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.
What seemed unlikely in the beginning—for all actors making their way up the unforgiving food chain—is now coming into view as imminent: Franz Rogowski is primed to explode. The 33-year-old German actor is a superstar in the making, in the midst of a potent artistic stretch that would send a lesser performer screaming into the night, probably. This guy has that fabled range.
Rogowski’s first 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’s 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: a refugee on the run in Christian Petzold’s inspired curio Transit. Each Rogowski is about as far away as you can get from the previous Rogowski and, still, he’s brimming with so much untapped possibility. The actor has several projects in the pipeline, including Radegund, Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated follow-up to 2017’s Song to Song.
When Anthem met up with the actor, he was tucked away in a large, darkened holding area at the Lincoln Center in New York City. We went in for a closer inspection.
Transit opens in New York City on March 1st and Los Angeles on March 8th.
You’ve been receiving a lot of attention this past year, not least that glowing profile in The New York Times. Is it a lot to absorb?
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. But 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 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.
Reading about your early school days, it sounds like it was stifling. You were already thinking outside the box.
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. It’s the way of thinking that 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.
Since you come from a dance and street performance background, do you consider the physicality of your characters first in your approach to roles?
It’s always very different in the approach. Also, you don’t do it all on your own. It’s a collective, collaborative work between the costumes and your acting and the dialogue and the script where this illusion comes together: the world that you can live in for like two hours. I must say, I don’t really have a method. Every time, I have to start from zero again. That is my method.
What did you and Christian [Petzold] talk about when you were embarking on Transit? What core thing did you both want to explore and communicate about this story?
On the intellectual level, I told him that I really loved this combination of today’s Marseilles and the figures lost in time who 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 can play a refugee, but I cannot represent the refugee because I was never one. I cannot embody this. That would be wrong. But we can create this story together. We were 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 [Rogowski’s character in the film] is not really too emotional about the war. He’s a drifter, so he doesn’t need a home. He doesn’t really have a profession, although 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 Christian in the beginning: “I can’t play a refugee. I don’t know what a refugee is.”
What did you learn about yourself while making Transit?
Christian is an amazing pétanque player. Mersailles is like the capital of pétanque—the world championship is there. He taught me pétanque and he’s really badass there. We’re still doing it in Berlin. I also got into a fight once. 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, but I saw this fight so I went over 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.
You’ve already played a wide range of characters. That must be calculated on your part.
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 authorship. You’re part of a story and a project that someone else created. Of course, you bring your acting skills, but there’s a lot of stuff about acting that is not easy. To be able to do it, you have to be open-minded so you can embody someone’s vision. So it’s not yours, but you make it yours. All of this is of course 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.
In one of your previous interviews, you likened yourself 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 a passive donkey that has to always follow a carrot. I would say that I’m aware of being a donkey, but I found a way to move the carrot in the direction that I want to move in.
You have a Terrence Malick movie on the horizon. In that instance, is it a lot about the director? As an actor, 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’s name before you’re really a part of the project. In that case, you just go for the name. Terrence Malick for me is a name that inspires me. He has done some amazing movies. So I went for this project not knowing a lot about it. I actually found myself being cast as the main character, but 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 working with him. He’s very process oriented. 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 so you just move there to improvise something. It’s all very natural.
He’s known to create spaces, not scenes. Then someone like Michael Haneke has his own idiosyncratic process. We so often hear about these filmmakers’ genius. Is there a working process that’s most comfortable to you?
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 improvising in the moment with Victoria, for example. Then with Haneke, he did the movie already before shooting it. It’s already done in his head so on set we just have to understand his vision. We have to come as close as possible to that. It would be a nightmare for Haneke if he had to improvise. He would never do that. It would be like van Gogh improvising on colors—no way. I see my work as adapting, and also developing more skills while being challenged.
I had a chance to sit down with Haneke in Vienna a couple months ago and he told me: “When I watch my own movies, I only see the mistakes. If you enjoy your own things, you must be crazy.”
[Franz slaps his knee] 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.
Victoria is a big proposition: a one-take movie. Did it worry you at the start?
It’s always: “I don’t want to do that.” It’s not something that I really want to do. 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. Just to feel good, I will go bouldering or go into nature with friends. Definitely not acting.
Do you remember saying, “acting is a ridiculous profession”?
That’s the New York Times piece?
When I read it, I thought it was a bit too—
It was almost negative.
I didn’t read it that way.
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, but I’m thankful that I’m allowed to act.
Would it concern you if you were on a movie and you felt very safe and it was easy to do?
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 without 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 and 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 some directors who can be manipulative or use deception to get what they want from actors. That must complicate the relationship a little bit.
No, it’s okay. If Kubrick called 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 beforehand and I would accept that. Working with Haneke means being prepared to do 40 takes, and I did do 40 takes and felt like shit. Then I saw Isabelle Huppert having to do 43 takes and 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 mean that you just have to act less, pretend less, because she’s good. But that’s it. It’s cooking with water.
Does it take multiple viewings of your films to see it as a whole outside of your own acting?
The first time, you only look at yourself. The second time, less. Then you see the form they found.
Did you feel a sizable shift after being chosen as one of the Shooting Stars at Berlinale?
I think it’s a constantly changing environment. 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, and 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, are you a fan of 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 love it. Heaven Knows What is a masterpiece. No one can make those movies but them.
I would love to work with them.
We’re putting that out into the universe. What scripts 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 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.