It’s safe to say that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies isn’t your average Jane Austen corset drama, and it turns out the film’s star Bella Heathcote also subverts all of our assumptions, too. Despite the fact that the 28-year-old Australian actress looks like a Georgian-era lady of the manor (thanks to her flawless, milky complexion and wide, doll-like eyes), in real life Heathcote is anything but a delicate flower.
When Heathcote arrived at the Beverly Hills estate of her Who What Wear shoot, we have to admit we were a bit taken aback. A string of period dramas and feminine red carpet looks led us to believe we were dealing with someone of a girlish nature. But as the Australian actress pulled up in a muscle car dressed in head-to-toe black, we knew she wasn’t the innocent we so naively drew up in our minds. Instead, we were greeted by the real Bella: cool, confident, and witty. She is (dare we say it?) the true embodiment of a rose with thorns—beautiful but tough.
That disposition lent itself well to her latest role, that of Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In this cheeky retelling of Jane Austen’s famous novel, in which a zombie plague takes place, Bennet is not the sweet lady-in-waiting we remember from reading the book in high school, but rather a fearless, sword-wielding protagonist who isn’t about to let the undead get in her way of a suitable marriage. Heathcote recalled reading the script for the first time, feeling both excited and nervous about whether or not it would translate on the big screen. But, as we would soon learn, she was ready for a risk.
After landing the part, she dove immediately into four months of martial arts training, which she claims was a welcome distraction. “I get really nervous before a film, so for me to be able to do something productive with that—as opposed to just sitting and spinning out—was fantastic,” she says. “I loved the kung fu and the sword training, but I’m rubbish at horse riding,”
Building the onscreen sister dynamic with co-stars Lily James and Suki Waterhouse proved to be a much easier task for Heathcote, who formed a fast bond with the girls off set. “We played a lot of Would You Rather,” she laughed. “I think at one point we even scandalized Sam [Riley] and the boys. It got pretty wrong. I grew up with boys, so it was really fun for me to have that kind of environment.”
In her hometown of Melbourne, Australia, acting work was hard to come by and the community was very small, but that didn’t deter a young Heathcote from pursuing her first love. “I remember meeting with the counselor, and they told me, ‘That’s not a career. You need to come up with what you are going to study at university.’ I went to college for a year and then basically dropped out and went to drama school. I guess I always knew that’s what I wanted to do, but I finally admitted it to myself when I was 19.”
Heathcote would land her first role in the 2008 film Acolytes alongside Joel Edgerton, followed up with a part in the infamous soap opera Neighbours. The series has become a right of passage of sorts for Australian actors, launching the careers of Russell Crowe, Margot Robbie, and the Hemsworth brothers, to name a few. “It’s a machine, and they have to turn out such a huge quantity of material,” she says. “I remember being really bad the first couple of days, because I was so nervous and inhibited, but I found my feet.” After that, it was time for her to make her move to the big leagues.
But Heathcote landed in Los Angeles to find a much different business. While the bustling, health-conscious L.A. lifestyle perfectly suited the 28-year-old, the casting rooms in Hollywood weren’t so inviting. “In Australia, I always felt like it was very collaborative and like you were waking into a workshop and the director was there. My first experience auditioning in L.A. was pilot season, and it was such a shock to the system. You get half the time, there’s no camera in the room, and you don’t even know who you are reading with. It was pretty rough, initially.”
While rejection is par for the course in the entertainment industry, Heathcote has done a good job of not letting it get to her. “My boyfriend is a director and I see what goes into the casting process, and it’s so rarely just about the talent or whether you are right for it. There are so many other factors. Every now and then there’s one that you feel like is yours and you don’t get it and you are heartbroken for a little while, but you just have to get back on the horse.”
Tim Burton’s 2012 flick Dark Shadows would be Heathcote’s thoroughbred to stardom in the U.S., and ultimately would also put her on the fast track to fashion darling. She played it smart during the film’s press tour, hiring stylist Penny Lovell to help build her an impressive sartorial resume (think Chanel, Emilio Pucci, and Rodarte) straight out of the gate. “I just trust her implicitly,” she tells us of working with Lovell. “I think there were two looks ever that I disagreed with, and they are the only looks that now I’m like: I should have trusted Penny and gone with option A.” Though a self-proclaimed “white T-shirt and jeans” gal in real life, Heathcote sees the red carpet as the perfect opportunity to play dress up. “It feels like I’m putting on a costume, and that it doesn’t have to be a reflection of me all the time,” she says. A series of romantic frocks, edgy minis, and daring sheer numbers over the years mimic her ever-changing sensibilities.
But if there was ever a moment to cement Heathcote’s It-girl status, it was being tapped by Alexander Wang, the prince of downtown cool, to walk in his final show for Balenciaga S/S 16, which offered a swan song of ethereal ivory looks. Along with fellow beauties Zoë Kravitz, Riley Keough, and Suki Waterhouse, Heathcote took to the runway in effortless looks showing the brand’s softer side. “Being out on the catwalk was a complete adrenaline rush,” she remembers. It’s like being on stage.”
Looking at the year ahead, Heathcote told us she has one simple goal in mind: Take more risks. While she’s already ticking that box on the fashion front, it’s clear her career, much like this season’s floral trend, is only just beginning to bloom. So the question now isn’t whether or not Bella Heathcote will succeed, because that’s a given, but rather, how far she’ll grow.
Photographer: Olivia Malone; Stylist: Sean Knight; Hair: John D. for TRESemme; Makeup: Monika Blunder.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hits theaters February 5. To see more of our exclusive celebrity features, click here!