2021 Golden Globe nominations: At 12, Helena Zengel knows how to tap an emotion

Helena Zengel as Johanna Leonberger in "News of the World." The actress has been nominated for a Golden Globe.
(Bruce W. Talamon / Universal Pictures)

Helena Zengel wowed audiences with her portrayal of a wild child in the German film “System Crasher,” and now, the 12-year-old actress costars opposite Tom Hanks in Universal’s Paul Greengrass-directed western “News of the World.” She plays Johanna, raised by the Kiowa tribe in the Texas wilderness until Hanks’ Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd discovers her hiding in the woods. She received a Golden Globe nomination this morning for her work.

Speaking recently from the Berlin home she shares with her musician parents, the bubbly Zengel stayed up late to chat about Hanks, crying on demand and eating food with her fingers in the film.

The actress is in just about every scene of “News” side by side with Hanks, who it seems really is the nicest guy in Hollywood. “He’s always got a joke, and he’s kind to everybody on set. Whenever I had questions or needed help on some lines or something, he always helped me,” Zengel says.


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Acting since she was 5, Zengel drew notice as the out-of-control Benni in 2019’s “System Crasher” and now is earning awards attention for “News.” And she’s never had an acting class. (“It just comes out of me,” she says.)

Zengel taps into that wild energy of her earlier role for much of “News” — and much of it silently, as Johanna has forgotten her English. Both elements of the story drew her to the role.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in the movie "News of the World."
(Bruce Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“I get to be so intense and emotional playing Johanna, because she’s been through so many things. And also, Johanna doesn’t speak a lot, so I only do [the acting] with my eyes. It’s really interesting to do a movie where I talk, but without words,” she says. She knows how to hold back, too, to build to an emotional climax. “You don’t want to rush the emotion,” she says.

“Sometimes I’ll think of something sad, like, I don’t know, somebody died, or some horse died. And then, my face — I move my mouth or my eyes, and I do noises, and then it just keeps going and on and on, and it gets bigger and bigger, and then at the right moment, when I really cry, they do the close-up.”


It wasn’t all high drama on set, though. Zengel got to have some fun in a scene where she and Hanks stop for food. In it, Johanna eats stew with her fingers despite Capt. Kidd’s efforts to get her to use a spoon. As the other patrons are put off by the display, she annoys them further by singing a Kiowa song at the top of her lungs. The scene, she says, was one of her favorites.

“We had to do that over and over, because sometimes I’d have my mouth full with stew, and then Tom would start laughing. It was really hard for me to stay calm, like, ‘OK, be professional.’ So, yeah, the big challenge for me in that scene was to not laugh.”