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'Jojo Rabbit' star Thomasin McKenzie putting work ahead of fame

After making a big splash in last year's "Leave No Trace," the New Zealand-born actress is bound for the big time, whether she's ready or not

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

Thomasin McKenzie is on the cusp of a breakthrough. 

The 19-year-old actress, star of this weekend's "Jojo Rabbit" and last year's indie success "Leave No Trace," is a hit with critics, even if the public has yet to catch on. 

Thomasin McKenzie and Roman Griffin Davis in "Jojo Rabbit."

"To be honest, I can walk down the street for hours and not be recognized by anybody," says McKenzie, on the phone earlier this month from Los Angeles. "In terms of everyday life, things are kind of the same." 

Not for long. "Jojo" is one of fall's most buzzed-about films, and she also stars in "The King," which stars Timothée Chalamet and arrives on Netflix on Friday.  

The New Zealand native is poised for a big career in film, and while her days of anonymity may be nearing their end, she's choosing to focus on her work, not the attention it generates.

She's been groomed for it her whole life. Her parents are both actors, acting coaches and directors, which if it didn't set her destiny, gave her a career path to follow. 

"I think there's always pressure for anyone going down the same career path as their parents or the people you look up to, because you want to live up to and respect something that they are so passionate about," says McKenzie. She says she didn't feel like she would be in their shadow, but rather that she was supported and had the  encouragement she needed to make her own way in the industry. "It was definitely always a family thing, because we were all in it together, all supporting each other," she says. 

She's been working in her homeland since she was 12 but gained attention worldwide with "Leave No Trace," in which she starred with Ben Foster as a young girl living off the grid with her father. The film was directed by Debra Granik, who knows a thing or two about discovering young talent; her previous film, "Winter's Bone," marked the big screen arrival of Jennifer Lawrence. 

Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster in "Leave No Trace."

McKenzie says "Leave No Trace" "definitely opened a lot of doors for me," and she's been working heavily since; in addition to "Jojo" and "The King," she's also got "True History of the Kelly Gang," alongside Russel Crowe and Charlie Hunnam, and three other projects due next year. 

"There's definitely been a massive change, but it all feels like it's happened so fast that I'm still catching up with it a little bit," says McKenzie, who is soft spoken and carries a thick New Zealand accent.  

In the comic satire "Jojo Rabbit," McKenzie plays Elsa, a Jewish teenager hiding inside the home of 10-year-old Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a Hitler Youth in Nazi Germany in the last days of WWII. The two characters form a unique bond, their relationship becoming the heart of the film. 

McKenzie related to her young co-star by likening their relationship to that of her and her younger sister. (McKenzie is the third of four children, and also has an older brother and an older sister.) 

"Roman and my little sister Davida, they're the same age," says McKenzie. "So I kind of spent my feeling of missing my little sister onto Roman, and we really kind of created a special bond, and we spent a lot of time together. He felt like my little brother, I suppose." 

They also bonded over their love of animals. McKenzie grew up with a pet cat, chickens and a rabbit, and she currently has a dog, a 7-year-old shih tzu-cavalier-bichon mix named Totoro, a tribute to her favorite film, the animated fantasy "My Neighbor Totoro." 

"She's back at home, I wish I could say she was with me," McKenzie says. "My dad is constantly sending me videos of her bounding through the grass." 

McKenzie still calls Wellington, New Zealand her home, though acting has her living a nomadic lifestyle. In the last year she's filmed in Prague, London, Australia, New York and Portland, "but I definitely want to keep New Zealand as my base, because that's where my heart is. That's the place I love, it's just inconvenient that it's so far away," she says. 

McKenzie says she looks up to actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Michelle Williams, and says she always gets a kick out of "Notting Hill," the 1999 romantic comedy with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.

"My dad introduced it to me and my family is obsessed," she says. She leans on it when she's doing publicity tours, recalling the scene where Grant sneaks into a film junket and pretends to be a journalist from Horse & Hound magazine. "My dad texted me the other day and said, 'Hey, when you're in this whole publicity process, just think of Horse & Hound,'" she says with a laugh.  

Down the line, McKenzie wants to continue to take on more "exciting, diverse and out there projects," and says she'd one day like to work with animals or "give back to the planet," if the whole acting thing doesn't work out. 

Given McKenzie's trajectory, for the time being, the planet is on its own.