Sarah Ell talks with the New Zealand star of Jojo Rabbit, Thomasin McKenzie
It's 4.15pm in New York and Thomasin McKenzie sounds tired. It's been a big week, walking the red carpet for the LA premiere of Jojo Rabbit and juggling a seemingly endless string of promo appointments. And then there was the flight ...
"I had a very turbulent flight last night, so I'm a bit flustered. It was fine at the beginning but for the last half hour, all of a sudden it felt almost like we weren't going to be making it off the plane alive," she says slowly, deadpan.
It's just as well she made it in one piece. The buzz around the 19-year-old Kiwi actor was already huge before she was cast as Elsa, the hidden Jewish girl in Taika Waititi's headline-grabbing new film. It seems the only way is up.
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If the name doesn't immediately sound familiar, add "Harcourt" and the connection becomes clear. McKenzie is probably sick of this being mentioned in every story written about her but her mother is Miranda Harcourt, today an internationally in-demand acting coach but fondly remembered here for her role on 1980s shoulder-pad bonanza Gloss.
Her maternal grandmother is Kate Harcourt (properly Dame Catherine Harcourt), honoured in 1996 for her lifelong contribution to theatre. Her father is director and writer Stuart McKenzie and all three generations of the family had a hand in the 2017 big-screen adaptation of Margaret Mahy's supernatural teen romance, The Changeover — Stuart and Miranda directed, with Kate and Thomasin appearing in front of the camera.
McKenzie has come up the usual Kiwi way, with roles in Shortland Street and The Lord of the Rings. But she started to attract critical and media attention for her turn as a young girl living off-grid with her PTSD-affected father in the Oregon wilderness in last year's Leave No Trace. (The film was directed by Debra Granik, who also helmed Winter's Bone, the film which launched the career of another young star, Jennifer Lawrence.) McKenzie was praised for her nuanced and intimate performance, demonstrating maturity beyond her 17 years.
And now she has been catapulted to the next level in the film everyone is talking about. Waititi's Jojo Rabbit is history for the new millennium, a ground-breaking film that will turn on its head the way a generation thinks of World War II.
McKenzie's role as Elsa is pivotal, as she is first found and then befriended by the title character, 10-year-old Jojo Betzler, a committed young Nazi whose imaginary friend is Hitler. (And I know you've read that before - but trust me, it works.) The emerging relationship adds both gentle humour and an intense bittersweetness, which stays with the viewer long after the lights have come up.
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On the phone, McKenzie may sound tired but the most significant thing is that she sounds nothing like Elsa — a feisty Anne Frank by way of Lorde, with a tough attitude and a Czech accent. This girl seems softer, sweeter — and certainly more Kiwi.
McKenzie laughs at the suggestion New Zealanders are "hot" in Hollywood right now thanks to Waititi, whose unique sense of humour and irreverent attitude to interviews have many Americans scratching their heads.
"Yes, I must say I feel pretty good being over here and being a Kiwi. We're so far away, and it feels like a much bigger leap for Kiwis actors to be here [in Hollywood] than for actors from the US or Europe. I'm proud of how I sound — I feel good walking into a meeting and surprising people with my Kiwi accent."
McKenzie's audition for Jojo Rabbit was a new challenge for her.
"It was the first audition I had ever done physically in LA in front of a casting director — I'd only ever sent through tapes from New Zealand before and I was so nervous," she remembers. "A couple of weeks later I found out that I'd had a recall, so I Skyped with Taika back in New Zealand. You know how glitchy Skype can be, so that was a bit funny.
"Then a little while later I got the call saying I was going to be a part of it and I was —" she slows for emphasis — "beyond ecstatic."
McKenzie knew only the basics about the movie when her LA agent asked to audition for it — "I knew about the subject and I knew it was going to be a comedy" — but jumped at the chance to work with "New Zealand legend" Waititi.
"I was really excited by how successful he was and the amazing things that he was doing — I was definitely excited to audition for him. Definitely a fan." She pauses, and a smile enters her voice. "It would have been a bit awkward if I wasn't."
Waititi in person, she says, is exactly as he appears in interviews and on screen but beyond the black humour and the quirks lie both passion and compassion.
"He is very, very funny and really light-hearted but from working with him, I also wasn't surprised to learn that he has a really massive heart. He has such a big heart and he really cares about the things he makes. Jojo Rabbit is something he has been working on for a long time and, being Jewish himself, the story means a lot to him."
While McKenzie had only one scene acting with Waititi — "Elsa and imaginary-friend Hitler don't have many meetings, which is probably a good thing" — but she relished the opportunity to observe him in action.
