Berlin Roundtable: 6 Actors on Fears and Fighting for Roles

Photo by Fabrizio Maltese
Photo by Fabrizio Maltese
 Fabrizio Maltese

Six acclaimed actors from three continents sat down to discuss their often frustrating, usually frightening and sometimes joyful craft from a perch in the Audi Lounge above the Berlinale red carpet.

German actress Diane Kruger, 37, whose latest, The Better Angels, is in Berlin’s Panorama Special sidebar; Asian superstar Michelle Yeoh, 51, a former Bond girl and producer and star of Culinary Cinema entry Final Recipe; and jury member Greta Gerwig, 30 (whose Frances Ha was in the Panorama section at last year’s festival), all have struggled to break out of the confines placed on them by a male-dominated industry. German star Ken Duken, 34, and England-born Berlinale Shooting Star George MacKay, 20, who have Northmen -- A Viking Saga and Pride, respectively, being touted at the EFM, and Sam Riley, the 34-year-old British star of The Dark Valley, a Berlinale Special screening pic, talked of fighting for roles and the fear of never working again.

The six performers shared the horrors and joys of self-taping auditions, how anxiety feeds fine performances and why no one can plan a successful career.

When did you first think of yourself as an actor?

Sam Riley: It comes and goes. Quite often I still don’t think I am. Then there are moments when you allow yourself to think you are. A lot of actors still feel like they’re blagging [faking] it.

Diane Kruger: I feel like I’ve always been an actress. Even when I was little, I pretended to be someone I was not. I’ve always told a good story to amuse people, to get what I wanted. Maybe it’s called being a liar. (Laughs.)

Riley: I think my family would say that too, that I was always an actor. Because I was always playing. But I took these games much more seriously than the others.

Ken Duken: I grew up in the makeup chair with my mother. She’s a stage actress. So I grew up onstage and never thought about doing anything else. But it’s like a ping-pong rhythm where you feel comfortable with what you do and then you doubt it all.

Greta Gerwig: I felt it when I didn’t need a day job anymore because when people asked me what I did, and I said, “Actually, I’m an actor,” they would say, “What do you really do?” Well I’m not a waitress anymore; I may be again, but right now I’m an actor.

Michelle Yeoh: I’m still wondering. I guess I don’t put a name to what I do. I’m very blessed. I love what I’m doing, but I never thought I would be an actress. I loved movies as a kid, but my mom would have been the actress. I was a dancer. But I got terrible stage fright.

George MacKay: It’s a funny job because there is so much time when you aren’t doing it. Whether you are allowed to say “I’m an actor” when you are between jobs and trying to get a part is the question.

Kruger: In America they use the word "talent" a lot. They go, “The talent is moving.” “The talent is going to stage one.” It’s weird.

Duken: In some ways it’s a lottery. Because I have so many friends who are incredible actors and they never get even one chance to show what they can do.

Yeoh: You have to be ready. If you are given the opportunity you have to take it or it can slip through your fingers. The harder you work the luckier you become.

What’s been the best or worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Kruger: “Just be yourself.” What the f--- does that mean?

Yeoh: “Show your best side.” What is that?

Riley: I can’t remember any [good advice].

Yeoh: Oh dear, that can’t be good.

Riley: I auditioned for the big five English drama schools, but didn’t get in, and a teacher at the time said to give up. I did stop doing it for five years. I wanted to be a rock star. But we lost our record contract pretty quickly and I called my agent that I had told I was going to be a rock star and weirdly, she said, “They’re looking for someone to play the singer of Joy Division in Manchester” [for the film Control]. I was working in a warehouse then. I told the people at the warehouse I was going to the dentist and went to the audition. I got the job and I’ve been an actor since then.

Mackay: I auditioned [for drama school] and didn’t get in either.

Gerwig: The best advice I think is that work begets work. You just have to believe and say, “I’m just going to try and do this.”

Mackay: So many good things happen by chance and are unplottable.

Duken: Yes, strategy can be an enemy. Fifteen years ago, I had been in the job three years and I got this offer to be in an international production. To play the Nazi. You know, every good German actor, you get that offer.

Kruger: We all get it once!

Riley: Did you do the job?

Duken: I did the job and when I was preparing, my mother gave me some good advice. She said, “That’s bullshit — you are playing him like a bad guy. He thinks, when he’s doing these things, that he’s the good guy.” It was the best advice ever. I played the character in this way. And this job led to a role playing a Jew who saved 50 children from the Nazis. The director told me, “I didn’t like it that I liked you as the bad guy. So now you are going to be the good guy.” Sometimes it’s just like that in this job. Strategy would have been my enemy.

Have you ever fought for a role?

Kruger: Ever? Always.

Gerwig: It’s actually weird if something is offered to you — you wonder what’s wrong with it.

Yeoh: In Asia, in Hong Kong in the old days we didn’t audition for parts. So going to America for the first time and auditioning was scary.

Duken: Sometimes [casting] is a really mean process. I think I fight for every role.

Riley: Do you guys ever have to self-tape?

Kruger: I prefer that.

Gerwig: I don’t like it.

Riley: I do them with my wife [German actress Alexandra Maria Lara]. I’ve been James Bond twice, but behind the camera. It’s still exciting. Diane, why do you prefer self-taping?

Kruger: You’re in control. You’re in a communal environment and a safe and friendly one. But you are always asked to play the big emotional scenes -- the crying scene. I don’t know why they always ask you to do that scene.

Mackay: You never get the kissing scene for a self-tape.

Gerwig: I got one where the direction was “the pterodactyl retreats.” I mean, how do you play that?

Kruger: There’s this thing in America where they release audition tapes. It’s such a violation.

What are you most afraid of?

Riley: Not getting work. That it suddenly comes to an end and I don’t get work anymore. I’ve just become a father so I am wondering if that will make things change.

