I admitted upfront, still adjusting my seat in Criterion’s New York office, that I don’t really know how to interview actors––what their processes and points are, how they make decisions, what vocabulary puts it all into place. But the person I’m admitting it to is Paula Beer, perhaps the world’s most exciting actress. Certainly the greatest under-30 performer, someone who’s impressed so much in such short time.
It’d be easy to suggest Christian Petzold––her director on Transit, Undine, and most recently Afire––as key reason, but the filmmaker’s collaborative process has allowed Beer opportunity to imprint an authorial voice. This interview thus suggested opportunity to find what makes her, only an occasional interview subject, tick: her professional background, Afire‘s more sensitive stretches, and the peril of making career-based choices.
The Film Stage: I’ve spoken to Petzold a couple times over several years––one of many filmmakers I’ve interviewed. But I was looking back at how many actors I interview and it’s… one every other year? Something like that. With a director I pretty much know what to ask––the who, what, when, where, why––but actors is kind of blind man with the elephant. So we’ll see if these are good questions.
Paula Beer: And what they say… [Laughs.]
With that in mind: do you have certain means of verbalizing the acting craft? If you even see it as a craft, or something else altogether.
Well, that’s a huge question. To begin: I absolutely think it’s a craft. You have to learn, either way, whatever you decide to. Because I didn’t go into a drama school, and I took my lessons with teachers I decided to work with because I felt, for me, that works better than… I think I already had that in school: that as soon as someone tells me to do something, I won’t. [Laughs.] So for me it worked better to choose teachers that I really trust. You’re a great teacher and I like what you say and what you think––and how you treat me––and then I love to learn, and I love to continue learning and experiencing new stuff. So I think that’s really important. I did my first movie when I was 14; I did my second when I was 17. I was like “Okay, I really want to learn how that is––how film acting works.” Because I think there’s so many techniques and methods that can help you so much, and being in a protected, I call it, “exercising room” is so different than being on a film set. It’s such a different challenge. Acting is one thing––you can learn––but you have to learn how to come along on set. Because there’s so many people, pressure, noise, you don’t know the room––whatever. So much to take care of.
So I would say it helps so much to learn, and learn, and learn. Actually it’s just different from every shoot, how the directors want you to get involved. Sometimes I get scripts which are not ready and they ask you to come to a reading and talk about the script. I’m like “Well, of course we can do that, but that’s not really my job, to help you develop the script. I want to have the good script and then we can talk about characters and what it is about. But it’s not my job to help you create the story.” Then there are directors who just want you to do what they want. Some are really open and say, “Just give it a try and we’ll just see what we can do from there.”
With Christian, from the first moment I felt like he puts a lot of trust in the people he chooses to work with. So the first time we met it was just a chat and to meet; I didn’t have a script and a scene, so we just got to know each other and chat. The casting director was with us and said, “Christian, maybe at one point you want to talk about the movie” and he was like, “Sure, sure, sure.” Then he was talking about Transit and his idea for the movie, and in the end he said, “I’d like to send you the script, and if you like it think about it, but in the end I’d like you to play Marie.” That’s really cool, because often in the movie industry it feels like you have to prove you can just do certain things.
I just like that about Christian and his way of working: he’s like, “I know you can do that. I know you can scream and cry. I feel, right now in our conversation, that you can talk. So you don’t have to show me before.” Working with him is really on the same level. I don’t know if that feels like that for every actor working with Christian, but for me it does. Maybe it’s about our connection, but we really respect each other. But it’s not this [Valley Girl Voice] “Oh my God, I’m working with Christian Petzold. It’s an honor.” I really like his work, I respect him as a person, and if I don’t like the lines I can go “Christian, can we change it? It doesn’t work.” It’s really… just really cool.
Some of the only biographical information I found is that you have background as a dancer.
Well, I started in the school from when I was 8. We had a theater workshop after school and I went there because my two best friends went there; I followed them because otherwise I don’t have my best friends around me. We were doing dancing in the theater, so that was my first time being onstage––because we got invited to a theater festival. Being on a real stage in a real theater was like “Okay, this is really cool.” Because of that experience I wanted to continue acting, and I got into a revue theater with a kids ensemble where you get an acting-dancing education. Dancing classes from time to time, when I’m able to take them. So I wouldn’t say I have a dancing background, but I’m familiar to moving. [Laughs.]
So it hasn’t influenced you as an actor.
Well, it did, in a way. Because I think for me, personally, it just wasn’t important to allow my body to move and not be too controlled. “This now feels really weird and way too intense.” I think dance allowed me to free myself for a bit from taking space.
You said that much of Undine’s dialogue had been removed when you realized it wasn’t needed. But Afire is pretty verbose, built on verbal exchanges. Can you identify points that were built on suddenly switching gears? Does this feel like a film made of those moments?
