Fellow earthlings, on movie screens near you, actress Thomasin McKenzie stars in “Jojo Rabbit” as a Jewish teen in hiding during World War II. But in the not-so-distant future, she may be playing an extraterrestrial.
At least if she gets her way.
The 19-year-old New Zealander — whose breakout role was in last year’s “Leave No Trace” — desperately wants to play an otherworldly being. (Pay attention, casting directors.) “I just think it would be so much fun,” she says. “A director told me once that I scare him because I reminded him of an alien, so I think that’s why I want to realize that.”
For now, though, her feet are firmly planted on this planet, and her current film has an eye cast to the past. In writer-director Taika Waititi’s irreverent “Jojo Rabbit,” McKenzie plays Elsa, a Jewish 17-year-old who seeks shelter in the walls of the home owned by Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), a woman secretly working for the German resistance. Rosie’s son, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), however, is a blindly exuberant believer in Nazi ideals. His imaginary friend, played by Waititi, is Adolf Hitler.
Days before the Friday release of the film — which is based on a novel by Christine Leunens and billed as an “anti-hate satire” — McKenzie spoke with The Lily about working as an actress, how she decompresses, her obsession with miniature objects and her bond with her grandmother.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
The Lily: You come from a family of actors and screenwriters, and as a very young person, you didn’t want to pursue a career in acting. But at age 13, you took on the role of a girl who was raped by policemen in the film “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story,” which is based on a true story. As someone who didn’t want to act, what made you take on such a weighty role?
Thomasin McKenzie: I was never allowed to read the full script, and when the film came out, I wasn’t allowed to watch the full thing, but reading the audition scenes and reading my scenes, I immediately got the feeling that it was an important story and one that needed to be heard. Being 13, it’s an exciting prospect to be a part of a more mature conversation. So I think that’s probably why I was attracted to it, and it did turn out to be something that really opened my eyes and also really made a difference and educated people on the abuse of power.
TL: In “Jojo Rabbit,” it seems like you have to pull off a balancing act. You play Elsa, a Jewish teenager in hiding who has lost her loved ones; the film is set during a period of extreme hatred and violence. But there’s a lot of humor in the movie. Was it challenging to strike the right tone?
TM: To be honest, that was something that I left to Taika. I never felt like in my scenes I was trying to be funny or trying to keep up with the humor of it. I was just there to tell the story, and I always had a lot of trust in Taika that he was going to cut it and edit it in a way that really suited the tone of the film. So I don’t think it was necessarily my job to feel like I had to crack jokes.
TL: Were there any scenes that felt particularly difficult for you?
TM: Definitely. It is a comedy, but it’s also something that deals with really heavy subject matter. Over the period of the whole shoot, I was learning things and taking in information. Through my preparation, I learned about really, really devastating and disgusting things. Just processing that and knowing what kind of monstrosities took place would be a hard thing for anybody. But also, this film holds so much hope and so much joy. I like to say it’s a film that finds the light in a really disgusting time.
TL: How did you prepare for the role?
TM: Before arriving in Prague, I read a lot of books, like the story of Anne Frank, and using modern-day research and modern-day tools, I looked online. But also, once I arrived in Prague, I went to Theresienstadt, which is a concentration camp just outside of Prague, and I walked around there. I also walked around the old Jewish quarter with a historian, and she kind of filled in a lot of the gaps for me about what it was like to live day-to-day life during that time. I went to different synagogues and to a Jewish cemetery in Prague. I tried to absorb as much as I possibly could. And also, when I met Taika, he immediately told me to watch “Mean Girls” and “Heathers” as research to highlight the fact that, of course, Elsa is a victim but she’s also a person with so many layers. Being a victim isn’t what defines her. She’s also strong and courageous and smart, witty, funny, compassionate — and she’s a girl that’s really scared and confused.
TL: I heard that you play “The Sims” for stress relief. How else do you decompress?
TM: I like running, because it feels like I’ve claimed that to be something that Thomasin does and not something that any of my characters do. I’m a big fan — especially when I’m in New Zealand — of going on walks through nature and spending time with my grandma and my dog. When I’m overseas, “Sims” is probably the main thing. Also, reading of course. I love to read.
TL: Have you read anything recently that you really enjoyed?
TM: Yes, I recently read “The Miniaturist.” I can’t remember the author’s name, but that was really, really good.
TL: What’s it about?
TM: It’s about a young girl that marries a man and then she starts being sent these miniature dolls that seem to be predicting what goes on in her life. Actually, it was fitting. It was good for me because I’m kind of obsessed with miniature things. Another really geeky thing about me, on top of playing “Sims,” is that I’m obsessed with Sylvanian Families. I think in America you call them Calico Critters. Those little tiny animals, I love them so much. Anything tiny, I’m on board.
TL: Can you tell me about some of the movies that have influenced you as an actress?
TM: I’ve always been a massive fan of Hayao Miyazaki, so his films like “My Neighbor Totoro” and “Spirited Away,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Arrietty,” all those films I’ve always really, really loved — my whole family has. What else? “Winter’s Bone” by Debra Granik is something that’s really been a big inspiration to me, because I really like films that are super naturalistic and like a slice of life. You feel like you’re on a journey with the character, and that the character is someone who could live next door to you. Same with “Wendy and Lucy” with Michelle Williams. And I love Audrey Hepburn, so “Funny Face” and “Sabrina” are really two big parts of my movie life.
TL: You’re really close with your grandmother. Do you live together?
TM: I do live with her; I’ve lived with my grandma my whole life. We share a house. So my mom, my dad, my sister — and previously my brother, but now my brother has moved out — they all lived upstairs, and then my bedroom is right next to my grandma’s bedroom and her house is downstairs. We are very close. When I’m at home, sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I can hear her snoring. It’s a very reassuring sound.
TL: Your grandmother is also an actress, right?
TM: She’s got a really cool story. She started off as a singer and she went to school for that, and then she went into radio, and then she went on to stage and to screen. She was made a dame for being a pioneer in the film industry in New Zealand.
TL: What’s your grandmother’s name?
TM: Kate, dame Kate Harcourt. But when she’s in trouble, my mum calls her Catherine Winifred. She’s the oldest teenager in our family.