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12 Things You Didn't Know About Taika Waititi

Whether you think What We Do in the Shadows is the funniest movie in recent memory, you're a Marvel fan who loved Thor: Ragnarok, or you thought Jojo Rabbit should've won Best Picture at the 2020 Academy Awards, you've probably heard Taika Waititi's name before. The director, who hails from New Zealand, has become a Hollywood darling in recent years thanks to his wry, irreverent sense of humor, his extraordinary skills as a writer and director, and his charming presence both in front of and behind the camera.

Even if you're already a fan of Waititi's films and his hilarious, joyous public persona, there's still probably a lot you don't know about this prolific actor, writer, and director with a myriad of accomplishments and an amazing future still ahead of him. From his New Zealand roots and his background with his biggest collaborators to some of his projects that fell below the radar, here's the entire untold truth of Taika Waititi.

The story behind Taika Waititi's last name

Born and bred in New Zealand, Taika Waititi grew up in a small settlement on the East Coast called Raukokore, and he also spent quite a bit of time in the country's capital city, Wellington. His mother, Robin, was a schoolteacher, and his father was an artist, but their marriage wasn't exactly a happy one. Waititi was primarily raised by his mom after his parents separated when he was around five.

Eventually, Waititi was bitten by the acting bug during his high school drama class, and he studied theater at Victoria University of Wellington. However, here's something about Waititi's past you definitely don't know ... his last name isn't actually Waititi. After his parents parted ways, Waititi began using his mother's last name, Cohen, and that's the name on the man's passport. As he explained to Noted back in 2004, "'Cohen' has always been what I've used for my acting, writing, and the stuff to do with theater ... and 'Waititi' is what I've used for my art, painting, and photography."

But after directing his first short film, the name switched around. As he explained to Cultural Weekly, "I would use Cohen through school, and I was known as Taika Cohen.  And then, when I went to live with my dad on that side of the family, I was known as Waititi. ... And then, because I made my first short film in that area where I was known as Waititi, that was the name that was put on the film. And that film did really well, and suddenly, I had a career as a filmmaker, and now everyone knows me as Waititi."

He met his biggest collaborator in school

While still a student at Victoria University, Waititi performed as part of a five-person ensemble called "So You're a Man," which ended up touring nationally, and it was through college that he ended up meeting one of his most important collaborators. As one half of a comedy duo called The Humourbeasts, which won New Zealand's prestigious Billy T Award for comedy, Waititi began working with Jemaine Clement, and the two would go on to team up for some of Waititi's most high-profile projects.

During the two-season run of Flight of the Conchords from 2007 to 2009, the HBO series led by Clement and Bret McKenzie about a struggling music duo from New Zealand, Waititi wrote and directed a handful of episodes alongside Clement. Seven years later, the two hit it big with What We Do in the Shadows, a ridiculous vampire comedy that cast both Waititi and Clement in leading roles. Clearly, Clement and Waititi's senses of humor complement each other perfectly, and their collaborations have led to success for both of them time and time again.

Taika Waititi made everyone laugh years before he got famous

Back in 2005, very few people outside of New Zealand were familiar with Waititi at all, but if you're an avid viewer of the Academy Awards, you saw him long before he joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe or appeared in What We Do in the Shadows

At the 2005 Academy Awards, Waititi's short film Two Cars, One Night — a story of two young boys and girl in a parking lot whose rivalry eventually shifts to friendship — was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film, and when the camera cut to him at the Oscars ceremony, Waititi took full advantage of the situation. As acclaimed actor Jeremy Irons presented the nominees, the others waved and smiled at the camera but not Waititi. When the camera reached him in the back of the room, Waititi pretended to be asleep, only "waking" as his date punched him in the arm when his name was called and then placing his hands together in an abrupt last-minute prayer. Waititi didn't win the Oscar that night — his glory would come later — but he definitely made a pretty great impression.

