CIFF 2019: Thomasin McKenzie on “Jojo Rabbit”

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Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit.” Photo by Kimberley French. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

I can honestly say that Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” is a film I’ve been eagerly awaiting for well over a year. It was last summer at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival that I first met one of its stars, Thomasin McKenzie, who has quickly emerged as one of the finest talents of her generation. The New Zealand-based actress was at the festival to present her breakout performance in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” (one of 2018’s best films criminally snubbed at the Oscars), and I was only supposed to conduct a normal-sized interview with her, yet our conversation continued over several days. I also got to know her father, Stuart McKenzie, a brilliant writer and filmmaker, who told me of the movie his daughter—then 17—was currently shooting in Prague. Without giving away too much about Waititi’s Holocaust-era comedy, he explained that “a lot of the humor stems from an incongruity of how a child interprets the world in relation to what’s really happening.”

Never would I have imagined that this Fox Searchlight release would turn out to be one of the most polarizing and controversial awards season contenders of 2019, earning acclaim from moviegoers (it snagged the Audience Award in Toronto) and righteous vitriol from numerous critics. In a move that suggests Disney’s purchase of Fox may be the worst thing to happen to mainstream cinema since…well, Disney’s “Lion King” remake, the Chicago International Film Festival (CIFF) premiere of “Jojo Rabbit” was preceded by an infantilizing mini-featurette requiring Waititi to explain that his movie is a satire, as if it couldn’t convey that well enough on its own terms. Waititi, of course, has nothing to explain, since his film—which is not at all the trivializing mess its detractors have claimed—speaks for itself. Thomasin’s portrayal of Elsa, the Jewish girl being hidden in the attic of Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), mother of the film’s Hitler-idolizing protagonist Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), is anything but a caricature. It’s as vividly etched as her work in Granik’s film, yet entirely fresh in its piercing wit.

“When I was still in New Zealand, I read books like The Diary of Anne Frank and I used the internet to find out as much as I possibly could about that time,” Thomasin, now 19 and unaccompanied by her parents, recalled on the CIFF red carpet. “I also learned about WWII and the Holocaust at school, so I was aware of the structure and the facts. I knew the causes and the consequences of everything, so when I arrived in Prague, my main goal was to fill in a lot of the gaps and to understand what the day-to-day life was like during WWII. I spent a lot of time in the Jewish Quarter in Prague with a historian, who was able to walk me through what everyday life would’ve been like back then. I went to different Jewish synagogues and the Old Jewish Cemetery, as well as visited the Terezin concentration camp just outside of Prague. I looked around there, just absorbing the energy. I think it’s important to be in those places that hold so much history. Being in Prague was kind of an education in itself because it was occupied by Germany during WWII. In fact, Barrandov Studios, where we filmed, was used by Nazis to film their propaganda.”

During our initial conversation about “Leave No Trace,” Thomasin recalled a scene where she kicked dirt over a cherished seahorse necklace her character had to leave behind but didn’t want anyone else to claim as their own. It was an improvised bit that earned a big laugh at Sundance. Her role in “Jojo Rabbit” didn’t allow for as much spontaneity, particularly in regards to the scripted dialogue, which includes one of the year’s best exchanges (written by Waititi, adapting Christine Leunens’ Caging Skies) as Jojo first discovers Elsa. “You know what I am?” she asks intimidatingly. “A Jew,” he replies, petrified, to which she quips, “Gesundheit.”

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Thomasin McKenzie and me at this week’s press event for “Jojo Rabbit” at the Chicago International Film Festival.

“Taika knew exactly what he wanted,” Thomasin told me. “He had a blueprint for the whole film, and although there was a lot of freedom for experimentation on set—the freedom was in the delivery of the lines, not in the lines themselves. For my part, I wasn’t changing my lines, but there were a lot of differences in how I delivered them. A great piece of improv that actually changed the film itself was delivered by Rebel Wilson. In the scene where they’re at the Hitler Youth offices, she says, ‘I’ll go take the clones for a walk.’ From that one piece of information, Taika created that whole cutaway shot of the clones. That was probably, in my opinion, the best piece of improv in the film.”

