Taika Waititi on Playing Hitler for Laughs in 'Jojo Rabbit': "I Felt Weird About It"

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP; Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

After years of trying to get the film off the ground, the ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ director finally convinced Fox Searchlight to roll the dice on a comedy set in Nazi Germany (premiering in Toronto), but there was only one catch — he had to play der Führer himself.

Even Taika Waititi is surprised by his own Hollywood success. An admitted late bloomer, the native New Zealander spent a chunk of his 20s in Berlin, embracing the life of a struggling artist as both a performer and painter. "I thought I was some cool bohemian artist," he says of this late-1990s period.

By the time he decided to try his hand at filmmaking, he was 30, ancient by contemporary Hollywood standards. It didn't matter: One of the filmmaker's first projects, a 12-minute, black-and-white charmer called Two Cars, One Night, picked up awards at fests around the world before landing an Oscar nomination in the best live-action short category.

Now, two decades after chasing the la bohème lifestyle in Berlin, Waititi chose to make a return to Germany with the decidedly risky Nazi Germany satire Jojo Rabbit, which premieres Sept. 8 in Toronto and opens in the U.S. on Oct. 18. It's taken him eight years to get the film made, and while buzz is strong, all eyes will be on whether Waititi's winning streak can continue with a project that, by his own admission, scared off virtually everyone in the early stages.

In the 15-some years since he traded his paintbrush for a movie camera, Waititi, 44, has become one of the most in-demand writer-directors in the film world, thanks to his ability to apply his distinctive Kiwi sensibility to a range of material. His 2010 critical darling Boy became the highest-grossing film ever in New Zealand — and was unseated only by his own Hunt for the Wilderpeople in 2016. Then Marvel came calling.

With Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi made his first venture into big-budget studio filmmaking and became the first non-white director of a Marvel title in the process. In July 2017, at San Diego Comic-Con, Waititi made his official Hall H debut, leading with the signature style for which he is now known. While most Marvel filmmakers opt for a strict uniform of T-shirts and jeans, the director walked onto the stage wearing a pink matching short set dotted with pineapples, an outfit that was covered by geek blogs and GQ alike. Ragnarok, the third installment of a flailing franchise (at least, by Marvel's standards), made $853 million at the global box office and is the studio's fourth-best-reviewed movie in the entirety of the MCU, according to Rotten Tomatoes.

It turned Waititi into a name director, and got Hollywood asking what he would be putting that name on next.

It was in 2011 that Waititi began writing a screenplay based on Christine Leunens' novel Caging Skies, which follows Johannes Betzler (Jojo), a boy in the Hitler Youth who finds out that his parents have been secretly harboring a Jewish girl in their family home. Waititi knew immediately that adapting the novel would be tricky, and he struggled early with his own misgivings about the project. "I hate Nazis," he notes emphatically. "And I don't really care too much about making a film about their point of view. [But] there's something so amazing about the seeds of the story and what it could be — could I figure out a way to make this enjoyable for myself to make if I ever get to?"

Eventually, he had a breakthrough when he decided to expand on the novel's already satirical tone with an audacious new element: the inclusion of an imaginary friend for Jojo in the form of der Führer himself.

The first stop for Jojo was to secure initial financing from Germany's Studio Babelsberg. With credits that included The Pianist and Tom Cruise starrer Valkyrie, the financier was experienced in making World War II-set properties (albeit ones with a far more dramatic tone than Jojo). The plan was to package the project with an A-list star attached to play Hitler. "Most people really loved the script," recalls the filmmaker of the feedback he was getting from potential stars — all of whom ultimately passed. "I think it was a little difficult for people to figure out if it was a good career move, and I can fucking totally understand. Who really wants to see themselves as Adolf Hitler on a poster?"

Earning a coveted spot on the 2012 Black List, the Jojo screenplay began to gain traction, but it was still a tough sell, and Waititi didn't do himself any favors when he met with potential producers. "I'm terrible at pitching," he sighs, before reciting his awkward description of the project: " 'It's about this little kid and he finds this girl in his attic and his best friend is Hitler and …' You can see them [thinking], 'Oh my God, no. There is no fucking way I'm going to have anything to do with this. Bye.' "

Nevertheless, he persisted, heading into meetings armed with relatable reference points, such as Life Is Beautiful (a heartwarming coming-of-age tale set in a concentration camp), Dr. Strangelove (a biting satire) and Harvey (about a grown man with an imaginary friend who is a rabbit). "Americans, they need everything explained to them," observes Waititi. "You just have to keep comparing it to [other] films because a lot of them don't have any imagination." He continued to send out scripts and take meetings whenever he found himself in California. Eventually, Fox Searchlight — the studio label behind best picture winners like 12 Years a Slave and Birdman — signed on to the project, but with one condition: Waititi should be the one to play Hitler.

"It was our first instinct that having Taika in that role would take the audience right to the heart of the satire," said Searchlight presidents Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula in an email. "We knew he would embody the part with the nuances as he’d written them."

The filmmaker had acted in his own work before, including major roles in Boy and his 2014 vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows, but, besides the obvious, he had reservations about playing the Führer. Even an imaginary one.

Along with being Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, Waititi is of Russian-Jewish descent, on his mother's side. "I felt weird about it," he says of taking the role. "Even though the character in my film is not evil — he's got a 10-year-old's brain because he comes out of Jojo's head — there's elements to him that are shared with the actual guy." But, he had finally found a studio that was willing to make his 'subversive anti-hate satire,' at a time when release calendars were only becoming more crowded with capes and kaijus. He acquiesced: "It was a kind of now or never feeling, in my head."

So, in the summer of 2018, Waititi found himself on an impossibly quaint river in Prague, wearing a red swastika on his arm, blue contact lenses and a disturbingly trimmed mustache, screaming over the water to his crew on the opposite riverbank about how he wanted a shot to be framed. "That was a sad moment for me, yelling at the crew dressed as Adolf Hitler in public," he says with a rueful laugh. "I looked like Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator."

The director is aware of an increased relevance that Jojo now has since he sat down to write in 2011 — specifically the global resurgence of fascism and white nationalism. “It wasn't something where it felt like, 'We better make our film now because Nazis are popular again. Yay!'” says Waititi of the strangely fortuitous socio-political climate into which Jojo is now being released. “I'm not one of these people who's like, ‘Well you know that Mercury is in retrograde, so that's why this happened today.’ I do believe that things happen when they need to happen, and you can't force it.” He takes a beat, adding, “Or maybe it's just that things happen when you notice them.”

Regardless of Jojo's reception, Waititi is going to remain a very busy man. In addition to directing an episode of The Mandalorian, Jon Favreau's anticipated Star Wars series that debuts on Disney+ in November, he'll appear onscreen in Shawn Levy's Free Guys opposite Ryan Reynolds (he is also reportedly in talks to join the cast of James Gunn's The Suicide Squad). Prior to helming the next Thor outing, he's going to squeeze in one more directorial effort — working again with Fox Searchlight on Next Goal Wins, a drama about the American Samoa soccer team.

"It's just nice to be wanted, sometimes," says Waititi of his packed schedule. "People are like, 'Oh, you should take a break.' And I feel like saying, 'Yeah, sure, but I was on a break for 30 years.' "

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.