This is what I really, really desperately wanted to do as a kid.
Photography by David Reiss
Styling by Catherine Schmid
Grooming by Shukeel Murtaza
An anomaly among franchises of this kind, Army of Thieves, the prequel to Zack Snyder’s Netflix hit Army of the Dead, is a clever diversion in tone. Pivoting from its predecessor—a mostly serious and violent romp through a zombie-infested Las Vegas, with a number of teases about even crazier elements such as aliens and potential time-loops—the new entry works as a heist comedy. And that it’s successful in the tonal shift is to Matthias Schweighöfer’s credit. He not only reprises his role as fan-favorite, German safe-cracker Dieter, he takes the reins as director this go-around.
Army of Thieves is Dieter’s origin story, set six years prior to the events depicted in Army of the Dead. The onset of the same zombie outbreak has led to disruptions in financial institutions around the world and a mysterious woman, Gwendoline (Nathalie Emmanuel), recruits Dieter from his boring day job as a small-town bank teller to join her motley crew of Interpol’s most wanted criminals: hacker Korina (Ruby O. Fee), “real-life action hero” Brad (Stuart Martin), and getaway driver Rolph (Guz Khan). Together, they will break into a sequence of fabled, impossible-to-crack vaults across Europe known as the Ring Cycle: the Rheingold, the Valkyrie, and the Siegfried.
Army of Thieves broadens the scope of Snyder’s Army of the Dead universe, all the while staying true to its vision as a standalone movie. A sequel to Army of the Dead is on the way, as well as Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas, an animated series about the early days of the zombie apocalypse.
Anthem connected with Martin, one of the franchise’s new players, to discuss his involvement while the actor is stationed in Belgrade filming the second season of Miss Scarlet and the Duke.
Army of Thieves will premiere on Netflix on October 29.
[Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and to omit any spoilers.]
Army of Thieves is a lot of fun, isn’t it? I loved the ensemble.
I love it. I loved the script and then I loved the ensemble. Everyone’s got their very defined roles. It’s like the films that we sort of grew up loving. And Matthias [Schweighöfer] is hilarious. I loved him in the first film [Army of the Dead] and he’s even better in this one. Every time he does that high-pitched scream, it really makes me laugh. [laughs]
To echo what [producer] Deborah Snyder has said, I can’t recall another prequel where the genre is switched up like this. Army of Thieves is being marketed as a “heist romantic comedy.” The zombie outbreak is still very much there, but it’s no longer in the foreground.
How did it read on the page where genre is concerned? It definitely has its own flavor to it.
That was one of the things that massively drew me to it. I love origin stories. The first in a series of films is the one I’m really attached to because I get to see the journey of how someone starts out and grows into the role we then know them as. When I was contacted about Army of Thieves, I hadn’t seen Army of the Dead yet. It was just gonna be this Zack Snyder universe and that for me was like, “What? He’s one of my heroes!” When I looked at the script, it had the romantic comedy stuff, but it read as a heist film. When I came to learn more about Army of the Dead and saw an early showing of it, it was so different genre-wise. That just really excited me. I think it’s so cool that you can do these totally different genres within the same universe. You can explore the positives or the real strengths of each character within their own genres. That is such a cool, exciting way to expand. I think it really works. I even watched Army of the Dead again and you get all these little bits having watched the prequel. You can watch them out of order.
I wonder if Zack had this particular prequel idea in mind already prior to the success of Army of the Dead. From what I’ve read, he wanted a franchise out of this at the very least.
My understanding of it was that, as the rushes were coming back, Netflix was like, “These characters are great!” They loved Matthias’ character. And the way Zack’s mind is, he’s like, “So this is how we expand.” It’s like any time you make a film and start to think about how to expand it moving forward, how to do sequels. With Matthias’ character, it’s like, “We obviously do a prequel because of what happens in Army of the Dead.” Watching that movie again, I realized it hadn’t quite hit me how much of Army of Thieves is actually spoken about with these safes. They had really created that whole world already. Now they’ve got the chance to expand those universes further: sequels to this film and sequels to Army of the Dead. It’s exciting to think about how they might continue to intertwine and cross over into each other.
What was it like working with Matthias, who’s on both sides of the camera? He is not only steering the ship—he is in the trenches with you guys as part of this ensemble.
