She is Tom Hanks' Starring Opposite. Never had she learned of him.
Helena Zengel is a giggly, chatty 12-year-old whose film roles carry her to psychological terrain that would be difficult for even adults to find.
One big challenge was expected when director Paul Greengrass was gearing up to make his new film, "News of the World," about a Civil War veteran in Texas in the 1870s who escorts an orphaned girl to her relatives across the state. "This is my first film with a child actor at the heart of it," he said on the phone recently.
On several levels, casting would be difficult, he realized. While for most of the film the character is on screen, she has just a few lines of dialogue. Tom Hanks had already signed on as the lead, so, Greengrass said, she would have to go "toe to toe" with a superstar. "It was very, very difficult to ask."
However, one of the first kids he saw during the casting in 2019 was Helena Zengel, a Berlin-based 11-year-old with tomboyish enthusiasm and platinum hair. He said, "She was the only person that I really had to look at." "In the film, it was the easiest decision."
"News of the World," which opened in theaters in the U.S. and Canada on Dec. 25 and will be available on Netflix in other countries from February, is an international success for Zengel, who has already become one of the most talked-about actors to appear in Germany in recent years, let alone child actors.
Last year, she received widespread acclaim for her portrayal of a 9-year-old semi-feral in the film "System Crasher," which went on to be Germany's official entry to the Academy Awards. The performance won her best actress at the Lolas this spring, the equivalent of the Oscars in Germany, making her the youngest winner of that honor.
Zengel's character, Johanna Leonberger, is left orphaned in "News of the World," after her German parents are violently murdered when she is four on their farm. A wandering veteran, played by Hanks, offers to introduce her to a living aunt and uncle. Taken in and raised by the Kiowa tribe, she is later removed by soldiers.
For her performance, Zengel received positive reviews, with critics praising her ability to imbue her defiant and alienated character with a sense of warmth and intellect and channeling in near silence the emotional horrors of Johanna's back story. Her lines are mostly in Kiowa, a language that she had to learn for the role.
Ms. Zengel was much gigglier and chattier recently speaking via Zoom, which is to say, much more like a normal 12-year-old than her recent roles would imply. She said she had spent most of this year at home, like most children in Germany, and that she was actually in quarantine because her classmates tested positive for the coronavirus.
She said that she had never heard of Hanks before being cast in the film. "She said, "I think I had seen the Da Vinci Code before, but I didn't know who he was. "That was just some actor, I thought."
Hanks praised Zengel's ability to perform "with no accumulation, no apprehension and no self-consciousness," in an email, and said that he wished he had "her same ease, her simplicity."
"Zengel said she never took an acting class, "and I'm not sure if there's a lot to learn for me.
"She said, matter-of-fact, "I'm standing in front of the camera, I know what I want, and I am doing it.
The concentration and willpower, clarified her mother, Anne Zengel, has been the hallmark of her daughter ever since she was a toddler. At the age of 4, her earliest forays into acting had largely come from parental anger, she said, because her daughter had "three times as much intensity" as most kids and would act out if anything she wanted was refused.
In society, she had to survive, so we had to find out how to channel her energy," she said."
In ice-skating lessons, she enrolled Helena and inspired her to pursue acting. She finally landed a lead role in a German art-house film, "Dark Blue Girl," at age 7, after a few small roles in German TV crime shows, as a bank robber's daughter or a girl who falls from a bridge.
At some point," said her mother, "the thing happened that I hoped would happen. "Actually, she was valued for being so intense."
In 2017, Nora Fingscheidt, the German director of Machine Crasher, captured the attention of Zengel, a harrowing drama based on a girl named Benni who is abused as a baby and rejected by her mother, and who then lashes out at her caregivers and the world around her. A number of disturbing scenes, including violence between children, were included in the film. Fingscheidt said in an interview that she wanted a child actor who could portray the sometimes frightening physicality of Benni, while shouldering the part's psychological burden.
She was struck by the "cinematic quality" of Zengel, with almost transparent white skin, white hair that makes her look like an angel, yet with a curious ambivalence," she said." Fingscheidt said that during the audition of the child actor, in which she was asked to improvise a scene in which she "freaks out" by screaming and throwing things, she was drawn in by the way her "eyes sparkled when I told her she could behave as badly as she wanted."
In order to help Zengel separate herself from her traumatized character, Fingscheidt said, after the filming was done, the two would mime a small scene, with the director holding her hand like a shower head and the child actor pretending to wash under it, to demonstrate her transformation back to herself. Zengel also wrote a report, the director said, to help her process her emotions.
The experience of making "System Crasher," Zengel said, helped her prepare for her role as Johanna, which she admitted was "not as extreme."
Now, despite being trapped at home, completing seventh grade, Zengel is facing the unusual reality of international fame. Variety magazine named her as one of its "actors to watch" this fall and she said she had received offers for other roles in recent months, but that she was waiting before making any decisions until the pandemic subsided.
She said she was open to moving to the United States, but her mother said she was determined to have a normal childhood for her daughter, and that she was comforted by the relatively low-key celebrity culture of Germany.
"The thing about acting is that you just need to do it, and then you're doing it right as long as you're happy with it," Zengel said. "Also, running around and screaming is a lot of fun."