It’s 9pm in Prague and Thomasin McKenzie has just finished on the set of Taika Waititi’s upcoming World War II satire Jojo Rabbit. “We had a busy day but a good day,” enthuses McKenzie who plays Elsa, a young Jewish girl who forces a Hitler Youth camp member to question his own beliefs. “He’s just a genius man with an awesome vision for the project,” McKenzie says of director Waititi.
As fellow Kiwi Waititi has skyrocketed to success in the film world, the effervescent 18-year-old is quickly finding her own place in the limelight. While McKenzie is no newcomer to acting, acclaimed director Debra Granik’s latest film, Leave No Trace, has been her big break on the silver screen. The young Wellingtonian plays Tom, a 13-year-old living off the grid with her father (played by Ben Foster). Her performance has been much-lauded by critics and audiences around the globe.
“When I was filming Leave No Trace, I knew it was a special film and I’m extremely proud of it,” says McKenzie. “But I wasn’t prepared for the response it’s had. I feel really lucky that this particular film is my entry into the international film industry.” In fact, in the McKenzie family, acting runs in the blood. Her mother, actress and acting coach Miranda Harcourt, boasts coaching some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Nicole Kidman and Joaquin Phoenix, while McKenzie’s grandmother, Kate Harcourt became a Dame Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in the 1990s for her contribution to theatre.
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“They’re a really incredible support force,” says McKenzie. “Both of them are strong females who aren’t scared to have an opinion.” McKenzie’s father, Stuart McKenzie, is a director and screenwriter, so presumably film and acting must dominate the conversation at the dinner table?
“Not really, to be honest,” laughs McKenzie. “My big brother is into politics and he’s often leading debates about what’s going on around the world.” Her friends back at Marsden School in Wellington, are “pretty chillaxed” with her rise to stardom, she says.
Adapting to a glitzy world that comes hand in hand with international success is something McKenzie has had to do quickly – she’s already attended the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. “There have been lots of interviews, red carpets and fancy dresses,” she says reflecting on her experience which she admits has been a little stressful at times.
“It’s that whole hype around celebrity which I’m not used to. I’m not a celebrity, honestly,” she says. “The acting really is my favourite part of this whole journey. But it’s been fun. It’s a crazy-cool experience.”
At the Sundance festival, she eschewed the fancy frocks in favour of a simple T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Strong female character.” This was an apt gesture given the current Hollywood climate. “It’s a really important message,” says McKenzie, “and kind of fitting at the time, with women in the film industry and industries all over the world starting to receive more respect and not being thought of as less valuable than men. With the Me Too movement it was just very fitting.”
Given the red carpet events and all that comes with a career in the film industry, it would be easy to understand how a young up-and-coming actress could become besotted with the trappings of stardom. But McKenzie is a breath of fresh air; she speaks with a focus and determination not only of her future acting career but her school and family commitments too. While she admits it’s sometimes hard to find the motivation to study when away from home concentrating on her roles, she says her schoolwork is very important to her. “Acting is my biggest passion and what I want to do with my life, but I love animals, I love biology and English and writing. Remembering that acting isn’t the only thing I want to do is motivating,” she explains.
She is a huge admirer of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and says of her: “She’s an incredible inspiration and inspiring person for people all over the world to look up too. I’m really excited about what the future holds.”
McKenzie’s next project sees her working alongside Joel Edgerton and Robert Pattinson – but she’s optimistic about completing her final year of school this year, regardless of what the future looks like.
“I feel incredibly lucky to be growing up in a time where not only are women’s voices being taken more seriously and not overlooked but also young people’s voices are being taken more seriously,” she says.