In director Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit,” plucky young Hitler Youth Johannes “Jojo” Betzler (newbie Roman Griffin Davis) is driven by his singular obsession with an imagined Adolf Hilter (Waititi), wanting nothing more than to turn World War II into his personal coming-of-age adventure alongside his insane BFF. But when he discovers his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding terrified Jewish teenager Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie) in their home, he’s forced to reckon with the logical end point of his current beliefs (in other words, Elsa’s extermination). Suddenly, Jojo has two secret friends, only one of whom is going to turn him into a better person.
As it turns out, “Jojo” belongs as much to Elsa as it does the titular young Nazi. In Waititi’s wild satire, the 19-year-old McKenzie is tasked with her most grounded role to date — she’s certainly not mistaking any murderous dictators as close personal pals — and rises to the challenge with ease.
That’s nothing new for her: Over the course of just six years in the business, McKenzie has taken her share of tough stuff, opting for demanding roles that demand her full attention. In return, the actress has blossomed into a multi-faceted performer who can bring gravitas to any film and any role, from last year’s breakout part in Debra Granik’s stirring survivalist drama “Leave No Trace” to prominent gigs in projects as ambitious as Waititi’s latest.
The daughter of directors Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie initially shied away from jumping into the family business, aided by some sage advice from the New Zealand filmmaking mainstays. “It wasn’t really something that I wanted to do when I was younger, because my mom and dad had always made it clear to me that it’s a tough job that isn’t just what you see on the surface,” McKenzie said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “It’s not just Hollywood, you’ve got to work hard and you’ve got to get some bruises.”
McKenzie was just 13 when she filmed her first lead role in the fact-based TV drama “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story,” which follows the horrifying rape and subsequent abuse suffered by Nicholas when she was a teenager. The material was so upsetting that McKenzie wasn’t allowed to read the full script or watch the final film when it was completed. She caught up with it a couple of years ago, but even while making it, she said she felt the weight of the project. “Working on it really made me feel like I was telling something that meant something, that was important,” she said. “That film really affected and moved me.”
A few weeks ago, McKenzie was again filming in New Zealand, when a grip on Gaysorn Thavat’s upcoming drama “The Justice of Bunny King” — who just so happened to be a grip on “Consent” — approached her to talk about the film. “He came up to me on my last day and he said, ‘I just want to let you know, “Consent” was such an important film. It was one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of,’” she said. “He was this really big, handsome, strong man and he started crying in front of me. It just reminded me how much films can move people and why it’s such an important medium and an important way to share human experiences.”
“Jojo Rabbit” fit that same bill. The film might have been a tough sell — “You say it’s about a young boy aspiring to be a Nazi and his imaginary best friend is Hitler, and immediately, people are like, ‘Okay, we’re not going to be investing our money in that’” — but the actress embraced Waititi’s vision.
“Taika is an incredibly smart guy and he uses humor as a way for people to look at things in a different light and to make some subjects more accessible to the younger generations or just to people in general,” she said. “In order to live in this world together in harmony, we’ve got to understand that everyone has a different outlook in life. People have different beliefs, religions, are from different cultures, ethnicities, different backgrounds, genders. Everyone has a different way of life.”
Despite the fantastical qualities of the story, McKenzie dug into the research process for the role of Elsa. “Immediately when I found out I got the role, I started to research and I started to try to learn as much as I possibly could about what it was like living as a young Jewish girl back then,” she said. She visited the Terezín concentration camp and toured the old Jewish quarter in Prague, where the Berlin-set film was shot. But that process also entailed remembering that, no matter her horrible circumstances, Elsa is still very much teenage girl. Waititi had McKenzie watch films like “Heathers” and “Mean Girls” to further tap into the very real kid at the film’s heart.
“We wanted to make the point that of course Elsa is a victim, she’s going through this monstrous experience, but she’s also just a human being who has so many layers and so many things going on inside her head,” McKenzie said. “She’s lived a full life up until this terrifying event. She’s going through puberty. She’s got a crush on a boy. She just lives her life doing all the things that a normal teenage girl will do, all the things that I did, all the things that you did. I think it’s important to remind people that being a victim isn’t what defines her.”
Waititi’s film is filled with colorful characters, from his own demented portrayal of Hitler to biting takes on dum-dum military bigwigs like Sam Rockwell’s Captain Klenzendorf and Rebel Wilson’s book-burning Fraulein Rahm. As Elsa comes further out of her shell, she changes both Davis’ eponymous Jojo and the film’s tricky tone. It’s funny, but not devoid of real stakes, and they exist because Elsa does and Jojo can’t deny her humanity once he is forced to confront their shared humanity.
McKenzie isn’t shying away from tough roles. She’ll next be seen in documentarian Liz Garbus’ fact-based narrative debut “Lost Girls,” alongside heavy hitters like Amy Ryan and Gabriel Byrne; after that, a zany turn as the lead in Edgar Wright’s secretive “Last Night in Soho.” A film buff and Disney obsessive, she suggested an interest in musicals down the line. For now, however, “Jojo Rabbit” provides the best example to date of her unique screen presence.
McKenzie excels at putting Elsa in the context of the movie’s weighty themes. “She’s funny, she’s witty, smart, she’s talented … and she’s really, really scared,” McKenzie said. “I hope the film serves as a reminder of the atrocities of the past and a warning to not let them be repeated.”
In person, McKenzie is capable of the same quiet power she exudes on screen. During a recent post-Academy screening Q&A at New York City’s newly reopened MOMA, a rambunctious Waititi gleefully answered questions about his film as his game cast played along with their outsized director.
It was only when McKenzie was asked about her preparation for her role that the zany filmmaker calmed down and ceded the floor to the soft-voiced actress, as she elucidated on the more horrific aspects of what she learned — from visiting concentration camps to historical tours of Prague too disturbing for her younger sister to join. A hush fell over the panel, and the room shifted to meet McKenzie’s thoughtfulness and care, just as “Jojo Rabbit” blossoms when Elsa is on screen.
“Jojo Rabbit” is in theaters now.
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