Taika Waititi on Next Goal Wins, Reservation Dogs, Representation – The Hollywood Reporter

Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo have a routine they’ve done at parties that kills. They perfected it at Sundance in the early 2000s, in a condo dance-off with two Navajo guys. “Taika would strike this Michael Jackson pose with his hand pointing in the air and unbutton the pearl button on his shirt,” says Harjo, the Seminole-Muskogee director with whom Waititi would go on to co-create the FX comedy series Reservation Dogs in 2019. “And I was the wind in his shirt.” The duo also delivered a full-throated karaoke version of Queen’s “Under Pressure,” for which they still get requests.

Before he became a global acting-writing-directing star with an Oscar and a Marvel résumé, Waititi, a Maori-Jewish filmmaker from New Zealand, found community in the U.S. among Native American filmmakers like Harjo. “One of the things we all connected on was our disdain for how we appear onscreen in white productions,” says Waititi. “Indigenous characters, they’re always stoic. They’re always the people who talk to trees and play flutes on mountaintops. They’re never funny, they’re never normal. Nerd has not been a choice. Or dorky. Where are the dorky Natives?”

Taika Waititi

Photographed by Paul Yem

It’s late April, and Waititi is sprawled in a booth at The Mulberry, a chic new bar in New York’s SoHo neighborhood of which he’s part owner, wearing Vans sneakers that say “Rez Dogs” on the heels, a “You Are on Native Land” baseball cap and chunky rings on most of his fingers. “I went full Native for you,” he says. In a few days, he’ll be at the Met Gala in a silver satin floor-length wrap coat draped with pearl chains, on the arm of his wife, English pop star Rita Ora.

Few people in Hollywood seem to be having more fun at the business of being famous than Waititi. He loves bars, so he bought one. Growing up, his mother worked in pubs in Wellington, and after school he’d go for a raspberry and lemonade and sit at the counter doodling or writing stories. “I associate places like this with feeling creative or just a good, warm — it’s like a cuddle,” he says. “There’s always someone who’s too drunk, telling interesting stories.”

Waititi has managed to preserve the showmanship and silliness of his condo dance-off days, even as he has seen the stakes of his career raised. “I’m 47,” he says. “My God, take the pressure off. People are so obsessed with likes or leaving behind a legacy, being remembered. Here’s the thing: No one’s going to remember us. What’s the name of the director of Casablanca? Arguably one of the greatest films of all time. No one knows his name. How the fuck do I expect to be remembered? So who cares? Let’s just live, make some movies. They’ll be obsolete and irrelevant in 15 or 20 years. And so will I, and then I’ll die and someone else can do it. This whole idea of chasing, chasing, chasing this life. It’s like, do we have to actually work this hard? Maybe not.”

It seems important to point out here that for the past 20 years, Waititi has been working very, very hard. He has directed six features, two of them Marvel movies — Thor: Ragnarok and Thor: Love and Thunder — and executive produced Reservation Dogs as well as the TV shows What We Do in the Shadows and Our Flag Means Death. In 2019, he became only the second Indigenous person ever to win an Oscar, for writing 2019’s Jojo Rabbit, the provocative Holocaust comedy he directed and starred in as Hitler (the first Indigenous person to win an Oscar was Buffy Sainte-Marie in 1982). From the beginning of his filmmaking career, Waititi has balanced his ambition by poking fun at it — at the 2004 Oscars, when the camera cut to him as the announcer named his nominated short film, Two Cars, One Night, he pretended to be asleep.

Waititi’s next film, Next Goal Wins, a sports drama about the American Samoan national football team that Searchlight will release Nov. 17, sees the director returning to the type of underdog movies that established him, like his 2016 adventure comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, still New Zealand’s highest-grossing film. In Next Goal Wins, which is based on a 2014 documentary about Dutch American soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender) trying to turn around the losing team, Waititi is subverting the cultural tropes that have long annoyed him. A large cast of Polynesian actors, including Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s Oscar Kightley and Young Rock‘s Uli Latukefu, gently aid a troubled Rongen, as Kightley’s character explains, “like finding a little lost white kid at the mall and telling him which way to go.”

“Taika’s always hung out with this little Indigenous filmmaking community that very few people would pay attention to,” says producer Bird Runningwater, who programmed Two Cars, One Night for the Sundance Institute’s Native and Indigenous Program. “Now that he’s broken into the Marvels and the Searchlights, his work is continuing to grow. But Next Goal Wins, that’s him going back to his roots of telling a small, Indigenous story.”