What makes the film work so well are the marvelous performances by its two young leads, who form a tangible human bond amidst the heightened lunacy. There are times the film reminded me of the endearing ’60s-set series “The Wonder Years” if Kevin Arnold and Paul Pfeiffer (the latter channeled here by Archie Yates as Jojo’s scene-stealing pal, Yorki) had been indoctrinated into Nazism. When I interviewed Thomasin’s mother, Miranda Harcourt, a multi-talented artist in her own right, she discussed her methods for incorporating the Māori principles of aroha (love) and whānau (family) on the set of her and Stuart’s superb YA drama, “The Changeover.” I got the sense, just watching “Jojo,” that its production was enchanted by a similarly unifying vibe, courtesy of its director.

“The relationship between Elsa and Jojo is such an integral one because the scenes that they share are among the most grounded in the film,” McKenzie agreed. “Roman and I definitely had a brotherly-sisterly relationship. My little sister, Davida, was back in New Zealand when I was filming ‘Jojo’ in Prague, so I was missing her a lot, and I kind of transferred that missing onto Roman. There were so many New Zealanders on the set—the set designer, the head of makeup, Roman’s acting coach, the producers, Taika himself—that there was definitely a feeling of whānau and community. Roman’s twin brothers actually had a cameo in the film—they played the clones!”

Waititi deservedly earned the Ebert Director Award at TIFF for establishing himself as a 21st century Mel Brooks in how he’s decimated the power of prejudicial monsters by illuminating their inherent absurdity. In “Jojo,” he doesn’t play Hitler but rather Jojo’s imaginary friend taking the form of the Führer crossed with Daniel Stern’s goofball pitching coach from “Rookie of the Year.” His pathetic pleads of “Heil me?”, recalling the “Heil myself!” section of “Springtime for Hitler,” deftly expresses the impotence of tyrants who desperately need our devotion in order to reign supreme. Sam Rockwell “blows shtuff up” as a disillusioned Gestapo leader exuding a Bill Murray-esque deadpan delivery, while a fearsomely tall Stephen Merchant resembles the Nazi from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” if he had been stretched on a rack.

“Because this film is a comedy, it is so much more accessible to younger generations,” Thomasin stressed. “There’s a saying from the end of WWII that goes, ‘We will never forget,’ meaning we’ll never forget this event and what has happened in these past years. But last year, The Washington Post came out with an article saying that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of American millennials, don’t know what Auschwitz is and haven’t heard of the main death camps during WWII. They don’t know what they were, so we are forgetting.”

It was the experience of playing a woman who was raped by policemen from the age of 13 up until her young adult life that made Thomasin realize how acting could grant her the opportunity to make a difference. This harrowing role in Robert Sarkies’ 2014 fact-based drama, “Consent: The Louise Nicholas Story” was only the second film of Thomasin’s career and the first that made her realize she had found her true calling. Miranda, a veteran acting coach whose clients have included Nicole Kidman and Melanie Lynskey, said she was coaching a few actors via Skype for the role of young Louise when her daughter suddenly mentioned that she’d like to audition. “But you hate acting,” Miranda asserted, but Thomasin persisted by saying, “It sounds like a really great story to tell.” Her reasons for making “Jojo Rabbit” are clearly no different.

“There are so many messages in the film that people can take away from it, but I think the main one is accepting people for who they are and for what they believe in and where they come from,” affirmed Thomasin. “Especially given the current political climate we’re living in right now, it is a reminder to everyone about the atrocities of the past and a warning that we cannot let these things be repeated.”

You got that, Disney?

“Jojo Rabbit” hops into Chicago theaters tonight, and goes into wide release on Friday, November 1st.

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