18 Things to Know About Māori Jewish Filmmaker Taika Waititi

The "Jojo Rabbit" director's given last name is Cohen!

We’re obsessed with Taika Waititi. He is funny, talented, smart and ridiculously good-looking. Taika Waititi, who went by Taika Cohen at the start of his career, is a Māori Jew from New Zealand.

Shall we tell you 18 things to know about Taika? We shall:

1. Waititi grew up between Waihau Bay, Raukokore, a region in northeastern New Zealand, and Wellington, a city in New Zealand. Taika David Cohen is the name on his birth certificate.

2. He is the son of a Jewish mom and a dad from the Te Whānau-ā-Apanui Māori people. (Māori are the indigenous people of New Zealand.)

Via Ted Talks

“I come from New Zealand, and I come from these two people, who met in the early ’70s,” Waititi explained during a Ted Talk. “The woman is Robin. She’s of Russian-Jewish heritage, and she was a school teacher. And the guy next to her, his name is Taika and he’s a farmer and an artist. And they met and then, a few drinks later, they gave birth to a beautiful Asian daughter called Taika.”

3. His parents split when he was 5 years old, and he lived mainly with his mom. Growing up, Waititi recalls, “I was into everything — sport, reading and art, and still am. My mother is a teacher so she introduced me to books at quite an early age. My dad was artistic so I would be drawing a lot as well. Those are the sort of things that I’ve stuck with.”

4. Taika is named for his grandfather, Taika. As he wrote on Anzac Day in April 2019, “A little acknowledgement for my grand-daddy and namesake, Papa Taika, and all the young Māori boys who ventured to the other side of the world to fight Nazis. Not just because Nazis are fuckheads, but also because they didn’t want white New Zealanders to fight for OUR country’s freedom on our behalf. War is shit and absolutely unnecessary but nevertheless I want to honour my ancestors who fought for Māori identity. And also to maybe leave the farm and check out Europe.”

5. He attended Victoria University of Wellington for college. He graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts; he majored in theater. At college, he teamed up with Jemaine Clement in a comedy duo The Humorbeasts. (Jemaine co-created “Flight of the Conchords” with Bret McKenzie.) Together, Jemaine and Taika received the Billy T Award, New Zealand’s biggest comedy award, in 1999.

6. At the start of his career, he alternated between using the names Taika Cohen and Taika Waititi. “I’ve used both names throughout my life, for different things. ‘Cohen’ has always been what I’ve used for my acting, writing and the stuff to do with theater,” he explained, “and ‘Waititi’ is what I’ve used for my art, painting and photography. For all the visual arts stuff, as opposed to all the performing.” (Yes, he is also an artist. A talented man.)

7. In 2005, Waititi was nominated for an Academy Award for his short film, “Two Cars, One Night.” At the ceremony, he pretended to be asleep when his name was announced (skip to 1:42):

8. Waititi’s second film, “Boy,” premiered at Sundance in January 2010, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and received critical acclaim. It’s one of the top grossing films in New Zealand. He later beat his own record with “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” his fourth film, which premiered at Sundance in 2016.

He filmed it in his old school and at his grandmother’s house. “It wasn’t a very unique upbringing in that town to be looked after by your grandmother while your parents went off partying. It was really cool—You were left to your own devices. It was a town run by kids. It was cool, you went off, explored the country and the beach,” Waititi says.

9. In 2014, “What We Do In the Shadows,” a vampire mockumentary he co-created with Jemaine Clement, premiered at Sundance. Waititi and Clement also star in the film, they’re amazing. Plus, the film gifted us with this gif:

what we do in the shadows taika

In 2019, they adapted the film into a TV show (also called “What We Do In the Shadows”) that is unbelievably good. Seriously. Waititi didn’t really want to adapt it, but is glad they did. He explained, “It’s fun to play a vampire once or twice, but then having to play that character again and again in a TV version, I think would be too much for us. We decided to trick other actors into doing that. Really, it worked out better because it’s still in the same universe as the film. Our characters still exist and they’re still in New Zealand. There’s an opportunity for a crossover.”

10. The first major film he directed, “Thor: Ragnarok,” premiered in October 2017.

On transitioning from indie films to a Marvel blockbuster, Waititi said, “I think the thing most people would find difficult is the amount of time it takes to move a crew, or to move things around. There’s just a lot more people and stuff. Turning around and changing angles with your camera just requires the movement of a lot more stuff. Also, how long the shoot was. It was an 85-day shoot, and I’m used to like 25, 30-day shoots, because I move very fast. One of the hard things with these movies is keeping your energy up.”

11. In 2019, he wrote, directed, and starred in “Jojo Rabbit,” an “anti-hate satire” that was so Jewish and so, so good. Waititi himself decided to play Hitler – er, a child’s imaginary version of Hitler — because, as he wrote, “What better way to insult Hitler than having him portrayed by a Polynesian Jew?”

12. “Jojo Rabbit” was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, and Waititi won for Best Adapted Screenplay. He adapted “Jojo Rabbit” from a book called “Caging Skies,” which his mom gave to him to read. Robin (his mom) was obviously super proud, saying, “When Taika depicts him as the affable hero of a small boy’s imagination, our idea of Hitler is skewed like a needle scratching across a record. This imaginary Hitler reminds us of an uncomfortable reality — that in the right climate, what we come to imagine can be deadly.”

Taika Waititi
Taika Waititi accepts the Writing – Adapted Screenplay – award for ‘Jojo Rabbit’ onstage during the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theater on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

13. At the 2020 Oscars ceremony, he made history: It was the first time a land acknowledgement speech was made in the history of the awards show, where he said, “The Academy would like to acknowledge that tonight we have gathered on the ancestral lands of the Tongva, the Tataviam, and the Chumash. We acknowledge them as the first peoples of this land on which the motion pictures community lives and works.” Taika starts all of his film shoots with land acknowledgements, like when he filmed “Thor: Ragnarok” on the land of the Bundjalung people in Australia.

14. He has two daughters — Te Hinekahu, 7, and Matewa Kiritapu, 4 — with Chelsea Winstanley, who he was married to but has been separated from since 2018.

Since 2021, he’s been dating singer Rita Ora, though there was a period of time where it seemed like they were in a throuple with Tessa Thompson?!?

15. On being a dad, Waititi said, “It’s just better than anything. You have these little things, these little creatures, who just want to hang out with you and play. They want to give you cuddles and to be your friend. In New Zealand, our bullshit meters are very sensitive, and so, coming to America, you’re like, I don’t trust anyone. So to have these two people who are just genuine, who when they try to trick you, it’s just to get ice cream—you know? That’s it.”

16. Up next after “Jojo Rabbit”? In terms of movies, he’s written and directed an adaptation of the documentary “Next Goal Wins,” about the national football (soccer) team of American Samoa, and an animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s work starring Timothée Chalamet! (Two Jewish people taking on a notorious antisemite’s work? Hell fucking yes.)

On TV, Taika co-executive produced and starred in the wildly popular show “Our Flag Means Death” (alongside fellow Kiwi Jewish writer Simone Nathan) and co-created/wrote the also wildly popular “Reservation Dogs” (alongside fellow Jewish-Indigenous actor Sarah Podemski).

17. Plus, he co-wrote and directed “Thor: Love and Thunder,” starring Natalie freakin’ Portman as Thor!

Taika Waititi
Director Taika Waititi presents Natalie Portman with Thor’s Hammer (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

As a bonus, you can watch the trailer here:

18. “In a lot of my films,” Waititi said, “the biggest theme is family, making families out of those around you.” Which is just a really beautiful sentiment we’d like to end on. Love you, Taika!!

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