There is so much more we’re going to learn about New Zealand-born actress Thomasin McKenzie in the coming years. With each new role, we see her abilities tested and our expectations exceeded. After a small role in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies when she was barely even a teenager, she continued working in shorts and local television series, until her breakthrough role in 2018 in Debra Granik’s much acclaimed Leave No Trace, opposite Ben Foster.
Not surprisingly, the offers and work came in rapidly, and in 2019, she can be seen in the just released Netflix feature The King, directed by David Michôd and co-starring Timothée Chalamet and Robert Pattinson, in which she plays Henry V’s sister Philippa. At the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, she also starred in the Australian biographical crime drama True History of the Kelly Gang, which presumably will open stateside in 2020. And in September 2020, she’ll be seen in director Edgar Wright’s latest work, Last Night in Soho.
But it’s her current remarkable take as the Jewish teenager Elsa in writer/director Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit that is garnering her significant notices in this World War II satire that follows a lonely German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) whose world view is turned upside-down when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic.
/Film spoke with McKenzie in Chicago during the recent Chicago International Film Festival, and she discussed the responsibility of playing the only Jewish character in a film set during World War II in Germany, the benefits of shooting chronologically, and why she thinks it’s important this story be told today. Jojo Rabbit is in limited release, opening wider in the coming weeks.
Each time Jojo comes back to Elsa during the course of the film, our knowledge about her history, her personality, and how she ended up in the house grows. For a large part of the movie, you were shooting in a single location, were you able to shoot chronologically to make it more natural to show that growth? I know that’s not how films are usually made.
We actually did shoot Leave No Trace chronologically, and for this film, I think we did film those scenes more or less in order. We weren’t filming the end at the beginning.
As an actor, that’s got to be useful—almost like doing a play and the progression makes more sense.
Definitely. With filming Leave No Trace, it almost felt like we weren’t filming anything. I knew we were working, but it felt like we were just doing it and living it. I was inhabiting this person’s life for the period of the shoot. It wasn’t like a meta performance or anything. I did a film this year [Last Night in Soho] where we very much did not shoot in chronological order, and it does take a lot of planning. I ended up having to write up a timeline for all the scenes and refer back to it and go. “We’re here now, and I filmed that moment already. But I haven’t filmed that yet, so I don’t know that has happened.” It was a bit of a mind game.
When we were filming Jojo Rabbit, I was still figuring out who Elsa was. At the beginning, in the very first scene we shot was the very first scene you see Elsa in. And when I started that day, I had one idea of Elsa, but I ended it with a completely different idea of who she was. It definitely helps to film in chronological order because as the shoot goes on, you learn more things about your character and grow with them. Like with Leave No Trace, it was weird watching it back because I was watching myself getting older. My hair was growing, my features were getting darker somehow. I could see these changes happening as the story developed.
When you first read Taika’s screenplay, what do you remember about Elsa and her story that hooked you?
I think it was her strength. This story has been told a lot of times in a lot of different ways, and there have been a lot of similar variations of Elsa, who’s something of an Anne Frank character. What I liked about Elsa in Jojo Rabbit is that you really see her strength, and you get to understand that she isn’t just a victim, but she is a victim, of course, but that’s not what define her—she’s so many other things, which isn’t something you always get to see in this kind of character in a World War II film.
Her being the only Jewish character in the film, were you more aware of the representative nature of her, that she was representing this event and an entire people? Tell me about the weight of responsibility that puts on you and what you did to make sure you understood that in the performance.
Yes, totally. That’s something I thought about even before I had the role. I was thinking that this was a big responsibility, and you’re representing a lot of people, and it’s not something you can take lightly. This community of people has been through so much—their history is not a joke, so that was definitely something that was on my mind for the entire shoot, even now. In preparation, that was my main priority, to make sure I know the facts and had some understanding of their history of what they went through. I could never fully understand it; no one who didn’t go through what they went through could. But I wanted to know as much as I could, so I did a lot of research.
I always approach new roles with research—that’s one of my favorite parts of the process, the research. But with one, it was to a whole new level. From the get go and throughout the entire shoot, I was researching and reading books like The Diary of Anne Frank and about four other books about young Jewish girls living through the Holocaust. I used our modern-day tool, the internet, and I watched Schindler’s List. When I was in New Zealand, I went to museums. Interestingly, New Zealand was the first country to declare war on Germany in World War II because of the time difference—so for a few hours, it was New Zealand vs. Germany.
