Helena Zengel stars alongside Tom Hanks in “News of the World,” playing a girl named Johanna who is separated from her family. Her performance has netted the actress nominations at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards.
Zengel recently spoke with Gold Derby’s Christopher Rosen about the audition process, working with Hanks and what she hopes to do next. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.
Gold Derby: It’s a great film, great performance. I love the movie so much. Can you talk a little about the audition process? I think I read that Paul [Greengrass], to find this part, it was so important to the movie. So can you talk a lot about your audition process, how you got involved?
Helena Zengel: Yeah, so I did some movies, but the one movie Paul Greengrass saw was “System Crasher,” which kind of brought me there because I did that movie in 2018, 2019 and then Paul saw me in that movie because it came on Berlinale and a producer saw me there and the producer was like, “Oh yeah, you got to see that movie. I think that would be great.” And he was like, “Yeah, sure to see that.” And then he saw the movie and he said, “Look what she can do with her eyes,” which is very important in that role because Johanna doesn’t speak that much, I’d say. So he was kind of impressed and then he asked me, or through my agency, I got the request to do casting in Berlin. And then after that, I flew to London when Paul said, “He want to make an executive casting.” I actually met him at the second audition. And then, yeah, I got the role. I mean, it sounds so simple!
GD: What was the scene you auditioned with? Was it something specifically for the film or did he have you do something else?
HZ: Yeah, kinda. It was like a mix.
GD: OK. So then you get the role, it’s pretty great. Like you said, it’s a very non-verbal performance. So a lot of it is your expressions and your demeanor and stuff. Can you talk a little about how you prepared for it? I wanted to ask you two things, how you prepared for it from that point of view and then also, what kind of research you did to study, if you did study the era and stuff like that, that obviously takes place in just post Civil War America. It’s so different from your circumstances now and the reality now. So I guess, first talk a little about, if you could, the non-verbal part of it and how you prepared for that.
HZ: Yes, sir. So I read the script, I got to know the Indians, or the Native Americans. We laid around close together and we spoke a lot. I had lessons for Kiawah and for the language. I had training for the culture, and to understand the culture and their way of thinking in a circle than in a straight line, like we do, and then I researched a lot. I did not know as much about the Civil War, and that whole time in America when the white people took their land. So I needed to learn a lot about that right then but I did, because we had lots of Americans around us and I could ask everybody and just learn some. And then I met Tom. We had many, many fittings for the clothes because they were very special and they were exactly for me, like, nobody else could go in there. And yeah, it was just great and sometimes I actually had dresses where they had to sew it together and then cut it open because it would just have to fit perfectly. So it took a long time to do that, but it was great. And then, we’d just hang out a lot. We did makeup fittings. There was so much going on and I guess like six weeks before the movie started, I went to America and I’ve never been there. So it was just like a different universe. Making this film was like I’m in another world because everything went so fast and was so great.
GD: That was your first time in America. What surprised you about America when you got here?
HZ: Well, I mean, I haven’t seen anything quite like California, New York and stuff. I was more in the New Mexico, Santa Fe, Albuquerque side. But what really surprised me was that cowboys are real! Like, I would never have thought that they were really like, “Howdy, ma’am!” Because you always see those movies and you’re like, “OK, yeah, they’re in the movie like that but in real life, they aren’t quite like that.” But then when I first met them, they were coming with his cowboy hat and then with those big rattlesnake boots and their horses and like, “Howdy, ma’am! This is your horse.” And I was like, “Oh, well, OK! Let’s do this.” Afterwards I talked to my grandparents and I was like, “Grandma, they’re real. Like, they’re not only in the movie, they’re real!” And it was just so funny to see that it’s really true.
GD: Yeah, you mentioned a horse. There’s a lot of action in the movie. It seems like you’re really doing a lot of these things. You’re riding horses and wagons or buggies or whatever. It seems like a very physical performance. Can you talk about that? Was there a specific moment maybe from an action standpoint that you loved doing or were kind of intimidated by and were excited to do?
HZ: Yeah, well, sure, it was very exciting. We were on wagons. We had, I think, two or three wagons. Every day we hopped on, we hopped off. We walked with the horses through the prairie with all this camera equipment and I just saw some pics of behind the scenes and man, that was tough, getting whole camera stuff and all those people up the hill. We had braids and ropes to get up because we needed to have something to hang on so we wouldn’t fall down the cliff. So that was very, very, very well. What’s a good adjective for that? It was just so powerful making this movie and such a big experience and adventure. Every day was a new day, and I always had Tom on my side, which is a very great acting partner and he’s very funny and he makes jokes about everything and sometimes I really needed to concentrate to not fall off somewhere because I was laughing and hanging on like, “Haha! Stop!” So yeah, it was great to be with all those people and then we had so many animals on set. We had goats and dogs and cats, we had chickens, we had cows with those big ears and I needed to walk right with them, like through them, and my mom’s heart was beating because they were rocking right beside me and people were in the back of me and they had very long ropes and stuff and they were always like, “Ha ha ha,” so they wouldn’t attack me or anything. This movie was just so fun and I would never have thought it would be as great as it really was.
