Helena Zengel: Germany’s 12-year-old Hollywood star | DW | 10.02.2021

“Look at what she can do with her eyes!” actress Helene Zengel remembers director Paul Greengrass saying when he cast her in his film News of the World, now released on Netflix.

He was looking for a child actress with enough depth to play the role of a traumatized orphan. He found the talent he needed in Zengel, who had already seen success in her previous role in the German film System Crasher, which won more than 30 film awards. She was only 9 years-old at the time. Her character, Benni, is an aggressive child who experiences uncontrollable violent outbursts, exasperating her caregivers. The young actress’s poignant performance can be painful to watch. 

Off camera, Zengel comes across as cheerful and self-confident. She says acting comes easily to her. “I’m good at showing my emotions, I’m cheeky,” she tells a television crew from German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk.

On a promotional tour for her latest film, the Berlin native appears casual and articulate in numerous TV interviews and talk shows. At only 12 years old, she has already landed what many German actors can only dream of: a role in a Hollywood film.

The 12-year-old actress won numerous awards for playing the lead role in 2019 film ‘System Crasher’

Who is Tom Hanks? 

In the western film News of the World, she once again plays an abandoned child. Her character, Johanna, is an orphan of German immigrants who grows up with the Native American Kiowa tribe and is eventually taken under the wing of Captain Kidd, played by Tom Hanks.

“I can’t stress enough how much power little Helena has,” Tom Hanks says of his film co-star. “This girl was always good for a surprise. Simply because she is who she is.”

For Helena, it’s a dream role. Horseback riding — her favorite hobby — was part of the job description, and she enjoyed learning the Kiowa language, as well. Her mother, as always, accompanied her during the shoot in New Mexico. 

She initially had no idea who Tom Hanks was. But after accepting the role, she watched a few of his films to get up to speed. Today, the Hollywood star has become her mentor. There’s hardly an interview in which she doesn’t rave about how well she gets along with Tom and that they continue to stay in touch. He also told her a few tricks of the trade, like how to cry on command.

Zengel shouting aggressively in a scene from 'System Crasher.'

Zengel won the German Film Prize for best actress in 2020 thanks to her performance in ‘System Crasher’

Starting to work at age five

She takes no issue with playing abandoned, traumatized characters: “I feel comfortable with it,” the 12-year-old told Berlin tabloid BZ. “Sure, I’d love to do a children’s film someday, I’m sure that will happen. But I don’t think it’s bad to be pigeonholed in this way, because it suits me and I like it the most.” 

Born in Berlin in 2008, Helena was already in front of the camera acting in television films by the age of five. When she was eight years old, she appeared in the film The Daughter, which premiered at theBerlinale 2017. Here, too, she played a strong-willed girl who upsets her parents.

Two years later, she once again walked the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival for System Crasher, which screened in 2019. She was selected out of 150 girls vying for the role. For director Nora Fingscheidt, however, she was the only child who could play aggression along with adversity. “There was never anything purely spoiled or naughty about it, it was always linked to fragility and vulnerability,” Fingscheidt said in the film’s press materials.

Helena Zengel and Tom Hanks on a prarie in the USA in a still from 'News of the World.'

After the pair played alongside one another in ‘News of the World,’ Hanks became Zengel’s mentor in showbiz

A young professional

“I’m just a normal child,” says Helena Zengel, emphasizing that she had a sheltered childhood. Even if it’s hard to believe as a viewer, she is able to separate and distinguish very precisely between the roles she plays and her life — she is a professional, after all.

But despite her mature attitude to her profession, Helena is still very much a child. You can hear this especially in her fresh and wonderfully childlike podcast “Big Z and Little Angel.” In it, the seventh-grader talks about her new school and her family road trip to Bavaria.

“Wow, the mountains are really impressive,” she enthuses, while laughing about the Bavarian accent. “I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places through filming, but I’ve really never seen mountains like this before.” Tom Hanks is also in the podcast. He politely greets listeners in German spoken with a strong American accent.

Helena Zengel sits in the forest on a skateboard, smiling.

Zengel may be a professional actress, but she’s still a child who likes talking about her new school and family vacations on her podcast

Will she win big in the USA?

Unfortunately, the two actors won’t be meeting again any time soon. News of the World, was shot in 2019, and was initially scheduled to run in theaters. Instead, Netflix bought the film, eliminating the possibility of a promotional tour in the US.

Yet, Zengel is still receiving acclaim. She was recently nominated for a Golden Globe award, a Screen Actors Guild Award as best supporting actress and also for Best Newcomer from the Critics Choice Association (CCA). Yet, there will be no red carpet to walk down this year. Fortunately, the Berlin actress already knows what a virtual award ceremony feels like. She found out she won the German Film Award for best leading actress for System Crasher online.

This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.

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Credit: Deutsche Welle

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