Child actors are often a touch of an unknown quantity as interviewees, but Golden Globe-nominated Roman Griffin Davis is pretty relaxed about his new-found fame. Self-deprecating and assured, the 12-year-old stars in satirical film Jojo Rabbit as a Hitler Youth fanatic.
The movie explores the autumn of Hitler through the eyes of Roman’s 10-year-old character JoJo, whose glamorous mother is played by Scarlett Johansson, while Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi appears as a ridiculous Hitler.
New Zealander Waititi also wrote and directed the film, alongside the critically acclaimed search for the Wilderpeople, and Marvel fans may recall his comic turn as motion character Korg in Avengers: Endgame.
Jojo Rabbit has had some mixed reviews, but it’s nominated for a Golden Globe and it did win this year’s People’s Choice award at Toronto festival, which may bode well for future success. Several previous Toronto audience winners have gone on to win the best film at the Oscars, including Green Book (2018), 12 Years a Slave (2013) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
British actor Roman is extremely excited about the Golden Globes ceremony on 6 January, where he plans on “dressing sort of a waiter” so he can visit all the tables where his screen idols are going to be sitting, and meet them personally.
But despite his jokes, he’s very serious about the film itself, and why youngsters today got to skills Hitler “brainwashed” young German boys like JoJo.
The Hitler Youth was created in 1922 to indoctrinate youngsters into Nazi ideology and train them as tools of war.”I won’t name names but in some politics, they’re spreading hate through the web, that’s spreading hate unconsciously. and that I think it’s only for a subsequent generation they have to understand that their hate can really do damage,” Roman says.
“Taika told me about Hitler brainwashing children, we saw it as sort of a layer of paint going over the kid.”Jojo was brainwashed but he was an innocent kid, he wasn’t always bad, so I attempted to point out that.”
Roman makes a startling comparison between young JoJo and therefore the Hulk, saying flashes of the important person underneath can spark through, a bit like David Banner occasionally breaks through from being the Hulk amidst all the anger and chaos.
“I’d attempt to keep moments where you’ll see the important child, just like the Hulk with this mutant layer on him, and each now then he quirks out of it.”Reflecting on the Hitler Youth, Roman says: “What the Nazis did to children was really awful.
“They wanted to possess a military of fanatics to assist them to take over the planet. I do know now there have been 16-year-old soldiers on the front lines – and that they were terrified but often the bravest, then many were killed.”
Jojo is aged just 10 within the film, and his life as a budding Nazi becomes complicated when he finds an opinionated, smart Jewish girl called Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) hiding in his attic. Their relationship is unusual, with the balance of power constantly shifting between them.
The film is additionally punctuated by bizarre scenes with JoJo’s imaginary friend Hitler (Waititi) alongside quirky yet menacing Nazi officers played by Rebel Wilson, Sam Rockwell, and Stephen Merchant.
Casting JoJo wasn’t easy – Waititi and his team saw quite 1,000 audition tapes from New Zealand, Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, and Germany. But once they met Roman they knew he was the one.
The young star’s previous acting experience was limited, though. “I played a tree within the school play and did one song within the background,” he explains. But despite this, producer Carthew Neal says Roman’s audition was “just incredible”, to which the young star deadpans: “I fluked it.”
Roman was helped during filming by acting coach Rachel House, from the cast of 2002’s Whale Rider, and both his parents are within the film business, so he felt reception on set.
His mother is writer-director Camille Griffin and his father is cinematographer Ben Davis, whose recent films include Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Doctor Strange, and Captain Marvel.
“My Dad has always been on film sets,” he says, adding he loved meeting Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor on the set of Doctor Strange, adding the food on Marvel sets is “amazing”.
Neal says the film-making process could are precarious, given that they had to “rely on this 10-year-old to tug it off” but after seeing Roman’s angry scenes, he thought “yes, we’re getting to be OK”.
Roman thinks the film has a crucial message.
“I showed this film to my all classmates at our local cinema,” he says.”Once the film finished, I asked these kids, who didn’t know what the Holocaust was, what they thought the moral of the film was, and this one kid said, ‘See things through your own eyes and not someone else’s’.”
He adds: “What I love most about the film is that even though it is about some heavy stuff, and stuff that’s really important, a lot of it is shown through humor and comedy.”