Duken: I am very different because when everything is bad I am very comfortable with it. I have a lot of fears -- I would be lying if I said I didn’t -- but it’s OK to have them.

Michelle, what about you? Do you still have fears?

Yeoh: Nowadays? Not really. I’ve gone past that. I’ve jumped on a moving train, I’ve done crazy things, so I’m not afraid anymore. … We are in a job that is continually frustrating. There are no guarantees. We can only play a part. We can only do the best we can. It’s like when you do a stunt. If you are scared, get off the platform, because you are going to get yourself killed.

How do you work with directors? Any horror stories?

MacKay: I don’t really have any, maybe because I’m just starting out. At the moment I’m really just enjoying the closeness you can get with a director. Enjoying that the opinion is a good thing if it’s valid. Being comfortable with saying, “This is my one shot at this one bit. Can we at least try it my way  once?”

Kruger: I agree with you and that’s an ideal situation. I think in my experience one of the biggest challenges is adapting to different directors because they are all different. And I found that I personally like a director who really directs. Who I feel has a very strong vision of what he wants to make and who will guide me so I become the embodiment of his vision while bringing myself to the role. But I’ve also worked with directors who were hired by a studio and are basically technicians and they shoot every angle and they have no point of view. And then I’ve worked with directors I’ve found very manipulating and very difficult, on a human level, to deal with. Where you come home crying because you can see they are using you to get a reaction out of you.

Which kind is Quentin Tarantino?

Kruger: Well, he will break a scene if you forget a word. But I love that because I know what to expect. The hard part is to get the job, but once you get the job he will literally give you wings to fly. I would cut my left leg off for Quentin because he made me feel like I was everything he had hoped for and more in that part [in Inglourious Basterds]. It’s funny, we had dinner last week and he said, “I felt like you were scared of me in rehearsal,” and I’m like, “I’m still scared of you.”

Duken: He’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Riley: My wife has had horrific bullies working with her sometimes from a young age and has come home crying. I’ve seen that, on set, directors can be very different in how they talk with men and women.

Kruger: I find that super frustrating, especially on big movies. The male character is always cast first and when he has an opinion, he’s a great artist. But as a woman, you’re being difficult: “Oh, that f----- actress!”

Do you still come home in tears?

Kruger: I don’t anymore. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given was from Ed Harris, who said, “Stop being scared of being scared.” It used to freeze me if I had a big personality in front of me or an actor who was really overpowering; you get so intimidated. I would get so scared. But only you know what you are capable of, and with experience I know what I can do.

Greta, did your relationship to acting change when you wrote your own script for Frances Ha?

Gerwig: It’s difficult because I love working on something that came from someone else’s mind, but I find that the writing I’ve done with other partners has been, well, better parts. After [director and co-writer Noah Baumbach and I] finished writing Frances Ha, I had a moment where I was proud of a piece of writing and thought, “I don’t want to take the part.” Because maybe there was a better actress to play the part and because if I played the part I was afraid people wouldn’t believe that I wrote it.

Yeoh: Really?

Gerwig: I’ve had lots of journalists ask me -- and it’s just slightly patronizing -- “So you helped write the script?” No, I co-wrote the script. “So you wrote your part?” No, I wrote the script.

Duken: [On one project] I think the actors didn’t say one word that was in that script and then the film won an award for best screenplay.

Yeoh: Wow. In America, they are such sticklers for saying exactly what is on the paper, with every "um" and "ah."

Duken (to Yeoh): You said, if you are scared of the stunt, get off. I think I’m completely different. If I’m not scared, I don’t want to do it. I’m driven by fear. I was like this in snowboarding. I grew up in the mountains and I was insane on the snowboard. And every time I thought, “It’s OK,” I broke something. Every time. And every time I was f------ scared, I nailed it.

MacKay: I’m doing my first play at the moment, The Cement Garden. I start out up on stage, as the audience is coming in, just reading a comic. It’s really weird because you can feel the people coming in. It is so hard to keep the comic from shaking.

Duken: There’s a beautiful story about a very old actress. She was always very scared before a play. And a young actress asked her, “You’ve done this for 60 years, but you are still so scared before every performance.” And the old actress said, “Honey, stage fright comes with talent. Good luck.”

What has been your most positive experience as an actor, where you think, “This is why I’m an actor”?

Kruger: Every day on set. Every single day.

Yeoh: Exactly.

Kruger: You hear 98 percent "no" and then you hear "yes." It’s such a high. You don’t need drugs for that. You get to do what you love. There’s nothing  better.

Duken: I think so too, but I often think, “Is there a stranger way to make a living?” I remember a friend asking me, “When’s the last time you did something stupid?” And I said, “I just spent the whole day lying in a trunk with a dead goat.”

Gerwig: When the movie that I “helped write,” Frances Ha, premiered in Telluride, it was my peak moment, my peak fear and my peak joy. No one had seen it and I’ve never felt so vulnerable. I had never worked on anything harder. It was a couple of years of writing and making the movie. I threw up before the screening. But then when they applauded at the end I was weeping.

Riley: When my first film [2007’s Control] premiered in Cannes, I was standing on the roof wearing a suit that someone had just given me that I would never have been able to afford. And I looked down and they were queuing around the block. I was 26 and I had had so many downers career-wise before that. And afterwards, when they clapped, I thought, “It’s probably not going to get much better than this.” And it was my first film.

Duken: You get so many surprising gifts from the people you are working with. I sometimes think we shouldn’t be called actors. We are reactors. When you start playing with someone and something happens, it becomes magical. It’s something you will never forget. Or just sit there on set and a friend of yours just nails a scene. You get goosebumps. There are so many amazing things in this job that the side effects, the things that are not that great, they are easily  forgotten.

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