Alex Casey talks to Wellington-born Thomasin McKenzie, Sylvanian Family enthusiast and star of Jojo Rabbit.
At just 19, Thomasin McKenzie has already played a sexual assault survivor, a cancer patient and a Jewish teenager hiding in the walls during WW2. I was pleased to see her enjoying a day off on her mum’s Instagram the day before our interview, excitedly waiting to go on a roller coaster in the sunshine on Venice Beach. She’s earned it.
“The roller coasters were good,” she told me over the phone soon after. “I was holding my mum’s hand – not because I was scared, but because she was terrified.”
I’m frankly terrified of Wellington-born McKenzie. She talks like Audrey Hepburn. She’s already won a breakthrough award for her role in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace – she’s the director who gave Jennifer Lawrence her big break in Winter’s Bone. She is one of the best parts of Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. She’s got a Netflix series coming up with Timothée Chalamet, and just finished making a film with Edgar Wright.
Oh, and that scared mum on the rollercoaster? It’s just Miranda Harcourt, New Zealand acting legend and daughter of Dame Kate Harcourt, also an acting legend.
It’s not a bad innings for a girl who once sat in front of that same dame and listed every profession she would rather do before acting. “I never wanted to make a career out of acting, says McKenzie. “I remember my grandma asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said every single job I could think of. After doctor, zookeeper, lawyer, vet, model, I finally said ‘but I do NOT want to be an actress’. Back then, acting was just something I did to buy Sylvanian Families.”
These days, over 10 years since her first gig, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of time for Sylvanian Families between film premieres. “Yeah, I guess my life is crazy,” she laughs. “It’s a whirlwind, but it’s good to always remember that the whole red carpet thing isn’t why I do what I do. I’m doing what I do because I love to tell stories.” But she doesn’t just pick any old story – each of McKenzie’s roles so far appear to be wrenched from a different dark corner of the human experience.
Although these roles are what she gravitates towards time and again, McKenzie is frank about the impact that such heavy subjects can have on a person. When she played cancer patient Pixie on Shortland Street at the age of 14, she admits the subject got under her skin. “I got really freaked out by the idea of cancer and went down a dark hole where I was researching it all the time,” she says. “It can really take its toll.”
So how the hell, then, did she prepare to play Elsa, the teenage girl living in Germany in World War 2 who is forced to go into hiding in Jojo Rabbit? Besides absorbing seminal texts like The Diary of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List, McKenzie says that director and writer Taika Waititi set her some homework that didn’t seem canon: sassy teen flicks Mean Girls and Heathers.
It shows. Elsa explodes from the walls in Jojo Rabbit, as scathing and sarcastic and fierce as Janice Ian getting worked up in the high school cafeteria – not what we’re used to seeing in films about the Holocaust. “I wanted to show that she was a victim but she wasn’t defined by it,” says McKenzie. “That she had a life before World War 2. She goes through puberty, she’s funny, she’s witty, she’s smart, she’s talented.”
McKenzie also took every opportunity she could to absorb the atrocities. “I had a responsibility to represent such a massive population, so I wanted to go into the role with as much knowledge as I could.” In Prague, where the film was shot, she visited the local synagogue, the Jewish cemetery, and a nearby concentration camp. “I walked around there and tried to take it all in,” she says quietly, “all the hatred and terror and fear in those walls.”
Even Barrandov Studios, the Prague studio where they shot interior scenes, was once used to make Nazi propaganda videos. “It was such a unique experience and I knew the whole time that this was a story that can be a part of a wider conversation,” says McKenzie. “I never doubted the film, I trusted Taika and Carthew [Neal, the producer] and we all knew it was always going to be something special.”
And Jojo Rabbit is special. It’s a surprising celebration of love and kindness as a force against evil and hate, a soothing balm as we continue careening straight into the burning hell world. “There’s a lot of hatred and anger going on right now,” says McKenzie. “I think that people are forgetting that not one person has exactly the same beliefs or opinions or way of life, we are all different.”
“In order to live in harmony, we’ve got to understand that nobody is exactly the same. My biggest fear is that people are so ignorant to that fact, which is why I think this film has potential to do a lot for the world right now.”
Jojo Rabbit opens in cinemas nationwide today
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