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Thomasin McKenzie is the young Kiwi actress blowing up around the world

Thomasin McKenzie. Photo/Getty Images

Thomasin McKenzie wowed Cannes as the daughter of a damaged US military vet, and next she’ll be playing an Anne Frank-like character in Taika Waititi’s new film – with him as Hitler. 

As she stands, all flowing red-brown hair and pink dress, on the stage of the Théâtre Croisette at the Cannes Film Festival in France, Thomasin McKenzie looks like a babe in the woods – an ingénue who has somehow stumbled Cinderella-like into the world’s biggest film festival. But as she answers questions in a session following the screening of Leave No Trace – the American independent film that is proving a breakout role for the 17-year-old from Wellington, her Kiwi accent oozes quiet confidence.

In fact, she is getting to be an old hand at this festival stuff. Leave No Trace had its premiere at Sundance Festival, in the US, in January, and with it came a who-is-that-kid buzz about McKenzie, the daughter of actor and acting coach Miranda Harcourt and director Stuart McKenzie.

The Los Angeles Times declared it “a star-making performance”, while Vulture compared her to “Rooney Mara and the singer Lorde with her still, enigmatic countenance”.

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Cannes was a double feature for the family. Harcourt and McKenzie had their co-directed Margaret Mahy adaptation The Changeover – in which their daughter had a supporting role – in another section of the festival.

“It’s amazing for our family to have two films playing in Cannes at the same time,” says Harcourt. She’s sanguine about how her middle child is handling the increasingly brightening spotlight.

“In Sundance, she made jokes and the audience loved her,” she tells the Listener. “She even joked about Trump. She’s loving it. But in Cannes, it’s like being whacked in the face by a baseball bat. She had no idea how intense it would be. The media day was just insane.”

There will be more days like this in the teenager’s future, and Cannes was really only a sideshow to her other reason for being in Europe.

Acting family: Miranda Harcourt, Davida and Thomasin McKenzie.

From the south of France, the McKenzie-Harcourt family headed to Prague. There, McKenzie began filming Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi’s new film in which she has the major role of Elsa, a Jewish girl being hidden in an attic by a German woman whose teenage son is a member of the Hitler Youth.

The part-Jewish Waititi is playing the boy’s imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, and the movie also stars Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson and Sam Rockwell.

The script is an adaptation of Caging Skies, the 2008 novel by Christine Leunens, a New Zealand-Belgian writer living in Nelson. Wellington’s Circa Theatre staged a version of the story last year.

McKenzie auditioned for the film in Los Angeles – the production is backed by 20th Century Fox’s art house stablemate Fox Searchlight – while she was in the US for Sundance.

Waititi rang her in early April to tell her she had the role, saying, “Welcome to the whānau.”

“It is a dream,” says McKenzie. “Prague is such an incredible city and I feel beyond lucky to actually be working here. I’ve got to pinch myself. I love all the New Zealanders who are working on it – and Dad – and the Czech team is awesome.”

It’s a different kind of film with a different feel from Leave No Trace, a survivalist tale set in the Oregon hinterland.

Taika Waititi as Hitler.

“A lot of my scenes for Jojo are being shot on a soundstage, whereas Leave No Trace was all out in the open. Another difference is that half the time the crew are speaking Czech, so sometimes I have no idea what they’re talking about. But the films have one thing in common – they have something powerful to say about living and loving.”

While in the Northern Hemisphere, she’ll also be playing a small role in The King, a Netflix-backed adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Henry plays, directed by Australian David Michôd and starring Robert Pattinson, Timothée Chalamet and Joel Edgerton.

Later in the year, she’ll be in Australia to film an adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel The True History of the Kelly Gang, playing the bushranger’s girlfriend, Mary, alongside Russell Crowe.

Unlike other Kiwi youngsters who were plucked from obscurity and had acting careers bestowed upon them – Anna Paquin in The Piano, Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider and Melanie Lynskey in Heavenly Creatures – McKenzie has gradually been honing her craft under the guidance of her parents.

