Don't copy anyone. Technique is wonderful and necessary, but don't copy. Find your own way. It always works.
Our trip to Munich happened to coincide with this year’s Filmschoolfest, and curious to meet a new crop of filmmaking talent from around the world and feed the nostalgia of our own film school days, we decided to check it out. The facts: Since its inception in 1981, Filmschoolfest has fast become an important launchpad for young filmmakers. Each year, approximately 50 gifted students and their mentors are invited to attend, enter into discussion, and network with their contemporaries. You might recognize some of Filmschoolfest’s heavy weight alumni in their eclectic “Wall of Fame” like Lars von Trier (his first-ever festival acceptance), Lone Scherfig, Susanne Bier, Michael Caton-Jones, Nick Park, David Yates, Ursula Meier, and Asif Kapadia.
In this edition of This Course, acclaimed Danish actor Thure Lindhardt takes us behind-the-scenes at Filmschoolfest as one one its five jury members. The goal of this ongoing series of food and talk is to keep things transparent. It’s an open dialogue, in this instance over lunch at Prinz Myshkin, where we discuss a myriad of things including Lindhardt’s approach to his craft, career trophies, and the importance of nurturing young talent. Perhaps best known Stateside for his roles in Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons, Ira Sachs’ Keep the Lights On and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, the Independent Spirit Award nominee has several films on deck including Despite the Falling Snow with Rebecca Ferguson, German sci-fi actioner Kill Command, and I Want To Be Like You.
Be sure to catch Lindhardt on the Danish/Swedish crime series The Bridge, now in its third season.
How did you get involved with serving on the Filmschoolfest jury this year?
I served on a jury maybe three or four years ago at a film festival in France. The woman who organized that festival asked me if I would be interested in serving on the Filmschoolfest jury last year, but I couldn’t do it because I was shooting. They asked me again this year. I hadn’t heard about the festival to be honest—I went to drama school, not film school. I knew about Filmfest München, the big one that happens in the summer. In a way, I thought Filmschoolfest was much more interesting because it’s around 50 short films that are 5 to 35 minutes in length. Second of all, it’s a young generation of students and that interests me very much. How do young people see the world today? It was pretty clear that I would love to do it. It makes so much sense when you’re in the business yourself. You work, work, work all the time and sometimes it’s nice to step outside and watch from the other side. You get a whole new perspective on filmmaking.
What’s been your overall impression of the films so far?
It’s obvious there’s so much talent out there. It’s obvious what’s going on in the world at the moment because it comes out in the films being made by students. There were so many films about refugees, war, and loneliness—very, very serious films. That was both interesting and a little worrying. Art should definitely reflect the world as it is now, holding it up like a mirror, but if that’s true, [the world] is really depressing. There was one program yesterday morning with three or four films in a row about hope, love, and people actually winning in life—”Thank god!”
What’s the jurying process like? Are you guys constantly deliberating and sharing dialogue?
Constantly, yeah. First of all, there’s a lot of note-taking. Some of the screenings were just us and other ones we saw with the audience. Of course we’re five different voices, but… I mean, I’m really ambivalent about awards. In some ways I really hate it because it’s ridiculous to think there’s a “best movie”—what is that? On the other hand, I love getting awards myself. [Laughs]
Do you remember what you said in our last conversation? We were talking about exactly this and you said you wanted not one, but two Oscars. Zachary [Booth] said you were really greedy and you had enough awards. This was clearly a joke. Or maybe not.
[Laughs] Well, I haven’t changed my mind. He deserves two as well. Those things are very good for the ego, but maybe it’s not the best for the world community because we should all be equal.
What I’m basically trying to say is that we’re five different voices and it’s very interesting because when you start discussing films with other people, it’s just so obvious how subjective it is. In a way, you can’t discuss art. You can express how you feel about art, but you cannot discuss it because if you feel something about this and the other person doesn’t feel anything, what’s there to discuss? Should I try to convince you that it touched you? No. That’s your experience.
So how do you overcome that kind of subjectivity when you’re on a jury?
Luckily, we’re very harmonious. We all pretty much share the same taste. In the end, when you’ve been talking about all the movies, you just simply vote for your first, second, and third choices. Nobody’s cried—yet. I think it was pretty clear what we were looking for going into the festival, before seeing the films: What are we actually looking for? Who should get the awards?
For the students at the festival, it’s undoubtedly a big deal for them to win because it’s such an important launchpad to hold that kind of title when you’re starting out especially. Is that a source of pressure for you, being one of the few people making that call?
