“I’ll probably just burst into tears,” says Jonah Hauer-King with commendable frankness. “It will be such a powerful moment. I can’t wait.”

His tone is light but I can still feel the weight of his words. I’m sitting with Hauer-King in a Camden pub on a grey Wednesday afternoon. The following Tuesday, the 28-year-old actor will head to Bafta for the premiere of his new Sky drama The Tattooist of Auschwitz; he plays Lali Sokolov, Holocaust survivor and titular tattooist. 

The rest of the cast and crew will be there, along with author Heather Morris from whose bestselling novel the series is adapted. Also present will be Gary Solokov, the son of Lali and his wife Gita. It is the prospect of meeting Gary for the first time that promises to move Hauer-King to tears. 

I first met Hauer-King last year to discuss his role as Prince Eric in The Little Mermaid. It was one of those Zoom interviews that didn’t feel like a Zoom interview; Hauer-King was such relaxed and engaging company, we might have been speaking across a pub table rather than through a screen. He had just finished filming The Tattooist of Auschwitz and I promised myself – and his PR – that we would get him on the front cover when the series was released. A year later and here we are. 

Jonah Hauer-King
Jonah Hauer-King

We arrange to meet outside a coffee shop. It’s a grey, wet afternoon in Camden Town. A man is breakdancing to Taylor Swift outside the Tube station; another man insists we all accept Jesus Christ into our lives. More people are paying attention to the breakdancer. 

The coffee shop is one of those tiny independents and I wait for Hauer-King outside in the mizzle. Since we last spoke, he has starred in one of the biggest films of 2023 and accumulated a dedicated online following. How, I ponder, will this fame manifest itself? Will he pull up in a limo sporting a fake beard and oversized sunnies? Will he stagger out of The Dublin Castle across the road? 

Neither, obviously. He arrives on foot, wearing a hoodie and a broad grin. He’s taller than I expected, 6ft 2in at least, and his black curls, ringed fingers and wiry physique make him resemble the lead singer of an indie rock band. He used to be the lead singer of an indie rock band, Rova – a moniker inspired by his red Rover beanie baby. (Past band names included Kaituma and Foxglove.) Tonight, however, he’s off to watch his beloved Arsenal rather than raising the roof at the Roundhouse. 

We consider strolling into Regent’s Park, glance at the sky and decide indoors has a lot going for it in April. Hauer-King suggests the Spread Eagle, a very smart gastropub down the street. North London is his stomping ground: he grew up in Islington, lives in Camden and pilgrimages to Highbury whenever possible. At the pub, we order coffee, green tea – those indie rocker days are behind him – and treat ourselves to a window table. Again, I half expect Hauer-King to request a secluded spot in the corner but apparently his fame has proved remarkably unintrusive.

Jonah Hauer-King

“Personally, not too much has changed,” he says of life since The Little Mermaid. “People come up to me and say they like the film but I haven’t had to change anything I can do. I still live my life the same way.”

His father Jeremy King is a legendary restaurateur who has owned the likes of Le Caprice, The Wolseley, and The Delaunay – a teenage Jonah used to wait tables at Brasserie Zedel. His mother Debra Hauer is a producer turned existential psychotherapist. One sister, Hannah, is a theatre director; the other, Margot, is CCO for SillyFace, a marketing company co-founded by Idris Elba.  

Life is busy. He recently returned from America after filming The Threesome, a romantic comedy with Zoey Deutch and Ruby Cruz. He has been spotted on the set of Doctor Who and cast in the upcoming historical epic William Tell. Tomorrow, he will travel to a studio in Haggerston for this cover shoot, where he treats every member of the crew like an old friend.

In the pub, we spend a few minutes catching up on the past year. We pour out some refreshments. And then we journey back in time, to Auschwitz.    