He worked on a popular animated film, but his script was scrapped

In 2016, Disney made serious waves with their popular animated film Moana, the story of a young Polynesian princess (voiced by newcomer Auliʻi Cravalho) who yearns to explore on her own and make her way in the world, only to be chosen by an ancient force to bring a relic to a goddess. Clearly, this film was a huge stride for representation in Disney films and among Disney princesses, but according to some Polynesian critics, it was still lacking something

Waititi, who is Polynesian, was briefly involved with Moana as a writer, but his script, which focused on gender and family, was ultimately left on the cutting room floor. As Twitter user @FangirlJeanne wrote in an extensive critique of Moana, she was sad that Waititi's take didn't make the cut, saying, "In Waititi's screenplay, Moana had brothers and dealt with gender dynamics in a Polynesian family. The white, male director cut this because of gendered aspect. ... Just because we've seen a lot of white women deal with gender dynamics within their families and cultures doesn't mean it shouldn't be explored in women of color's lives and cultures. White women aren't the default of womanhood, neither is how they experience sexism." 

Clearly, Waititi had a pretty original take on the material, but unfortunately, Disney didn't go for it.

Taika Waititi changed the MCU

After two relatively disappointing Thor films fronted by star Chris Hemsworth, Waititi definitely changed the MCU for the better when he helmed Thor: Ragnarok in 2017, breathing new life into the franchise with his emphasis on improvisation, a hilarious central performance from Hemsworth, and a sense of wit and whimsy. Waititi's approach also ended up making a huge impact on one of the MCU's biggest outings.

In conversation with Vanity Fair, Avengers: Infinity War writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely remembered that they actually flew Waititi out during the filming of Infinity War to advise them on how to make Thor lighter and funnier for his next outing. However, they also said that considering everything Thor lost in Ragnarok, from his father to his sister to one of his eyeballs, Waititi gave them plenty to work with in the drama department, allowing them to blend Thor's deep sense of grief with his newfound comedic chops. Waititi may have thrown Markus and McFeely for a loop, but one gets the sense that their movie was better because of it.

He was briefly working on a movie about Michael Jackson's pet monkey

Thanks to Waititi's signature sense of humor, it stands to reason that some of his projects might be a bit ... odd. And one of his abandoned films definitely fits that particular bill. After years in development, Netflix purchased the rights to a biopic called Bubbles, which was about Michael Jackson's pet monkey. Waititi was brought on board to co-direct with Mark Gustafson, and the pair intended the film to be stop-motion animated, along the lines of Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa or Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (which Gustafson worked on).

Unfortunately, the project stalled before it could even begin, as in 2019, Waititi stepped away from the project thanks to a busy workload. In the aftermath of Thor: Ragnarok, Waititi found himself more in demand than ever, and it seems that Bubbles ended up taking a back seat. Between Jackson's troubled legacy and Waititi's departure, Netflix ultimately shelved the project, leaving the story of the King of Pop's pet monkey still untold.

Taika Waititi made Academy Award history in 2020

After his brief brush with the Oscars in 2005 and years of success, Waititi finally scored several huge Academy Award nominations at the 2020 ceremony, thanks to his groundbreaking dark comedy, Jojo Rabbit. Based on the novel Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, Jojo Rabbit tells the story of Johannes "Jojo" Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), a young member of the Hitler Youth who must grapple with the fact that his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl in their home. To make matters more complicated, Jojo has an imaginary friend — Hitler, played by Waititi himself.

The film was nominated for several awards at the 2020 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actress for Johansson, and ultimately, Waititi and Jojo Rabbit made history when Waititi won the statue for Best Adapted Screenplay. As the first Indigenous and Maori artist to ever win an Oscar — and the first Indigenous nominee in the category to begin with — Waititi made massive strides and helped make the Oscars more inclusive in the process, establishing himself as a groundbreaking, trailblazing artist to watch.

Taika Waititi's Akira reboot is delayed indefinitely

Unfortunately, thanks to Waititi's crazy schedule and his growing number of projects, some of his most exciting ventures have been relegated to the back burner for any number of reasons. One of the most disappointing losses came as a result of Waititi's next big Marvel movie, Thor: Love and Thunder.

In July 2019, Waititi signed on to direct the fourth Thor film and his second standalone Thor movie after 2017's Ragnarok, but unfortunately, Love and Thunder ultimately cost Waititi one of his most anticipated projects. Along with the announcement that Waititi would return to the MCU, Warner Bros. announced that its long-awaited adaptation of Akira, the famous Japanese manga, would be delayed yet again as its director, Waititi, found himself otherwise occupied. 

