About seven minutes into my second conversation with the actor, writer, and director Taika Waititi, he confessed, somewhat abruptly, that he doesn’t like being around people. There was “absolutely nothing loaded” about the remark, he assured me—but he also seemed to mean it. “It’s just really draining,” he said. “With whoever—it doesn’t matter who. Even my family. But definitely people I’ve never met before.”
It was a hard claim to believe. Outwardly, Waititi can seem extroverted in the extreme. He’s goofy and antic, with an easygoing familiarity and a seemingly bottomless amount of energy. While filming, he’s known for keeping his sets lively: playing music, launching into bits of oddball comedy, and sometimes doing directorial “costume changes” where he vanishes and then reappears in a different outfit. Cate Blanchett once described the set of Thor: Ragnarok as “one long Mardi Gras parade.”
Like many performers, Waititi can be charming, but his default mode is sillier, in a way that feels obscurely flattering, like a private game you’ve been invited to join. He’s also instinctively good at reading people and slipping into whatever mode they find comfortable. In interviews, I tend to be anxious and earnest, and Waititi, in turn, became unusually calm and reflective. At the time, I thought this meant that I was seeing something closer to the “real” Taika: the person he becomes when he doesn’t feel obliged to be amusing. The more we talked, though, the more it became clear that Waititi wasn’t being especially real with me, or especially fake. Every person Waititi spends time with comes away feeling like they have a special connection. It’s a taxing feat. As Waititi observed at several points in our conversation, “I just want everyone to be happy.”
Waititi grew up in New Zealand—his father was Maori of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui descent, his mother Russian-Jewish—and spent his thirties making small, cultishly popular films. Two of these, Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, featured primarily Maori characters and actors and were set in poor, rural areas similar to where Waititi was raised. Both movies felt radical—the unfamiliar characters and situations, the startling mix of brutality and humor—but also sweetly affectionate, even loving. Waititi has said that he doesn’t make “Cannes-style films”: the kind of depressing dramas where, as he once put it, “everyone is a prostitute and they all die in the end.” But he also doesn’t make conventional comedies, with their two-dimensional characters and steady barrage of jokes. Instead, his movies are somewhere in between, or both at once—a sustained high-wire act where moods mix and shift in exhilarating ways. While dramatic movies tend to build slowly, in a single dark register, Waititi’s will often move abruptly from a slapstick moment to a tender or heart-rending one, with devastating effect.
In the six years since Wilderpeople, Waititi’s career has gone vertical. In 2016 he made Thor: Ragnarok, reinvigorating the stale franchise in part by poking fun at it. After that, he wrote, directed, and starred in the Oscar-winning Jojo Rabbit, about a lonely boy in Nazi Germany who has Adolf Hitler, played by Waititi, as his imaginary friend. Since then, Waititi has directed and acted in episodes of The Mandalorian, produced and costarred in the HBO Max series Our Flag Means Death, played the tech-bro villain in Free Guy, and cocreated—the man works a lot—the FX/Hulu series Reservation Dogs, an Atlanta-style mood piece about four teenage friends on a Muscogee reservation in Oklahoma that plays deliriously with Native American tropes while cutting deeply to the heart of dispossession and its effects.
This mercurial range—and chameleonic shifting of tone and sensibility—seems deeply rooted in Waititi himself. He’s someone who seeks out company and attention but quickly tires of both. He’s easily amused and yet, it seems, just as easily bored. In conversation, Waititi can be forthcoming—he admitted that he struggles to order in restaurants because he’s so worried about making the wrong choice—but also comes across as profoundly guarded; in general he dislikes talking about his feelings, even with friends, and has a tendency to pivot away from emotional topics, either changing the subject or turning detached and jokey. More than once, he told me that he doesn’t trust adults and has a particular dislike for authority, even as the director of formidably large and expensive movies—including this summer’s Ragnarok sequel, Thor: Love and Thunder, and a new Star Wars film, set for 2025.