Jonah Hauer-King

Lali Sokolov had one of the more remarkable lives of the 20th century. Born to a Jewish family in the Kingdom of Hungary (now Slovakia), Sokolov along with thousands of his compatriots was transported to Auschwitz in 1942. He was 26 years old. He would never see his parents again. They were later transported to Auschwitz themselves and immediately sent to the gas chambers. Their son never knew their fate.   

At Auschwitz, Lali’s nerve and intelligence impressed his fellow prisoners and the camp guards. He became one of the camp’s tattooists, branding newly arrived inmates with their serial number. (His was 32407.) One of those inmates was a woman named Gita Fuhrmannova. Lali fell in love with her and the pair started a relationship within the camp. As well as tattooing, Lali also traded contraband on the black market – often to the guards who allowed him a certain leeway in return.  

In the final months of the war, Lali and Gita were transferred to separate camps as the Nazis attempted to cover up their crimes. Lali escaped and headed to Bratislava, knowing that many Jewish refugees passed through the city. There he found Gita and married her. In 1948, the couple moved to Australia and opened a clothing factory. They had a son, Gary, and grew old together. Gita died in 2003. 

Knowing his own death was near, Lali told his story to the journalist Heather Morris and asked her to share it with the world. He died in 2006 at the age of 90. Morris published The Tattooist of Auschwitz in 2018 and the novel became a global bestseller. Synchronicity Films secured the screen rights the same year and began to move forward with a TV adaptation. 

Jonah Hauer-King

The role of Lali would be a momentous one for any actor. That Hauer-King was raised Jewish only deepened his connection to the project. His maternal grandfather escaped Poland in the late 1920s and sailed to Canada. “He came with his parents, left the grandparents behind,” says Hauer-King. “They used to write letters to Canada. And then at a certain point they just stopped.” 

He first visited Auschwitz aged 14 on a school trip. “It was just overwhelming,” he recalls. “You have this really significant feeling of weight and darkness.” He remembers the lists of those who perished in the camp, “hundreds of thousands of names.” He remembers the name Hauer recurring multiple times. He asked his mother Debra what happened to their relatives during the Holocaust but she didn’t know for certain. How could she? Millions were lost in every sense. There is an emptiness, a void.  

Hauer-King already had a job lined up when he heard about the series. He had read the book and found the thought of playing Lali “extremely exciting, really daunting, kind of overwhelming.” Those feelings were enough for him to turn down the other project and put himself forward for Tattooist. How can I get this, he asked his agent. “I’ll audition, I’ll read, I’ll do anything.” 

Ultimately, all he needed was a lunch. A three-hour lunch at Parsons in Covent Garden with Claire Mundell, MD of Synchronicity Films. With most of these meetings, says Hauer-King, “you are pitching yourself, telling them why you want to do it and what you think you can bring.” As the lunch progressed, Mundell started selling the project herself – “so we were basically just pitching each other!” 

Jonah Hauer-King

Mundell arrived at the restaurant with a plan of her own. She wanted a Jewish actor for the role of Lali and her team had identified Hauer-King as a rising star. “Jonah is one of the most exciting young British talents,” she tells me over the phone. “He embodied the compassion and the empathy that we needed for that part. He’s clearly a leading man.”  

Halfway through the lunch, Mundell told Hauer-King, “I think we’re done. You’ve got the part if you want it – you don’t have to pitch me anymore.” He was the first person to be cast. “It was much more than another job for him,” says Mundell. “It’s really had a profound impact on him.” 

A few weeks after the lunch, Hauer-King got on a plane and returned to Auschwitz. He wanted to pay his respects and try to see the place through Lali’s eyes. Initially, he planned to travel alone but a friend came with him and Hauer-King was very grateful for that friend. He describes this second visit as “similar but different” to the school trip. His chest still tightened as he approached the camp. The sense of weight and darkness was still there, etched upon the sky, embedded in the stones.   

