How Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson found heart amid Nazi hatred in Jojo Rabbit
Upon directing his awards hopeful satire Jojo Rabbit, director-star Taika Waititi had a vision: Find a powerful message of love amid the grim atrocities of World War II-era Germany. But, as he explains in EW’s exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette, he didn’t do it alone.
In the clip, Waititi explains how his ensemble cast — including Scarlett Johansson, Thomasin McKenzie, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, and newcomer Roman Griffin Davis — helped give his vision its heart and soul.
“Because imaginary Adolf comes from the mind of a 10-year-old, he can only know what a 10-year-old knows. So imagine Hitler as a complete buffoon who really knows nothing about anything,” he explains of his on-screen role as a version of the Nazi dictator who lives inside the titular character’s head as he navigates the struggles of becoming a Hitler Youth — all while his sympathetic mother (Johansson) hides a young Jewish girl (McKenzie) in the attic of their urban home.
“He has a sweet nature and a caring heart, and because of that, it does carry through to the character,” Waititi observes of his young star, Davis, whose inherently “charming” and “funny” demeanor creates an interesting clash of emotions in a character whose ideologies are seemingly rooted in hatred, but slowly melt away as the film progresses. “There’s a lot of [Roman] in the character.”
Johansson plays Jojo’s mother Rosie, who devotes herself to softening her son’s hardened heart with a message of compassion when she sees toxic Nazi sentiments manifesting in her son’s behavior. “I like mother characters that aren’t just ‘the mother,'” Waititi notes. “Rosie is a real ray of sunshine in a dark, hopeless time,” Johansson adds. “She doesn’t allow those circumstances to keep her from being who she really is: A committed parent who puts the time in.”
While the project has ruffled feathers for its comedic take on a heavy subject, Waititi stresses the film “is an anti-hate film” that’s “pro-peace,” as Jojo ultimately forms a deep connection with the youngster hidden away in the walls of his home. “I just want people to be more tolerant, and spread more love and less hate.”
Waititi’s casting instincts likely contributed to the warm reception the film has received since its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival in September, where the project garnered the prestigious People’s Choice Award — a distinctive honor that serves as a reliable predictor of Best Picture Oscar nominees. Since 2009, nine of the last 10 People’s Choice Award winners (including 12 Years a Slave, Slumdog Millionaire, and last year’s Green Book) have gone on to win or be nominated for the Academy’s top honor.
Jojo Rabbit is now playing in limited release, and is set to expand to more theaters around the country in the weeks ahead. Watch EW’s exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette above.