Waititi (left) on the film set of In Next Goal Wins.

Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Waititi has championed the work of other Native storytellers, executive producing and directing his friend and Maori comedian Jemaine Clement’s TV adaptation of their 2014 What We Do in the Shadows film; getting Harjo’s Reservation Dogs, which follows Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma, made under his first-look deal at FX; and executive producing director Billy Luther’s Navajo reservation-set Frybread Face and Me, which premiered at South by Southwest in March. Piki Films, a New Zealand production company Waititi co-founded with his Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Jojo Rabbit producer Carthew Neal, backs work by other Maori and Pasifika filmmakers, including 2023’s Red, White & Brass, a comedy directed by Damon Fepulea’i, and the upcoming debut features by Josephine Stewart-Te Whiu and Rachel House.

What all of Waititi’s projects, Indigenous-led and otherwise, have in common is a lightness and warmth that belies their sometimes weighty themes. “Anything that feels earnest, Taika will dismiss immediately,” says co-president of Searchlight Pictures David Greenbaum, who was an executive at Miramax when the company picked up North American rights to Waititi’s feature directorial debut, Eagle vs Shark. “His work is always funny, subversive and surprising.” On Next Goal Wins, that showed up in the way Waititi chose to frame a key character’s sexuality. “What we were careful about was not over-explaining it, not having a fucking scene where someone’s saying, ‘They’re one of us,’ and really smashing it on the head like you’d have in an American film,” Waititi says.

Though his style on set is relaxed and open, his movies are meticulously crafted, and he believes in the value of a test screening, says Searchlight co-president Matthew Greenfield, who met the filmmaker while working at the Sundance Institute, where Waititi workshopped Eagle vs Shark. “The movies don’t feel carefully put together, but the details and the tone are very carefully worked out,” Greenfield says. “He’s constantly fine-tuning, making sure the humor lands the way he wants it.”

In Next Goal Wins, Kaimana (in yellow) is among the members of an American Samoan national football team hoping to turn its fortunes around.

Waititi’s wit is a Trojan horse for exploring issues like antisemitism and colonialism. “Comedy is a great way of pulling people in and going, ‘Hey, we’re all friends. Get comfortable. You’re racist,’ ” he says. Humor with sociopolitical themes has its pitfalls, however. “People check themselves and they go, ‘Am I allowed to laugh at this?’ ” he says. “They have to google if they’re allowed to. And sometimes you shouldn’t laugh at some stuff. You’ve got to navigate it.” On Jojo Rabbit, some audiences felt uncomfortable with the idea of a Holocaust comedy. “People were really unsure if they should laugh until about 20 minutes into the film,” he says. “One issue they had was like, ‘Well, I wish I’d known that I was allowed to laugh.’ Another issue was, ‘I wish I’d known that he was Jewish before I went in.’ “

In Next Goal Wins, Waititi pokes fun at small-island life. “Now, if you are from a small town like I am where there are 600 people and every girl at a party, the first question you have to ask is, ‘Who’s your grandmother?’ And then you’re like, ‘OK, have a good night, Cuz,’ then you can make fun of that because you know it,” he says. “Some European director coming into the islands and then poking fun at the way things work, I’d have an issue with that. But I think because I’m from Polynesia, it’s OK.” Waititi sees sentimentalizing a culture as limiting it. “There will be people I’m sure who’ll be like, ‘Oh, I wish you’d shown a bit more of the romantic side of Samoan culture,’ ” he says. “But the story’s about the worst football team in the world. You’ve got to make them look bad. The real beauty in Polynesian culture is the uncles and aunties who’d sit at the pub all day and have got all the best stories and the best jokes.”

The filmmaker’s inclusion of queer characters, including in Thor: Love and Thunder and Our Flag Means Death, got him called a queer icon in the pages of Out. A key character in Next Goal Wins is based on Jaiyah Saelua, the first openly nonbinary athlete to compete in a FIFA World Cup qualifier, played by nonbinary newcomer Kaimana, who is described using the Polynesian term fa’afafine. “A lot of Indigenous cultures have this,” Waititi says of fa’afafine. “I hate using the term ‘third sex,’ which is a very Western thing. It’s so much more than that. It’s a very normal and accepted and quite a sacred role.”

“People are so obsessed with likes or leaving behind a legacy. Here’s the thing: No one’s going to remember us,” says Waititi. “Let’s just live, make some movies.”

