Thomasin McKenzie’s imagination is a powerful thing. Talking to her about “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi’s dark, satirical adaptation of the Christine Leunens book Caging Skies, means talking a lot about the inner life of her character, not just as we see her, but the moments before, after, and the life she might have had in another time and place. To this incredibly skilled young performer, it’s just common sense—this is how she works, no big deal. But from the outside, it’s indicative of a performer in actor of vast stores of empathy, who looks at a character and sees not just the actions they take in the moments we see, but the paths not taken. McKenzie doesn’t stop at understanding who Elsa is. She reaches past that, to who she wants to be, who she could be, and to the Elsa that would have been, had the brutality and hatred of others not gotten in the way.
That is, in this writer’s opinion, a huge part of what makes McKenzie’s performance in “Jojo Rabbit” so successful. The night before our conversation, in a Q&A following a screening of the film during the Chicago International Film Festival, she spoke at length about the work she did to prepare for her role. The Diary of Anne Frank is mentioned; sessions with a historian and visits to a concentration camp and other sites in Poland also informed her performance. But then she mentions that Waititi also asked her to watch “Mean Girls” and “Heathers,” and her eyes lit up. The director’s suggestion opened up a new door into Elsa’s life for McKenzie—an alternate life, where she got to have friends, and get into trouble, and be cruel, and feel bad about that cruelty. “With Elsa, Taika and I wanted to put more emphasis on her strength than on her being a victim,” she tells me the following morning, a sentiment she’s eager to establish. In McKenzie’s hands, with Waititi’s guidance, Elsa becomes someone who was robbed of something precious—life as an average teenage girl.
Call that imagination if you like, or call it empathy—but whatever else it is, it’s great acting. McKenzie spoke with RogerEbert.com about playing Elsa, dancing on screen, and her own (slightly terrifying) imaginary friend.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Moments after we meet Elsa, there’s this moment where she’s offscreen and out of Jojo’s line of sight, and she walks her fingers into the frame on the bannister of the stairs. It’s both playful and, from Jojo’s perspective, oddly menacing. How did that moment come about?
That was the very first scene I shot on “Jojo Rabbit.” Taika and I were establishing Elsa as a person, I think. We were still figuring out, a little bit, her personality. With that stair thing, it was kind of just a moment of improv where she's really playful, and she's kind of cheeky. She's teasing Jojo, but also really freaking him out by playing with the idea that she's the monster in the attic. [It’s part of] using his words, or the words of the Nazi regime, against him. But that was a moment that shows her playfulness. It was a moment of improv, and Taika liked it, so we kept doing it.
How did you balance that playfulness—she's obviously a kind person, a compassionate person, a funny person—with Elsa’s anger, and fear, and the life-and-death stakes of that moment?
I think the audience always knows what’s happening under the surface. They know the fear and the tension that’s underneath all the humor and everything. We always get a sense of that throughout the film, and so even the moments of joy or laughter, you still feel the risk ... And Elsa, she didn't want to show her fear. She wanted to put on a brave front, and not give in to the things that had been said about her, or give in to the fear. I think that’s how she survived, by staying so strong in herself. I never wanted to play the humor. Elsa, she was trying to hide her fear, so that's what I was trying to do also.
That happens often throughout the film, whether it’s with Jojo or with others—she also has to play a role.
How does that affect your work as an actor, when you’re playing someone who’s playing a part herself?
That's an interesting question. This isn't quite an answer, but with Elsa, she's a very smart girl. She’s able to twist Jojo's beliefs, the Nazi beliefs, and use that against them. I think when you're playing a character, sometimes you're doing a scene, and you just kind of completely forget about the crew, the camera, your own life and you really are that character, in that moment. And so it's not like you're playing someone who is playing someone else. You are that someone else. You are the person you're playing, and that's when you know that it's working. That's when you know you've kind of related to the character and have got into their head.
So when Elsa is sort of playing this monster in the attic, are you playing the monster?
I'm playing a smart girl that knows what her power is.
What role do you think imagination plays in Elsa's life?
I think when you're a young girl going through a horrible, horrible experience—being trapped in a small room, and having no freedom to even move around, unable to live out your own dreams ... I think she would have relied a lot on her imagination. Like in those scenes with Rosie [Scarlett Johansson’s character], where Rosie is talking about going overseas and falling in love with men and breaking those men's hearts, and looking a real tiger in the eye and stuff. In that scene, you can really see that something has sparked Elsa's imagination. It's those experiences and the life beyond the walls that she's being confined by. So she's really excited by that, and at the same time really devastated by that, because who knows if she's going to be able to have those experiences or not. Her smarts and her strength were able to get her through and help her to survive. I think her imagination would've played a part in that as well.
How does it affect her relationship with Jojo?
Throughout the film we see through her art, and how she describes the Jewish people as being magical and kind of ethereal, like fairies or magical creatures with wings. She's full of so much creativity. She was able to see things, and take things in, and view them in a different way. I think with this book that Jojo is creating, this exposé on Jews, that's something she's able to pick up on and then kind of use against him. Although it's his, she's also able to kind of turn it into her own kind of book, her own exposé on Jews. I think you have to have an amazing imagination, and also a lot of power to be able to do that.
Do you have any idea of what kind of imaginary friend she might've had as a 10-year-old? Not Hitler, obviously.
Oh, I don't know. She's a young teenager, a young girl like I am. When I was younger, when I was 10, I had an imaginary friend called Mr. Monroe, who was this ugly furball with big feet and these dark holes for eyes. So, I think her imaginary best friend could have been anything.
Wow, he sounds kind of terrifying, but amazing. Dark holes for eyes?
Dance plays a really important role in this film. Is that something that comes naturally to you?
It's not really something that comes naturally to me. Sometimes you feel embarrassed, dancing or moving in front of people. I think for Elsa that dance, just the idea of dancing, was so important because [of the nature of her life] in those years, during the war and even the lead-up to the war. She would've been living with a lot of tension, and being quite rigid and restricted in her body and her movements. Feeling like she can't make big movements without the risk of her own life, and being noticed. And then being preyed upon by the Nazis, and also just being in that very restricted space.
I remember filming the scenes where she comes out of her cubby, her annex, and into the room, and just standing up. She couldn't stand up in her cubby, she had to be crouched down all the time. So even being able to come out of her door and stand up, and kind of stretch out and come to her full height, even that kind of movement would have been something that was quite special to her. Just being able to stand up to her full height. Movement is an expression of emotion and being able to express yourself. That’s just freedom, I think.