He spoke to his mother a lot: Debra had mixed feelings on the project. “I think she felt excited and proud and thought it was a wonderful opportunity and an amazing thing to be able to tell this story in a meaningful way. To remember and honour it.” Yet there was also a tremendous amount of responsibility. “You do it, but you do it knowing that you’ve got a massive duty to give it everything and throw yourself completely into it – because it’s not to be taken lightly.” 

Jonah Hauer-King

He didn’t take it lightly. A nutritionist helped him lose weight. He researched extensively, read survivors’ accounts – Jewish Italian writer Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man became almost a sacred text. The memoir describes Levi’s incarceration in Auschwitz from February 1944 to the camp’s liberation on 27 January 1945. “It was such an incredible book about not consenting to dehumanisation, holding some part of yourself back.”  

Levi writes: “We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last – the power to refuse our consent. So we must certainly wash our faces without soap in dirty water and dry ourselves on our jackets. We must polish our shoes, not because the regulation states it, but for dignity and propriety. We must walk erect, without dragging our feet, not in homage to Prussian discipline but to remain alive, not to begin to die.”

Heather Morris offered invaluable insight into Lali Sokolov. “We met up on a number of occasions,” says Hauer-King of the author. “I got to ask her anything I wanted about him. And it was just beautiful hearing about their relationship, hearing about their dynamic.” 

Morris couldn’t be more effusive in her praise. “Every time I went to London, we always found time to have some quiet time, just the two of us, over the next 12 months,” Morris tells me over Zoom. “He wanted to be able to capture all I could tell him about what Lali was like as a young man.” 

Jonah Hauer-King

As well as his dedication, Morris speaks of Hauer-King’s maturity, “almost a wisdom beyond his years. A bit of that old soul as if he’s been touched organically by the experience of a Holocaust survivor. He quite simply got it and he got it quickly. He wanted to learn everything.” 

“He’s very grounded,” agrees Claire Mundell. “He has a real sensible head on his shoulders.” She describes Hauer-King as “the consummate professional. As number one on the call sheet; he set the tone for the rest of the cast and the crew to some extent. He was always gracious, kind. He was so respectful of the work that we were doing, but also respectful of everyone’s role in that process.” 

Filming took place in Slovakia over several long months. Interiors such as the prisoner barracks were shot in a studio. For the exterior shots, a miniature Auschwitz was painstakingly recreated outside Bratislava: “What they built was so enormous and it was still a fraction of what it would have been.” 

Every morning, Hauer-King and hundreds of other actors had their heads shaved and donned prison uniforms. Understandably, the experience had a “profound impact” on the cast and crew. He had hoped “you could somehow insulate yourself from being impacted by what you’re doing every day. And it was ludicrous to think that that would be possible.” 

He had a bath every evening. Watched TV. His friends, family, and girlfriend Ellie would fly out to visit him. Mostly, he stayed in the zone and tried to mentally prepare for the following day. “We had this controlled, safe environment and yet it was still upsetting. To think about what it would have been like – it’s kind of unimaginable.” 

Jonah Hauer-King

The work paid off: Hauer-King is brilliant in the role. Watching the first episode, I jotted down a few words: ‘still’, ‘watchful’, ‘proud’. Weeks later, Morris tells me some of the advice she offered Hauer-King: “You’ve got to be differential and subservient to these guys, your head’s got to be down, but your eyes are alert, you’ve got to be looking around.” She tells me what Lali Solokov told her: “I never took a step anywhere without looking around to see where the danger was.”  

What does Morris think the real Lali would have made of Hauer-King? “His first comment would be, ‘He’s a good looking boy. I was a good looking boy.’ And then he would see this beautiful personality and this very charming young man.” 

The series comes at an incredibly sensitive and urgent time owing to the October 7 attacks and the ongoing conflict in Gaza. “What’s happening right now is awful,” says Hauer-King. “I really, really hope that it comes to an end as quickly as possible. It’s just heartbreaking reading the news every day.” 

