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It was the summer of 2019 in the lobby of London’s Soho Hotel. Helena Zengel, a then-11-year-old German actress with a still-shaky command of English, was meeting British director Paul Greengrass, who was looking to cast the second lead, alongside Tom Hanks, in his new Western News of the World, which Universal is set to open Dec. 25. Zengel had to act out a scene where Hanks’ Captain Kidd character, a Civil War veteran, rescues Johanna, who had been raised by the Native American Kiowa tribe that had kidnapped her and killed her family. Helena’s mother, Anna, stood in for Hanks.
“It was really funny because I had to bite Mama and scream at her,” Zengel recalls. “Afterwards, Paul said, ‘You’ve got the role.’ But my English wasn’t so good then. I didn’t understand him. Only when he held out his hand and said, ‘It’s yours if you want it,’ I was so overwhelmed. I could have jumped for joy. I did, actually. And then Mama and I went shopping!”
Zengel, whose first professional gig was in a music video at the of age 5, gallops through the story, barely pausing for breath. Sitting in her room in Berlin on a Zoom call against a backdrop of pink duvets and stuffed animals, the German actress looks at once angelic — with her straw blond hair and sharp blue eyes — and hyperactive. Like a cherub on a sugar high.
It’s hard to reconcile this bouncy tween with Zengel’s terrifying breakout performance as Benni in Nora Fingscheidt’s 2019 film System Crasher, playing a violent, near-feral child who lashes out at anyone who tries to help her. The role won Zengel the best actress Lola — Germany’s equivalent of the Oscar — and put her on Greengrass’ radar.
“I had a strong sense as soon as I watched [it] that she was a special talent,” says Greengrass. “Going into the film, I thought it would be a long, long search to find our Johanna, but it turned out to be very straightforward.”
It’s in the quiet scenes of News of the World (which has little dialogue) that Zengel shines, especially when her cold blue eyes slowly soften as they dial through feelings of fear, fury and, eventually, affection. It’s an astounding performance — Greengrass praises her for the “sense of mystery” she exudes — and should put the 12-year-old in the conversation come awards season.
“That was the hardest part, doing the quiet scenes,” says Zengel. “I don’t find it hard to do intense scenes or action scenes because I have a lot of energy and I’m really strong,” she says, flexing her arms in a bodybuilder pose. Her favorite scenes in the film were the ones where she could show off her horseback-riding skills. “We have an Icelandic mare called Helka,” she says, “and riding’s my hobby, alongside sports, playing the piano and sewing.” And contrary to what shows up onscreen, the actress says it’s “when they say, ‘Now close up on Helena,’ and you have to show everything on your face with no words at all — that’s tough.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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