"I was able to watch him from behind the cameras doing his improv and it was like watching a genius at work. Every single take it would be something completely different," she says. While Waititi had an outline for his own scenes, he was free to "play around and work different things out", those ad-lib riffs giving Jojo Rabbit that unmistakeable 'Taika Waititi' feel.
So with all that spontaneity and inventiveness going on, what is he like as a director?
"The best way to describe Taika as a director is that every single take he would be right there by the camera — not sitting in a director's chair watching the monitor. He would be right there in the room, every single take. He's very hands-on."
Jojo Rabbit certainly sounds like a bizarre concept on paper: a comedy about the Nazis, a young boy whose imaginary friend is Hitler, Rebel Wilson playing a Hitler Youth leader and Waititi himself — not only Māori but of Jewish heritage — playing the Fuhrer. Can it really work? (Spoiler alert: oh, yes.) When asked what she thinks of the mixed critical response to the movie and the suggestion that some people just don't or won't "get it", McKenzie pauses before she answers, then hits her stride.
"I think ... when it first premiered there were definitely mixed reviews. Some people were not really expecting it and maybe didn't go into it with open minds, while other people loved it.
"On the night of the premiere, it was like a roller coaster ride — the whole audience really felt like one and we were all feeling the same things at the same time. People just loved it and were incredibly moved, whether it was moved to laughter or hysterics or moved to tears. It was a really, really amazing feeling to experience that and to see people react that way to something you've worked hard on in such an incredible way.
"I think the main thing that people have reacted negatively to is maybe they think it's inappropriate or 'too soon' — but [Charlie Chaplin's] The Great Dictator came out 80 years ago, so I wouldn't say a movie like this was 'too soon'. It's following in a tradition, and through humour we were able to look at this part of our history in a different way and make it a lot more accessible to the younger generation. It doesn't feel like you're going into the movie to be taught a lesson — you're going in and being receptive to everything that's being thrown at you, and you come out having seen a completely different perspective and point of view.
"Through filming this, I gained a much greater understanding of World War II. I think it's a reminder to people of the atrocities of our past and a warning that these things should not be repeated."
McKenzie had studied World War II at school (she went to Samuel Marsden Collegiate School in Wellington) but wanted to know more once she found out she had the role.
"I read The Diary of Anne Frank and about four other books on similar stories to Anne's about young Jewish girls who had experienced World War II and the Holocaust," she says. "I also used a modern-day tool — I used the internet to find out as much as I possibly could."
Once McKenzie relocated to Prague for filming in mid-2018, she was able to delve even deeper into the local history to inform her performance.
"Theresienstadt [concentration camp] is just outside Prague. I visited the old Jewish quarter in Prague and walked around there with a historian and talked about what happened there," she says. "At school I'd learned about the basic events and the facts ... but it was important to me to find out what it was actually like to live back then in day-to-day life."
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In an uncanny connection with history, many of McKenzie's scenes as Elsa were shot on set at Prague's Barrandov Studios, built in the 1930s and expanded and used by the Nazis to make propaganda films during the war.
"It was kind of an education just being in Prague," McKenzie says.
Part of Jojo Rabbit's appeal is the way it combines a story set three-quarters of a century ago with a strong contemporary feel — through not only dialogue (which at times breaks into classic Waititi, with some memorable lines) and music (including The Beatles and Bowie), but also the performances themselves. Waititi has said that he wanted the character of Elsa to feel like a modern teenager, "this really pretty, very cool girl who has this hard attitude, so [Jojo] is instantly both fascinated and intimidated by her." So some of McKenzie's preparation for the role was less traditional; Waititi advised her to watch some more recent films — ones which you might not immediately connect with World War II.
"I watched Heathers and I watched Mean Girls, because Taika wanted me to remember that although Elsa was a victim and was being put through something that no person should ever experience, she is not made different by being a victim. She lived a life before World War II and, like Taika says, she is just like me, just like a modern-day teenager . . . She is funny and smart and a great artist and full of courage but she's also scared because she doesn't know what is going to happen to her."
While the character of Elsa is in her mid-teens, for the first time in her career McKenzie is not one of the "child" stars of the film. That role was taken by 11-year-old English novice actor Roman Griffin Davis, supported by the chubby and charming Archie Yates, another newcomer who manages to steal every scene he appears in.
"Pretty much every job I've done I've been hanging out with the adults but Jojo Rabbit is probably the first time I've properly worked with a younger actor — Roman was only 10 at the time," McKenzie says. However, despite his youth and inexperience, McKenzie says Davis was a natural on set — possibly due to his own showbiz connections.
