Berlin Roundtable: Five Fest Actors Talk Sex Scenes, Tough Directors and Dream Roles
Jena Malone, Maisie Williams, Bel Powley, Aidan Gillen and Frederick Lau gathered in the Glashutte Lounge 24 floors above Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz for a frank discussion on the fears, joys and frustrations of performing onscreen.
Irish actor Aiden Gillen, 46, in Berlin for the world premiere of his new film You're Ugly Too in Berlin's Generations sidebar; American Jena Malone, 30, who plays three women of three different eras in Panorama title Angelica; Brits Bel Powley, 22, fresh from Sundance with festival hit Diary of a Teenage Girl, which screens in Berlin's Generations, and Maisie Williams, 17, picked by European Film Promotion to be the British Shooting Star at this year's Berlinale; and German actor Frederick Lau, 25, one of the stars of competition title Victoria, a bank-heist film shot in a single take, spoke of sex scenes, typecasting and the best advice they ever received.
Maisie, you all started acting at a very young age. When did you first think of yourself as an actor and not a pretender?
MAISIE WILLIAMS I still think I'm a pretender, a little bit. It is just when you come to things like this and people talk so confidently about their projects and you think: When did you learn to do that? I still think I'm a little bit pretending and someone is going to find me out soon.
AIDAN GILLEN That's not going to happen. I mean you are pretending. Probably for me, when I was 14 or 15, I thought, "This is what I want to do." I'd been doing theater from the time I was 13. But it's when you find yourself moving to another country and having to pay the rent, which for me was when I was about 18, and I thought, "If I want to eat and have somewhere to live, I have to get work."
BEL POWLEY It felt like a job then, because it was paying the bills.
JENA MALONE But you go into it because you want to act. Even if you are 4 years old, or 40 years old. Anytime I hear an actor say they know what they are doing, I want to slap them silly. The fact is that every single day we wake up completely unknowing. Every single film, every single take. That first day on set, I am still terrified. No matter how many times you have done it, I am still terrified.
FREDERICK LAU I was 10 when I started. But I fell in love with movies at maybe 16 or so, when I started to know what I was doing. Before that, it was just fun. It is still fun. When you create a scene that is so f—ing sad and afterward you are laughing with your colleagues and saying, "That was unbelievable." If you don't know after a scene what you did before or how you did it — that, maybe, is acting.
WILLIAMS When I started this, I was 12 and my character [Arya Stark on HBO's Game of Thrones] has aged a few years since then, but I have aged more than she has. So at the beginning we were the same person. The reason I got the part was because I happened to look the way Arya was supposed to look and happened to be very similar, personality-wise. And now it feels as I've gotten older and become the person that I want to be, Arya has continued on that path that I was on when I was 12. So going back to that character once a year is strange. It has only been a few years, but it is such a big change in your life, 12 to 17, so it feels like stepping back, which is nice, dipping into a younger version of myself.
MALONE I am a big fan of the show and I think that you are so kick ass. I love your character. Whether you think it is a regression, you are a beautiful, young, vibrant woman.
WILLIAMS Thank you! Yeah, she definitely has her own story and influences, but in terms of Maisie stepping into Arya, it feels like being a kid again in this crazy environment and dealing with difficult situations in a younger person's mind.
Would you like for once to switch roles with Sophie Turner and get to play the princess?
WILLIAMS It would be nice to wear a dress every once and a while. But I don't know if I would ever give up the sword fighting and stunts. I don't think any dress in the world is worth that.
MALONE And you are such a great character for young women to look up to. There are enough dresses on television already.
What role have you found most challenging?
WILLIAMS The role that got me into the Shooting Stars here in Berlin was The Falling. Being 17 years old, I have grown up with technology and that influenced heavily my time in school. This film was set in a school in 1969, so it was this very familiar atmosphere that was also very alien. Wanting it to be authentic was a challenge. Game of Thrones is another period piece, but it is more of a fantasy so if there are things that don't have honest answers; we can work on that.
POWLEY Diary of a Teenage Girl is set in the 1970s. The attitude toward family and sex and drugs was so different than today. To get into my role to where I actually believed that [attitude] even though I wasn't alive in the '70s and didn't experience it, that was difficult. Also it was the first leading role I ever played, and being in every scene and having to encompass a person in every single aspect — she goes through every emotion in the movie — it was more like doing a play. I learned the whole script before we started shooting, so that I could access every part of the story at any time during shooting.
Were you worried about playing the role? It is a young girl whose first sexual experience is with her mother's boyfriend.
POWLEY I was worried about how it was going to be received, because of the age difference. I didn't want the word pedophilia to be thrown around. But more importantly, the film is about sexual awakening, and sexuality in women is addressed — sexuality in boys and men is addressed a lot in films, but not girls. It is quite a taboo subject. We don't seem to want to talk about girls losing their virginity. Girls getting horny and girls wanting to have sex between the ages of 13 and 18. It is something that we won't address. And wanting to portray that was more important to me than worrying about the issue of the age difference.
