Berlin 2012: Film Festival Actors Roundtable
Charlotte Rampling on being forced into acting, Max von Sydow on the challenges of performing in a foreign tongue and tales from the casting couch.
The talents invited to participate in The Hollywood Reporter’s first Berlinale Actors Roundtable represent three generations and are in Berlin with films illustrating the broad range of genres and styles that typify Germany’s biggest film festival: Max von Sydow, 82, as the silent man suffering from great tragedy in Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close; Charlotte Rampling, 66, as a femme fatale in I, Anna, the directorial debut of her son, Barnaby Southcombe; Martina Gedeck, 50, in a wrenching performance as a troubled woman in Julian Pölsler’s The Wall; Zana Marjanovic, 28, as a Bosnian woman caught in the Serbian rape camps in Angelina Jolie’s In the Land of Blood and Honey; and Anne Maria Mühe, daughter of The Lives of Others star Ulrich Mühe, who is this year’s German Shooting Star at the festival.
They gathered at Berlin’s hippest location — the Soho House on Torstrasse — to talk about the craft of acting, the difference between European and Hollywood cinema and the challenges of acting in a foreign language.
THR: What drew you to acting?
Charlotte Rampling: I didn’t really want to be in the profession … but they came and got me.
Max von Sydow: (Laughing) You were forced into it?
Rampling: Yeah, I was forced into it. I was pushed into it. And I, you know, sort of screamed a bit and then decided I quite liked it.
THR: Who forced you?
Rampling: It wasn’t exactly like that. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I certainly hadn’t thought that I wanted to act. And then I was sort of discovered when I was quite young, in a small film, then in a bigger film and I thought: “Um … this is rather fun.” Then it didn’t become so fun, but it was fun at the beginning.
Von Sydow: As a kid, I didn’t really care too much for movies. But when I was 14, 13 maybe – I was taken to a new theater. I didn’t know anything about theaters, and suddenly there was a big, new municipal theater in the south of Sweden and I was brought there and saw Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare, which was the first real theater production I ever saw. That inspired me and my pals to do a theater circle in school without any professional help and we played plays, and we were extremely successful, brilliant. And that was it. Later, I was accepted by the acting academy at the National Theater in Stockholm and then it was theater, theater, theater and film every now and then. But I was very lucky. And I don’t know, I think you have it here in Germany, some sort of municipal theaters, don’t you?
Martina Gedeck: Yeah.
Von Sydow: I don’t know if it works the same way here, but in my days in Sweden, you got a contract for, let’s say, eight months, nine months, and you had a monthly salary, and then you were forced to do whatever they told you to. And it was wonderful, because it was everything! It was classics, modern, tragedies, comedies, leading parts, very small parts, but it was wonderful because it kept you working, and that’s the only way to learn this profession.
Gedeck: When I was about 7, I saw a play in a theater and I couldn’t believe what I saw. There were flowers speaking and mushrooms moving! I was absolutely in awe when I saw this. And at that moment I thought this is what’s in my head or in my heart. From then on, I was drawn to it. It had to do with not wanting to take reality for what it is. So I went to the acting school.
Von Sydow: What did your parents say?
Gedeck: My mother said, “Great!” But just a few years ago, she confessed that she never believed that I’d be accepted and she hated the thought of me being an actress. But my father, he actually spit over my shoulder (for good luck). I was so proud!
THR: Anna Maria, for you it must have been the exact opposite because you come from an acting family. Your mother and father were famous actors in Germany, right?
Anna Maria Mühe: Yes. I grew up in the theater actually, so I loved the atmosphere there and I loved the costumes there, the makeup rooms and the smell of all the things a girl can play with. And then, I was pushed into it – like Charlotte. A director saw me in the street and said, "You’re the right one for my movie." I was 15. I got the part. And now I’m here.
THR: What has been your most frightening experience as an actor? Is fear part of being an actor?
Rampling: Yes. I think you need it. You don’t do anything good without fear.
Rampling: As long as it’s fear that doesn’t actually paralyze you. But I think for anything that’s worth doing, you actually have this form of adrenaline that comes through.
Von Sydow: It’s the challenge.
Zana Marjanovic: Yes, I don’t think that for me it is ever about fear, but it is about the challenge. I’m challenged every day. You don’t do one film and say, "OK, I got it" and I’ll do the same thing next time. Every time it's completely different. Every project brings a new method.
Rampling: You never know what’s going to happen.
THR: Has there ever been a time when a director has told you to do something where you were completely taken aback?
Gedeck: “Show me your breasts!”
Rampling: Is that the sort of thing you want to know?
THR: Well, we don’t need tales of the casting couch.
Gedeck: It happens after the casting too (Laughter).
THR: You’ve all worked in Europe and Hollywood. Which camp would you put yourselves in: the Hollywood system or the European one?
Rampling: Well, we’re not going to burn our bridges, just in case there’s one out there that might come our way, you know.
Marjanovic: Angelina Jolie directed my film but it’s not a big Hollywood film. But I think there are amazing directors and amazing films that come from there. I try not to generalize because there’s always a John Cassavetes and on the other side there are Europeans who do big Hollywood-style films. And you know what? I might wake up tomorrow and say, “I want to give my voice to a Disney character.”
