Berlin 2013: THR's Actors Roundtable

Fabrizio Maltese

Five international standouts at this year’s Berlinale discuss their dream roles, dealing with nerves on set and what they would never do onscreen.

BERLIN -- The talent gathered for The Hollywood Reporter’s Berlin Actors Roundtable is certainly not reluctant to take a walk on the wild side at this year’s Berlinale.

Peter Sarsgaard, 41, is a brutal husband and pimp in Lovelace; Fallon Goodson, 27,  plays James Franco’s unstable sister in Maladies; Melanie Laurent, 29, and Jack Huston, 30, are doomed lovers in Bille August’s literary adaptation Night Train to Lisbon; and newcomer Mikkel Boe Folsgaard, 28, the Danish Shooting Star in Berlin this year, won the Berlinale’s best actor Silver Bear in 2012 for his first movie role, a mad king in the Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair.

They sat down together for a spirited discussion in the Club Room of Berlin’s VIP hangout the SoHo House, during which Sarsgaard gave up-and-coming actors this advice: “It’s awful. God. Do something else if you can!”

The Hollywood Reporter: When you get a script, are you ever scared that you won’t be able to deliver?

Fallon Goodson: That’s the fun part!  At the beginning. The way I work is I do a ton of background. I write an autobiography of my character, and that’s the moment when I feel I can let everything go and just see what comes out.

Peter Sarsgaard: You don’t get nervous when you act?

Goodson: No, I think it’s -- I don’t know, this is gonna sound real weird, but it’s kind of walking around with, like, your clothes off all of a sudden. It’s like you just get to be someone else, and it’s fun.

Mikkel Boe Folsgaard: I am nervous before and after shooting, not during.

Jack Huston: I am nervous all the time. At all moments. I think I’ve always got a fear. I think it’s a fear about oneself, that you always think you could do better.

Sarsgaard: And if you’re not nervous, then you’re nervous that you’re not nervous.

Melanie Laurent: I know that feeling. I remember one day I was on a shoot and I turned on the radio and someone said, “Someone who is not nervous has no talent!” and I was like: “Oh, shit! I am never nervous, maybe I’m just a bullshit actor.” … When I was onstage for the first time in my life, I was petrified for three days, and then nothing! I arrived at the theater five minutes before the show and everybody was already there, and I was like [whistles]. I remember thinking: “That’s not normal. I should be nervous.”

THR: What has been your worst experience with a director?

Sarsgaard: Oh, god! I have had so many. You know, honestly, at least half of the time I feel like it’s all crap. I thought that before, and then people have liked the movie. But it doesn’t make me like the movie any more. If the making of it was not a good experience, I don’t care how much people like the movie. It’s like a lover I can’t love. My favorite movie I ever did is a movie that nobody but me likes: The Dying Gaul. It’s a movie that I think like four people saw, and they didn’t like it. But I loved the movie. I loved every day doing it. I did it with Campbell Scott and Patricia Clarkson. It was really fun.

THR: Mikkel, you were cast in A Royal Affair while you were still in acting school in Denmark. What was your first day like?

Folsgaard: I was so nervous, because I thought: “They have made a mistake! The director has chosen me, and it was a mistake.” I almost went down and knocked on his door and said, “Choose someone else!  I can’t do it.” But I started walking around with my headphones, listening to heavy metal:  “You can do it! You can do it, Mikkel!” Then the first day on the set they said “Roll!” and my heart started pumping … and then I was OK. When I actually got started, it was not so difficult.

Laurent: I can’t believe that was your first movie!

THR: What about the others’ first times? Can you remember that moment?

Huston: On the set, yeah. Oh, man, I was the worst. I think I did my first movie with Alan Bates and some other incredible people, and I had to say something about goats or something. These guys are just going at it and being great, and I have to come in with this goat line:  “The goat’s on fire!” or something like that. I remember I just said it, and then it was “I am so sorry!” But later you realize that sometimes that’s the hardest thing -- the smaller bits, the smaller scenes.

THR: How do you choose your roles?

Sarsgaard: The idea that actors choose their roles ... I mean, a certain number of movies are made each year, and out of those movies you are right for a certain number of roles, and then there is competition for those roles. So, like, inevitably, if you want to be a working professional, you find different ways into projects. There just aren’t enough good scripts out there, in my mind. Ideally, you would just pick great scripts and great directors, but …

Laurent: When I was starting this job, I was kind of obsessed more about the scripts, the character; I was really looking for something to act. And now I really don’t care. I care about working with people. I changed my entire way of working. I just don’t care about the part, I really care about the experience, like the human experience. Because if the director is not a great orchestra conductor, it’s going to be a mess; it’s going to be a bad concert. And you don’t want to be the lead violin in a bad concert. I prefer being a backing trombone and being part of a beautiful concert.

THR: Jack, you come from sort of an acting dynasty -- Hollywood royalty. Did you ever consider not joining the family business?

Huston: Yeah, a lot. I mean, I always did other things, and I always acted, painted, tried other bits. I grew up in England, so I was very apart from that “Hollywood royalty” bit. It didn’t mean what it means in America. In England, nobody would pay any attention. But it’s a strange one, that. I always say that none of my family have real jobs. Everyone is in some kind of creative thing -- being a pianist, writer, actor, whatever it is. No one does anything nine to five.