What about the actual sex scenes? Were they difficult to do?
POWLEY I was doing them with Alexander Skarsgard and he is like the king of sex scenes. He was in the sexiest show ever, True Blood. So I kind of just took his lead. And it was fine. He is an amazing guy. We shot all the sex scenes in the first week so we got them completely out of the way. It was very nerve-racking, but it was fine. But as I say, wanting to tell what I think is really the first honest story about the sexuality of a teenage girl overrode me feeling uncomfortable. It was more important to tell the story.
LAU For me, normal roles are the most challenging. That is the hardest to play. There is nothing special to hold on to.
What was it like to perform in Victoria, which was shot in a single two-hour take?
LAU It was wonderful. It was like, "Action," and you go into your role after five seconds and then everything just flows, like a theater play. You are just in it. After two hours it is over; you have no idea what you just did. It was such a great feeling.
WILLIAMS How long was the preparation for that?
LAU Three weeks. So we did one shot three times. Made three movies.
WILLIAMS And the director just chose which one he liked best?
LAU Yeah. The last one was the best. After the second one, it wasn't good. It wasn't a good take. And he was angry with us. Really angry. He was like: "That's f—ed!" And we did the third one and it was such a special feeling. Because you could do what you want. There was no script. There were instructions — you have to go there or you have to go there — but there was no script. And there was so much of yourself in it because it is a movie about Berlin. And I am a real Berlin guy, and there aren't that many anymore in this city. You can talk about your city and your life. Show the audience part of you, part of your heart, what you are thinking about the situation in the city right now and about the guys living here and show our world.
GILLEN The experience of just doing something is what's important. I'm a lot less inclined to watch stuff now. When I first started out, I used to watch the finished product over and over and over. Now I go look at it once or not at all. There are probably four or five things over the last few years I haven't seen at all. It is the actual doing of the thing. Once it is done, it is done, so why look at it?
WILLIAMS For so long I felt — well, I still sort of do — I feel that everyone knows something I don't. So watching it back was my way of checking what you are doing and learning from that. It is awfully embarrassing still.
GILLEN You do learn from it. But after 20 years, I've got better things to do with my time. It's not that you don't care. It's because you really do care. I definitely put way more into preparation, way more thinking about who I am supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing than I ever did when I was 17 or 18 when it was just no preparation. No learning of lines, no reading the script. Just show up and do it. The first play I did, I remember the director being really frustrated because it was a day before and he was [saying], "You don't know your lines!" and I was [saying], "We got time. It's at 8 o'clock tomorrow. Don't worry about it." (To Williams) And you've got nothing to worry about.
MALONE I feel like the actual doing of acting is not challenged enough. We are often OK with just OK. We are making films that push filmmaking further, but it is our responsibility and the responsibility of the writer and the director to be pushing acting. I mean, if I play one more girlfriend role, it's like (mimes shooting herself). It's not that it's hard, it's that it's boring. Angelica was challenging for me because I was playing three different Englishwomen and I'm American, obviously. I was playing a mother character in her 20s in the 1890s and then the daughter character in 1913 in her 20s and then I also did the voice for the older mother when she was in her 60s. For me that was the challenge of it. That is actually the science of it, doing dialogue work. That's not just showing up and being in the moment. That's actually like a science, a technique. You have to learn it, not only in your own body, you have to learn a whole new rhythm of speaking and delivering. That was the hardest challenge for me, trying to distinguish between these three women and the different dialects at the time.
POWLEY That sounds insane.
MALONE It was terrifying. They kind of threw it at me, that I was going to be voicing the role of the older mother. Just in ADR [automatic dialogue replacement, or dubbing]. So I lay down on the floor and took everything I could find: books, this, that, and put them on my chest. Every single object I could find. You can't do that on film. But just that allowed me to find a deeper, ragged point and I was like, "If I could actually use these helpers in acting it would be so much easier." But you can't. You have to be very transparent onstage. There are a lot of ways to make things easier as an actor onscreen, but you can see them. There are all these tricks, but you can see them, so for me the most challenging roles are where you have to hide all of those tricks.
What was your worst experience with a director?
LAU There was one time a director told me, "You haven't found your role yet, have you?" It was after the 20th shooting day! They wanted to bring me to a coach. I thought, "What have I done?"
POWLEY That is so offensive!
LAU I was the main actor in this movie and it was halfway shot when they asked me this question. It was like falling to the floor.