He’s an absolute machine. He’s an excitable, passionate, brilliant machine leading the thing. At the same time, as actors, you’re going, “This is your part in front of the camera.” He’s got masses of dialogue and speeches in a language that isn’t his first, although his English is brilliant. You’ve got your anxieties and stresses about that so he’s doing that plus directing the film, creating everything about it. Plus, he’s doing this in the middle of a lockdown. We shot it in Prague in lockdown. It was the second lockdown—a heavy lockdown, actually. It was in this weird place where London had just sort of come out and all your friends and family are going to restaurants. And you’re like, “Yeah, okay then.” [laughs] You’re sat in a room when you’re not filming. It’s such a funny thing to think back to now. We’re still there a little bit with filmmaking, but even when they opened up Prague, you would be walking by restaurants knowing that you couldn’t go and sit in a bar and grab a beer. This was for three months. So we just walked about the city. On Saturdays or Sundays, we had this group, the hiking group. Matthias would be like, “Right. 9 a.m. or half seven before breakfast, meet outside the hotel.” We would just go for these long walks around Prague and up the hills and all that. Matthias was such an amazing, incredible captain of that ship. He’s so passionate and excited about filmmaking, and about what he gets from actors. We did three weeks prep, which was loads of action training, gun training, and fight and stunt training. Also, we had time in the afternoons so every day we would do these hour-long improvs with the team, which isn’t something you’d ever do on a film like this. But we treated it like it was an independent feature—a big emotional piece. We just really got into the characters and got to do all this amazing character work. Luckily, we all had the same passion: we wanted to make these characters real and see them living in this world. Matthias has become a really brilliant mate. He’s an incredible filmmaker and an incredible human. He’s a family man and we had that in common.
Did watching him wear multiple hats get you curious about doing that yourself one day?
I’ve sort of always wanted to, but I just don’t know that I would have the mental space for it, do you know what I mean? [laughs] I guess it’s like everything else: you start out small. You start with an idea, start with a short or something. But my goodness, Matthias is a machine. He saw over everything. He saw over everyone’s story. It just means that he’s got complete ownership of it. It’s an incredible thing. He became a bit of a mentor and I really look up to him in that respect. I’m sort of in awe of him—how he juggles it. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to. Maybe one day.
Let’s talk about Brad Cage, aka Alexis Broschini. This long-running obsession of his with Hollywood action heroes makes for a surprisingly rich backstory. It reveals a lot about him: his ambitions, how he sees himself, the vulnerability if he’s not living up to those standards, and disillusionment. What did you sink your teeth into most? What was this guy’s essence?
I think exactly what you’ve said. This idea sometimes gets written as: “He’s a tough guy. He’s rippling muscles.” And you just go, “God.” [laughs] That’s such a ’90s idea anyway and we’re sort of beyond that. Getting to play the tough guy is just so much fun because you get to do all that stuff. I grew up watching action sequences. But the brilliant thing about this role is that we get to see where he’s come from. He was a young kid who was bullied and that’s why he has created this whole image for himself. And it is kind of a joke, you know? We don’t take him too seriously. Everyone takes the piss out of him. It gives you such a brilliant thing to play versus just a hulking figure because you see the other side of it where he is vulnerable and a little bit sad. I love that other side of it, and the comedy of it. Also, I always love to find the character’s physicality. In the months leading up to it, I started to notice little things in the gym. I’d see a guy with a chain on and go, “Cool, that’s him.” You see somebody else with tattoos. You wonder what his hair is gonna be like. You start building. I’m quite visual so it really helps to get into it that way. Then you find the character’s voice by feeling it out. Matthias was the same. I met him in Prague the first day I arrived and I was like, “How do you see him?” He went, “He’s pumped, man. He’s pumped. He’s got veiny arms—veiny fucking forearms.” So the intention was to get there. I smashed it with Matthias’ German trainer, who’s an absolute tank. I just trained and trained and trained. That was fun. That’s when you feel like you’re in the role: “Now I see him. Now I can feel him.”
This is something that comes up in conversation often: When is it important that you like the character you’re playing? The likability factor. Is it ever important? Do you like Brad?
I think the truth is that you love the character while you’re playing them. You almost can’t have an opinion on them or think about whether everyone else is gonna like them. I suddenly thought the other day: “Oh god, will there be quite a backlash here?” Especially with Twitter and stuff like that, you think, “People are going to start hating on me, man.” [laughs] Because Matthias is so loved. He’s so lovable and I’m an asshole to him. But you can’t really think about that. I think I’ve loved all my characters. You have to love them. I really love him. You see why he does the things he does. In fact, that’s what it is: you’ve made a reason for why they’ve done everything. You have to justify it in a human way and you have to justify it in your own head. When your character does something, you might go, “Oof, that’s a bit tough.” But you also go, “Well, this is why they did it.” You work it out. You plot it all out. I’ve done so many characters where I go, “There we go. That’s how it works.” And then it’s not until people, friends and family, watch it and they go, “He’s a bit of asshole, is he not?” So, at the time, it makes total sense to me and I love him and stand by him.
And that’s obviously the way he’s scripted. If you’re hated on, you’ve done your job right.
That’s the hope. I mean, you want people to sort of jump back and forth on it, don’t you? That’s the real win: moving your feelings on a character from hating them to liking ‘em. But with Brad, yeah, you see the jealousy—you see it all. It’s not a cool look. But that’s the way he is. He’s built this up. It’s indestructible and impenetrable. And then Matthias comes in and fucks all that up.
Your character also really thrives in this narrative because it is so self-aware about movies.
We get this flashback to Brad’s younger self where he’s watching, I believe, Con Air.
It is Con Air. Nic Cage had the long hair. It’s so funny because you watch those films now and they were so like, “This is the hero and he’s got the long hair and the tank top.” Brad hasn’t moved on from that. He’s still modeling himself after those guys that he grew up with. The movie is so aware in that brilliant way. It’s so aware of the heist genre like, “This is how you do a heist film.” I think it’s a really smart script by the guys [Shay Hatten and Zack Snyder].
