Mia Wasikowska slips through the lobby of New York City's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, hat pulled low, scarf wrapped high, face scrubbed clean, a marvel of unadornment. If you hadn't spent the previous evening at a screening of her new film, Jane Eyre, absorbed in her performance as the original plain Jane, you'd hardly notice her. This is entirely in sync with the 21-year-old's career goals. She has no desire to be in Us Weekly, is content with not getting what she calls "the pretty girlfriend roles" and confesses that she feels more insecure in mascara than out of it. She'll take the meaty parts but minimal recognition, please the kind that allows her to still ride the bus.
The day after Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland opened last March, the Australian native was walking in Venice, Calif., when passing strangers identified her as the girl who played Alice. The Alice. "I was weirded out," she says. That night she fled (her word) for England to start filming Jane Eyre. "I haven't been recognized since," she says with a note of triumph.
It was the second escape Jane had provided her. Shortly after Burton's film wrapped in 2008, she retreated to her family home in Canberra. For the first time since her career took off with In Treatment, in which she played the unforgettable suicidal gymnast Sophie, she didn't have school to go back to. She hadn't yet shot her part as Joni in The Kids Are All Right. "I was at a total loss," she remembers. But reading Lewis Carroll's Alice had put her in the mood for other classics. She assigned herself a stack that included To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, and Charlotte Brontë's gothic romance. Five chapters in, she e-mailed her agent. Was anyone making a movie version?
Somebody was: Cary Fukunaga, the director of Sin Nombre. And though there have been nearly 20 films of Brontë's novel, Wasikowska chose to watch exactly none of them. She knew second-guessing by audiences devoted to the book or to a previous adaptation was inevitable. "You can only hope that people connect with it in some way," she says.
What they'll find in Fukunaga's film is a realism both disconcerting and exciting. This is not just because Wasikowska's entire makeup routine consisted of applying moisturizer and having her eyebrows brushed. ("It is not the role to be vain with," she says. "I hope that people can still see the beauty in her.") What feels so radical is the contrast between her Jane and Michael Fassbender's sensual, very adult Rochester. When Wasikowska learned Fassbender (of Inglourious Basterds and the upcoming X-Men: First Class) had been cast, she thought, But he's a man. I've only acted with boys. Seeing them together deepens the understanding of the power dynamic at work in this romance, of what it took for Jane to resist him. Her strength is her self-respect, which Wasikowska relished. "You put her in modern-day society and she'd thrive," she says.
Wasikowska is doing just that. She'll be seen next in Gus Van Sant's Restless and Albert Nobbs, a gender bender in which she plays the romantic interest of Glenn Close. Then she might be off to college to study photography. While filming Jane Eyre, she picked up one of her mother's old cameras (her parents are fine-art photographers) and started chronicling life on set. With a little prodding, she shows some of the results: Jamie Bell, who plays Jane's suitor St. John, in period dress, leaping in midair; Fukunaga backdropped by a 12th century manor and 21st century equipment; Fassbender set upon by makeup artists.
Droll and surreal, they feel like a portal to a secret world, the strange land Wasikowska has chosen as her home. In an image from the set of Restless, Van Sant peers down from behind the threatening hulk of the camera. All we see of Wasikowska is a dim reflection in the lens. It's an astute portrayal of the alienation of being in the camera's eye. "If there is one piece of advice I'd give to young actors, it is to have another thing that you can do that you can control and that is your own creative outlet," Wasikowska says. "Acting is creative, but there is so much of it that isn't up to you."
This article originally appeared in the March 21, 2011 issue of TIME.