What You Don’t Know About Helena Zengel, The 12-Year-Old Star Of News Of The World

Helena Zengel is definitely not your average 12-year-old. The precocious preteen co-stars alongside Hollywood heavyweight Tom Hanks in 2020’s News of the World (via IMDb).

Zengel was born and raised in Berlin, Germany, and People reports that she began her acting career at the age of 5. She then co-starred in a series of German films, including Die Tochter (The Daughter) and System Crasher. Zengel performed so well in System Crasher that she won a German Film Prize, which is the German version of an Oscar. That performance is also the one that piqued the interest of News of the World director Paul Greengrass.

Once you’ve seen the film, it’s not hard to understand why Zengel was such a perfect fit. As she told Deadline last year, acting is just what she was born to do. “Acting is actually normal for me. I never had acting classes or anything, so it’s just something natural I like to do.”

Helena Zengel didn't speak fluent English before filming

When Helena Zengel auditioned for her role in News of the World, she didn’t have the strongest grasp on the English language. As she told World Today News, she didn’t realize she won the role because “I didn’t understand what he was saying because my English wasn’t that good back then.” Luckily, she was able to pick it up fairly quickly. 

These days, Zengel’s English is nearly flawless. She credits that mostly with spending time with friends who also speak the language, which made it necessary to improve quickly. “I used to have English in school from the third grade onwards. And then we went on a cruise with friends from Romania. They didn’t speak German and we could only talk in English. That’s how I got really good” (via World Today News).

Those aren’t the only languages Zengel can speak. While she isn’t entirely fluent, she’s also familiar with Spanish, Swedish, and Kiowa (via World Today News).

Helena Zengel had no formal acting training

Helena Zengel was basically born to be an actress. Her career kicked off at the age of 5, and she had little to no formal training prior to that experience. Acting is just something she was meant to do. Zengel’s first role was on the German series Spreewaldkrimi. Her mother found a Germany acting agency following the role, and she began steadily working on TV shows and in films. Nora Fingscheidt, who directed Helena Zengel in her breakout role in System Crasher, knew that Zengel was the one early on.

Fingscheidt told Films in Frame that Zengel was the seventh child she auditioned, and quickly became the girl she compared everyone else to, even once it seemed pointless. She says, “… we kept on going until it became a bit ridiculous; no matter how good the girls were, I was comparing them to Helena. At some point everyone said I have to stop wasting my time and start working with this girl.”

Helena Zengel's mom stood in for Tom Hanks

Helena Zengel also has a really funny story about her first audition for News of the World: her mom stood in for Tom Hanks to help her daughter perform the scene. Her mom also really took one for the team, as the moment required the preteen to bite her mom on the hand!

“We did the scene where I bite Tom Hanks’ hand. I was pretty nervous, but it was really fun, and cute also, for my mom to do it with me” (via Deadline).

While Zengel did have to audition for the role, director Paul Greengrass knew from the beginning that she was the girl he wanted in the film. Greengrass told Gold Derby that he was set on Zengel from the moment he watched System Crasher. “I thought it was brilliant and Helena was superb in it- with huge range, too. I had a strong sense then, literally, as I watched it. I thought, ‘Well, I mean, it’s going to have to be her. She’s the perfect age. She looks exactly right.'”

She practiced being quiet to prepare for her role

In News of the World, Helena Zengel plays Johanna, who has been raised by the Kiowa tribe in the Great Plains of the United States. Since Johanna can’t speak English, the role required Zengel to become a pro at communicating with her eyes and in other non-verbal ways — a process that entailed three weeks of training.

Zengel explained to Screen Rant that she also had to learn a lot about the Kiowa culture. “There were three weeks; every day, one and a half hours of learning Kiowa. And then also understanding the culture and why she’s also not talking, and actually not understanding the English language. It was great.”

Luckily, Zengel really enjoyed having the opportunity to practice not speaking. “I think I am a loud person, and I’m a person who likes people and being in public and also speaking. So, it was a fun experience to not talk in a movie” (via Screen Rant).

Helena Zengel didn't know Tom Hanks was a big star

One of the funniest things Helena Zengel has revealed is that she really didn’t know Tom Hanks was such a big deal when she got the News of the World role. NME shares that while speaking to the PA News Agency, Zengel explained how in the world that was possible (although not completely surprising since Hanks is often described as being very down-to-earth).

“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. 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.”

Helena Zengel ended up enjoying her experience with Tom Hanks a lot. She told Variety that he was especially fun while shooting camping scenes, when “Tom was trying to make funny faces while I was trying to put on a serious face.”

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