For Thomasin McKenzie, making a film isn’t just about creating a character and investing in a story. It’s also about the possibility of a discussion afterward and the hope of evolving the world to a place of more open-mindedness.
The actress, 19, selects her projects with this in mind, which is what led her to being cast as a young Jewish girl named Elsa in Taika Waititi’s World War II dark comedy “Jojo Rabbit.”
“Reading the script is quite shocking,” says McKenzie, sitting in the Soho Hotel here during the BFI London Film Festival, where “Jojo Rabbit” played as one of the headline galas. “There’s a lot of movies that have been made about World War II and about all the events that took place during that time, but this one was a comedy. Which has been done before, but not in this way.
“You’re laughing throughout the whole script, and you’re laughing throughout the whole film, but also there’s the underlying disaster of it all. The horrors are just under the surface. I think Taika used humor in a really, really effective way to get his point across.”
“Jojo Rabbit,” which “Thor: Ragnarok” director Waititi and distributor Fox Searchlight have dubbed an “anti-hate satire,” had its world premiere in September at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film follows Hitler youth Jojo (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis), an impressionable preteen whose imaginary BFF is Hitler himself (Waititi plays the role as an exaggerated comic caricature). Jojo’s world view is challenged when he meets Elsa.
Although the movie received mixed reviews out of TIFF, it also won the festival’s People’s Choice audience award (which last year went to future best picture Oscar winner “Green Book”) and scored one of 2019’s best per screen averages in its limited theatrical bow in five theaters this past weekend.
McKenzie, who hails from Wellington, New Zealand, auditioned for the film in Los Angeles. It was her first time auditioning in a proper Hollywood studio (“I was really nervous, because I usually do self-tapes and send them over from New Zealand,” she notes), and Waititi had no hesitation in casting the actress.
“From the moment she auditioned, she was on the short list, right from the beginning,” says the director, who approached McKenzie after seeing her in last year’s acclaimed indie “Leave No Trace.” “I didn’t know what it was that I was looking for. Sometimes you want something that feels different, and that’s very much what Thomasin brings. It’s not quite what you expect, but it seems perfect. She has a very unique voice and she’s very mature. She seems years older than me, even though she’s much younger.”
The actress spent weeks preparing for “Jojo” ahead of shooting last summer in Prague, Czech Republic. To help understand Jewish life in Germany during the war, McKenzie visited the Jewish quarter in Prague with a historian, visited synagogues and toured Theresienstadt, a concentration camp and ghetto located in Terezín, Czech Republic.
“I went into the whole project aware that it was something that had to be approached with a lot of care and sensitivity, given the subject matter,” she says. “Even though it was a comedy, you still had to put the work in. I read a whole lot of books and I did a lot of research… It helped me understand all that she had gone through.”
Waititi also suggested she watch movies like “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” because he felt that although Elsa was a Jewish girl hiding from the Nazis, she had probably also been a bully in school. There needed to be a complexity to the character, who befriends Jojo after he discovers her hidden in a cupboard in his house, that allowed her to be witty and strong, as well as scared.
“She’s a person, a human being, who was a teenage girl going through puberty and going through things that every single person goes through in their lives,” McKenzie notes. “It just happened to be that she was also put through a disgusting event. She is a victim, but she isn’t just a victim — she’s a human being.”
Although the film is a comedy, “Jojo Rabbit” has a serious timely resonance. McKenzie sees it as a “story that can never be told too many times,” because looking back at World War II and the Holocaust helps ensure that it will never be repeated.
The actress, who clearly is very tapped into current events, prefers to sidestep overt politics in her discussion of the film. Instead, she’s interested in how these types of movies can help young people be more accepting of others.
“I don’t want to name any names or go too deep into politics, but given the current inflamed climate in the world, it shows that schools or parents or whatever need to take teaching these parts of history even more seriously,” McKenzie says. “Because there are still people who can’t seem to understand the fact that there are different religions and cultures and ways of life and ethnicities. There are so many different ways of living, and not everyone can agree. The only way to be able to live in this world in harmony with each other is to be able to understand that. Because otherwise, you’re always going to be fighting against somebody.”
McKenzie comes from an acting family (her mother, Miranda Harcourt, is an actress and acting coach, and her grandmother is actress Kate Harcourt) but didn’t always want to pursue it as a career. She was cast in her first feature at age 9, but it wasn’t until she appeared in the New Zealand television movie “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story” in 2014 that she realized acting could be a truly meaningful pursuit.
“I came out of that role realizing that acting isn’t just a performance,” she remembers. “It’s an opportunity to tell important stories and to have a voice. It’s exciting to contribute to different topics or conversations that are going on around the world.”
McKenzie earned a small role in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies” and appeared in several local New Zealand productions. But it was her performance as Tom, a teenager living off the grid with her veteran father, in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” that shot the actress into the Hollywood spotlight. The role earned her nominations for supporting female at the Independent Spirit Awards and for young performer at the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards this year. Since then, McKenzie has worked almost nonstop, going home to Wellington for only two days in the last seven months.
“I learned about the kind of films I really get a lot from working on,” McKenzie says of “Leave No Trace.” “That really satisfies me as an actor. Films that aren’t complicated and where you’re able to show up to work and experiment and try different things. I felt incredibly lucky. From that, I think a lot of doors have opened, which I’m really grateful for. It didn’t even really feel like work. We were just having fun out in the forest and learning really cool things.”
McKenzie also appears as Philippa of England, sister to Timothée Chalamet’s Henry V, in David Michôd’s “The King,” which Netflix opened theatrically this month and will begin streaming in November. Her scenes are short (she flew to England to shoot for a few days during the production of “Jojo Rabbit”) but meaningful. Her character offers invaluable advice and wisdom to Henry, which excited McKenzie as the film is so male-dominated.
“Henry was surrounded by a lot of people trying to get something from him and she was warning him of those people,” McKenzie says. “This was a young queen with a lot of wisdom and a lot of truth.”
She adds, “In the past, women have been portrayed as being pushovers or not as tough and gritty as we really are. I like to play roles where you get a sense of empowerment. I think that’s due to the kind of environment I grew up in where my mom has worked really hard and she is a really strong female character.”
This is true of her slate of upcoming roles as well, including “True History of the Kelly Gang,” which played TIFF alongside “Jojo”; Edgar Wright’s psychological horror “Last Night in Soho”; and Liz Garbus’ thriller “Lost Girls.” The projects span numerous genres but all have the same thing at their core: a sense of openness and discovery.
“She’s very aware and conscious,” Waititi notes. “This generation — and I’d like to think I was like this when I was young — they want to make a difference. They don’t want to waste their time. So it’s amazing that someone at that age can be choosing projects based on their beliefs and the impression she wants to leave in the world. She’s principled.”
“Hopefully, when you go to a movie, you’re looking at life through another lens,” McKenzie says simply. “One of the most important aspects of living is accepting other ways of life.”