GD: Yeah, watching it, it’s wild because it looks like these things are so real, like you said, like the real horses, in the real locations and stuff and obviously it’s very fun.
HZ: Yeah, and it was actually shot in a Western city and it’s funny because this Western city was built way back in 19… I don’t know, way back. It was made for movies and now you use it as a film set for history movies. So I thought, like, “Wow, all those houses and everything survived,” because I mean, there were many dust storms and rain and stuff and it all survived. It was cool to shoot there because I was in a Western city and then there was all that mud sometimes when we shot in the rain. There are always some places you remember when you shoot and you go, “Oh, yeah,” when you go back there and sometimes my moccasins fell off my foot and Tom was laughing at me because I didn’t care. Like, when they were stuck in the mud, I was just walking along and we needed to get them out there and to wash them and it was just an adventure, really an adventure, and very fun to do.
GD: You mentioned Tom. Obviously, he’s so great and I think your rapport with him is amazing. Can you talk about, it sounds like you guys had some fun on the set, and is that how you guys were able to build that? What kind of conversations did you have with him about the relationship of your characters?
HZ: Well, our characters are kind of the same because they’re both very lost, I’d say, and they’re searching for home and hope and for love and for somebody to just talk to, sometimes, and to just have someone who’s like your soulmate because you need that. We need that. We’re all in kind of a way, public people. We need at least someone we can talk to if we have any problems and he lost his wife and she lost her family. So they created a new one together, which I think is great and they go on a journey. So they really connect to each other and Tom and me, we had so much fun on set and we still do. We’re talking on the phone or we’re texting and sending emails about what we’re doing right now, which I think is always funny because, I mean, he has many things to talk about. He was in Australia and he told me about all those animals who live there and it’s just great that we have that close connection because I would not have thought… I thought he would come in a Lamborghini with long black shoes and a pair of sunglasses on, like, “Hello,” and then goes into his trailer and you don’t see him, only like in the scenes. But he came in jogging jeans, very loose pullover and moccasins. And I was like, “Well, he’s just normal!” Which was totally great. Yeah, you just imagine, the time with him is a dream because he’s very nice, is really a gentleman and he makes it very easy to like him but he also has a great character and you can really like him because he’s very funny.
GD: Yeah, it’s great. I think he is so good and that’s nice to hear because I think the reputation he has is that he is very much like you’re describing, very kind and stuff. So it’s good to hear that he is like that. So, this is a great performance. Can you talk a little about what do you hope to do next? Obviously, this is a much different time than you would have imagined, this movie coming out, we’re all stuck at home and the pandemic has really kind of thrown things asunder. But what do you hope to do next as a performer and stuff? I think obviously the sky’s the limit, let’s say, but what are you hoping to do?
HZ: Well, I think I basically just take what comes and see what comes and just let it come. But sure, I like strong feminist with big roles and big stories and great acting partners and we have some talkings with new producers and great movies, which I think will be great and I think my dream is to someday fulfill and shoot my own book, which I’m writing right now. So that would be my biggest dream right now. But sure, I want to do more Hollywood movies, maybe some more German movies and just get right in it and see what roles are nice for me. But I think this intensive stuff and strong stuff is more my thing but comedy and some kids movies would be great, too. I think it’s good, actually, like an action, because you can find yourself, you discover yourself because you know what you can do very great. But the biggest dream is to fulfill my own book into a movie.
GD: Nice. That’s great. I assume you’ve been working on that during quarantine and stuff. Is there any other stuff you’ve gotten to do here? I know people pick up hobbies and stuff. Anything that you started during coronavirus quarantine that you didn’t think you would?
HZ: Yeah, I mean, I think the most favorite thing is going to the barn. I love horses. I love my horse. I love being there with friends as far as COVID allows it. But in general, being at the barn is just amazing. I found love in skating, actually, with a skateboard. I just started, and I’m starting to learn an ollie, which I think would be great if I can someday because I think it’s a great trick and yeah, I do lots of face masks, which is fun and a lot of time, I’m outside, I like to write, like my own book, as I do right now, and just watch some more movies to inspire myself. I think it’s called “[What Dreams May Come],” in English, “Hinter dem Horizont,” with Robin Williams. I watched that movie to inspire myself, for example, for my book now and yeah, doing some auditioning. So there are many things I can do. Sew, I actually like to sew. I have my own sewing machine. I do it for celebrating things and sure, school was there, too.