Meet Helena Zengel, Tom Hanks’ Scene-Stealing ‘News of the World’ Co-Star

TheWrap magazine: The young German knew she wanted to be an actress when she was 7 years old — which was only five years ago


Last Updated: January 13, 2021 @ 2:08 PM

This story about Helena Zengel and “News of the World” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

She knew she wanted to be an actress when she was 7 years old, and she remembers the moment she realized it.

Helena Zengel, who at the time had been in a music video and a couple of TV series, was on the Greek island of Santorini for her first lead role in the film “Dark Blue Girl,” in which she played a young girl trying to drive her parents apart. “There was one day we were shooting at the water,” she said in a rush of English, a language in which the Berlin native was considerably less fluent only a year ago. “I was sitting close to the beach and I had a break and I think I drank a lemonade. And I just sat there and looked into the water and thought, ‘Oh, my God. This is what I want to do the rest of my life.'”

And Zengel has done it for the rest of her life — which means, for now, that she’s done it for the last five years, because she’s 12. “The best thing about acting is you get to know yourself,” she said, the words jumping and tumbling and sometimes tangling as she Zooms from Germany. “You don’t always, like, just play roles. You play sometimes yourself and sometimes not. And then you see, I can be very loud, but I can still be very intense and small and little and breakable. So I think this is really amazing about this job.”

She thinks back to that day at the beach in Greece and breaks into an infectious grin. “I knew: This. Is. My. Thing. I never want to stop it again, and I will never let it go again. So I don’t!”

Chances are she won’t have to. After making a splash on the international scene last year with her role as an unruly girl in the German Oscar entry, “System Crasher,” Zengel made her first American movie in Paul Greengrass’ expansive and emotional Western “News of the World.” In it, she plays Johanna, a feral young girl in the mid-19th century American West who is taken from her family by the Kiowa tribe of Native Americans when she is very young, then left alone in the hostile Texas wilderness when her Kiowa family is also killed.

Without speaking much for the majority of the film, Zengel goes toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks, who plays Captain Kidd, a former Civil War officer who attempts to return her to the last remnants of her family. Hers is a performance full of fury and fright that gradually softens; it’s a buddy picture, of sorts, and she gives a two-time Oscar-winning actor all the buddy he can handle.

“I can’t think of Helena as a child actor — it doesn’t do her justice,” Hanks told TheWrap. “We didn’t work on the set together as much as we inhabited a life together. The day would go by, we would talk, ride the horses and laugh, during which the film was made. I’ve been an actor for a long time and found myself yearning for Helena’s ease and simplicity.

“And those eyes of hers? I’ve never come across such windows into such a grand soul as hers.”

Greengrass was expecting a tougher road when he set out to make a period Western that would star Hanks and a preteen German girl. “When you start any film, you always have a sense of what your biggest problem is going to be,” he said. “And if you’d asked me at the start of this, I would have said that the biggest problem is finding Johanna. I thought it was going to take months. I thought we’d have to see hundreds of young girls. I thought it would be an agonizing decision. And I thought that the shooting process would be an intense exercise in hand-holding by me. In fact, it turned out to be the easiest decision I think I’ve ever made.”

It started, Greengrass said, when “News of the World” producer Gail Mutrux sent him a link to see “System Crasher,” which had just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Zengel won the German Film Prize and was nominated for a European Film Award for Best Actress for her scorching performance as an untamable and deeply wounded foster child who is shuttled from one home to the next, spewing obscenities and wreaking havoc everywhere she goes.

“I watched it and thought, honestly, it had to be her,” Greengrass said. “What are the chances of there being a better 11-year-old German actress? Look at the range of that movie, at the sheer acting. She came to London about a week later with her mom, I spent the day with her and gave her the part. She was flat-out brilliant.”

Zengel said she was nervous during the audition, because in between the time she was first invited to read for the part and the time she and her mom headed to London, she’d done some research and figured out that Paul Greengrass and Tom Hanks, neither of whose movies she’d ever seen, “were both a big deal.” She and Greengrass spoke for hours, with the director talking enthusiastically about the movie and Zengel trying to keep up in a language she’d only spoken in school.

“I was always turning to my mom and saying, ‘OK, what did he just say?’ He said I got the role, but my head was pretty tired and my English wasn’t as good, so I was really confused.” When she finally figured out that the part was hers, she said, “My mouth was open, really open. And then we jumped around.” She paused and corrected herself. “Or I did.”

In the six weeks before shooting began in New Mexico in the fall of 2019, Zengel’s training included learning the Kiowa language and culture, and also sunbathing to darken up her pale complexion. She talked a lot to Greengrass, but never met Hanks until he surprised her one day in the makeup trailer — and before long, the two had a fierce mutual admiration society going on. Her praise of Hanks comes in a rush: “He’s a superstar but he’s still a normal guy and he’s very funny and he’s very nice and very polite to everybody and people say he’s the last gentleman in America as a film star and I think it’s true, maybe not the last one but he’s a very much gentleman.”

For his part, Hanks did three takes with Zengel in their first scene together, then walked up to Greengrass and said, “She’s absolutely brilliant.”

“At that point, any anxiety I felt about her as an 11-year-old just disappeared,” Greengrass said. “The chemistry between them was exquisite to watch, and she just held the screen.”

At times, of course, she was a still preteen girl: Greengrass said she brought a stuffed animal to the set and would go off and “goofily dance” at times, and he once overheard her ask Hanks, “Why does everyone on the set in America swear so much?” But, he added, she always delivered in big moments, including one particularly wrenching but wordless scene in an abandoned cabin.

“I remember one time in the cabin, she’d done a take, and I said, ‘I just want to adjust your movement there to allow the camera to pass you.’ And she said, ‘Yes, then you’ll be able to read the emotion on my face. I’ll wait to give it to you when you cross.’ I thought, ‘How long have you been doing this?’ That’s absolute understanding of camera technique, and also the ability to give it when you want it. She’s the real deal.”

Zengel said she found Johanna’s silence one of the biggest challenges of “News of the World”: “I think that’s the toughest part of acting, when you need to show your emotions without talking.” At the same time, she figures it comes with the job description. “If you want to call yourself an actor or an actress, you need to be able to play everything.”

She’s now bemoaning the loss of her first big American promotional tour to the pandemic — because if you press her, she’ll admit to some sizeable ambitions. “Time comes and you see what happens, but my imagination is to someday get a star on the Walk of Fame and maybe get an Oscar,” she said. “And I really want to choose my movies and not get into the situation where I need to do movies. If you don’t choose your movies, it starts to be like too much work.”

Greengrass said he’s given her other suggestions about her career. “I remember saying to her, ‘Listen, here’s my advice to you: Do your school, do your college, live life. Acting will be there for you forever, but don’t choose it over life. Grow up and enjoy your life, and you will find that life informs your acting.’ She looked at me very seriously and said, ‘I’ll remember that.’ I think she’ll have a great career — I have no doubt about it.”

And now that she’s made a big splash, starred in her first American movie with Hanks and signed with CAA, who does Zengel want to work with next?

She grinned and spat out her list quickly: “Lady Gaga, Lily Tomlin and Bradley Cooper.” A pause. “And Jane Fonda, maybe, sometime.”

Then she shrugged, and threw in one more name, a little sheepishly. “And sure, I would be happy to shoot with Tom again. Because he’s just a great guy.”

Read more from the Race Begins issue here.

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