After appearing in Leave No Trace to much critical acclaim last year, Thomasin McKenzie came to Jojo Rabbit excited by the notion of learning from one of the industry’s most unconventional voices. In Taika Waititi’s World War II drama, centered on an avid member of the Hitler Youth (Roman Griffin Davis), McKenzie plays Elsa, a Jewish girl he finds hiding in his attic, who works to change his hateful worldview. While working with Waititi, the actress found dimensions in her character that weren’t at first evident. “There are so many ways to look at characters,” she says, “and that is the biggest thing I learned.”
DEADLINE: You came to Jojo Rabbit after completing your first audition at a Los Angeles studio. What was that experience like for you?
THOMASIN MCKENZIE: Since I’m from New Zealand, I’d always just sent over self-tapes [prior to Jojo Rabbit], which is actually how I prefer to do it, because then you’ve got a bit more control over the performance you’re giving them, or showing them. I’d done auditions with casting directors in the flesh before, but I’d done that in Wellington, which is very different. I know those casting directors; everyone knows everyone in Wellington. [Laughs] So, it felt very different, going to LA and doing it there, and just feeling the intimidation, knowing that they’re probably auditioning so many girls.
I didn’t meet Taika that time; I met Taika for the recall. Well, I didn’t meet him; we talked over Skype. But it was great, and I think when you do a good job on your first proper studio audition, it gives you a bit more confidence maybe for more that is to come.
DEADLINE: What did you discuss with Taika when you met him for the first time?
MCKENZIE: We met for dinner at a vegan restaurant in Prague. I sat down and I’d done all of this research, so I felt like I’d done the first part of my job, which was the preparation. I wanted them to be able to trust that I was taking this seriously, so I sat down with that feeling of fulfillment of that task. I told Taika and Carthew [Neal], the producer, the research I had done, and he went, “Oh cool. Yep, nice. Now, watch Mean Girls and Heathers.”
So, I think from the get-go, Taika was really interested in helping me to look at Elsa in a different, maybe unexpected way, which really opened my eyes to a completely different side of her. It made me realize that she is of course a victim, but that’s not what her life is defined by. She’s lived a life before the Holocaust, before World War II. She could have been the popular girl at school. She really could have been anything, which makes it, to her, all the more confusing that all of a sudden, she’s being put through this disgusting event, and that her and her family, and her people, are being tortured like this.
I was working on the idea of wanting to highlight her confidence and her strength, and her intelligence and stuff—making those kinds of characteristics more on the surface, I guess—because there’s so much going on inside her head, obviously, so much fear. But we wanted her to really have a lot of power, as much power as she could have in that situation.
DEADLINE: In your preparation for the film, you visited Theresienstadt, a concentration camp and ghetto in the Czech Republic, set up by the SS during World War II. How did you feel, walking on those grounds?
MCKENZIE: I think that it’s a really weird feeling, going to a site where so many people were being murdered and tortured for no real reason, or no reason at all. It doesn’t feel like it should be a place where people are allowed to walk around and take pictures and tour, or even talk amongst themselves. It’s just a very strange feeling. But at the same time, it’s so important that people see these sites and are hit hard with the realness of it all. Because there are so many people out there that don’t know what the Holocaust was, don’t understand the word Auschwitz, or Theresienstadt, or concentration camp, or deny even that those things happened. So, it’s important that we are able to be affected by how heavy the atmosphere is at those sites.
Walking around it, it just felt wrong. You could really feel the fear and the devastation that had been soaked into the walls. A historian was showing me around Theresienstadt, and my little sister was with me in Prague at the time—and the historian refused to take this tour, if my little sister was there, because she didn’t feel comfortable telling these stories with such a young person around.
DEADLINE: What was your experience of working on set with Taika?
MCKENZIE: Taika is such a kooky guy that has just got so much going for him. What I love about Taika is his ability to take stories that may have been told a lot of times, and turn them into something completely different, and make them really relatable. He always adds his own goofy twist to things, so if you see a Taika film, you immediately know it’s a Taika film. Above all of that, he’s got a really big heart. This story is one that was really important to him, because he’s Jewish himself, and for him, you can never stop telling these stories. And humor is the tool that he used to share these messages.