Photographed by Paul Yem

Reservation Dogs, a critical hit that will return for its third season this summer, emerged from a tequila- and laughter-fueled conversation Waititi and Harjo had in Waititi’s kitchen one night in 2019. Though they grew up thousands of miles apart, Waititi on New Zealand’s North Island and Harjo in Oklahoma, they share similar backgrounds and tastes. “We both had rural Indigenous upbringings with legendarily funny old hippie Native dads who were rebuilding Harleys,” says Harjo. “It’s always cool to meet someone who grew up like you who likes Hal Ashby. You just feel less alone.”

Waititi attributes some of his artistic sensibilities to New Zealand’s remote geography. “Growing up, all you want to do is leave,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’m stuck on an island. And the closest place is Australia.’ It’s pretty grim. We’re the Iceland of the South Pacific. We’re very good at doing dark stories mixed with gallows humor. And a lot of that comes from our deep depression at being stuck. It’s fucking freezing. There are no jobs. There’s nothing to do, especially in the ’80s. And I was just like, ‘I can’t be an artist here. And I can’t get off this rock. I can’t get out of here.’ “

Waititi and Sterlin Harjo co-created FX’s Reservation Dogs. Of the way Native characters have historically been portrayed by Hollywood, Waititi says, “you’ve just got to change those images.”

Courtesy of Shane Brown/FX

Waititi’s parents split up when he was 5 — his father was an artist of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent, his mother a schoolteacher descended from Russian Jewish, Irish and other European ancestors. “I disconnected myself from grown-ups and from my parents at a very early age,” he says. “I must have been 11. Just deciding, ‘You can’t rely on them. They’re useless, and you’re not going to get anywhere if you rely on grown adults. So you’re going to do it yourself.’ It wasn’t great for relationships. But the good part of that is I was very driven. I was very lucky to be able to just focus only on my shit, my stories.”

As a young person, he had a delusional confidence, which has turned out to be useful in Hollywood. “I think it’s narcissism, like I was convinced my entire life that all my ideas were great,” he says. “I now know they’re not. It was like The Truman Show. I used to think everything was put in front of me for my own amusement. And I would be like, ‘Wow, I get to be me, and everyone’s just doing stuff for me.’ And then also that everyone is an idiot, which I still think.”

That assurance — which tips into arrogance, Waititi knows — has helped him navigate creative disputes. “I’m like, ‘I’m surrounded by morons. And eventually, they’ll see I’m right.’ It’s a pretty assholey thing to say, but it has helped me stick to my guns. With filmmaking, there’s no real trick other than making decisions fast and with confidence. If you asked any director, 85 percent of the time, you have no idea what you’re doing, and you’re just hoping that they don’t find out.” Waititi’s track record suggests his finger-crossing strategy is working, with the occasional hiccup — critics found 2022’s Thor: Love and Thunder flashy but narratively ungainly, though the movie still made the most of any film in the more than $1 billion Thor franchise.

Waititi grew up on an eclectic pop culture diet, watching Maori comic Billy T. James; American TV shows like M*A*S*H, Taxi and Benson; and British comedies like Blackadder and Fawlty Towers. CHiPs was a big show for him because “it was a brown cop riding a cool motorbike in California,” he says. “We never saw brown faces in authoritative roles, roles of responsibility. Brown faces were always in a gang in The Warriors or the terrible punks on the street in ’80s films.” As a kid, Waititi identified a lot with Black culture, too, like Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley. “It wasn’t probably a conscious thing, but you’re just drawn to someone who, the color of their skin is a little similar,” he says.

At Victoria University of Wellington, he studied theater and was in a comedy group with Clement. Much of Waititi’s career seems driven by a desire to keep hanging out with his friends, New Zealand writers and actors like Clement, House and Rhys Darby. “It’s like having that little gang at school that you get to see every day,” he says. “It makes it less like work.” He’s also, he says, very happy being alone. “I was in films, theater and worked collaboratively all my life,” he says. “I crave that interaction and that attention, but when it’s happening, I’m like, ‘It’s too loud. I hate everyone. I want to go home.’ And I get home, like, ‘Oh, that’s better.’ And then after an hour, I’m like, ‘I miss people.’ “

Waititi’s acting career is less discussed than his directing one, but he’s been prolific and varied onscreen, too, playing an estranged father in his second feature, the 2010 drama Boy; a cheerful vampire in his 2014 film version of What We Do in the Shadows; the vulnerable pirate Blackbeard in Our Flag Means Death; and amiable rock beast Korg, a fan favorite, in the Thors. He has a small role as a priest in Next Goal Wins. “I’ll try and find a way to put myself in anything because it’s what I do, I love myself,” he says. “I’m trying to make this Taika universe.” At the meeting at Searchlight where executives told him he could play the Hitler role in Jojo Rabbit, “Taika said, ‘You guys are crazy,’ ” Greenbaum says. “He’d been told by Hollywood that he needed a movie star. But he does have star power, star energy. When Taika is in the room, you know he’s in the room.”