Rampling: I agree. So, if there’s anybody out there, you know, looking for voices, that they haven’t used, we’re up for it, aren’t we? Pop that in your basket.
THR: Is there a role you wouldn’t play?
Rampling: Heavens yes. You refuse roles. Don’t you? We all refuse roles.
Marjanovic: Oh, yes.
Gedeck: Of course.
Rampling: They offer you all sorts of crap and horrible stuff and really badly written stuff and terrifying stories where you think, how on earth would they ever get them out, and those they usually don’t.
Von Sydow: For actors in general, the big problem is being offered more or less the same part all the time. It’s very boring. And you curse the casting directors for not having any imagination.
THR: Is there a type of character that you wouldn’t play?
Rampling: No. I think we should be ready for anything and then decide when the time comes whether it actually fits in with what we’re doing and where we are at the time in our lives. It’s very much about timing.
Marjanovic: For me, it's been interesting when I had to play a character and I didn’t agree with her choices as a character. In one film, I had to slap a little girl’s behind, physically give her a beating. She had the padding in her jeans and she was ready for it. But I could feel my body resisting what I was trying to do. When I had to actually slap her, it was like I wanted my hand to fall off or something. And that’s where they cut the scene. And I said: “No, no, no, no. I have to have my monologue here now, where I’m explaining and justifying myself.” And then they said: “No. It doesn’t fit in the film. It’s not so horrible.” And I said: “Yes, it is!” And I stood in the kitchen and I started crying. It they had had a camera rolling there, it would have been a really great scene.
Gedeck: I find the biggest challenge is finding something in the scene that is not already there. Finding something that’s not the obvious thing, what you knew beforehand. Because that’s not what life is. Life is always something that you don’t know beforehand. I don’t want to be just performing lines, thinking, “OK, now my character’s furious, now she’s afraid …” This is very boring to me. It becomes a repetition of what you decided at home while you were doing your homework or what the director decided when you were discussing the script.
Rampling: I think I’ve always done that, instinctively. It’s like: No expectations. You just don’t actually want to know until it’s happening, you know you read the script and say OK, fine, I’ll do this role and then it’s like: I’m up for anything, just let’s wait and see. If you can keep that edge, as much edge as possible, then you get, I think, performances that become really interesting.
THR: You’ve all acted in more than one language. How difficult is it acting in a language that is not your native tongue?
Von Sydow: It’s very, very difficult – difficult, difficult but fascinating. To try and be totally free with what you have to say, but it’s a challenge, a constant challenge.
Rampling: It demands much more concentration. You have to do a hell of a lot of preparation to get it so it sounds like just talking.
Von Sydow: I have not acted in my own language for quite a while, and sometimes I miss that. But because, of course, your native language is where you’re most free and most spontaneous. In order to be totally free in a foreign language, you have to start very early. I was too late.
Mühe: I think it’s very difficult because all your thoughts are in your native language; that’s why it’s so difficult to play in … for me in English. I’m thinking in German, so that’s why you have to concentrate so much.
Rampling: And your emotional world is in your mother tongue.
Rampling: The emotional world that actually brings the words out if you want the spontaneity, is in your mother tongue, is in your most intimate language.
Gedeck: You have to divide the words from their sense and treat the dialogue as if it were a melody, like a piece of music. You practice the pronunciation until it becomes like a piece of music. And then you act the emotional part, and you kind of put the little melody above it. It’s like playing an instrument. But there you’re always afraid to stumble over some syllable and have to start all over again.
Rampling: And then they come and tell you: It was fabulous, there was just that one word, we must have that one word right. And you know then the mind says, right, gotta get that word right, and then you get nervous and then you go again, you know...
Gedeck: Yeah. And then in the dubbing you have to do it all over anyway. So it’s all for nothing!
Rampling: Oh, you make me cry...
THR: Final question: Who is your inspiration for the work you do?
Von Sydow: I had an actor who I admired very much at the National Theater School in Stockholm who I am sure I imitated. I looked up to him and imitated him as well as I could at the time.
Marjanovic: I used to watch Julia Roberts when I was young and she would say some line or do some scene, and then I would imitate it right away and would think, “Pfff, it’s so easy, I can do this.” I remember this when I was really little, and, you know, Julia Roberts, she’s beautiful, she’s warm, she’s vulnerable – all these beautiful things. And she’d say, “Hi! Oh, my God!” And I went: “Hi! Oh, my God!” And it’s like, "Oh! It’s easy – I can do this!"
Rampling: Yeah, I think that kind of imitating is going on all the time: We’re all imitating people in films. But as actors all of us are unique. What we’re selling is our uniqueness. We can be inspired by lots of people – but what we’re actually doing is us, what we’ve made up inside ourselves to give out. It’s uniquely ours.
Gedeck: Yes, you have no other choice. There are so many great actors out there, but if you would always look around and say, “Well, maybe I’ll do it like her,” you get into Teufels Küche, the Devil’s Kitchen.
Rampling: What is it in German? Teufels …
Gedeck: Teufels Küche!
Rampling: Teufels Küche … Oh no, we don’t want to be there.