MALONE But to be fair, you don't have to get along with your director. It is not going to make a great film. And it is not going to make a great performance. It isn't consistent anyways. You could be working with your best friend, you could be working with your mortal enemy, you can still deliver a great performance. I have spat in directors' faces. They have spat in my face. I've walked off set. People have told me in the middle of a scene that I've chosen the wrong profession. But then you see the film and you see, OK, it created an energy. And maybe he needed to create a war in that scene and he didn't know how to do it so he actually created a war.
GILLEN I think when someone is playing mind games with you and you know that is what they are doing, it is not that exciting. I haven't had that much experience with it, but I have seen it with other people and seen them not come out of it too well. But it is a thing, I mean some of the great performances — Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski, that's all totally mad, you know, pointing guns at each other.
LAU But it's great!
GILLEN Or [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder or whatever, you know. These are brilliant filmmakers and there are many head games being played there. I am not sure how everybody came out of that, some probably went under, but it is exciting to watch and it is kind of acceptable. But it is not pretty.
POWLEY I think [it's OK] as long as the director is being vocal — whether they are being nice or being mean. When someone is just silent, that's scary.
What's been the best piece of advice you've ever received?
GILLEN "Know who you are and just say it." A theater director in Ireland told me. He said casting is like 60 to 70 percent of it, and then know who you are and say the line. That's simple, but I think that is pretty good advice.
POWLEY Just say the line.
LAU Just do it.
GILLEN It's simple, but it's also knowing who you are. A couple of times I have found myself in a situation where I was the wrong person for the part. I really try to not let that happen, which means turning down things. As you get better known, people tend to want you because you were in something else and you may not be the right person. Don't be the wrong person for the job. Be the right person for the job. Then know who you are and say it. And have a good time.
Who is your inspiration?
GILLEN For me a lot of character actors. When I was 15 or 16, they were all older actors, they were all in their 50s and 60s like the great Irish actor Donal McCann, or John Cazale, Mark Rylance … older character actors.
POWLEY Women that have stayed really true to themselves, haven't conformed to what society wants women to be like. Like Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep, who have played incredibly strong female characters.
WILLIAMS There is not specifically one person, but I remember coming into this industry and I spoke to Lena Headey, who is in [Game of Thrones] with [Aidan and me], and that before we had even been commissioned for our first season she said, "I'm really nervous because this role isn't very me. This is very different from what I've done before." And I remember thinking that even with all that experience, you can still be pushing yourself and be completely petrified of the role. Realizing that that never goes away and it is OK. It was nice for me, my 12-year-old me, to see that.
MALONE I've never wanted anyone else's career, nor have I idolized anyone's. I think it is beautiful when actors I admire have missteps and take on roles that were maybe the wrong ones. I think more inspiration for life was the first director I ever worked with, which was Anjelica Huston [on 1996's Bastard Out of Carolina] and I was like 10 years old and she was a very inspirational figure.
LAU For me, many actors I grew up with. Edward Norton or guys like that. But it depends on the movie. I see an actor I didn't like in a new movie and I think. "F—, he is good!"
What role would you love to play?
MALONE Iggy Pop. I'll never get the opportunity but …
LAU I want to play Tupac. But I'll never get the opportunity, too.
GILLEN Well (to Malone), you could play Iggy Pop.
MALONE Yeah, all I'd need would be like a prosthetic breastplate.
GILLEN Cate Blanchett, in that Bob Dylan film where everyone played Bob Dylan [Todd Haynes' I'm Not There], she was the best Bob Dylan. I didn't even go: This is a woman. I went: That's Bob Dylan. It was kind of a standard: Who is going to pull it off and she did.
POWLEY There are so many parts I would love to do. I'm still so young. I would love to do something period like Jena did. Maybe the 1890s. Older than the 1970s would be good.
WILLIAMS (To Malone) You know how you were saying if you were going to play another girlfriend role, you were going to shoot yourself? Well, I feel girls like me don't get cast as the romantic lead.
POWLEY What do you mean, girls like you?
WILLIAMS I think there is a look. It would just be fun to do something like that. And I think because of me coming into this industry very young as a very specific character, I have been forced into that sort of mold. As I've grown up, I've moved away from that rough, tomboy kind of thing and I think people still see me in that light. It would be nice for someone to step back and see me differently.
MALONE But that's easy. You're a gorgeous woman, 17 years old. The whole world is ahead of you. You could be as many women as you want to be.
WILLIAMS Yeah. It's just other people seeing that.
POWLEY That goes back to women being treated differently. I think we get pigeon-holed a lot more than men. And they are quite 2D characters. So you're the rough tomboyish girl or the quirky best friend or the sexy female lead or you are the virginal girl waiting for her prince charming. And it would be nice for it to be a lot more fluid.
MALONE But it just takes one role to change that. One moment of honesty onscreen. Just doing something completely different. Just one opportunity, and they won't question you ever again.