Well, I think that’s really fascinating about Christian and I thought that doing Undine as well––because it’s true that we removed a lot of lines during the shooting. And I like what Christian says about his scripts: “This is the document we’ll all get together with. But it’s my idea of thinking of the moment. But in the end, if two pages can be set with one look, that’s totally fine.” And I think that’s really fascinating for someone who writes his own scripts––to be so open during shooting. Not to be like, “This line is really good and we have to say it.” But to be like, “You’re absolutely right. Why don’t we just kick it off.” So that amazed me, being like “Wow, he’s really confident about making decisions.” And during the shooting of Afire… we probably had lots of moments where we changed things, but I don’t really remember because now I see the change and I don’t remember it before.
But like what I said: it’s always like that with Christian. He wants to make people feel safe. That’s why he has the scene, and then he creates the secondary––“I have the idea of how we do it”––but if you’re like, “I thought maybe we could do it like this” and he has a look at it, he’s like, “Perfect. We’ll do it like this.” He’s not forcing you into something. All his movies are really about not pushing it somewhere where the moment isn’t. If it doesn’t feel right for the moment I think he would rather not do it and adopt to the situation than force someone to do something they feel uncomfortable with, and then you have a scene that’s totally awkward because they’re not feeling it.
Because he gives so much trust to people, everything––that’s how I experience it––is really at ease. “Okay, I can allow that things happen during rehearsals. But things or actions just happen naturally,” and then you take them for the scene. It’s not so controlled. Like, I think the scene where Leon is sitting on the bench and sleeping after Nadja offered him espresso, and then he’s sleeping on the bench and you see him before, like… how do you say it…
Rolling a cigarette.
Rolling a cigarette. And the paper just flies off. This just happened because it was super-windy and this wasn’t planned. Actually it’s a mistake for the scene because it’s not written, and normally you would do it again. But the paper flies away and Leon is so pissed off. But I think characters come to life by moments like this. Christian’s really smart about catching these moments.
There’s a sort of fleet-footed brevity to his work. Afire is one of his longer movies at 105 minutes.
I think what you’re saying alludes to this, but when we talked years ago I asked what his next movie would be. There was, probably, a misreporting it would be some X-rated sex romp; he actually told me it would involved “the sounds of sex.” And he also told a story about shooting a student film that involved the sound, behind a door, of two people having sex, which was so embarrassing everyone had to do some heavy drinking beforehand. He said that after reading Afire‘s script, actors––maybe you, for all I know––said, “This could be hard.”
People praise actors for bravery because they stand out in the cold to shoot a scene or whatever. But watching Afire, when we hear your character having sex through the wall, I’m thinking, “I know this is acting and all that, but… I’m not supposed to hear this!”
Since he said it had been embarrassing in the past––and supposedly someone here had trepidation––what was the experience for you?
When he told me about the movie, “But there are sex sounds involved.” I said, “I have no problem doing that.” He’s like, “But stop. We don’t talk about it now.” That was really funny. We had that day and if sex scenes are in the movie I’m like, “But why do you need them? Do you just want to show skin and sex, or is it really helping the characters?”
He said the same thing to me. He doesn’t like them.
Exactly. But what I like about these scenes is that you experience them by Leon. He’s so annoyed about it and gets so triggered. It’s super-awkward, these scenes, but it’s so hilarious because you see him struggling so much with the situation. On the other hand Felix is kind of enjoying it like, “What the fuck is going on?” While shooting… well, not shooting these scenes but recording these scenes I said, “If you just hear the sex then we have to talk about the sex. Like, how do Nadja and Devid have sex? And how do Devid and Felix have sex?” Christian was like, “But they start laughing and you really hate them because they’re having a good time and so at ease and can talk and laugh between.” I was like, “Okay, we can do it. It might be a bit weird at the beginning, but we know each other and we’re doing sex sounds, and now we’re done.” I think we were a good crew and Enno [Trebs] and I were like, “It’s actually the most natural thing to do and now it’s a job to do.”
Is there a certain response when you see the movie in a theater? I assume you’re not embarrassed––you’re an actor.
But I don’t know if it’s… 5% strange to be sitting in a room of people.
Not at all.
No, because it’s not Paula making sex sounds; it’s Nadja and Devid. So I’m like… [Shrugs] And in the end it could’ve been anyone doing these sounds and you wouldn’t know.
When I’ve spoken to Petzold he’s referred to loneliness as a tenet of his philosophy towards cinema. Two key ideas: “for me, cinema is: all people are lonely,” and that you need to know loneliness to make movies. Does that reflect your approach to acting? Or has it grown on you in working with him?
As an actor you’re alone a lot as well. If you’re shooting you’re going to places you don’t know, most of the time with people you don’t know––if you don’t have your, like, “team” following you. Which I don’t have. And preparing your character, I think, is quite similar to a screenwriter working over and over again these ideas and making it work. It’s really tough work, and I think most of the time spent on your own thinking about “Okay, but how do I get there?” You have people, maybe, you rehearse with, but in the end it’s you and all of your system trying to adopt to that character.