And once I arrived in Prague, I spent a lot of time going to different cemeteries, including the Jewish cemetery with my manager, who is Jewish herself. I went to the Old-New Synagogue and the Spanish Synagogue, also to the Jewish Quarter, which has been really well preserved. I worked with a historian who told me the Nazis had a plan to use the Jewish Quarter in Prague as a museum for an extinct race, which is makes you sick to think about.
I was going to ask about Prague, because it does still have an old-European feel to it. Did that make shooting there make you feel like you were going back in time?
Yeah, you really do. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time on location in the different sites where they filmed, but Roman does talk during the Q&As about when he was filming those scenes in the town, he really did feel like he was there in 1944.
I read somewhere that Taiki wanted you to watch Mean Girls and Heathers before shooting this, because he thought Elsa might have been something of a bully in school. What did that add to the character for you?
That definitely did change my view of Elsa. When I first met Taiki, I went into that meeting with all of this research I had done and I had this certain kind of confidence because I wanted him to know that I’d done the work. So I told him all of this, and he went “Oh, yeah. Cool. Go watch Mean Girls and Heathers.” [laughs] And I’m so happy he did that because it really did change my perception of Elsa. Had he not told me to watch those things, I would have played her as where we would have seen less of her strength, and she would have been different. But watching those films made me realize that she lived a whole life before the war, and she’s got so many layers, so many experiences, and she wasn’t always looked at as being a monster. So that’s something that I needed to think about in this performance.
Anytime a filmmakers makes a movie set in a specific period, you wonder why is now the time to tell this story. Why do you think this story is important to tell today?
Everyone knows there’s a lot of anger going on in the world at the moment, and people with hateful ideas being encouraged to express those beliefs on a bigger scale—or maybe similar scale. Those thoughts have always been around, kept underground, maybe not so noticed. But now they are coming out into the open, and hateful people have a certain level of confidence these days. I think it’s important to those people and every kind of people, of all ages, to see this film and be reminded to think of our past, and be reminded what led to World War II, what were the causes of the Holocaust. There are some similarities between what caused World War II and how we got to that place of anger, and how things seem to be escalating today.
I know there has been a lot of talk about the use of human here and whether it’s appropriate to have laughter around the subject at all. But I think it deepens the emotions. I’ll admit, I was not prepared for how deeply emotional I felt throughout the film. Watching Taiki work, could you spot him adjusting the humor at different places?
Yeah, and I think a lot of that process was in the edit as well. They tested Jojo Rabbit 15 different times on different audiences, and from that, they knew at what points in the film humor might have been too much or too little, and they were able to adjust based on those test screenings. That’s definitely something Taiki worked on a lot. Like you said, you definitely go into this film without expecting to be so emotionally moved, and Taiki says that’s because you’re going into a comedy and not with your arms crossed expecting to be told to listen. You’re open and receptive to the emotions. When you’re watching it, you’re really on a rollercoaster. I remember at the premiere in Toronto, where I watched it for the first time with a big crowd, we felt like everyone was going through this together and all feeling exactly the same thing at the same time. I don’t think it would have been at that scale if it has been a straight drama; I think that the comedy has opened people up to this film.
I want to ask you about a specific scene, the one with Stephen Merchant, where he’s looking through that book that Jojo has put together with all of the hurtful Jewish myths. That’s a defining scene for your character because she has to fake ownership of something so hateful to her people in order to stay hidden. Tell me about the importance of that scene to you.
For that scene, we see Elsa walk into a room full of Nazis and people who have called her family and friends disgusting thing like vermin and a monster and told so many lies about her and her people. And we see her walk into that room and say “What you say about me is not true. Here I am. I’m still standing, and you have no idea that I’m a Jewish person, but you’ve created this whole image of me.” There’s so much strength in Elsa in that scene, which is incredibly moving to see. When she has to say “Heil Hitler” as well, it’s rough. And in the second half of that scene, we really see her unsure and off balance for the first time, because before that she held so much power and confidence over Roman, and in that scene, she’s got no idea what to do because she’s doesn’t know if she’s going to get caught.
Thank you so much. Best of luck with this.