Sarsgaard: I was thinking about my first day on set just now. It was a scene with Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking. He drags me through a forest in the bayou. It was cut from the movie, but he raped me and then killed me. And I was super into it! I was there the whole way. It was awful, you know, it was really physical and I was banging up my body, but I really threw myself into it. I did that with my work for a long time, because the cliff that I could fall off of was so massive. I imagined myself living in Labrador, Canada, in a tent,  growing vegetables. I thought: “I have to be good at this, I have to try, I have to focus, I have to want it!”  I can’t imagine doing it with anything less than that amount of desire.

Goodson: Speaking of being raped and killed and dragged, I actually did that. On Child of God, which is not a cheery film, I literally came home with battle wounds. I was being dragged through the woods, and trees are banging in my face. But I loved the special effects. I was walking around the set looking like I had a bullet-hole through my neck the whole time, and I would think, “This is so cool!”

Huston: There are some really strange ones. I remember doing a movie, and it was literally: “Jack, this is X. Jump in a bed and have sex.” And literally, we jump in bed, have simulated sex, and afterwards it’s, “So, where are you from?” I was like: only in this job! You shake hands, and next thing it’s severe simulated sex.

Sarsgaard: Or with another guy. I did a film with Liam Neeson. We’re friends; we went out, had drinks together. We both grew up religious. And then we had to make out. It was intense to do. Then after we did that, the director liked it so much he said, “After lunch, there’s another thing I’d like you to do.” And we were like: “Oh no! What is it going to be?” Our minds were racing. "Will you be on top, will I be?" Finally, we come in and he says, “I thought you guys should 69 each other.” And we were relieved! Because it was not intimate, in a way. It felt, “OK, fine.”

Goodson: I want to know, in that situation, where does your mind go? I guess with a scene like that, you just have to totally go there.

Sarsgaard: No! You don’t totally go there! Pretending to 69 a guy you’ve had drinks with! No, you pretend! In that situation, we were very much pretending. Those types of things ­where you have an established relationship with someone and then you go and do a movie and it’s like it’s the opposite of how you know them. That’s harder than not knowing them at all and pretending.

THR: Peter, you’ve played a lot of dark characters: ­You’re a porn producer in Lovelace, the man who seduces an underage girl in An Education. Are you drawn to these darker figures?

Sarsgaard: I don’t think I am. With [Lovelace], I didn’t want to play the role at all. I said no a million times. It was my wife [Maggie Gyllenhaal] who convinced me to do it. She was pregnant at the time. She said, “I think you should go play this part; I think it will make you feel good.” I think she thought it would exorcise something. The thing about playing someone that everyone decided is bad is that no one f---s with you in terms of how you play it. I can really work at making him the most charming, loving person imaginable, but he’s still got to do the things that are in the script. There is great freedom in playing bad. That said, it’s what comes to me.

THR: What is your dream role?

Laurent: [To Folsgaard] What about you? After that one movie, where you had everything in it. What do you do next?

Folsgaard: That’s it. I put everything into that character. I’m spent. No, seriously. I made a bet with one of my friends at acting school over who will play Hamlet first. But I think the king in A Royal Affair is a bit like Hamlet. I don’t know. Right now, I’m playing a completely different character in a Danish TV series. He is a completely different guy, a good guy, and that’s cool. I just want to do a lot of different things.

Laurent: But it is difficult. To start, the first role being this amazing part in an amazing movie. It’s going to be so difficult to find another just beautiful movie.

THR: You’ve set your own bar quite high.

Folsgaard: The first thing the Danish journalists asked me after I won here last year was: “OK, so your career is only downhill from here.” And I was, like, standing there like this, with the Silver Bear in my hand and thought: “What? It’s over?” But I didn’t start acting to win a Bear. It was for something else.

THR: Is there something you just wouldn’t do?

Sarsgaard: Play a pedophile. I know because I was asked to play a pedophile. It was a good part. It was a totally well-written movie, but I have such hatred, you know? I can’t play someone I have absolute hatred for. All the characters I’ve played, no matter how bad, I have some amount of love for them. But a pedophile? No.

Huston: And yet, Kevin Bacon’s done it twice! Both times brilliantly.

Sarsgaard: Joe Fiennes did it in Running With Scissors. I watch actors do it and I go, “How the f--- are you doing that? I remember having to yell at my daughter in Boys Don’t Cry. She was six. She pees on me in the film, and I yell at her. And after every take, it was like: “It’s just pretend! Sorry!”

Goodson: Famous last words. But if there is a message in the film, I would play whatever it was.

Laurent: I never, ever did any characters I didn’t really like. That’s why I never played a Nazi. I always pick the good characters, because I need to live with them. I love it when actors say they will play everything, but I don’t feel that way. It makes me sad, sometimes, because it is like I’m weak.

Goodson: I really want to play someone with cornrows, like a rapper-gangster drug dealer.

Sarsgaard: Do it! Whatever the part is, just do it with cornrows.

Huston: Every time you go into a meeting, just say: “I think this character should have cornrows. And be a rapper.”