Having heard that now––about “you have to know loneliness”––I think it has to grow a bit, the thought in me, but I think… because there are times I get asked in interviews, “What do you do when you’re not shooting? What do you do with your time?” And I always got really confused by that question––because what do you mean, “What am I doing with my time?” I’m living. Just because I’m not shooting doesn’t mean I’m not working––because unfortunately film acting does mean so much more things than shooting.
Then I was thinking about why people ask that question so often. I think it’s because most people don’t really know how to cope with free time. Like, if you have two weeks of holidays you know what you’re going to do––you’re waiting for these free weeks. But if you have a lot of free time––and sometimes this happens because you don’t get an offer for ten months or whatever––then you’re confronted with yourself and you know, “Okay, maybe I’m the only one I know now who’s not working. Maybe there are other people who aren’t working but I don’t know them.” And then you’re just confronted with yourself, and I think to be bored is kind of a bit like loneliness––you get to know yourself. You feel, in the end, “I have to deal with me and be okay with that.”
I think it’s maybe that which I understand from Christian saying you have to know what loneliness is to do a movie: maybe you just have to understand something about life and not about the shallow parts of them––how it looks from the outside––but to find truth about what it is to be a human being. In movies it’s not this composed, amazing world with a great arc. Life doesn’t have an arc; it’s more up, up, up, down, down, down, nothing happening.
You’re soon doing a film, Thirty Three, which is your first English-language performance.
Your English is great, better than most of my friends, but I’m curious to know if that means a unique approach to the material.
Maybe the other way around. I had to audition; Christian offers. I think I’m shooting very, very strictly what I want to work. Luckily I don’t have the situation that I have to earn this and that amount of money to… because I don’t have a family. I think my living standards are quite modest. So I don’t have this, “I need to do these five movies a year.” When I was younger and looking at careers for actors I like, it’s like, most of them don’t do so many movies a year. When I continued working I realized I am not able to do, I don’t know, seven movies a year. For me it’s too much fiction [Laughs] in a year. I mean, a movie takes so much time. I’m not a fan of double-working, having two characters at the same time.
Really, it’s a lot of work to get into this character, then out and into the other. I was deciding where I want to put my heart to and my soul and give all my energy to, and this is just––for Thirty Three––a character I loved from the first moment I read the script. I felt the same, like with Christian: they didn’t ask me to make a self-tape to show how good my English is. It was really about, “I saw your work and think you would bring something really interesting to the character.” I felt it’s a really interesting point to start talking about a project, and not be in this position of showing that I’m able to do that. So I think it’s more that I loved how they reached out for me. Plus I loved the script and the character and was like, “Wow. Amazing!”
Every time a foreign-language actor I admire––like yourself––veers into English-language projects there’s this kind of proprietary fear that emerges. “Well, they’re great here… but what if they get roped in by the wrong people and the movie’s bad and then…”
And it’s not a problem, personally, but… needless to say I hope for the best.
Aww, yeah. I really like the script and how we’ve talked about it so far. It’s true what you’ve said. Of course, me too: I would love to shoot a movie in America or England, but for me that’s not the goal. I’m looking for characters I’m interested in playing or I find something in them that really interests me or I want to work with that person because how they talk about their project really inspires me. And it’s not about seeing me in ten years––wanting to “be there.” I don’t have a career path. I just follow my heart and look for what interests me.
It’s not easy. In an industry like the movie industry––that’s so big––there are actors who can’t live from their work and actors who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it. The scale is huge. Like, what kind of movies do you want to do? Can you afford to say no to an offer? This reality of being an actor is so hard and so fast and there’s so many people working in movies. I think to find your own style of who you are, as a person, is difficult enough. And then to do that as an actor––to find your “acting voice,” maybe. I’m really lucky to have a great agent who just supports me from the very beginning just to follow my heart and not be like “Well, you have to do that because everyone’s doing that and you should go there and there and do this.” Well, if it doesn’t bring you joy, in the end it won’t help anyone––because then you don’t feel good. I’m lucky I have people supporting me in that way: trust that feeling and trust your gut.
Do you expect you and Petzold are reuniting? Has that been talked about?
It has been talked about. [Laughs.] I said to Christian, when we talked about Undine and Afire, “I really want to work with you again because I like working with you––I like your style. But I think we have to both say yes to the next project. It’s not just ‘we want to work together,’ but we have to agree on the character, on the script, and that it’s a full package. Not only that we want to work, because it could be bullshit in the end. But to find a new idea together.”
Do you see yourself getting involved from a screenwriting perspective?
Actually we were talking about––because he now is writing his next script––that as soon as he’s ready we’ll start talking about scenes, maybe, in a different way than we did before. Because it does interest me, and I don’t know where that could lead to but due to Christian and his work––how he sees movies––I’m more interested in how stories work. That’s the situation, for now, that I’m interested in.
Afire opens on Friday, July 14.