EMPIRE 30: Taika Waititi Tributes From Chris Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson And More

Taika Waititi

by Alex Godfrey |
Updated on

As part of our Empire 30 celebrations, we asked the stars of Taika Waititi’s movies to tell us about their experiences working with him. Originally published in the February 2019 issue of Empire.

Empire 30

Chris Hemsworth

Thor: Ragnarok

What is it you tap into about Taika’s sensibility?

I’ve been a fan of Taika’s from the moment I saw Boy. His storytelling captures the unique quality of adventure, humour and heart, and that’s exactly what Thor needed a healthy dose of. He was the perfect fit.

When did you first meet him?

I’ve hunted him down six years ago after seeing his films and set up what felt like a very awkward first date. He wasn’t quite sure what I wanted but we hit it off and acknowledged the awkwardness and had a good laugh about it. I was on true stalker form.

You wanted to switch things up with Thor — how did Taika respond to that and develop it?

We got on the phone and talked about what we did and didn’t like about Thor, which was kinda hilarious. We had the same vision and passion for what it could be. We then discussed at length what we loved about the comics and the Marvel Universe and things that did work for the character, then started our quest to expand and explore those things further and ingest a greater sense of vulnerability. I think the humour came from not giving into the restraints or clichés of a superhero, and trying to make him far more human and have relatable emotional struggles. The moment a character becomes all-knowing and wise, there’s not really anywhere to take them. We wanted to have him be so far out of his element and remove a lot of his powers [so] that we forced out a different version of the character.

Your Team Thor short is tonally similar to the looseness of What We Do In The Shadows. How did it feel to do that?

That was the first thing we shot together and it really set the mark for what the film was gonna be. We shot it with no pressure and true freedom to try something different, and then when it worked we said, “Shit, I think this is where we gotta take it.” It was a bold choice from him but a perfect example of his drive to mix it up straight out of the gate.

He homed in on your comedic talents. Taika seems to be great at allowing actors to bring themselves to the party.

He creates an environment that is beautifully chaotic and explorative. He kept encouraging all of us to play against any initial instinct and dig deeper in order to keep it fresh and unexpected. There was a lot of improvisation that, even if didn’t end up on screen, dictated a tonal direction for us. He has one of the most spontaneous and infectious senses of humour I’ve come into contact with.

How did it feel to do so much improvising in a Thor film?

Incredibly freeing. I’d kinda felt creatively that I locked myself into something and was limited in what I could do with the character. The improvisation forced you to throw out any preconceived notion of where the scene was gonna go, because often the improv suggestions from Taika were batshit crazy. So I had no choice but to derail the previous version of the character which mostly ended in us cracking up and losing the scene altogether, which was so much fun. I think once you’re given the confidence or go-ahead to just have fun and take risks, all of that stuff just organically grows in a beautiful way. The idea of Hulk and Thor sitting on the edge of a bed and discussing their feelings is not only ridiculous but hilarious, and was one of my favourite sequences. The whole shoot was just a festering pool of creativity and fun banter which birthed a lotta fun moments.

You acted opposite Taika’s Korg — how was it?

Nothing short of hilarious. The character was never in the script that much originally and then once we shot his first scene we all said, “Yeah, he’s gotta exist in a bigger way here.” He certainly stole the show at times.

Tell us something we don’t know about Taika.

He’s a pretty insane dancer.

Julian Dennison

Hunt For The Wilderpeople

At around nine years old I auditioned for an advert for Taika [about adults driving under the influence]; I didn’t really know who he was, I just knew he was this cool guy that wanted me to do an advert.

And he made it so much fun. We just did stupid stuff and I felt like he just wanted to see who I was, and that was really cool. He works so well with kids, because he’s just so funny. We laughed so much.

I was 12 when I did Hunt For The Wilderpeople and he just said, ‘Be yourself. You’re gonna act this character, Ricky Baker, but we wanna see a bit of yourself.’ He really wanted this cute little gangster. He said, ‘I want you to be a gangster.’ I’m into a lot of rap now, but at that age I wasn’t into rap, so I listened to rap. The whole time I was Ricky Baker I was a gangster. He said, ‘This is your movie. You gotta be cool.’ He just tried to up me. Because Ricky Baker was really up himself.

He wanted me to be focused on the comedy in the film. He told me that we would be doing emotional scenes — he said we’d be doing this scene about this girl Amber, who was killed in foster care. And he said to me, ‘This happens. But it’s all about hope. It’s all about joy. And that’s what I want your character to bring to this story. Ricky Baker has been through some tough things, but he’s going to bring joy and happiness.’

After the film opened in LA, we were having dinner there and this guy came up to me and Taika and said, ‘I was a foster kid. This was a really special movie to me, it really made me feel joy. It really made me feel that even though you might not like where you are, or you might be scared, there’s always still hope and joy, and that’s the one thing that matters.’ That was a really special moment.