Did you have action heroes growing up?
Oh my god, I had them all. It’s funny—I was in a cinema here in Belgrade and it’s stuck in, I’d say 1999, with the same fucking posters on the wall that I’d seen at the Odeon in my hometown [Ayr, Scotland] when I was a kid going to the movies. It was the same stuff. I used to go in and ask for posters every Saturday and stick them all on my wall. Pierce Brosnan was my Bond growing up. Dougray Scott in Mission Impossible 2—that was a formative film that I had. I saw The Fast and the Furious in the cinema and was like, “What is this?” I mean, it was your Brad Pitts and all that. Troy. Gerard Butler in 300. Those were my sort of action guys.
What’s the story behind this Nixon mask? Because it was funny to me hearing “I’m not a crook” in my head, all the while you’re shooting up a bank and in such spectacular fashion.
The Nixon mask is from Point Break. So it’s another movie homage for Brad.
That seems like something he would do.
Yeah, he’s sort of stolen it from there. But what was brilliant was, the stunt coordinator was like, “Dude, man. It’s a shame you got the mask on. It could be anyone doing this.” [laughs] To be fair, this stunt guy did a lot of the action bits. He did an amazing job going through the window. There were like six sections to it and it was done over weeks, which was all cut together. But I got to do a lot of cool stuff as well. I did a lot of those fights. We got to do all of it, really. It was brilliant.
That level of action—was it familiar terrain for you?
I’ve been very lucky to get to do lots of stuff. But on that one, I was working with Matthew Rugetti, an amazing stunt coordinator who’s done loads of Zack’s stuff before. He body doubled for Gerard Butler on 300. He’s just an amazing guy, an amazing fighter and martial artist, and also a director. There’s a jump into the back of a moving car and that was so much fun to do. We both jump into the back of it together and he carries on filming. Those sorts of things I hadn’t done before where it’s like, “Woah, we’re going to try and get as much of this as a big one-shot.” He was on camera on those sections. We really worked together so you get into a little dance. I mean, it’s what you dream of doing when you’re a kid. You watch these films and these big action sequences. To get to work with that level of talent—the guys that are doing those big films are amazing—you feel like you’re in such safe hands. You sort of pinch yourself.
That has to be surreal. As you’ve said, you grew up watching and loving this stuff.
I feel very, very, very, very lucky. I just feel incredibly lucky to have got to do a film like that with Matthias, putting your genuine soul and passion into something that was a dream as a kid. It’s that sort of film, you know? This is what I really, really desperately wanted to do as a kid. Even if it all ends tomorrow, I can sort of go, “I got to do that with those people and I feel really proud of it.” So that’s kind of it for me. I’m out. I’m done. [laughs]
Actors talk about “the dream” a lot, which so often has to do with finding variety in your work, to never repeating yourself, and profound reinvention. Is that a dream that you have?
I think definitely. By the time you’ve done four months on something with a character, a hundred percent. When you’re reading the next things that are coming in, it is about what you’ve just done and what you’ve just finished. And audiences don’t always see them in the order you’ve done them because they don’t come out in that order. You finish on something modern like Army of Thieves and then go, “This other thing interests me next because it’s period.” There are different rules and different etiquettes for your character to go by. That’s where we are now. We’re back in Victorian London on the job I’m doing now [season two of Miss Scarlet and the Duke] and you totally switch it up. So yeah, I think a hundred percent. When you’re looking at what you want to do next, you want to start fresh. You want to go back to that thing of, “What’s his physicality? What’s his voice?” You want to see how you can make it different from the last time. That’s what keeps it really exciting. I’ve been lucky to have been able to go, “Right now, I’m going to do a modern Scottish thing set in Glasgow and then jump back to Victorian London wearing three-piece suits. And now it’s an American character.” That’s really fun. It’d be tricky if you were feeling like you were going into the same thing, the same character, even if it was in a different place.
Would you want to revisit Brad? I think there is great potential in exploring a spin-off.
I think there’s a real place to go with it. I wanna see what happens to that team, you know? There’s a lot more fun to be had with Brad. Since he was a kid, he was indestructible. Everything bounced off him. He could just run away from everything. He has never had to answer to anyone. And then it’s all brought home at the end that he is not indestructible and not the toughest guy. With that, you have a whole different Brad to look at—and a lot more comedy. So I’d love to. We’ll see how it goes when it’s released. It would be cool to see them heisting again.
If there’s any guarantee, you’re gonna get a lot of eyes on this. Netflix sort of promises that.
At least people can see it. There’s so much amazing content across so many amazing platforms. But what’s lovely about Netflix is, we just love it and everyone’s got it. If it’s worth watching, it will be watched. A few of my family have seen it and they just love it. My wife’s seen it. She’s very honest about things so I’m always watching her. She’s lovely, but you can tell when she’s just like, “Yeah! No! It was good!” [laughs] And she really loved it. I think it’s a really brilliant, fun film. Matthias is brilliant in it. I hope people will enjoy it. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.