I voice my hope that Benjamin Netanyahu will be removed from office. He nods and crosses his fingers. Later he observes how all around the world, “antisemitism is on the rise, Islamophobia is on the rise. It’s pretty devastating to see the prejudice and hate speech against both.”

Jonah Hauer-King

Hauer-King studied theology and religious studies at Cambridge University, attracted to the course by its exploration of the big existential questions. “How do we find purpose and meaning in life? What makes us tick?” In our interview last year, I asked Hauer-King what made him tick – can he remember his answer? 

He chuckles, leans back in his chair in contemplation. “I have no idea what I would’ve said!” There were three things… “Did I say Arsenal?” That was one, yes. 

Pause. “Did I say family?” You did not – “Oh no!” – although one was a little family adjacent… “Food!” 

The third one was quite left field… “I actually have no idea,” he says. It was cleaning. He bursts out laughing. “Oh no. That’s true! That remains the same. I don’t know if I would say it makes me tick but I find it a meditative, a safe place to put my headphones in and do a bit of hoovering.” 

Is his flat very clean? “You’d have to ask my girlfriend! I think it’s fairly clean.” 

He’s been with Ellie for five years, the couple meeting through friends. She’s a film and TV editor, “extremely good at it,” says Jonah. Would they ever work together? “It’s a good question! There was the potential for that to happen and we didn’t do it.” Deliberately? “I didn’t do something which she then did. But had I done it, it could have been an interesting experience.” 

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He notes a major part of an editor’s job is cutting dialogue and scenes, and that job will be made awkward if the dialogue and scenes you’re cutting belong to the person you go home to each evening. “I’m sure there are some slightly uncomfortable conversations that go on in edit rooms sometimes, where they’re like, ‘That wasn’t a very good take, was it?’ Or even worse, ‘That scene was rubbish!’”  

One can see the potential conflict… “Generally, mixing work life, home life has its challenges,” says Hauer-King. “Maybe not. Some people do it. The Nolans do it!” 

Although Ellie works in the industry, the majority of his friends aren’t actors and hold down typical nine-to-five jobs. “Whereas I’m completely off the radar for a few weeks or months. When I’m back I want to see them every single night, all the time. They say it’s an absolute nightmare!”

His life is full. He loves dining out in restaurants – “my most fun way of spending an evening” – citing Duck Soup, Speedboat Bar, the Devonshire and The Cow in West London as a few of his favourites. There’s Arsenal, of course. He plays a lot of tennis and is currently trying to transform his two-handed backhand into a one hander; “I think they’re so elegant.” 

We’re comparing notes on our respective tennis games when Hauer-King realises he has a Zoom interview in twenty minutes: the press tour is beginning to get underway. In a fortnight, the press tour will take him to New York – but first there is the Bafta premiere and the long-awaited meeting with Gary Sokolov. 

I reach out after the premiere for some details. “Meeting Gary was an incredible experience,” says Hauer-King. “It really was the most meaningful part of this whole process.”

Were there tears? “There definitely were – from everyone! He came into the room and immediately burst into tears. He was shaking as he hugged us. When he told Anna [Anna Próchniak, who plays Gita] and I that his ‘mum and dad would be proud’, it was hard to keep it together… It was a very special moment.”  

Heather Morris and Claire Mundell were present at their premiere. I asked both for their recollections. “Gary is an incredibly emotional man and he struggled to talk to Jonah,” says Morris. “Because he’s this wonderful young man who’s giving him back his dad. Jonah was so beautiful with him; he was having to comfort him.” 

Mundell reveals that Gary’s daughters were already huge fans of Hauer-King. “For Gary’s daughters, Jonah is this movie star who they’ve seen on posters, film and television – and here he is playing their grandfather. He was very kind with them.” 

What else would you expect? He is a mensch of the highest order. His heart speaks the language of good. 

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is available now on Sky Atlantic and Now TV