“He does have star power, star energy,” says Searchlight Pictures co-president David Greenbaum. “When Taika is in the room, you know he’s in the room.”

Photographed by Paul Yem

While he has more money and fame now, friends say Waititi is not all that different from how he was when he first came to Hollywood — even then, he had style. The filmmaker used to sleep on Runningwater’s couch in West Hollywood and store his luggage in the dining room. “He just always had this pile of clothes,” Runningwater says. “He’d change outfits four or five times before going out.” Runningwater accompanied Waititi to last year’s Thor: Love and Thunder premiere. “He had his glam squad there. Jeanne Yang, his stylist. His hair was getting done. I was like, ‘Wow, you’ve really upped your game from that pile of clothes in my dining room.’ He’s like, ‘Go look in my bedroom.’ And I went to his bedroom, and in the corner was a pile of clothes.” When his L.A. friends visited New Zealand, Waititi toured them around in a tiny white Citroën hiked up on hydraulics.

Waititi intended to take some time off, but so far this year he has ended up directing Ora’s music video for her single “Praising You,” which he describes as “a mix of ‘All That Jazz’ with Fame and a little bit of 8 Mile.’ I love working with her,” he says. “It’s just a good laugh. It’s nice being married to and working with someone who’s extremely talented. We’ve got a similar sense of humor and we listen to the same stuff.” He is in talks to adapt the best-selling Kazuo Ishiguro novel Klara and the Sun for Sony and also has been working on a Star Wars script for three years. “I’ve got a really good idea for it,” he says. “It’s just as with all films, it’s this middle part. You’re like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ And then you look at all of those films that are so great, you’re like, ‘Well, I guess they can’t meet some smuggler with an alien sidekick.’ “

The writers strike is a welcome forced respite. “For the most part, I would like to take a few holidays and go and follow Rita around,” he says. “Just be her little tour toy boy and hang out with her and just watch her perform and get her a cup of tea backstage.” The duo met after being introduced by Robert Pattinson at a house party Waititi threw in 2018, started dating in 2021 and were married in August in a small ceremony.

Waititi and wife Rita Ora at the 2023 Met Gala.

Kevin Mazur/MG23/Getty Images

In part due to Ora’s influence, Waititi, who says he spent a fair amount of energy in his younger days trying to seem like the smartest guy in the room, has been feeling more relaxed. “I just feel like I’ve become more honest in the last couple of years,” Waititi says. “If someone says a big word that I’ve been pretending to understand my entire life, I’m like, ‘I’ve heard that word all my life. What does it mean?’ I’m sick of fucking pretending.” He gets a kick out of Ora’s malapropisms and the casual confidence with which she delivers them. “She left school early to become a fucking massive pop star,” he says, “and as a result says the fucking coolest things. She’s like, ‘I walk around the corner, and slow and behold, it was right in front of me.’ And I’m like, ‘Babe, it’s lo and behold.’ And she’s like, ‘No, slow and behold, way better.’ I’m like, ‘You’re not wrong. Slow and behold sounds fucking better.’ “

Waititi leads a nomadic lifestyle, spending time in L.A., London and New Zealand, where his two children with his former wife, producer Chelsea Winstanley, ages 10 and 7, live. After years of shooting around the world, he says he’d like to work in New Zealand now, to be nearer to them.

He’s also most aware of the impact of his work not at moments like the Oscars, but when he goes back to New Zealand, where he sees kids who look like him picking up cameras and making art. “When you say ‘Maori’ to someone, what do you see? You see a tattooed face of someone doing a Haka, or in a grass skirt, doing a war dance,” he says. “For Native filmmakers, in terms of why it’s important that we have more representation and get to be in control of our image, it’s because you’ve just got to change those images. So when you say ‘Native,’ it’s just someone who’s doing what I’m doing, sitting here, in too much jewelry, talking to you.”

This story first appeared in the May 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

2023-05-31 13:00:10