The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scarlett Johansson drew from her own life to play a resilient single mother in ‘Jojo Rabbit’

Scarlett Johansson, left, and Roman Griffin Davis play mother and son in "Jojo Rabbit." (Larry Horricks/Twentieth Century Fox)

Scarlett Johansson couldn’t tell you what “Jojo Rabbit” is about.

“I mean, the log line sounds crazy,” she recently said over the phone, “so any time anyone asks me what it’s about, I end up going down some rabbit hole, no pun intended. You kind of have to see it.”

Based on the book “Caging Skies,” the satirical film, written and directed by Taika Waititi, follows a 10-year-old German boy named Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) as he reconsiders his blind adherence to the Nazi doctrine after discovering his mother, Rosie (Johansson), has been hiding a Jewish teenager, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), in a secret closet upstairs. Jojo’s imaginary friend is Adolf Hitler — an off-kilter choice allowing Waititi, who plays “Adolf” himself, to mock the dictator and his stranglehold on others.

Though it polarized critics upon premiering last month at the Toronto International Film Festival, “Jojo Rabbit” secured the People’s Choice audience award, which has become a bellwether for the Oscars race. (Other recent winners include “Green Book,” “La La Land” and “12 Years a Slave.”) It’s the rare feel-good film about World War II — yes, comparisons have been made to “Life Is Beautiful” — and that is precisely what drew Johansson to meet with Waititi in the first place.

Review: A comedy about Nazis that’s actually funny? Yes. But ‘Jojo Rabbit’ is also deadly serious.

She initially heard of the project from her “Avengers: Infinity War” co-star Chris Hemsworth, who had just shot “Thor: Ragnarok” with Waititi and, according to Johansson, was raving about the director’s “unbelievably touching, unique, fresh script.” The actress said her agent was as effusive in his praise.

“It was this beautiful gem, you know?” Johansson said. “I fell so in love with Rosie because she’s this kind of magical, warm, safe place. Everything she does comes out of love, like the love she has for her child. She loves being a mom and she has this worldly history and she’s traveled. She’s vaudevillian and sees the magic in small moments and is an epicurean."

Johansson has faced criticism in the past for her approach to casting, highlighted in a magazine article earlier this year when she said, per the Hollywood Reporter, that as an actor she should “be able to play any person, or any tree, or any animal.” She later stated that her comments had been “widely taken out of context,” but doubled down on the notion that “in an ideal world, any actor should be able to play anybody and Art, in all forms, should be immune to political correctness.” (This all occurred a year after she dropped out of the film “Rub & Tug,” in which she had been cast as a trans man.)

Asked whether projects like “Jojo Rabbit” — which, while heartwarming, still features a jovial fascist as a child’s imaginary friend — benefit from their ability to push the boundaries of what might be considered “political correctness,” Johansson responded that she approached the film as a story of two children, Jojo and Elsa, “forming this friendship despite their fear of the unknown, their fear of each other.”

“There’s so much hope in that message,” she continued. “These two kids can work it out, and you look at us adults — why can’t we? It feels very powerful and very apt. It feels like something we feel now.”

Childish ignorance shapes Jojo’s worldview at the start of the film; he insists to peers that his father is a war hero fighting in Italy, though Rosie’s actions indicate that the truth is more complex. She holds out as much hope as viewers do that her son, who clings to his indoctrinated beliefs to cement his sense of belonging, will eventually see the light. When they walk by the hanged bodies of those who defied the Reich, for instance, Jojo asks his mother what they did. She solemnly responds, “What they could.”

Want to know who will rule the upcoming awards season? Keep an eye on Toronto, the Oscar kingmaker.

Rosie is one of the first mothers Johansson has ever played on-screen, joined by her character in Noah Baumbach’s upcoming divorce film “Marriage Story,” the first runner-up for the People’s Choice award at TIFF. Albeit by different circumstances, both women are single mothers, a position Johansson has been in herself. (She had a daughter, Rose, with ex-husband Romain Dauriac in 2014.)

“I don’t believe actors need to have lived their characters’ experience to be able to empathize with them,” she said. “But certainly in this case, the fact that I have had the experience of having a child and knowing that you would give your life for this other person, and that your heart has grown this extra chamber to hold all this infinite love for this person, that to me is incredibly helpful, to be able to draw from that.”

Waititi came from a household with a single mother and Baumbach has been a single parent himself, Johansson pointed out, praising the writer-directors for depicting the anxiety and doubt that can accompany being responsible for the well-being of an impressionable child.

There’s a dinner scene in “Jojo Rabbit” where the normally cheery Rosie snaps, fed up with her son’s behavior and the pressure placed on her. She had been “trying so hard to keep it together, to keep the life in this house with all the death around them,” per Johansson, “and she sees this petulant child across from her, and he represents everything she hates, and he’s her child!” But after witnessing Jojo’s reaction, Rosie immediately tries to make amends by wiping fireplace soot across her upper lip and, while pretending to be the father Jojo so desperately misses, reprimands herself for yelling at her son.

“It was a really exciting scene because I didn’t know where it was going to take me, and I was very overwhelmed by the emotion of it,” Johansson said. “It was very powerful and scary. That’s exciting, to feel that stuff. As an actor, that’s what makes you keep going back. . . . That’s the real juice of the work.”

It’s a rather touching moment, one that highlights Rosie’s resilience in a trying situation — a characteristic that applies to many of Johansson’s characters, including Natasha Romanoff, the assassin-turned-superhero she plays in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. While working on Natasha’s stand-alone film, “Black Widow,” slated for a May 2020 release, Johansson said director Cate Shortland commented on a difficult scene between two characters by stating that “women have no choice.”

This ‘Avengers: Endgame’ battle scene captures Marvel’s tricky relationship with female heroes

“It sat with me,” Johansson recalled of the observation. “I processed it for a long time, and I’m still processing all that that means. I think these characters are all born out of plight, in some way or another. There’s a sameness that we all feel because of that truth, you know? I’m drawn to exploring that reality in many different facets, and how it affects many different women’s lives. It feels visceral to me.”

Whereas Johansson had a hand in shaping her “Marriage Story” character — “You got this feeling when you met with Noah that he needed to cast the project in his mind so he could write it,” she noted — the “Jojo Rabbit” script was complete by the time she signed on to play Rosie. But the actress brought with her to the character a keen sense of poignancy partially inspired by her own life.

“I wanted her to feel like she was just in the middle of her life when this atrocity occurred,” Johansson said. “She’s trying the best she can to normalize a situation that makes no sense at all. All of that stuff was in the script. I just had to say the lines.”

Read more:

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe on making the strangest movie of the year

Unpacking the ‘metaphorical’ ending of ‘Parasite’

The triumphant ‘Hustlers’ is what can happen when women are in charge — on- and off-screen