Adapted from the book of the same name, the new film from director Paul Greengrass News of the World sees Tom Hanks in a sort-of Western, a tale of a wandering news-reader who stumbles across a surprising discovery during his travels: a young German girl alone in the wreckage of a crashed wagon, dressed in clothing from the Kiowa, a Native American tribe of the area. The film follows Hank’s character, a former Civil War soldier referred to most often as “Captain,” attempting to reunite the girl Johanna, played by Helena Zengel, with her last living relatives. In the words of the actress herself, “It is a very intense and heartbreaking movie about two people searching for hope and love — and also a home.”
Zengel shines in her first major American film, having found her beginnings as an actress in a number of lesser-renowned projects in Germany. The critical success of 2019’s System Crasher and her reception of the German Film Prize for Best Actress at age nine led to her casting alongside Hanks in News of the World. Though intimidating, her inexperience in the American film market did not deter the young actress. In our exclusive sit-down, Zengel expressed a lot of excitement in being cast. “When I knew I got that role, I was just overwhelmed. I couldn’t say anything. It was so amazing to know that I got this chance from Paul [Greengrass] to be able to do this role and that he trusted me. And now while we have all this press, I’m just so happy and lucky that audiences liked the movie.” Caught between the ways of the Kiowa and the European settlers, her story is about trying to find her place in a world riddled with anger and intolerance. A new setting, but similar motifs coming from the Bourne saga and Captain Phillips director.
As a story about the Postbellum South, the film sets the subject of prejudice and hatred in its crosshairs. A large part of the film’s narrative and thematic core focuses on the relationships between not only individuals but between different groups and the ways they see each other. Johanna serves as the connective tissue between two major parties of the film, the settlers and the region’s Native tribes. In News of the World, Captain Kidd discovers her after she had already been separated from her found family, the Kiowa tribe, whom had raised her as their own after the death of her real family. She spends the film outfitted in a range of period-accurate clothes and speaking a number of languages.
To bring a level of realism to her portrayal of a Kiowa-raised outsider, Zengel recalled a period of extensive research. “I watched movies from both [Tom Hanks and Paul Greengrass] and also some documentaries about the Native Americans and how they lived. And we asked them when we were talking to the Kiowa. I did lots of research and learned a lot about them and their culture in those three weeks before the movie started.” There is a certain tangible reverence in her performance that captures the emotion of her situation and the larger cultural context of the film’s story — an understanding that, though different in many ways, the many people that inhabited the American South were capable of good things. This idea, reinforced throughout Captain Kidd and Johanna’s adventures by means of contrast and comparison, paints the larger picture of a deeply divided region that needs to be reminded of their universal humanity.
A film full of quiet and retrospective moments, it is Zengel’s performance that feels perhaps the most contemplative. She speaks few words compared to her co-star, Tom Hanks, but never once lacks a dedication to the character and story placed before her. Despite a relatively reserved character, Zengel’s body language and facial expressions brings life to Johanna, a shy, introverted, and stubborn orphan who was stolen from her home and family. With such a large portion of the film resting on her shoulders, Zengel manages to portray Johanna as an appropriately confused, conflicted character who has lost sight of everything familiar to her. Even opposite a world-class actor like Hanks, she manages to not only hold her own but provide a compelling performance that speaks to the heart of the film’s narrative. Though it comes off as a natural feat on screen, she expressed the difficulty in maintaining a stoic expression in front of her charismatic co-star: “[It was hard] when I needed to ignore him or he tried to get a relationship with me that I didn’t want. It was not very easy to play that because I knew that in real life we are good friends. So that was kind of hard to do, but it was a great chance to show everything I can do.”
Undoubtedly full of its challenges for any upcoming actress like Zengel, working alongside Hanks was also a massive learning experience. When asked about any advice she received on set, Zengel said his emphasis to “show up on time, know your lines, and be nice and kind to everybody” really touched her. His eye for the larger picture for his on-screen companions was also a notable subject of discussion. “He also taught me to watch out for [my] actor partners because they are important. You’re working with them, and if you want them to work with you well, you should be teammates together. In order to have a good movie, you should care about that and also help them get into their roles.”
Teamwork on the set of any film extends far beyond just the actors, however, and Zengel expressed a lot of admiration and appreciation for the designers and costume workers for New of the World, who delivered an immersive recreation of the Postbellum South. “It took sometimes a long, long time to get the right [costume] fittings because they were sometimes too tight or too bright or too shiny. I think that was not an easy job and I think we should appreciate that — from all the hair dressers to costume-doers and everything.” She doesn’t seem too envious of real world inhabitants of this time period, though, citing tight-fit clothes as a hassle for she and costumers to get right. “Those costumes were really fixed on. Sometimes they had to sew me in to them and cut them open, so we were only able to use them for one scene.”
Released in theaters at Christmastime, the film very much embodied the unifying spirit of the holidays. As it more recently became available on VOD, Zengel recommends watching it with your family. “It’s totally a family movie, I think. It is a heartbreaking story that has, actually, a good ending. It’s open-ended, so it’s something different for everybody.” But for Zengel it represents something even bigger than just a general warm-spirited atmosphere. “At one point Tom says there are ‘better days to come,’ which in this situation with COVID-19 is an important sentence and a very good thing right now — showing hope.” Whether it will come to fruition or not is anyone’s guess, but the young actress clued us into something she hopes for: “the hope for a second movie from that [open ending] is very big.”