No. To me, getting accepted to the festival is a big step for them. You feel that when you hear them talk and watch them. You can see that it’s a big thing for them to be here. That in itself is enough. So no, I don’t feel a big pressure. But I definitely do feel a responsibility to see behind what maybe looks like “the best script,” “the best film,” or “the best cinematography.” It’s not just “the best” we’re looking for, it’s also about digging deeper to find what has the most potential. That’s something we can definitely do. We can encourage people to believe in themselves. It’s, “Hey, we see the potential in you. You’re on the right track. Your movie is still shit, but…” [Laughs] We know about those one-hit wonders. Those normally aren’t the ones that last forever.
Not to be vulgar with all this awards talk, but you received the Shooting Stars Award at Berlin in 2000. Then you served on that awards jury in 2012. What was that like?
That’s right! I forgot about that. Good thing you did your research. See—that felt like a huge responsibility, maybe because it was for actors and, of course, I feel closer to actors than anyone else. I see more of myself in actors than I do in directors, for example.
Antonia Campbell-Hughes won that year. Did you guys shoot 3096 Days together before or after she received that award?
After. That was interesting. I also worked with Ana Ularu, another Shooting Star from that year.
So these awards do make a difference.
They do make a difference—to me as well. When I was awarded the Shooting Star at Berlin, since I also speak German, suddenly there was an opening to the German market for me. I think this is especially true for European actors because we don’t really have the star system like in the States. It’s not as crazy. I think creating that buzz, creating that attention, is quite good.
What happened after you received the Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead in Keep the Lights On Stateside?
First of all, I was extremely proud. I was up against some very, very big actors [Matthew McConaughey, John Hawkes, Bradley Cooper]. It was like a dream. I couldn’t really process it. I was like, “Wha— What?” [Laughs] Of course it made a change in the way that my American agent really started to send me out to dinner invitations and start pushing a little more. In that way, of course it meant something. I definitely feel the change, the difference, Stateside when I have a meeting with a casting director, a producer or something.
It gives you a lot of clout, certainly.
Definitely, of course. I guess that’s what awards and nominations do, right? They make you visible.
You really push the boundaries with your roles and in your choice of films. There’s been a lot of provocative and some controversial roles in your filmography. Is that the thrill for you as an actor? Do you ever step back and think, “I probably shouldn’t do this one”?
I have to keep working for that Oscar. [Laughs]
It’s not if but when, Thure.
It’s important to push boundaries, but those boundaries can also be about appearing in Fast & Furious 6 because that’s my own boundaries. It’s not necessarily about provoking people. I think when you work with art the most dangerous thing that can happen is when you get stuck and start repeating yourself. You have to stay open and flexible in your mind and body. If something provokes me, it can be that I laugh or cry, or walk around saying I’m not going to play that for two days before wondering, why not play it? There’s something there. I remember having this conversation with Ira [Sachs] on Keep the Lights On because there were these sex scenes that were very explicit in the script. I wanted to act, but I didn’t want to do everything that was written down. He said, “No, no, no. We’re not going to do all of that. I just want everyone to be clear about what kind of story we’re telling—the producers and everyone involved.” So he was pushing the boundaries to create a safe environment before shooting the film. I felt very safe.
What about 3096 Days? That must’ve been a difficult decision to make.
That was one of the most difficult decisions to make. I spent the most time on that worrying whether I should do it. How can you defend this character? How do you defend a man who takes a little girl and keeps her in a basement for eight years? Why should that be shown? I intuitively knew it was such a dark place to go, even though I’m not method in the way where you start doing heroin to play a junkie. I don’t rape little girls because I have to play a rapist. Yet, it still affects you and you know it will affect you. When you take on a part like that, you know because it’s inevitable. When you play a big role like Hamlet in theater, that will affect you.
Is it ever a concern that audiences might remember you, associate you too strongly, with such a heinous character more so than other characters you’ve taken on?
No. I’ve never really thought about it, actually. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it. I mean, the people that I meet and people I talk to will always come up and say something about this or that part, but they will never… I don’t know.
One can only hope most of us are smart enough to separate characters from actors.
“We hate you, so we’re going to kill you!” [Laughs] Early in my career, I did a play back in Denmark when nobody knew who I was at the time, and I got letters from some very, very dark people who thought I was the character. That was not very nice.
I find those people way scarier than any character you could ever play.
No, no, me too! There are people who kind of get obsessed with the character you play and they maybe fall in love with that character, and think that you are that character. I’ve had that happen. I had this woman writing me for years. She left her husband and three children and I’m like, “I don’t think it’s me you’re in love with.” But there was nothing I could do.
Yikes… How did she even get to you? Did she send letters to your house?
Well, I used to be on Facebook. I’m not anymore. I quit! I quit smoking and Facebook. Now I just drink and do drugs. [Laughs] I mean, they can’t really get to me privately now.
When you’ve officially signed onto a project and in the middle of shooting something, do you usually know how it will turn out? If it will be good or not?
