The New King of Comedy: How Taika Waititi took a hammer to Hollywood
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
There’s a running joke that Taika Waititi can sleep anywhere. Photos exist of the Thor: Ragnarok director passed out in the unlikeliest places, from reclining in his daughter’s stroller to curling up en route to Comic-Con, the Kiwi filling in a Chris Hemsworth–Tom Hiddleston sandwich.
His exhaustion is understandable: When Waititi, 44, is awake, he’s practically vibrating with energy. Upon arriving at EW’s Entertainers of the Year photo shoot in Los Angeles, he starts cracking jokes, singing Led Zeppelin, and contorting his body into increasingly ridiculous poses — anything for a laugh. He doesn’t stop moving until the cameras are put away; then he collapses on a couch, falling limp like a robot that’s been deactivated. “I like to draw so much attention to myself in social spaces,” he explains, laughing. “I want to be seen. I’m like, me me me me! But when I’m alone, I’m so exhausted by that that I basically just shut my mouth and stare into space.”
Waititi’s 2019 has been his most exhausting yet: The filmmaker had a hand in the Star Wars spin-off series The Mandalorian and the What We Do in the Shadows TV reboot, and earned Oscar buzz for the World War II satire Jojo Rabbit, about a boy (Golden Globe nominee Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Adolf Hitler (played by Waititi himself). “To me, it’s about making decisions that surprise myself,” he says. “To go, ‘Why would I do that?’”
Waititi surprised himself by even becoming a director in the first place. Raised in New Zealand by a single mother, he grew up wanting to be a painter, and in his 20s started staging comedy plays with Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie. “Usually it was because no one would hire us for fancy plays that actors all love doing,” he explains. “So we’d just write our own s—-y versions.” He eventually began directing his own films, soon earning an Oscar nod for his 2004 short Two Cars, One Night. He found a global audience with the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows (co-directed with Clement) in 2014 and Hunt for the Wilderpeople two years later.
“I think when I was first starting to make films, I probably took myself a little bit more seriously,” Waititi says. “I was going to be a very serious and respected director.” Many of his scripts, he adds, don’t start as comedies: He initially imagined Boy and Jojo as thoughtful dramas, and his first draft of Wilderpeople ended with Sam Neill’s character dying and Julian Dennison’s Ricky Baker headed to a foster home. But Waititi kept seeing joke opportunities in every script, and he ultimately embraced his particular brand of off-beat comedy.
Marvel soon took notice of his vision and recruited Waititi to breathe life into its Thor franchise with 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok. The planet-hopping neon apocalyptic comedy has all the hallmarks of your standard Marvel blockbuster — interstellar action scenes, sparkly special effects, Chris Hemsworth’s abs — but it’s also deeply subversive: Waititi’s script raises questions of colonialism and family legacy. It also isn’t afraid to poke fun at its blond hero, stripping him of both his hammer and hair.
“In films like that, you have to try and figure out how they’re relatable to an audience,” Waititi explains. “I like to break down [Ragnarok] as basically a rich kid from the Palisades stuck in a really bad part of town, and he can’t get home. Someone’s broken into his house, and he’s gotta get home. And someone smashed his cell phone. Because when you put it in terms like that, you’re like, ‘Oh, I get that!'”
The usually DIY director admits that he was initially “a bit wary of the studio system,” especially since he had “free reign in New Zealand to do what I wanted.” He was pleasantly surprised, however, by how collaborative and open he found his Marvel experience, and the biggest adjustment was just overseeing all the complicated special effects. “With [Shadows],” he says, “I was really just asking friends who had computers for favors. Like, ‘Can you make a bat for us?'”
Since Thor, studios and networks have lined up to work with him, resulting in the Shadows TV show and his gig on The Mandalorian. (He and his original Shadows costars Clement and Jonny Brugh reprised their blood-sucking roles for an episode earlier this year, assembling a pop culture vampire tribunal of Tilda Swinton, Paul Reubens, Evan Rachel Wood, Danny Trejo, and Wesley Snipes.)
For The Mandalorian, he directed the season finale and starred in the premiere, voicing the deadpan assassin droid IG-11. On set, he geeked out every time he saw a stormtrooper, but he also relied on the show’s creators Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau to help keep him in line. “I don’t know that much about Star Wars,” Waititi admits. “I was like, ‘Well, maybe they can have machine gun blasters!’ And Jon and Dave went, ‘There are no machine gun blasters in Star Wars, dude.'”
Up next, he’s shooting the film Next Goal Wins, about the Samoan soccer team, and he’s finished the first draft of Thor: Love and Thunder, once again featuring Hemsworth’s Asgardian god. (Tessa Thompson and Natalie Portman are confirmed to return for that, along with Waititi’s mild-mannered rock monster Korg.) Each of Waititi’s projects is wildly different, but they all showcase his trademark blend of zany laughs and emotional gut-punches, tackling themes like grief and trauma alongside jokes about revolutionary rock aliens. “I love ridiculous comedy,” he says. “I want to see comedy that’s so dumb — but also comedy where you’re forced to think.”
Waititi tackled his biggest tonal challenge yet with Jojo Rabbit, a sometimes silly, sometimes sweet story of Nazi Germany. Although the film’s anti-hate message felt tailor-made for 2019, Waititi first started writing it in 2010, after his mom introduced him to the novel Caging Skies. He initially approached it as a drama, and he tinkered with the script for years before Fox Searchlight offered to help make it — if Waititi would play the imaginary Hitler.
He hesitated to say yes, not because he didn’t want the part but because he worried about whether he, a half-Maori, half-Jewish man, was white enough. “I’m probably, like, the most Mediterranean-looking Hitler there’s ever been,” he says, pointing at his face and pulling off his hat to release a tangle of gray curls.
Detractors say Jojo pokes fun at a serious subject, but Waititi counters that laughter can be an effective way to combat hate. “I do think comedy is often overlooked as a serious art form or a serious part of creating change,” Waititi says. “Comedy is a really great way of fighting regimes, and it always has been.”
Besides, there’s something cathartic about a good laugh, whether it’s at vampire flatmates or the lunacy of the Third Reich.
“When we were making Shadows, we were halfway through, and Jemaine came up to me,” Waititi recalls. “He said, ‘Hey, man. We just gotta keep reminding ourselves: The world needs ridiculous s—.'”
With that, Waititi bursts into giggles. “The world does need ridiculous s—.”
For more on Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27, or you can order a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.