Rising star and third generation actor Thomasin McKenzie discusses her character in ‘Jojo Rabbit’

“Jojo Rabbit,” based on the book Caging Spies by Christine Leunens, pushes the boundaries in satirical storytelling in ways that only director Taika Watiti can do.  His bold and daring satire about a little boy whose pretend friend is Hitler hits all the right notes. It makes us not just laugh, but think and even create sympathy for our little friend Jojo, his mom, and more importantly, Elsa, the little girl hiding in the walls of his house. You might even draw a few parallel lines to today’s political unrest.

Thomasin McKenzie at the Chicago International Film Festival 2019

The film debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival and most recently at the Chicago International Film Festival, it continues to entertain and create quite a controversial buzz.  I had a chance to sit down with Thomasin McKenzie who portrays Elsa to discuss her background and her role in this memorable film.  (Edited for space and clarity)

PAMELA POWELL:  Can you tell me about your role and how you prepared for it?

THOMASIN MCKENZIE: My character Elsa is a young Jewish girl who is hiding away in the walls of the main character Jojo’s house. She’s being hidden by Jojo’s mum played by Scarlett Johansson. In preparation, 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.  I also learned about WWII and the Holocaust at school. My main goal arriving in Prague to film 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 everyday life and I visited different Synagogues and the Jewish Cemetery.  I visited Terezin, the Jewish concentration camp just outside Prague, just kind of absorbing the energy, I guess. It was important to be in those places that hold so much history.  Also just being in Prague was an education in itself because it was occupied by Germany during WWII.  Even Barrandov Studios, where we filmed, was used by Nazis to film Nazi propaganda.

POWELL:  That had to be quite impactful, emotionally.

Thomasin McKenzie in “Jojo Rabbit”

MCKENZIE: It’s a period of our history filled with so many horrors, the things that people believed back then. It makes you feel sick and it’s just so unbelievable that people could be so manipulated and brainwashed by a guy spreading such disgusting ideas and beliefs.  It was a very heavy, heavy film, but I think it’s a comedy and it’s a film that finds so much happiness and joy in an otherwise really horrible time.

POWELL:  Tell me about having Taika Waititi as a director.

“Jojo Rabbit” cast with director Taika Waititi

MCKENZIE:  It was amazing working with him. He’s got his style and way of approaching things that is very different from any other director I’ve ever worked with. He taught me how to open up and how to look at characters in an unexpected way, which is something I think he’s done in all of his films.

POWELL:  What message do you hope viewers will take away?

MCKENZIE:  I think there are so many messages in the film people can take away, but I think the main ones are acceptance of people for who they are, what they believe, and where they come from.  Also, especially given the current kind of political climate we’re living in right now, it’s a reminder to people of the past, and the atrocities of the past, and a warning to everyone that we can’t let these things be repeated. 

I think there are so many messages in the film people can take away, but I think the main ones are acceptance of people for who they are, what they believe, and where they come from. 

POWELL: There’s a pivotal scene where your character must present her papers to the Nazi soldiers. 

MCKENZIE:  That is a very important scene in Elsa’s story because it is kind of the moment where we fully see her strength and how gutsy she is.  You have to have a lot of bravery to stand up to people who told so many lies about you and are actually terrified of you. I think that scene definitely helps us to understand Elsa and we also get to see more of how fearful she is as well as how uncertain she is about her future. In what we had seen of her before, she was a lot more confident and she holds so much power throughout the film, so it’s kind of unexpected when we start to see her freak out a little bit.

POWELL:  You come from a filmmaking family.  How did this impact you in your profession?

MCKENZIE: Acting isn’t what I wanted to do. I was more interested in anything else, really. But it was something that really grew on me. I’m a third generation actress, so just being around my mom and my grandma and also my dad and my siblings, I learned a lot by watching them and being inspired by them. My family’s full of very strong female characters and they inspired me to take control of my life and do what I’m passionate about. 

My family’s full of very strong female characters and they inspired me to take control of my life and do what I’m passionate about. 

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