I’m very thankful for my career and I’m very curious to learn more about acting, but I can say that it’s not something that’s pleasant. It’s painful.
It’s so easy to see: acting is Franz Rogowski’s true calling. With one defiant role to the next, the chameleon is a butterfly from a chrysalis. What seemed unlikely in the beginning is now coming into view as important: the German is a superstar in the making, in the midst of a professional stretch so palpable it would send a lesser performer screaming into the night, probably.
In the past couple of years, Rogowski has gone from a virtual unknown—even in Germany—to the next big thing on the world cinema circuit. If there’s a constant with the 32-year-old, dancer-turned-actor’s still-infant career, it’s that fabled range inhabiting indelible characters.
Rogowski’s breakthrough arrived in 2013 with Jakob Lass’ Love Streaks—Germany’s first mumblecore movie—in which he portrays an inept and inarticulate masseur-in-training at a luxury hotel. In Sebastian Schipper’s one-take wonder Victoria, he is Boxer, a mute ex-con who lets his body do the talking. In Michael Haneke’s Happy End, he plays Isabelle Huppert’s angry, drunken son. Then there’s the sex-obsessed cruiser in Jan Henrik Stahlberg’s Bedbugs, the reality TV superhero in Daniel Wild’s Lux: Warrior of Light, the lovelorn supermarket shelf stocker in Thomas Stuber’s In the Aisles, and his latest, the refugee on the run in Christian Petzold’s Transit. Each version of Rogowski is about as far away as you can get from the previous Rogowski, living up to every creators’ exacting standards, and he’s still filled with so much untapped possibility.
When Anthem meets Rogowski, he’s ensconced in a darkened, airy holding area inside the Lincoln Center on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. The room is save for a super rare, super giant Polaroid camera that’s been capturing the portraits of all the talent at the New York Film Festival, including the likes Emma Stone, Alfonso Cuarón, and Barry Jenkins. It’s a useful lens through which to consider Rogowski’s career. From afar, his acting resume can seem unpredictable to the point of being haphazard. His career consists of doing things that make a full-barrel bid to him becoming a broadly appealing star and also of him moving on to learning the next, harder trick.
Next up for Rogowski is Terrence Malick’s Radegund, starring alongside Matthias Schoenaerts.
The 56th New York Film Festival ran from September 28 to October 14.
You’ve been having quite the year. Is it a lot to absorb the attention? Are you doing okay?
I’m doing okay with that stuff. Obviously, that’s not me what you see on the screen. It’s important to separate my private life from all the projections. I’m very thankful. I’m also prepared because I started as a teenager wondering, “What should I do?” It could’ve been anything, as long as it wasn’t where I’m just sitting and studying books. I started to do theater and then I turned out to be a dancer—a contemporary dancer. Then I wanted to talk, but they didn’t allow me to talk because I should dance in the background. Then I started to do movies. In between, I was a street musician. So I feel prepared because it was a long and steady process. It was not like, all of a sudden, people projected on me. I’m thankful that I had this long, continuous journey towards today.
Learning about your early school days, it appears to me that it was stifling for you. You were thinking outside the box already. You didn’t want to memorize facts and regurgitate them.
I don’t know how it is here, but in Germany, at least 20 years ago, school would teach you to function. A problem would have an answer. In the creative world, I learned that a problem doesn’t have one answer—it doesn’t even need an answer. The problem is the opportunity and there are different options to deal with it. There are different possible answers. It’s the way of thinking that the school taught me that made me depressed: that you have to sit down, be quiet. Here—I would probably get Ritalin for ADHD. That’s probably what they would diagnose. It’s just not natural to sit all day long when you’re a teenager and learn all that stuff. That’s why I turned into an actor.
Having your dance and street performance backgrounds, is the physicality what you normally start with in your approach to roles? Or is it always different?
It’s always very different in the approach. Also, you don’t do it all on your own. It’s a collective, collaborative work where the costumes and your acting, and also the dialogue and the script where you create this illusion—the world that you can live in for like two hours—comes together. I must say, I don’t really have a method. Every time, I have to start from zero again. That is my method.
I’m curious to know what you and Christian [Petzold] talked about at the beginning of Transit. What was the core thing that you both wanted to explore and communicate?