I would say after… Yeah—you always have a sense of it. But everyone’s going to have their own intuitive take on it. It’s very seldom that you’re on sets that are really terrible with a terrible director where everything is terrible, and have the movie turn out amazing. I can’t really recall. I’ve heard other actors say that’s happened to them, but I haven’t really experienced it. I’ve had that in theater once where I really didn’t agree with the director and the production, but it turned out very well. I think you always have some kind of feeling. Unfortunately, I don’t have that feeling before I say, “Yes.” If I had that, life would be much easier. Having a good, harmonious working environment and relationships all your life? That would be wonderful!
There’s no formula. Is there a formula to anything you do as an actor? How do you juggle theater and film work, for instance?
When I do the one, I miss the other.
That’s a really common answer.
Is it? I’m so sorry.
Oh no! That’s not to undermine your answer. That’s what actors admit to it being, from my experience. I keep asking, thinking someone might say differently, but no.
The base of it is the same, right? It’s about communication. It’s people interacting with each other, so it basically comes from the same place. It comes from the place of wanting to tell stories, which we’ve been doing for thousands of years. The difference is that, in movies, you can get so close and it’s thought-based. In theater, you have that audience and you feel like the conductor. It’s two and half hours with 500 people in the audience. If you happen to be the lead in the play, you’re conducting the whole evening and… I actually love theater. [Laughs] I really love it.
There must be a joy onstage, being able to play a character in a narrative from beginning to end without having to chop it up so much, no? In film, you’re also most likely shooting things out of sequence and spreading it over the course of days, weeks, and months.
I actually like that process. I find that really interesting. I like sitting at home with my lists, my curves and knowing that, “My mood was like that there, so I can’t cry here. If I cry there, I’m going to ruin the big release at the end.” You sit at home alone and with the director, and you really go through it. There’s so much analysis, calculations and thought that goes into it before you go on set. You can’t think too much when you start filming. It’s anarchistic and wonderful.
You were just 12 when you appeared in your first film so you were obviously already doing it, but what memories do you have from your drama school days?
When I was 12, it was just fun and I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m one of those actors who keep studying, even though I’m 40 now. I also teach. I hope I’ll keep doing that. First of all, going to theater school was really difficult and very lonely, but it was also very important because it was four years paid by the government in Denmark, like many other places in Europe. It’s so spoiled, but you don’t think about how spoiled you were. So you get four years where you can concentrate on just that one thing, getting better and practicing. It’s incredible that even exists. With that said, it wasn’t until about ten years after I was done with school I could call myself an actor.
Did you ever act in student films?
I used to do it a lot when I was younger. I haven’t done it in a while because I’m so busy, but it’s not like I won’t do it again. I see it as a duty. I think you should do it as an actor. Wait—I just did a film school project. I did something at the National Film School of Denmark in the spring, but that was just for two days. It was with a younger director and he made this fun little film. It was just as much a way of saying, “Listen. If you want to go out there and work with actors, you should at least try and work with experienced actors as well because those are the ones you’re going to direct later on.” I think you need to do it—for them, more than for yourself. And what do I get out of it? I think it’s fun. Maybe he or she will become the next Lars von Trier.
Which is exactly what happened with Lars von Trier at Filmschoolfest.
You never know! I was lucky to meet actors when I was young who helped me and believed in me. If it hadn’t been for them, I would’ve never known that I could do it. That’s why I hate old actors who don’t want to give anything back. Egos. Narcissistic egos.
You have Despite the Falling Snow on the horizon. It’s interesting that Shamim Sarif wrote the novel, penned the adapted screenplay, and directed the film. That’s uncommon.
It’s not common at all. She’s a very special artist. She was so much into the story and the process of creating the film. The thing is that, even though she wrote it, directed it and wrote the book, she wasn’t fixed in her ideas as to say, “Okay. Do this.” She trusted that you would play the part in the way you felt was truthful, which is what the best directors ask of their actors. They tell you what they want, but trust that you will find your own truth in it. Otherwise, it won’t make sense.
I would trust her so much simply knowing that she lives the material inside-out. For an actor, there wouldn’t be a question that she couldn’t answer.
That’s exactly right. I would ask her about Russia in the 1950s and she would have so much to say. I felt very safe with her. In theater, I’ve worked with writers who also direct a few times and I think it’s wonderful. If they can let go of their own ego, then it’s absolutely wonderful.
Do you have any desire to write your own stuff?
Like all actors, yes. [Laughs] I think it’s a natural progression. Acting is a wonderful craft, but there comes a time when you want to start creating something yourself. I’m writing at the moment. I’m writing something with my screenwriting partner, so we’ll see what happens.
What’s a valuable advice you were given that you impart on your own students?
Don’t copy anyone. Technique is wonderful and necessary, but don’t copy. Find your own way. It always works. Whenever I try to copy somebody and figure it out that way, it doesn’t work.