Thomasin McKenzie has been on this planet for just 19 years and acting for seven of those, but she made a tremendous international impression in 2018 with her starring role in Leave No Trace, in which she played the daughter of a man who lived in the forest as a way to deal with his PTSD. McKenzie was outstanding in the film, so it’s hardly a surprise that she’s equally striking in the new Jojo Rabbit.
In director Taika Waititi’s black comedy, she plays Elsa Korr, a young Jewish girl whom single mother Rosie Betzler (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding in the walls of her house in a small German town toward the end of World War II. But then Rosie’s son Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a naïve 10-year-old who desperately wants to join the Hitler Youth and whose imaginary friend is the Fuhrer himself (Waititi), discovers Elsa. The two begin a friendship of sorts, despite the danger to all concerned.
“I think the main thing with Elsa that Taika and I wanted to show was…of course, she’s a victim and going through a really atrocious part of history, but she’s also a person with many different layers,” says McKenzie. “She’s funny and witty and smart and caring, and then there’s just so much to her. We wanted to show that this part of history, this moment in time, is not what defines who she is.”
As some critics have pointed out, Nazis and humor are strange — but not unprecedented — cinematic bedfellows. Waititi’s film works hard to maintain the gravity of the situation while also highlighting how absurd it can be. “Of course I was aware of the fact that it is very sensitive subject matter,” concurs McKenzie. “Especially for my character, she was someone that had to be approached with a lot of care, because she’s representing a lot of people who had been there.”
To someone of McKenzie’s age, World War II is perhaps an even more distant historical event than for the generation or two immediately preceding hers, but the young actress took it upon herself to prepare as much as possible by confronting that dark chapter of history head-on.
“I tried to do as much research as I possibly could,” she explains. “I read a lot, and I went to Terezin, the concentration camp outside Prague (where the film was shot), and spent time there. Although it’s been about 80 years since World War II, you can still feel — there’s like a residue of all the evil and hate in the walls. I also went to the old Jewish quarter in Prague and spent a lot of time there with a historian.”
Immersing herself in the terrible memories of the time only reminded McKenzie that the message of Jojo Rabbit is perhaps even more relevant now, as hot spots of fascism, racial and religious hatred, anti-Semitism and ethnic cleansing seem to be flaring up with more frequency now.
“My favorite thing about this film is that it promotes acceptance,” McKenzie says. “It reminds people of the fact that we are all one, we’re all human beings and we’re all on, I guess, the same journey in life. And the only way we can live together in this world in harmony is to accept the fact that there are different religions, different cultures, ethnicities, ways of life, beliefs and opinions out there.”
Jojo Rabbit is in theaters now.