On an intellectual level, I told him that I really loved this combination of today’s Marseilles and figures lost in time that arrive there, and them having to deal with the situation that combines German history and Europe’s current situation. On the level of being an actor, I cannot play a refugee because I was never a refugee. I cannot embody this. That would be wrong. I can be this person and we can create this story together. I will be a refugee in this movie that we do, but I cannot represent the refugee. I mean, we’re on the same page here—it’s not possible to pretend that we know what it is to be a refugee. I really love that Georg is not really too emotional about the war. He’s a drifter. He doesn’t need a home. He doesn’t really have a profession. He would love to be an audio technician. It’s a coming-of-age movie. It shows a guy growing up. That’s what I told him in the beginning: “I can’t play a refugee. I don’t know what a refugee is.”
You’ve played such a wide variety of characters. It’s almost like a bet to see how different you can go from one thing to the next. Is that important to you when you’re choosing projects?
It’s really important to me. I think a lot of amazing actors out there are curating their opportunities. I think it’s very essential if you want to make a statement. If you want to have some kind of authorship, you have to choose the right movies because, as an actor, you don’t really have the authorship. You’re part of a story and a project that someone else created. Of course, you bring your acting skills and there’s a lot of stuff about acting that is not easy. To be able to do it that, you have to be open-minded and then you can embody someone’s vision. It’s not yours, but you make it yours. All of this, of course, is also connected to authorship, but I think choosing the right movies is something that I always try to do. I fail often, but I try to be as good as I can in my selections.
We’re also driven by our curiosities. What did you learn on Transit about, well, anything?
Christian is an amazing pétanque player. Mersailles is like the capital of pétanque—the world championship is there. So he taught me pétanque and he’s really badass there. That’s something I learned from him. We’re still doing it in Berlin. I also got into a fight once. There were two guys fighting. Some parts of Mersailles can be pretty rough. There were two guys fighting and we were playing pétanque in that very moment. I felt really good because I was about to win and I saw this fight and I went there. I talked to this one guy: “You don’t have to do this!” Of course, he put me in a headlock. My nose almost cracked. I heard a really weird sound and I just moved my nose back into place. Then we finished pétanque. So I learned that, even though I’m playing this refugee and I sometimes feel strong, I might not be that prepared for a street fight in Mersailles.
Some things struck me from your previous interviews: You’re not a big reflector because “things come and go,” as you say. You likened what you do to a “donkey chasing a carrot.”
I’m definitely looking at the larger picture also. Let’s imagine a garden and there are carrots and sometimes I put this carrot in front of my head. But there’s also lettuce. I guide the vegetables. So I’m not like a passive donkey that has to follow a carrot. I would say that I’m aware of being a donkey and I found a way to move the carrot in the direction that I want to move in.
I want to ask you about the Terrence Malick movie that you have coming up. In that instance, is it a lot about the director? You want to have that experience, right?
Sometimes you get all the details. But especially on American productions, they tend to not give you any information besides the director before you’re really a part of the project. Then you just go for the name. Terrence Malick for me is a name that inspires me. He’s done some amazing movies. So I went for this project not knowing a lot about it. I just knew that I would be a guy on the way of the main character and then I actually found myself being cast as the main character, and then in the end I was just a friend of August [Diehl] who plays the main character. My goal was just to experience Terry on set and how he works. It’s a great experience to work with him. He’s very process orientated. He’s very open-minded, spontaneous, and an improviser on set. He will just whisper something into your ear. He allows himself to be surprised by the ray of light that comes through a window and you just move to there to improvise something. It’s all very natural.
You’ve said he creates spaces, not scenes. Then someone like Michael Haneke, for example, edits his movie in a week. We so often hear about their genius. Do you have a working process that’s most comfortable to you as an actor? How much do you have to adapt in the end?
I think it depends a bit on the project. A good project normally chooses an approach that makes sense in relation to the project’s idea. Sometimes it just makes sense to have a feature film that’s actually more a documentary, like the improvisation of a moment in Victoria, for example. Then if you take Haneke—I mean, he did the movie already before the shooting. It’s already done in his head and on set we just have to understand his vision. We have to come as close as possible. It would be a nightmare if Haneke would have to improvise. He would never do that. It would be a nightmare for him. It’s like van Gogh collaborating and improvising on colors—no way. So I see my work as adapting and also developing more skills while being challenged.
