Meet the 12-year-old Berliner nominated for a Golden Globe

Helena Zengel already won Germany's top film award for her role in System Crasher. Now she stars in a western with Tom Hanks.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in <em>News of the World</em>.
Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks in News of the World.Universal Pictures

Berlin - Earlier this month, Berlin-based actress Helena Zengel was nominated for a Golden Globe, putting her in the same category as Glenn Close, Olivia Colman and Jodie Foster. But she's just 12.

"Helena who?"

It may be the last time anyone asks that question. Her role as a screeching kid in the German film System Crasher  scored her a Lola award for best (and youngest!) leading actress. The put her on Hollywood's radar and she's now shooting News of the World,  a western with Oscar-winner Tom Hanks. The movie was released on Netflix on 10 February. Zengel puts in a dazzling performance – as does Hanks. We talked to the young talent online.

Berliner Zeitung: Helena, you’re making your Hollywood debut at 12 with megastar Tom Hanks. Did you know who he was beforehand?

Helena Zengel: I knew his name and I also knew that he was an actor. But I didn't realise how super-famous he is because he tends to make films for adults.

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Which of his films impressed you the most?

Forrest Gump. I liked all the films I've seen of Tom's, but I’ve watched Forrest Gump so many times that it's become one of my favourites. The film is so good because the guy is so weird. So ... different. Weird, but also cute.

How did your first live encounter with him go?

At the beginning I was a bit nervous because everything was so new. And I think he was too ... At first I didn't understand everything in English. Later on, that settled down, I was more relaxed. And if I didn't understand something, Tom explained it. From the middle of the shoot we became close friends and are still in touch today.

What do you like about him?

Tom is totally funny. He always has a joke up his sleeve. He's very self-confident, super nice and a real gentleman. He's up for any kind of nonsense ... Oh, and he's sporty too! We ran around a lot and sometimes he gave me a piggyback ride.

Helena Zengel at the Berlinale in 2019.
Helena Zengel at the Berlinale in 2019.imago images

You play a German-born girl who grew up with a Native American tribe and only gradually comes to trust Hanks’ character. So, just like real life?

Well, we only got to know each other about two or three days before shooting started. It was supposed to be like that because we don't know each other at the beginning of the movie’s story. The infamiliarity is then easier to play.

Hanks was one of the first Hollywood celebrities to be infected with corona. Were you in contact at that time?

Yes, since the end of the shoot we've been writing e-mails or sending each other photos via text message. Most Americans don't have WhatsApp. We also send each other videos in which we tell each other about our days. Even when he had corona, we chatted a lot. At that time, I didn't really know what it was like, with the side effects and all. Tom explained everything to me.

How are you dealing with the whole corona situation?

It's all very bleak because you don't know how it's going to go on and how it's all going to go away. It's also a shame that we couldn't go on a promotional tour around the world with this film. That still makes me sad. I just hope that corona will leave us alone if we all play by the rules now.

What did you learn from Tom Hanks - and what might you have taught him?

I learned a lot about acting from him. He showed me a few tricks, for example how to cry on command. He has so much experience. And I improved my English. He also taught me how to drive a covered wagon. In return, I taught him a bit about riding. And some German. He went around asking everyone: Wo finde isch etwas zu essen? Ich suche Kaffee und Pflaumenkompott. (laughs)

So how do you cry Hanks-style?

When the tears don't want to come on their own, I press down the roof of my mouth, which makes me yawn, but then I suppress that - and then the tears come. It really builds up. It's a technical trick.

Who helped you to speak the language of the Kiowa so impressively?

I learned the Kiowa language from the oldest member of the Kiowa tribe, Dorothy - she will soon be 90 years old - and from Mrs. Watkins, who worked with the Kiowa for a long time. She not only taught me the language, but also their songs. In the three weeks before filming started, I studied for an hour and a half every day.

How did you get into acting in the first place?

It all started when I was about four years old. I was always good at showing my feelings and always liked being the centre of attention. I got my self-confidence from my mum. She’s such a strong woman. I learned from her not to be shy, to dare to show myself. Anyway, mum has a friend who runs an acting agency. That's how I got into acting. In the beginning I only played small roles, just for a few days, then it got more and more. But I never really learned to be an actress. It just comes from my passion for acting.

It's a crazy feeling that's also a bit addictive ... like this profession in general!

You’ve been nominated for a Golden Globe. How did it feel to find that out?

It was the best day of my life. I was buying carrots for my horse. My mum was waiting for me in the car and when I came back, the PR agency was on the phone and mum said, "You did it, you got nominated for a Golden Globe." At first I was speechless because I was so not expecting it. I'm still totally overwhelmed.

What do your friends say about you being an actress?

They’re very curious and have lots of questions. I'm happy to answer them. But it's also important to me that it doesn't play a big role whether I'm an actress or not, especially at school. I just want to have fun with my friends.

What else do you do besides acting and school?

My favourite thing is to be in the stable with friends or to take riding lessons. In general, I like to be out in the fresh air. I also play the piano, at the level of "Für Elise". My mum's birthday is coming up, so I'm going to play a little concert for her. Apart from that, I like to do a lot of sport, but always something different. I did athletics, and figure skating for six years, and I dance a lot. My latest discovery is skateboarding. Sports and exercise are incredibly fun for me. And sewing, that's another one of my hobbies.

Does your day consist of 72 hours?

No, no, only 24, but I like to do a lot. Tom gave me two books that he wrote himself. I want to read them soon. One is called Weird Guys and the other is about him and his career. I'm already looking forward to it.

How did you feel when you were so successful at the Berlinale with System Crasher and being the youngest actress to ever win the Lola?

When I won the film prize and amidst in this Berlinale mania, I felt like I was in a huge bubble of euphoria: you're happy all the time, meet lots of new people and sleep very little because you're totally excited. It's a crazy feeling that's also a bit addictive ... like this profession in general! I'm only nervous when I have to give an acceptance speech. I don't want to forget anyone. With the Lola, it was especially important for me to thank my mum: she is there for everything and has always supported me.

Infobox image
Photo: imago
Helena Zengel ...
 ... was born in Berlin in 2008 and started acting at the age of five. After playing minor roles, mostly in TV shows and movies, she won a role in 2019 in Nora Fingscheidt's System Crasher, which premiered at the Berlinale.

Zengel played Benni, a 9-year-old with behavioural problems, and was awarded the German Film Prize, the Lola, for her performance. From 10 February, the 12-year-old can be seen alongside Tom Hanks in News of the World on Netflix. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her first English-language role, putting her in the company of Jodie Foster and Glenn Close. Zengel got into acting through a friend of her mother Anne Zengel (photo).

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