Kiwi breakout star Thomasin McKenzie is set to play an American ballet star in James Napier Robertson's new biopic Joika, to be shot in New Zealand.

The Wellington-born actress, known for her roles in Leave No Trace and Jojo Rabbit, will slip on her pointe shoes to play the role of celebrated dancer Joy "Joika" Womack.

Among a handful of foreigners to graduate from Moscow's infamously tough Bolshoi Ballet Academy, Womack, who was given the name "Joika" while in Russia, was offered a contract at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy as she graduated from its programme in 2014.

She would later become a principal dancer with the Universal Ballet in South Korea before returning to the United States, where she now dances with the Boston Ballet.

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Variety reported that the ballet superstar will personally oversee McKenzie's training and act as her double in the more demanding sequences.

Written and directed by Kiwi Napier Robertson alongside producing partner Tom Hern, filming is set to begin early next year.

Production for the film will use "innovative digital technology" to work around ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, a statement to Variety said.

Robertson, whose 2014 film The Dark Horse - based on life of brilliant, bipolar-suffering Maori chess player Genesis Potini - was labelled "one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made", has since worked on the BBC's adaptation of Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries.

Hern said he was proud to see New Zealand leading the way in the film industry post-pandemic.

"We are delighted New Zealand is leading the way back to set during these challenging and extraordinary new times – and are even more pleased that Joika will be part of this first wave of greenlit films, post-crisis," the producer told Variety.

It comes as work on the Avatar sequel begins, and Amazon's The Lord of the Rings television series production continues in West Auckland.

Hundreds of cast and crew on Amazon's The Lord of the Rings series reportedly had to be sent home from the production's West Auckland location in mid-March, while Avatar director James Cameron was reportedly in the process of filming live-action elements of his films when the pandemic struck.

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During lockdown, he has been working on the films' virtual production in California.

According to the New Zealand Film Commission, every production in the country will now be required to complete a registration with portal ScreenSafe to help the Ministry of Health with contact tracing and WorkSafe with monitoring.

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