Wellington actor Thomasin McKenzie’s star is rising in Hollywood at a crucial time. She ponders the power of storytelling, strong women and her role in the darkly mesmerising Oscar-nominated comedy Jojo Rabbit.
It’s midday in LA and Thomasin McKenzie is taking my call from her Four Seasons hotel room overlooking Beverly Hills and the city beyond. So perfectly picturesque a setting could easily imply my interviewee is Hollywood’s well-loved ingénue, but the New Zealand-based actor has too much grit and grace to be caught up in a cliché.
“The reason why I got into acting, why I became passionate about it, was because I feel like it’s such an important medium to share different ways of life, different experiences and just telling certain stories – things that need to be heard,” she explains, in her disarmingly charming voice. The daughter of acting coach and actor Miranda Harcourt and director and writer Stuart McKenzie, the 19-year-old’s first gig was in fact as a baby in her mother’s stage play Into the Woods. A popular run as Pixie Hannah in Shortland Street and a bit part in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit series followed, before her big international break in Debra Granik’s 2018 survivalist tale Leave No Trace.
To land the most talked-about role on the film festival circuit, Thomasin recorded her audition tape on a GoPro as she ran through a favourite hiking track near her Wellington home. When she finally met Debra, and her co-lead Ben Foster, on the Oregon hinterland set, she greeted them with a traditional hongi, as a way to close the distance.
Fast forward to just one year after the film’s release and Thomasin is busy promoting several projects: Taika Waititi’s striking World War II anti-hate satire Jojo Rabbit, historical Netflix drama The King with Timothée Chalamet, the Ned Kelly-inspired True History of the Kelly Gang and leading roles in drama-mystery Lost Girls and horror-thriller Last Night in Soho.
At a pivotal stage in her career, Thomasin is used to people screaming her name on the red carpet one day, then not recognising her at all on a trip to a vegan restaurant with her mum the next. “I’m in the spotlight when I’m promoting something. But when I’m just being myself then no one cares, which I kind of love. It’s a weird juxtaposition.”
The actor’s life is nothing short of a whirlwind, but Thomasin says she is happiest when working. Recently, this has included being on set in Prague for the Oscar-nominated Jojo Rabbit, which is set in a fictional German village called Falkenheim. “It’s such an incredible experience. I felt lucky throughout the entire shoot,” she says. “Reading the script, I knew straightaway that it was going to be something special.” Thomasin plays Elsa, a Jewish girl who slowly builds a friendship with Nazi youth Jojo, after he finds her hiding in a crawl space in his home. Unlike the usual war victim stereotypes, Elsa is a complicated as well as compelling character who you could imagine was one of the cool teens before her world crumbled around her. While she diligently researched for the role by reading histories of the Holocaust, Taika suggested she also watch cult ’80s film Heathers for a new perspective. “I knew Thomasin from New Zealand,” he notes. “And I knew she was a rising star with something really special.”
The film is based on Caging Skies, by Nelson-based novelist Christine Leunens, and while Thomasin insists she was not handed the powerful part by the film’s Kiwi director – instead waiting nervously for a call during the standard auditioning process – it was clear when she arrived on set that the New Zealanders were taking over. Even her dad worked on the project. As the third of four children, the actor has experienced a parenting style that is supportive yet hands-off. She says she has gradually learnt from her mum and dad by osmosis – including observing them when she played a supporting role in their Margaret Mahy adaption film The Changeover last year.
While she’s lighting up Hollywood, Thomasin is looking forward to coming back down to earth on a trip home to New Zealand soon. There are friends to see and the bound-to-be-embarrassing speeches at her brother’s 21st to catch. Another special person to visit is her grandmother Dame Kate Harcourt, who lives on the ground floor of the family’s Karori home and is a working actor in her 90s. Recently, Thomasin was in Auckland for production of female-led film The Justice of Bunny King, an inspiring moment for the star who has her sights on producing or perhaps developing films one day. (An animal lover and sustainability supporter, she’d also love to do something to give back – and there’s university to think about too.) I note her career is gaining momentum during a crucial time in the entertainment industry, when women are finding their voices like never before. Thomasin cites the way executive producers Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon (both clients of her mother’s) have promoted strong female characters as a great sign of the times, but she is not naïve to the shadows of Hollywood.
“Obviously we’ve still got a way to go in terms of actual equality between men and women,” she posits. “I feel like I have control over my path in this industry and I’m very lucky to be in this world now… Women still are being taken advantage of and I think we’ve got a while to go, but it’s still an exciting time.” The studio’s press person chimes in on the line and it’s time for my call to the City of Angels to come to an end.
Words: Jessica-Belle Greer
Photo: Getty Images
This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly Issue 4, 2019. You can find more of Thomasin’s red carpet looks here.