The lead of “Jojo Rabbit” looks like a tiny rock star, cool blue eyes and blond shock of asymmetrical mad-artist -- or electrical-socket-toucher -- hair ... though he admits his mother chose his “Yellow Submarine” T-shirt. And it’s his first professional acting gig.
“Well, I played an extra in a school play. I played a tree,” says Roman Griffin Davis, with a deadpan delivery beyond his 12 years. “I took a lot of acting experience from that.”
The Londoner was 11 when he stepped into the demanding role of Johannes “Jojo” Betzler. Jojo is a wide-eyed Hitler Youth whose wacky imaginary friend is ... Adolf Hitler (played by director Taika Waititi). The part requires unusual emotional availability for a child actor, and he’s in almost every scene.
Davis had to research the Hitler-Jugend for the film: “I thought it was interesting how these kids were manipulated and their life was drained.”
Waititi said, “The thing about Roman is he cares so deeply about other people. He’s extremely sensitive and extremely kind. The character wasn’t born a Nazi. The things that make you fall in love with Roman exist in Jojo; they’ve just been covered over by this other thing for a while. So that’s what you’re aiming for; getting back to the kid you fell in love with.”
After he was cast, Davis binged all of Waititi’s movies.
“I liked how he had a specific style,” says the young actor. “It’s an interesting and funny and personal style that has a lot of good energy and life in it. I like him because it’s very personal, his work.”
Davis has always been around the industry - his father, Ben Davis, is a cinematographer and his mother, Camille Griffin, is a writer-director.
“When I went on sets I was always like, ‘Yes, I want to eat all this chicken … and gravy.’ But yes, I was influenced by my parents.”
When not acting, Davis likes to “paint a lot. I’m a big fan of an artist called Cézanne. And Lucian Freud. My mum’s also an artist.”
“Jojo” won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, besting such heavyweight contenders as “Marriage Story” and “Parasite.” Davis notes of the vote announcement, “I was with my mom [mimes her on her phone]: ‘You can stop refreshing it. “Joker’s” won, Joaquin deserves it. I can’t take that away.’ I remember my aunt refreshes it and goes, ‘Whoa!’
“I kind of understood [the film’s win] because at the Toronto premiere, everyone’s laughing at the same bits and everyone’s crying at the same bits. That shows you they’re understanding the message and such.”