After winning the German Film Award for Best Leading Actress with 2019’s System Crasher, Helena Zengel made her American film debut alongside Tom Hanks in News of the World. To star opposite Hanks, who plays Captain Jefferson Kidd, a war veteran widower traveling town-to-town reading the news for audiences, Zengel auditioned for director Paul Greengrass, with her mom as stand-in. “We did the scene where I bite Tom Hanks’ hand. I was pretty nervous, but it was really fun, and cute also, for my mom to do it with me.” Fun—and a bit of a formality, really. Director Paul Greengrass had already been impressed with Zengel in System Crasher. He cast her in News of the World as Johanna Leonberger, the young girl Kidd vows to return to her biological family, after she was raised by the Kiowa tribe for most of her life. Zengel needed to brush up on her English—“There was no other way because there were very little people speaking German on set”—and learn the Kiowa language and culture, too. The 50-odd-day shoot made many demands on the young actress, including extreme weather conditions, but Zengel was a trooper. “Sure, sometimes it was tough,” she says, “but every day was a new, great day. I just love being on set.” Working with Hanks was fun, too. “He was so nice,” and “just terrific” she says, adding, “I was surprised that he could sleep really everywhere.”
With no formal training, Zengel took on her first acting gig at age five, in the TV series Spreewaldkrimi. Her mother got her into an agency and she started booking small parts on TV movies and shows. When director Nora Fingscheidt was looking to cast the lead role of Benni in her debut feature film, she chose Zengel out of the 150 or so children who auditioned. “What I just love about seeing me [in a film] is that you are able to learn more about what you might have done wrong, or what you did great,” she says. That film went on to win the Silver Bear and ensured Zengel’s status as a breakout star, leading to her role on News of the World. “Acting is actually normal for me,” she says. “I never had acting classes or anything, so it’s just something natural I like to do.”
WHEN & WHERE
Having recently signed to CAA, Zengel will no doubt have more projects lined up. For now, she’s already learned the art of evading the press, and can’t say what she’s working on next. But she wants to keep acting for as long as she can. “It’s just so relieving. You can totally lose all your thoughts and you can just let it go and just do what you want to, and do what you love.”
For more from our conversation with Zengel, read on.
DEADLINE: Going back to the start of your career, I believe that you got your first role when you were five. Were you too young or can you remember, when did you know that you liked acting?
ZENGEL: Well, I think it’s a question of time. It starts at one point and then it goes on and on, and you get new movies and new everything and new ideas of what you want to do. So, I think it came through that time, acting, and then sometime, I just knew, I want to do this.
DEADLINE: And was there anyone in your family who was an actor, or did you see anyone that you looked up to?
ZENGEL: No, none of my family. But, I like Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda, and also Tom Hanks and all those actors. When I was little, I wasn’t thinking about which actors I would [consider] adorable, but sure, there are actors and actresses I really like.
DEADLINE: How did you hear about News of the World?
ZENGEL: It was through System Crasher, actually. Because the director saw me in it, then he said to his assistant, “Look what she can do with her eyes.” And then he just wanted me to have an audition in Berlin, and then in London.
DEADLINE: But this role is very different to System Crasher, which you won the German equivalent of the Oscar for. There, you were very loud and running around, as a child, and in this one, you’re obviously very reserved, very quiet. There’s not a lot of speaking. How did you prepare for this role as opposed to that one?
ZENGEL: I prepared, as I usually do in every movie. I read the script, I learned the language. I had talked with Paul Greengrass. I needed to sunbathe so my skin is going to get darker because it was too light for a girl who’s always in the desert, under the sun. And then I read the scenes we’re going to do. And I just prepared also with doing lots of sport.
DEADLINE: And also, part of that preparation was learning about the Kiowa people, right? What did that entail?
ZENGEL: I learned, first of all, the language and then also the culture, which was really interesting—an approach for mutual respect. It was very interesting to hear their story of the time where they lost their land. It was very, very interesting to see their culture and their way of thinking, which is basically that they think in a circle rather than in a straight line, as we do. That a thing starts at one point and it leads to the other, into the other, into the other, but at the end of everything, you’ll get to the beginning again. So, either just getting born again, or you start with a career and you’ll get to the end of this career and then start a new one. It’s a very spiritual and interesting way of thinking.
DEADLINE: You and Tom had to go through quite a lot in the filming. What was the hardest thing for you?
ZENGEL: I think there’s always something tough in a movie. There were some tough scenes, like the shootout scene, or also scenes where you need to be very quiet and show a lot with small things. But still, it was always understandable. So, I never said, “Okay, I don’t think I can make this.”
DEADLINE: What kind of films do you like watching?
ZENGEL: I love everything, and I mostly like movies with horses and strong movies with women and feminists, and also very strong stories about people or humans and also sometimes documentaries. And comedies, comedies, comedies!
DEADLINE: And what do you do when you’re not making movies? For fun?
ZENGEL: Well, I’m a 12-year-old, normal girl, I guess. I have a phone and sure, I sometimes watch TikTok or Netflix or YouTube, but I think I’m probably pretty balanced about that. I play the piano. I have lots of friends I meet outside. I think I’m a pretty realistic girl.