Taika Waititi can never resist the opportunity for a joke. In 2005, when the director was first nominated for an Oscar for his short film Two Cars, One Night, he had an idea: What if when the camera panned to him and his fellow nominees for best live-action short, they all pretended to be asleep or dead? But when the broadcast began, Waititi was the only one who went along with the scheme, resulting in a now-classic clip of him snoozing while his name is called.
Waititi is now returning to the Academy Awards, this time as a multi-nominee for his World War II satire Jojo Rabbit. So, does he have any gags planned for this year’s ceremony? “Well, I’m sure as hell not going to ask the other nominees to pretend that they’re asleep like I did last time,” he tells EW with a laugh.
Since that 2005 short, Waititi has directed both Marvel blockbusters and critically-acclaimed indies. But it’s the dark comedy Jojo that’s earned him his biggest success: The story of a young German boy (Roman Griffin Davis) and his imaginary friend Hitler (played by Waititi himself) has earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress for Scarlett Johansson.
“I know a lot of people say that sort of cheesy thing, like, ‘Oh, just to be nominated is an honor,’ but it really is for us,” Waititi explains. “For me and for my producer Carthew [Neal], it really is. Just to be in the conversation is really amazing for us.”
Waititi adds that the Oscar attention is particularly gratifying because he spent about eight years trying to make Jojo, tinkering with the script and trying to find the right balance of gravitas and lunacy. (An uplifting comedy about Hitler isn’t necessarily your typical Oscar fare.)
“I think most people who come from a Jewish background — like myself — who heard of the film or may have been interested in seeing the film, were very nervous about seeing it,” Waititi says. “They might think, ‘Well, I have my reservations about seeing it.’ And I think when people see it, they understand, and they get it. It was very much the same for me, even writing it. For me, the fact that people appreciate [the film] and they understand that it’s an important film where we’re at at this time… It validates everything.”
Up next, Waititi will return to the Marvel universe for the upcoming Thor: Love and Thunder, and he’s been filming his next project, the sports comedy Next Goal Wins about the American Samoa national football team. “It’s like a 99 percent Polynesian cast — and Michael Fassbender,” Waititi says. “I emailed Fassbender’s agents and said, ‘I think you should stop him from doing dramas from now on because he’s a comic revelation.'”
He also starred in and directed the season finale of the Star Wars smash The Mandalorian, which he calls “one of the great filming experiences for me.” He’s especially thrilled by the reaction to the show’s tiny, green breakout star — although he’s quick to correct anyone who refers to the child as Baby Yoda.
“I knew that people would be talking about Baby Yoda, but I also know Baby Yoda’s real name,” Waititi interjects. “So if you’re gonna do me a favor, please stop calling him Baby Yoda. Or is it a her! No one knows!”