"His dad is [cinematographer] Ben Davis, who shot Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and stuff for Marvel and his mum [Camille Griffin], is a scriptwriter and director, so he was definitely comfortable but it was his first major role," McKenzie says. Despite the relationship the characters of Elsa and Jojo share in the film however, she didn't see herself taking on the older sister role.
"I didn't feel like I needed to give him any advice — he handled it with so much professionalism and emotional maturity." Her sincerity is obvious when she adds, "I was just in awe of him the entire shoot."
Although she is now verging on adulthood, family support is still important to McKenzie — especially when that support has such an intimate understanding of the pressures and challenges of your chosen career.
"My mum and dad and little sister [Davida] were there [in Prague]. Mum was there at the beginning for maybe a week, then it was Dad and me for the rest of the couple of months." She gives a little chuckle. "I converted him to vegetarianism while we were shooting Jojo Rabbit," she says. "I'm vegan myself, so I think he found it easier to cook vegetarian all the time rather than cooking something for himself on the side all the time."
And while you might think Prague, home of goulash and spicy sausages, might be a bit of a wasteland for vegans, McKenzie assures me, "Surprisingly, there are quite a few vegan places there."
Jojo Rabbit is "about" many things, not least of which is how, without being challenged, intolerance and hate can become normalised and absurdity and outrageous actions become accepted. But Waititi has also said the film is "a love letter to mothers, especially solo mothers". It was Waititi's own mother who led him to Christine Leunens' 2004 novel Caging Skies, on which the movie's story is based and the relationship between Jojo and his mother Rosie (played with comic flair by Scarlett Johansson) gives the movie its emotional heart. The character of Elsa, locked in the wall of an attic away from her family, also looks to Rosie for maternal comfort.
"Elsa was obviously missing her mother and her father and I was missing my mother at the time because she wasn't in Prague, so I could draw on that," McKenzie says. "Scarlett is a mum herself [to 5-year-old Rose Dauriac] so it was easy for her to feel maternal. Scarlett's character Rosie is also missing her own daughter and is looking for a daughter herself, just like Elsa is looking for a mum and someone to love and care for her."
It could be some time before for the chatter around Jojo Rabbit to die down — probably not until after the awards season — but we'll next see McKenzie on screen in Justin Kurzel's adaptation of Peter Carey's novel The True History of the Kelly Gang. The movie, which also premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, will be released here next year and tells the story of the young Australian bushranger's short but bloody career in the 1870s. McKenzie describes making the film as "a beautiful, beautiful experience", working alongside big names such as Russell Crowe and Nicholas Hoult. She plays Kelly's sweetheart, Mary Hearn, for whom Kelly records the story of his life.
Later next year McKenzie will also be seen in the psychological thriller Last Night in Soho, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver). The extreme secrecy surrounding the film, to be released next September, has intensified the buzz around it — the sole production still to be released is of McKenzie, slathered in stark black eye makeup, cowering on the ground as if before some nameless horror. "I've just finished filming it a couple of months ago but I'm not allowed to say much about it," she teases.
"But it has a really cool cast and a great team."
While McKenzie says she is still at the stage of having to audition for roles rather than being requested, her recent performances mean the field is opening up for her.
"Sometimes I get approached for a role that I'm able to think about and decide if it's something that I want to be a part of," she says. "I'm looking for things that are varied and diverse and interesting and would be a challenge."
Thoughtful, measured and obviously highly intelligent, the talented and articulate McKenzie seems destined for great things. Given her family background, was becoming an actor inevitable?
"Not inevitable, no. My mum and dad were incredibly supportive of whatever their kids wanted to do. My brother [Peter] did acting but he's also incredibly passionate about politics and the law, especially relating to China, so that's the path he's going down. My big sister [Sara Kupa, daughter of Stuart McKenzie and Julia Allen] is incredibly smart and an English teacher who has just had her second baby. She has also done acting but has also gone down another path. My other sister [Davida] is only 12, so who knows ...
"Definitely none of us were ever forced into acting — it was something for me that just happened naturally, I guess."
Heading towards Christmas, McKenzie is hoping for a bit of a break before embarking on yet more new projects. But she knows the industry can be fickle and that she has to take her opportunities when they strike.
"I've got a bit more promo to do now, then at the end of the month I'll hopefully be back in New Zealand for my brother's 21st." At this she sounds excited. "Then I'm kind of going to see what happens."
Jojo Rabbit is in cinemas now.