When Waititi was at the helm, the film was scheduled for a spring 2021 release, and though he was already looking for his lead actors, the entire project was halted due to overlap with Love and Thunder. After Waititi exited Akira, Warner Bros. made it clear that they would happily wait for the director's schedule to clear up, but it looks like Akira may still be a long time coming.

He holds two huge records in New Zealand's film industry

Taika Waititi might be a Hollywood darling now, but he's still pretty beloved back home in New Zealand, especially when it comes to some of his earlier and lesser-known films. And years after their release, two of his films have remained the highest-grossing local films in the country's entire history.

Waititi's second feature film, Boy, was released in 2010, and it tells the story of an 11-year-old kid (played by James Rolleston) who's lost his mother and is trying to figure out his place in the world when he's met with a huge obstacle — his terrible father (played by Waititi), who's just gotten out of prison. After premiering at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, Boy became the highest-grossing film within New Zealand and held that spot for six years ... that is, until another Waititi film unseated this endearing movie. 

In 2016, Waititi released Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a hilarious tale that focuses on a foster child (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant father figure (Sam Neill) as they inadvertently become the targets of a massive manhunt in New Zealand. And when it hit theaters, Wilderpeople snagged the top spot from Boy, becoming the number one domestic film in New Zealand history. Waititi has experienced plenty of financial success across the world, to be sure, but it must be particularly gratifying to be so successful in his home country.

Taika Waititi had a very specific reason for playing Hitler

When Jojo Rabbit hit theaters in 2019, many wondered how Waititi could possibly make a comedy about Adolf Hitler and the rise and reign of his barbaric Third Reich, but naturally, Waititi knew exactly what he was doing. Beyond that, he also had a very particular reason as to why he personally wanted to play Hitler, and it was mainly because Hitler would've absolutely hated it.

Waititi's first reveal came during a discussion during the Toronto International Film Festival in 2018. When an audience member asked why the Polynesian and Jewish director would even want to play the part, Waititi simply answered, "The answer is simple. What better 'f*** you' to that guy?" Later, In an interview with Deadline, Waititi delved deeper, saying that rather than doing research on Hitler, he winged it. "I just made him a version of myself that happened to have a bad haircut and a s***** little mustache and a mediocre German accent."

He's a part of a galaxy far, far away

As if conquering the Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn't enough, Waititi has also become an integral part of the Star Wars universe over the years. As Disney prepared for the fall 2019 launch of its new streaming service, Disney+, the House of Mouse revealed that Waititi would be on board as a director for their flagship series with Lucasfilm, The Mandalorian, which focuses on a mysterious Mandalorian gunfighter traversing the galaxy with an adorable sidekick. Ultimately, not only did Waititi direct the series' critically beloved season one finale, he also appeared in the show, though not in a physical sense. Throughout the series, Waititi voices IG-11, a droid bounty hunter.

More exciting news came in May 2020 when it was announced that Waititi, along with 1917 scribe Krysty Wilson-Cairns, would write and direct his own upcoming Star Wars film. After that particular announcement, the internet basically exploded with joy over Waititi's new, exciting project, with fans flocking to Twitter to express their glee at the prospect of a Waititi-led Star Wars movie. Clearly, Lucasfilm realized that they wanted Waititi on their team, and there's no telling how high he can rise within the Star Wars universe.

Taika Waititi was unsure about his film's small-screen adaptation

After several years, Taika Waititi's hilarious independent comedy What We Do in the Shadows found new life after its 2014 release. In 2018, FX revealed that it was adapting Waititi's film into a television show, and ever since its premiere in 2019, the dry, irreverent comedy has remained a favorite with both critics and fans. However, Waititi originally had mixed feelings about it, mostly because he just didn't want to reprise his role.

When asked about his and Jemaine Clement's reticence, Waititi told Vulture, "We didn't mind the idea of it existing, but the idea of us doing it was just a lot of work. We don't like work." The director also added that he didn't actually want to be in it. "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."

Of course, Waititi has been pretty involved in the series, as he's written and directed several episodes. He even made a cameo in season one. On top of that, he serves as an executive producer, so despite his initial reservations, he's clearly happy that the show ended up on TV — and so are its fans.