The Jojo Rabbit and Leave No Trace star talks about “toxic hatred”, finding her character’s history, and how she’d like to play an alien one day.
Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview podcast hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.
(This interview is part of our coverage of the 2019 Chicago International Film Festival.)
Few young stars have had as strong a breakout debut as Thomasin McKenzie. A relatively unknown New Zealand actress a couple of years ago, she captured the attention of critics and audiences alike with her startling, haunting role in 2018’s Leave No Trace, as a young girl hiding in the woods with her survivalist father. Her latest film sees her on the run from the government in a much different, more irreverent way: as Elsa, the rebellious Jewish girl who causes no amount of trouble for the title character of Taika Waititi‘s Nazi satire Jojo Rabbit, McKenzie has to put on a lot of different hats — survivor, terrified teenager, assertive antagonist to a young Nazi boy (Roman Griffin Davis) lost to Nazi rhetoric.
The results are decidedly cheeky (the movie could best be described as Moon-reich Kingdom), but McKenzie serves a vital role in grounding the Nazi goofs in a harrowing sense of immediacy. Her Elsa is scared, but resolute, someone haunted by the loss of the childhood she should be living; and yet, through Jojo and the labyrinthine games they play together, gets to enjoy a glimmer of wonder in the darkest time in human history.
What struck me as I spoke with Thomasin during the Chicago International Film Festival is her imagination, her quiet thoughtfulness; she takes her time, offers long, contemplative pauses as she gathers her thoughts. There’s something ethereal about her sense of wonder and imagination, someone with consideration beyond her years but who maintains the curiosity of childhood. Together, we spoke about coming into the process of the film, the cultural moment Jojo Rabbit arrives in, and how she might like to play an alien one day.
(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Overcast for sponsoring this episode!)
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This interview has been edited for clarity.
When you got the script and started reading about this character, what drew you to her? What stuck out and appealed to you about Elsa?
Throughout the whole process, I got to know Elsa more and more. When I first auditioned, I had one idea of who or what Elsa was, and by the end of it she became a completely different person to me. But I think something that stayed constant throughout the whole thing was her strength and her courage.
Since the film is centered so much on Jojo’s perspective, we don’t get a lot of the world outside of his perspective. What kind of conversations did you have with Taika [Waititi] about what Elsa’s life was like before the events of the film?
We really liked the idea that she could have been anything, really. I think she is a very layered character, who, like you said, we don’t have the privilege of seeing her life before World War II. But she could have been a bully, for all we know. She could have been one of the popular girls at school. I don’t know, she could have been anything, I guess, and I really liked playing with that idea. She’s smart, and witty, and so courageous, brave, but full of compassion as well.
So did you feel a freedom in that – you weren’t moored to a particular kind of backstory?
I did kind of develop the idea of her family, her relationship with [Jojo’s sister] Inge, but like I said I was really getting to know her as filming went on, and developing my idea of who she was.
What was your relationship like with [Jojo actor] Roman Griffin Davis – working together, and building your performances?
Getting to know each other was a very natural process. Jojo and Elsa’s relationship is such an integral part of the film; if we didn’t get along, well… we had to get along [laughs]. But we just spent a lot of time with each other, Roman and I, and our families. His mum and brothers and auntie were there during the shoot, so I spent a lot of time with them, and my dad was there with me. We got dinner with each other, and we drew each other a lot [laugh], we were really into drawing and art. I dunno, we just really got to know each other, and as our personal relationships were developing, so was our characters, so that was kind of reflected.
Jojo Rabbit deals with very dark themes — Nazi Germany, the Holocaust — but puts an explicitly comedic spin to it, as Taika is wont to do. How did that play into your role and dealing with that balance of tones?
Elsa’s role is one of the more grounded people in the film, so I never saw her role, or never thought my job was to play the comedy, I guess. There are definitely comedic moments, but I was more interested in her feeling like the sane one in this world of sane people.
That’s a quality she certainly shares with Scarlett Johansson’s character [Rosie], with whom you get a pair of really interesting, tender scenes. What was it like working with her, especially since you have to bring different things out of Elsa with her than you do with Jojo?
Scarlett’s the only adult Elsa really has a connection with in this film, and is able to be truthful to. Because on some degree, she’s having to lie to Jojo because she knows that Rosie is trying to keep up this charade, in a way, that all parents do with their kids – trying to make out as if everything is okay. But at the same time, Rosie wants him to be a good person. That’s something Elsa plays with throughout the film, plays with his ignorance and his innocence. For Elsa, it’s a relief that there was someone she could just be honest with.
And of course, the two of you have this wonderful exchange where you talk about how you haven’t really been able to live your life because you’ve been thrown in this life-or-death situation at such a young age. What was it like to play those moments?
Both Elsa and Rosie are two people who’ve lost loved ones and are really yearning for someone to look after them and to cry on someone’s shoulder or whatever. Elsa’s missing her mum and dad, her family, her friends, her people. Rosie’s missing her husband, her daughter, and also to a certain degree her son, because she sees she’s losing her son to… the dark side, I guess. I found those scenes really hard to film because Elsa is missing out on so much in her life. She’s been stuck in this annex for such a long time and isn’t able to see the world. She doesn’t know if she will ever be able to see the world. So that realization was such a confronting one: is Elsa going to be able to live a life beyond this?
You’ve mentioned in interviews before that you don’t want to dive too deeply into the political elements of this film, but there is an emotional undercurrent I think is very relevant about masculinity and finding new ways to navigate it amongst these toxic patterns. For Rosie and Elsa, it seems as though it’s incumbent upon the women of the film to do this labor of talking him off the extremist ledge. Was that something that came up during filming?
I don’t think it was a conversation we had while filming, but it was definitely something that was on everybody’s minds – the current political climate and this toxic…. I don’t know if it was masculinity, but certainly toxic hatred, and thinking about how that was reflected in the world today.
In that sense, you’ve mentioned before that you like to pick these kinds of roles where you can find truth and a sense of activism, in some way. How does this role fit into that mindset?
I think a lot of the roles I’ve done so far have all had kind of strong messages and strong themes, and this film is no exception. It’s definitely putting ideas out there and a true reminder to people of our past. But also I’m interested in my work taking on varied roles and not being stuck in the same kind of genre or character. I want to do things that challenge me. On the one hand, I love telling these kinds of stories that might be teaching people things and I can learn from them myself. On the other, I’m aware that film is a kind of therapy for people, and especially in times like these — or WWI or II — people used film and comics and books as a kind of escape from the real world. I think that is really important to be able to go into a film and, for an hour and a half, forget about the hardships you may be experiencing.
And the wonderful side effect of this film is that you can do both – Taika’s described this as an “anti-hate” film, but there’s also this sense of joy and empathy towards it, the sugar to the pill so to speak. How does it feel to be a part of something like that?
I think Taika was smart in the way he told this story, and very intentional in the way he told it as well. It allows people to look at this time in our history through a different lens, through the eyes of a young boy who is easily influenced and manipulated, and see how he absorbs things and perceives the world around him. Taika was able to use Jojo to remind older generations of their influence, and take that seriously. What they say, even the small things, it all adds up, and is constantly being absorbed by younger generations, and shapes what they become.
Speaking to that desire you mentioned earlier to take on varied roles, are there any particular genres or characters you haven’t explored yet that you’d really like to? I presume you don’t want to be running from the government yet again in your next role.
Yeah, I wanna get a visa [laughs]. One day, I wanna play an elf or an alien or something — just do things that are interesting and challenging and varied. Yeah…. yeah, one day I wanna play some alien who’s crashed to Planet Earth.