News of The World star Helena Zengel on working with her famous friend Tom Hanks

Twelve-year-old newcomer Helena Zengel holds her own opposite Hollywood star Tom Hanks in Netflix western News Of The World, even though she wasn't quite sure who he was. Laura Harding finds out more...

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in News Of The World
Laura Harding

HELENA Zengel was just 11 years old when she first met Tom Hanks, and she didn't really understand what a big deal he is. The German actress plays opposite the Hollywood megastar in the western News Of The World, set on the Texan frontier in 1870.

She has already landed Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations for her role as a girl who speaks no English and who has been living with Native Americans before being taken from them, and is now in the race for an Oscar nomination.

Hanks plays a Civil War veteran who travels from town to town reading out the news and who reluctantly agrees to return the youngster to her distant settler family, travelling hundreds of miles across dangerous terrain.

"If you had said 'Tom Hanks is in another movie', I would have known he's an actor and I knew he was a bigger deal than some other actors, but I didn't quite know that he's a real big deal," Zengel, now 12, admits as she chats on Zoom from her home in Germany.

"So, when I knew I was going to play the role, I knew he's an actor, but then later on I learned he's such a big actor and it was such an honour to work with him.

"He's just great, he's very nice and I was really impressed by him, he's a gentleman."

Zengel casts her mind back to their first meeting, before the film's shoot in New Mexico.

"At the beginning I was a little bit in awe, not quite as self-confident as I am usually because he's tall, he can be loud, he's American and he's such a big actor.

"But then, later on, we really had fun because he's funny, he's so nice, he is totally not like a superstar you would expect. Maybe you think he's coming with his Mercedes or whatever, coming to set, driving in with his sunglasses like you see in the movies, but no.

"He's coming in very loose jeans and very loose shoes, as if he was just chilling out, and I was like 'OK, he's not as 'superstar' as you would think of him. He made it really easy and we became close friends pretty fast because he's just amazing, and I think he likes me too.

"At the beginning I was like 'OK, he is obviously older than me, he did so many movies and we are going to be acting partners but it is never going to be like a friendship or anything', but it did, it just happened, and I think it's great to get a relationship with an actor because it makes it so much easier to play with each other."

News Of The World is Zengel's first Hollywood film, after starring roles in German films including System Crasher and Dark Blue Girls. She first met the movie's director, British filmmaker Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum, Captain Phillips, United 93) in a London hotel, when she was still working on English.

"In the beginning I was quite confident with the English, I pretty much understood everything he said, I understood what he meant. But then my brain got tired and then I was like, 'Mum, what did he just say?'

"So when he actually said I got the role I was totally confused and I was just talking and I think he was wondering if I didn't get it or if I didn't want it, because I wasn't reacting.

"At the end I said 'When are we going to know if I got the role or not?' and he was like 'If you want to make this movie, you've got the role, I want to work with you!' Then I was just jumping around, I could have screamed."

Zengel is great company, naturally ebullient and enthusiastic about everything, from the desert background she has set up on Zoom, to the colour of her bright sweater and her love of London.

But News Of The World forced her to tap into a very different side of herself, her character Johanna barely speaks and her relationship with Hanks' character Captain Kidd is close to wordless.

"In my last movie my character was very loud and self-confident, she speaks a lot but she still has her quiet moments where she has that look in her face where she could start to cry and you can't tell why, it's just her face looking at you.

"And I think that is what the director saw in me, Johanna is not speaking and is such an a*****e to Tom, she is ignoring him, not thanking him for anything and making him feel like's he's nothing, but actually she really likes him.

"I think it was very interesting to see how Johanna and him get closer even when they cant talk with each other. You have to show everything you can with just your eyes, and it's the hardest things you can do when you play a role but I wanted to take a chance and just try and do it."

Much easier for Zengel were the films action scenes, in which the keen rider (she owns a horse with her mother) got to show off her skills in the saddle. Particularly exciting was the film's centrepiece shoot-out, with a trio of unpleasant men who are trying to buy the young girl from Hanks' character.

"We started very low (in the desert) and then we got higher and higher and higher and later and it was getting slippery. We were between the rocks and we had to hike up there and the camera team, the lights, the sounds, all the things you have to get up there, it was very tough, but it was just so fun.

"It was crazy running around between the rocks with the guns and it was very adventurous, I really liked it. We had everything, we had rain, we had dust, we had sun, we had the desert, we were swimming together, which unfortunately is not in the film but we did, and we were on horses.

"We found snakes and spiders, it was such a crazy shoot but it was amazing and one of the greatest times of my life and I think I will never forget it, my first Hollywood movie and it was with Tom Hanks."

:: News Of The World is streaming on Netflix now.

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