Acting is a family calling. Her grandmother is Dame Kate Harcourt, so she’s descended from Kiwi acting royalty. Miranda Harcourt, who starred as Gemma in popular local drama Gloss in the 1980s, has devoted much of her career to coaching newbie actors and established stars. Nicole Kidman gave thanks to Harcourt in her Emmy acceptance speech last year for her help on Big Little Lies and Lion.

When Harcourt headed to the US to help the young cast of Peter Jackson’s film The Lovely Bones, six-year-old McKenzie went, too, attending school there for three months.

Breakout performance: Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace, with Ben Foster.

Nearly a decade later, both mother and daughter had bit parts in Jackson’s The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, but McKenzie’s minor character was mostly cut.

“They had so much footage and in the end it was a tiny glimpse. You would only have seen me if you knew I was there.”

Jackson made up for it, though. “He wrote a reference for me when I was getting my visa. That was awesome.”

Initially, McKenzie didn’t gravitate towards acting. But at age 12, she appeared as the young Louise Nicholas in Consent, the acclaimed television movie about Nicholas’ fight for justice

“It was an incredibly intense story. I was only 12 or 13, but it made me realise that it’s not just acting; it’s not just being in a movie; it’s telling a story. It’s telling people things that need to be heard.” Consent was followed by a brief and ultimately fatal stint as Pixie Hannah on Shortland Street.

Harcourt doesn’t see her daughter’s talent as being a product of any maternal professional advice.

“We feel very proud of her performance in Leave No Trace; it’s a very quiet, focused and understated performance. It takes a lot of craft to be that unselfconscious, so I really admire her as an actress. I think she’s amazing, but she’s kind of a creature from another planet.”

McKenzie had a supporting role in The Changeover, co-directed by her parents, but it’s an experience that may never be repeated. “I love my parents, they’re incredible people and are amazing at what they do, but it’s hard to be directed by your parents. I think anyone would find that difficult.”

Still, the family support for the teenager impressed Leave No Trace director Debra Granik, whose previous film, Winter’s Bone, provided a springboard to stardom for American actress Jennifer Lawrence.

“Thomasin and Miranda have a really cool relationship as a mother-daughter team,” says Granik. “Miranda is not any kind of stage mother; she’s just too seasoned. She’s too enmeshed in a culture that I admire very much, a culture that values subtlety.”

Breakout performance: Thomasin McKenzie in Leave No Trace, with Ben Foster.

Leave No Trace is adapted from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment. In it, McKenzie plays Tom, a 13-year-old secretly living off the grid with her post-traumatic-stress-disorder-afflicted war veteran father (Ben Foster) in an Oregon national park. That’s a long way from Wellington, but Granik found the young New Zealander to be the perfect fit.

“Debra says she has no idea how my audition got to her,” McKenzie says, “but her producer saw it and said there was something that rang true. Debra’s thing is casting people who have an aspect of the character in their background.

“In New Zealand, I’m constantly surrounded by native bush and greenery, and I go tramping and on hikes. So, coming to America and being able to work in the forest, I felt at home.”

Still, she isn’t as naive as Tom in Leave No Trace. “I’ve been exposed to life in the city and in big communities. I’ve been exposed to social media and school and people my age. Tom hasn’t been exposed to that at all, until she’s picked out of the forest and thrown into it.”

Some media have been quick to pick up on parallels with Lawrence’s career, forgetting perhaps that after Winter’s Bone, she made quite a few movies that no one remembers, until the X-Men and Hunger Games franchises made her a star.

Granik sees a valid comparison between the two young women’s characters in her films. “They’re both meaty roles, with women who are trying very hard to survive. They have a lot of courage and they care very deeply.”

But as far as following in J-Law’s footsteps, McKenzie sounds tired of the suggestion.

“Jennifer and I are individuals, different people, different actresses. I mean, I love Jennifer Lawrence, she’s an amazing actress and plays strong female characters.”

McKenzie is hoping she will be back from Prague in time for screenings of Leave No Trace at the New Zealand International Film Festival on July 27 and 28. But she may be too busy working on the next big thing.

Additional reporting Russell Baillie

Leave No Trace, NZ International Film Festival, from July 19. Thomasin McKenzie and Debra Granik will attend Q+A sessions at screenings in Auckland on July 27 and 28 and in Wellington on July 29 and 30.

This article was first published in the July 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.