• Golden Globe Awards

Nominee Profile 2021: Helena Zengel, “News of the World”

Her website is crowned by a winged capital letter Z. What that means, explains a voice on her podcast, is Ein großes Z und ein kleiner Engel (A big Z and a little angel). Combined, this makes Zengel. Equally playful are some of the “little angel’s” answers during a conversation with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Asked about her collaboration with Tom Hanks she deadpans: “I did teach him maybe a little bit of acting”. She adds, “He learned some (horseback) riding from me. And then also, I did teach him a little bit of German. For example, ‘Where do I find food?’”
The twelve-year-old Helena Zengel, chatting via Zoom from her home in Berlin, spoke about her role in the Netflix film News of the World which led to her nomination for a Golden Globe in the category Best Actress in a Supporting Role.
News of the World is set after the American Civil War and follows a solitary man (Hanks) who drifts through the West making scraps of money by reading articles from old newspapers to a mostly uninterested audience. He encounters a young girl (Zengel) who is hiding and runs away from him. He tries to catch her but she is wild – one is tempted to call her untamed. She is also extremely shy. Only over time does she hesitantly accept being around the friendly, soft-spoken stranger. Building trust is difficult for her. After her German immigrant family has been struck by violence, she has grown up with Kiowa Indians. The “newsman” decides to do the right thing by returning her to some of her remaining relatives. They have a long and treacherous trek ahead of them. The girl doesn’t speak English, only rudimentary German, and Kiowa. which makes her mostly tongue-tied. So how difficult was it to act using only a few words?
“It’s always more difficult to do a quiet scene,” says the young actress,” and I think also having so many quiet scenes and also speaking without or only with your eyes. And yeah, it’s just, it is I think it’s the toughest part about acting. So, you need to get used to it and learn to do it. But if you do and if you have a talent, I guess it just gets normal and fun to do it.’
Indeed, the most convincing moments in the film are perhaps those when she is subdued, when she doesn’t scream or throw a fit. Instead, the memorable scenes show her sitting motionless, taking all in with her big blue eyes, appraising the vistas of the endless prairies around her or the (mostly non-paying) town folks this unlikely pair encounters. What is going on in the mind of this orphan who has seen and lost so much and is now in the company of a grandfatherly man whose words she doesn’t understand? Unable to express herself verbally, this girl with her animated mind puts her thoughts and her emotions, into her eyes, be they of mild amusement, childlike curiosity, harsh rejection, or fragile trust.
The young actress’s introduction to Hollywood two years earlier displayed a very different Helena Zengel. The German director Nora Fingscheidt wrote and helmed the drama Systemsprenger (System Crasher), a film which provoked a strong public reaction in Germany and earned a “Lola”, the German film award, in all major categories. System Crasher is not an easy film to watch: a film about a traumatized kid never is. The nine-year-old Benni (played by Helena) is considered highly neurotic, aggressive, and unbearable. Only her mother is allowed to touch her face. As soon as others come even close to her, she lashes out, screams on top of her lungs – a consequence of childhood trauma.
“Actually there are not many things that make me angry,” says Zengel. “I think that’s just the talent or that thing about acting. You just need to play what comes through your mind and “fuck it,” as you would say. And then I think, I mean, many people maybe think about something where they are aggressive on, but actually, for me, there’s nothing I’m getting aggressive about. It’s just I like getting loud. When I know I’m having that scene, I’m just preparing for it and I’m like, ‘Okay, now you do that or that.’ And maybe sometimes think about something ugly or I hate, or what makes me say (makes barf noise), like, spiders. And then I just get into that role and playoff.”
Once System Crasher was screened in the US for award consideration it created quite a following. The director Nora Fingscheidt signed a contract for a feature with Sandra Bullock. But especially Helena, the main character of the film, got plenty of attention. Variety listed the pre-teen as one of the “Actors to Watch” and Paul Greengrass was so impressed by what he saw – and heard – that he hired her for his Western News of the World alongside Tom Hanks.
Zengel was born on June 10, 2008, in Berlin. Official biographies are practically void of personal background information. Speaking to the HFPA she only mentions her mother as the owner of an Icelandic mare named Hekla which she, Helena, loves to ride, giving her the advantage over Tom Hanks in terms of riding skills. And that her mother is helping her practice her lines for each movie or TV project. When we concluded our press conference with the last question about her upcoming projects, like a consummate professional, her only answer was a big grin.