Q. From the DDR’s film industry to the move to the West to the jump to Hollywood: how does an actor’s craft change – if it changes – in the switch between such different contexts?
The biggest change, when I started working in Hollywood, was the switch from acting in German to acting in English. That was a powerful change. Otherwise, though, there aren’t big differences, because you always have to remain faithful to the simple principle by which an actor is truly great when he manages to be credible in everything he does. And that’s what I’ve always tried to do in all the different places where I’ve worked.
Q. Looking at your films, what stands out is the great versatility with which you’ve managed to portray characters in a wide range of registers, from comic (Night on Earth) to dramatic(Shine) to thriller (Eastern Promises) to science fiction (Mission to Mars). And yet legend has it that you were kicked out of acting school…
Yes, I flunked out of acting school. At the time I was 21 and had been studying music. The teachers were convinced that as an actor I was talented only at a theoretical level, not practical, and they advised me to go into politics. Something, by the way, I’ve never done and would never dream of doing. I never knew why they wanted me out. I think it was simply that by their standards I was not a model student, because I was averse to all those acting exercises they tried to indoctrinate us with, which I thought were absurd. But I didn’t let it influence me and I went ahead following my own path.
Q. In the long list of major directors with whom you’ve worked, Rainer Werner Fassbinder occupies a special place. This was when you moved to West Germany at the age of 50. How did you meet him?
When I met Fassbinder for the first time, I was still in East Germany and shooting a TV series. The first thing he said to me was that he had already seen me in seven films, and so he immediately offered me the lead role in Lola, to my great joy. He liked me as an actor and had a high opinion of me. And I realized this, by the way, from his clothing. Just one example: generally Fassbinder wore jeans and slightly scruffy clothes, but when it came to shooting my scenes, he showed up dressed to the nines. I have very happy memories of our times together: He was someone who gave his actors great freedom, and this, I think, is the highest virtue in a director.
Q. From Fassbinder on, your artistic journey has been marked by a long series of other great auteurs: from Costa-Gavras to Andrzej Wajda, not to mention
Jim Jarmusch, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Ron Howard, David Cronenberg…
I had an excellent rapport with all these great directors you mention, partly because, as I said before, a good director is one who gives the actor the autonomy to do what he feels, following his own rhythm. The negative exceptions came from other directors who were perhaps less expert and so threw all their uncertainties on top of you. They wanted phrases to have more emphasis or other silly things like that, but just because they were very insecure.
Q. Out of the many films in which you’ve starred, if you had to choose, is there one you feel particularly attached to?
I never watch my films more than once, so I’m fond of all those that I remember, while I immediately forget those I’m not attached to. Now, if I really have to choose, I’d say a pair of films: Avalon by Barry Levinson and Music Box by Costa-Gavras. I filmed them in parallel over the same year. In the first I was the head of a Jewish family, in the second a war criminal: two roles that could not have been more different. It was a truly unforgettable experience. I felt like a kind of Mephistopheles.Lorenzo Buccella