Jeff Goldblum

Thor: Ragnarok

I’d seen every episode of Flight Of The Conchords [Waititi wrote and directed on the show], which I always loved, and then I saw What We Do In The Shadows, which I loved particularly, and he’s fantastic in it. And then I saw all his other movies. I just thought he was wonderful. I met him to talk about doing Thor and he said, ‘If you wanna do this, we’ll make use, a lot, of what I enjoy about what you currently do in a contemporary way, and what I gather is a lot of improvisation,’ and essentially that’s what we did. I loved his wickedly funny and subversive maverick approach to how we would do this, and his brave conviction about his own sensibility, sense of humour, and vision. He’s just a comic force of nature.

I just had a blast on set. He really inspired my arty sensibilities — it felt like a funhouse workshop experience. The script was already a lovely document and we discharged our obligation in regards to that, but then before they could chase us onto the next set-ups we would just keep playing. For the birthday song, he said, ‘I’ll do some dances, you’ll see out of the corner of your eye, just dance with me,’ and I would start dancing. I was playing piano too: he’d come to a gig of mine and said, ‘You’re the host and king of this planet. Maybe you play piano, we’ll mock up a keyboard so it looks like it comes from Sakaar.’ He loves music!

And he is of course a spectacular supermodel. He likes clothes in a playful way, and in a fetching way, I would say. I have fun with dressing up myself, for one purpose or another — when I play jazz I have fun with figuring out this alternate Jeff Goldblum character. And on set Taika had outfits in his wardrobe that he would change into, a bunch of different suits every day, very Rat Pack, and they were very stylish and very adorable. We took a publicity photo and he showed up with a loud, audacious, pineapple-print ensemble, which was very striking. He inspired me. Before I saw him wear that, I never had this pair of zebra-striped pants that I now have, that I’m looking at right now. I think he’s set us all free.

I just get the biggest kick out of him. He’s been a dear, wonderful friend. I hope to know him for the rest of my days. He’s sort of an open-faced sandwich. He’s kind of a Reuben sandwich, without a top — he’s got corned beef and sauerkraut and he’s hot and spicy. All his innards are there to be seen and enjoyed.

Tessa Thompson

Thor: Ragnarok

I met him for lunch and we just sat and talked and drank and laughed. It became clear to me that the way to hang out with Taika as a potential collaborator was to have a drink. When I flew to Australia to make the movie, the first time I met Chris Hemsworth was in Taika’s office — the three of us had a beer.

Valkyrie’s drunkenness was in the script when I was cast — it came from this idea of wanting to buck convention in terms of what a badass female superhero looks like. When we first met, we both let out this collective sigh about how annoying we found that trope. We talked a lot about her fighting style — often, either by design or accidentally, when women in superhero films are fighting, it’s incredibly sexy because they end up putting their opponents in headlocks with their thighs. We wanted to do the opposite with Valkyrie. We didn’t want her to be Hollywood sexy, and the drunkenness was a layer of that.

Music is such a big thing for him. As much as there’s something about Taika that feels like there is no method to the madness — he’s just doing what he wants, playing music and directing in pineapple onesies, making jokes on the mic — I think actually the method is that he understands that, with the films he makes, that play is super, super important. It’s a really brilliant way to remind everyone of what we’re there for.

His movies have a really homegrown feeling, and in this different space to his older films, he retains that. Watching the way he was able to weave in folks from his past, the colours of his country, his indigenous flag’s colours being incorporated into Val’s spaceship, jokes about colonisation — particularly in the context of these big movies where you have the opportunity to talk about issues that matter to you — it just reminded me that he’s a filmmaker with a sense of purpose.

Stephen Merchant

Jojo Rabbit

What We Do In The Shadows was just a delight. The mockumentary format, The Office included, is a well-worn form, and I just thought they did a brilliant job. In the case of a vampire thing, by taking something so absurd, and giving it something as pedestrian and rudimental as a flatshare, it’s just added value having it in documentary style. Also we’ve seen a lot of vampires and a lot of spoofs of vampires, but that one was sublime. Every comic joke was either exactly what I hoped it would be, or took me by surprise, I was overjoyed. So after seeing that I was very enamoured of him as a performer and a writer and a director, and therefore very pleased when he asked me to be in Jojo Rabbit [Waititi’s next film, in which Merchant plays a Gestapo agent]. Instinctively I thought I would hit it off with him, and we hit it off straightaway.

I was a little unnerved because I have to do a German accent in the film. I’ve never really done accents before, so I had a voice coach for it. I’d learnt the lines, partially phonetically, so I was really bedded in with the lines and feeling surprisingly confident about this accent, and then of course we get there on day one and I’m opposite Sam Rockwell, who’d just won an Oscar, and suddenly Taika wants me to improvise. In a German accent. So now I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God. This is gonna all come crashing down around me, it’s gonna be like an outtake from ’Allo ’Allo.’ But he’s not judgemental, and he just wants a fun, imaginative set. He indulged me and allowed me to say some fairly surreal things. And having seen What We Do In The Shadows and also Thor, I knew what that tone of comedy was, which is you say often absurd things in a very everyday way. Even if you are a Gestapo agent.

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