By Susan Kandell Wilkofsky
I was fortunate to meet with Thomasin McKenzie, who plays Elsa, the Jewish girl hidden in the wall of JoJo’s house. A native of Wellington, New Zealand, she has a lovely lilting accent and is quite articulate for a girl of 19. We met met briefly the evening of “JoJo Rabbit’s” press screening at the Angelika/Dallas and then in a more formal setting the next day. Below is a modified transcript of my interview with Thomasin.
Susan Kandell Wilkofsky: So good to see you again Thomasin! This interview today is for the Texas Jewish Post and because of the subject matter of the film, you know that means I have a lot of questions to ask you.
TM: Yes, I’m sure!
SKW: When you initially read the script, was it something you absolutely wanted to do or did you have some apprehension about playing Elsa?
Thomasin McKenzie: From the very beginning, it was something that I really, really wanted to do, not just because of the opportunity to work with Taika and the whole cast, but also because it is such an important story and a story we should never stop telling. But at the same time I was very nervous because it’s a role that represents many people. So I always knew that if I did get the opportunity to play Elsa, I would take the preparation very seriously and I wanted to be informed about her background.
SKW: Talking about preparation, what research did you do? Did you read the book that it was based upon?
TM: Taika did get inspiration from the book (“Caging Skies”) but he made it his own. And because the stories are different, I didn’t want to get confused, so instead of reading the book, I did a lot of research. I gathered as much information as possible on World War II and the Holocaust, as much as I could. I wanted to go into filming, knowing my stuff, knowing what I was talking about and to feel like I had a bit of confidence to play the character.
SKW: Yesterday we talked about Anne Frank’s diary. Was it part of the curriculum when you went school in New Zealand?
TM: I definitely learned about World War II and the Holocaust in school. I did read Anne Frank’s diary, and a lot of books with similar stories. I felt like those were compulsory research for me — that I had to do it if I was to take on this role. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable had I not read those books. I also spent a lot of time in the Jewish quarter in Prague and in synagogues and we went to Theresienstadt (concentration camp). Taking on a role like this, you have to approach it with sensitivity and take it seriously. Even though it’s a comedy is still a very real story.
SKW: I thought you portrayed Elsa with a great deal of sensitivity. I read that your mother is an actress, did she give you any advice?
TM: No. I’m not someone who has the best memory for that kind of stuff! So I think just being around her and my dad and grandmother, I learned a lot through osmosis!
SKW: Do you have any younger siblings?
TM: Yes! A younger sister.
SKW: Did that help you relate to Jojo?
TM: Yes, it did. My sister is the same age as Roman (JoJo) and she was with me for the first week in Prague. When she went back to New Zealand, I missed her a lot. So I kind of transferred that missing onto Roman and claimed him as my little brother.
SKW: Was Taika open to improv? What was it like to take directions from someone in a Hitler suit?
TM: Taika had a very specific kind of idea of what he wanted the film to be and how he wanted to make it. I mean, he had a blueprint and he had the script. The script is perfect from the beginning. And with my role and Roman’s role and maybe some of the more grounded roles, we stuck to the script and didn’t change it much. But I think with the more comedic roles, they definitely did a lot of improv. I remember even if I didn’t have a scene to film, sometimes I would just be on set watching every single take they did. They always came up with something new, something different to say, which was so cool to watch! They were very quick on their feet and witty. Kind of genius, comedy gold, which was really kind of inspiring to me. What I mostly remember of Taika directing as Hitler, was what he was wearing while directing. It was so hot while we were filming in Prague in the studio, he would take off the top layer of his ugly, Hitler uniform and underneath was his fat suit.
SKW: That must have been interesting! (We both laugh). Many Jews feel that it is never OK to laugh at such a serious subject. Certainly other filmmakers have attempted that — with success. How did you feel about that?
TM: I understand why they feel that way; their families, their ancestors, their people have been through so many hardships. of course. And so I understand that for them, this is obviously going to be very sensitive. I know that this film is never meant to make fun of or insult them in any way. Taika is Jewish himself and this is a story that’s very close to his heart. It means a lot to him.
SKW: Thank you so much Thomasin. I enjoyed meeting you — twice. Good luck to you.
TM: Nice meeting you as well!