DEADLINE: Any stand-out memories?
MCKENZIE: I think my favorite memory of working with Taika is that he was always in the room, and if he could be, his cheek would always be right up against the camera. He was just always in it with us the entire way, and so involved, as he should be, and I think that was my favorite memory, just feeling as if it was a real partnership.
DEADLINE: Remarkably, Jojo was your co-star Roman Griffin Davis’s first film. How did you work with him to create the unexpected and beautiful friendship between Elsa and Jojo?
MCKENZIE: I think the relationship that we created kind of happened in a very natural way, because Roman is such a beautiful boy. He’s got such a big heart, a lot of emotional maturity, and throughout the whole experience, I really admired him and his professionalism, and how much joy he brought to the set every day. My little sister left about a week in back to New Zealand, so I was really missing her, and I transferred that missing, that sisterly feeling, onto Roman. Him and his twin brothers kind of became my little brothers, and we spent a lot of time with each other, so it was really fun. I think that kind of chemistry is really shown in the film, the big sister-little brother chemistry. There’s a lot of bickering, and maybe a little bit of bullying, but there’s always love.
DEADLINE: How much did Taika encourage improvisation on set?
MCKENZIE: I think that Taika always knew exactly what film he was making. From the get-go, from when I first read the script, it was just perfect, and there was really no need to change any of the lines. So, I think particularly for Roman and I, it wasn’t about coming up with new lines; it wasn’t improv, in that way. It was just having the freedom to give different offers, and have fun with those lines, and try different things out. I think a lot more of the improv came with Stephen Merchant and Rebel Wilson. Taika was really interested in them freestyling a little bit, but they’re so, so amazing at it. But everyone had so much confidence in the script, and I really just didn’t want to change it, because it was so beautiful.
DEADLINE: Which scenes in Jojo Rabbit were most challenging for you?
MCKENZIE: There isn’t really any scene that stands out, I don’t think. Maybe the scene where he tells her that Germany has won the war. But I just felt really honored to be on the set, and had so much fun, and was learning so much. I think the real hardship came with the knowledge of the Holocaust and World War II. That was the stuff that I really struggled with, and I felt really nervous about, portraying such a big population of people that have gone through so many terrors. That was where I struggled, I think. I think it was in the background, or the hardships of the character I was portraying.
DEADLINE: Was there a new sense of confidence going into the film, after seeing Leave No Trace embraced the way it was?
MCKENZIE: Leave No Trace is also something that I’m beyond proud of, and I think it probably did give me a bit of confidence, because of the response it had gotten from critics and from audiences.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the films you’re working on next?
MCKENZIE: I’ve got Lost Girls coming out, which is a really amazing Netflix film about a family who is looking for their daughter who’s gone missing. It’s directed by Liz Garbus, who I love, so I’m excited for that one. I think it’s coming out early next year, sometime. I did Last Night in Soho with Edgar Wright and Working Title; I can’t really say anything about that, to be honest, but I’m looking forward for everyone to see it and hopefully enjoy it. It’s a really crazy, crazy kind of world, so I can’t wait for that to be shared. Also, I did a film called The Justice of Bunny King this year, which is a New Zealand film, starring Essie Davis. It’s [made by] an incredible female team, so that’s really exciting to me.
DEADLINE: This year, you also appear in David Michôd’s The King, opposite Timothée Chalamet. What did you enjoy about working on that film?
MCKENZIE: I only worked on it for like two days in the [middle] of filming Jojo Rabbit, so it was really cool, going from the Jojo Rabbit world and dipping into the King world—two very different times, and different costumes, and makeup and everything. But there was a scene I did that was in a field. It was in the shadow of a really beautiful castle just outside of London, and there were camels, and this beautiful, massive tree, and I had such a great time with David. It was just such a dreamy, dreamy day, and Timothée was amazing.