Victoria is quite the proposition: a one-take movie. Do you bask in the adrenaline of trying that out or are you more wondering, “Do I really want to put myself through this?”
It’s always like, “I don’t want to do that.” It’s not something that I really wanna do. Now I’m an actor and I’m very thankful for my career and I’m very curious to learn more about acting, but I can say that it’s not something that’s pleasant. It’s painful. In between movies, I really don’t want to have anything to do with acting. I would never act in my living room. Just to feel good, I would go bouldering or into nature with friends. Definitely not acting.
You once said: “Acting is a ridiculous profession.”
That’s The New York Times piece?
When I read it, I thought it was a bit too—
A big gesture?
It was almost negative.
No, I understood what you were saying. The tone can be a bit weird in print.
It’s more connected to authorship, about feeling empty and so overloaded with meaning at the same time. It’s about longing for more authorship in terms of finding a form for something and less having to embody it. I know myself: I need to struggle and have friction, and I accept that. I accept that being an actor is painful and I’m thankful that I’m allowed to act.
Would you feel worried if you made a movie and you felt very safe and it was easy to do?
No, no, no. It’s like a marriage. When you work with a director, you’re so close. You didn’t know each other before, but then you work with each other every day, all day. Normally after one or two weeks where you’re still a bit insecure, you become really good friends—you’re not just pretending to be. You find a language together. You find a trust that goes beyond words. You’re just looking at each other and trying things. You create spaces for each other and also protect each other from bad acting, from bad directing. This is what I’m living for. It’s beautiful to find a form for something that you cannot really describe. For me, that’s art. That’s the reason why I’m doing this.
Trust is obviously at the heart of it. But then you hear about directors who manipulate actors to get what they need. That must complicate the relationship.
No, it’s okay. If Kubrick would call me, which would never happen because he’s not alive—he was famous for this. If I had worked with him, I would know that before and I would accept that. Working with Haneke means being prepared for 40 takes, and I did 40 takes and I felt like shit. Then I saw Isabelle Huppert having to do 43 takes and I felt relieved. [Laughs] Again, we’re all cooking with water. That’s something great about acting: no matter how famous you are, there’s no trick. I see Tilda Swinton there on the wall and, probably, acting with her would just mean that you just have to act less, pretend less, because she’s good. But that’s it. It’s cooking with water.
I met Haneke over the summer in Austria. I would love to get your impression on something he said: “When I watch my own movies, I only see the mistakes. I think every real artist has this problem. If you enjoy your own things, you must be crazy.”
[Franz claps with amusement.] I completely agree with that. I think I can also sometimes feel happy about what I did, but most of the time, I’m not happy with it and I can’t even understand how people can enjoy what I’m doing.
Does it take multiple viewings of something you did to see the movie as a whole?
Yeah. First time you only look at yourself. Second time, less. Then you see the form they found.
I always wonder what happens to an actor when they’re chosen as one of the Shooting Stars at Berlinale, for example. What did you see happening to you in terms of prospects?
I think it’s a constantly changing environment. I mean, I have an agent now in New York. Two years ago, that would’ve been impossible. I met with an amazing casting agent today who did the casting for Good Time. These people are living in close circles, as I do and as you do. Sometimes these circles overlap. The fact that I can live in this Venn Diagram is great. It’s very inspiring.
Since you bring it up, did you enjoy Good Time?
The thing is, I haven’t seen it, but a lot of good friends of mine love the Safdie brothers. It’s one of the movies that I have to see. You saw it?
I did. I love Heaven Knows What also. No one could make these movies but them.
I would love to work with them.
You must. Now it’s out there in the universe. What stuff are you reading now?
It’s mostly European arthouse, but that’s starting to change. The international projects are now part of my reality. I just read scripts. I just try to find good scripts and interesting visions. It doesn’t really matter if it’s the next Marvel movie or if it’s a little arthouse movie that will never make it to another country. I really just want to find interesting material to work with.