had to use the return leg.”
She currently stars in Not Fade Away, which, ironically, she filmed before Dark Shadows. (Only in Hollywood can time be so warped that an independent film takes twice as long to finish as a big-budget production.) The film is set in the 1960s, and Bella plays Grace, the pretty, popular girl living in a New Jersey suburb who dates the football player in high school but falls for the moody, broody rocker when they graduate and their real lives begin. “I was drawn to her humanity,” she says. “She has real reactions to real things.”
When the actress first got to L.A., she went out for everything that came up. “But this was the first script that stood out, and kept getting better and better with every read. It was a part I really wanted.” What she liked most about it was the feeling of wonderment. It’s a tale of adolescence and the baffling process of growing up. “It makes you feel anxious, a bit anxious, unresolved. And that’s what growing up feels like.”
When we talk, Heathcote is prepping herself for the film’s promotion, a media ritual she would have liked a little more practice with back in her Dark Shadows days. She remembers another stop on the Dark Shadows premiere circuit, the one in London, where she had to trot down a never ending red carpet in a Pucci minidress, facing her own likeness on a jumbo screen, in the middle of Leicester Square. “I felt like I was in Hunger Games. It was surreal and so full on, and I was in a state of shock,” she says. “And then I had a drink. Remember, I’m Australian.”