I know it is a bold claim: “One of the truest actors in the world.” But—stick with me now—I have met a lot of actors, seen a lot of actors, worked with a lot of actors. I can say without hesitation, Lars Eidinger is the best, truest theater actor I have ever seen. He’s not so bad digitally either. Now, I know a lot of you in the US are now going, “Lars who?”
Yep, as the name suggests, he’s German, has a big rep with German audiences, and is starting to take European audiences by storm. International recognition is flowing in with multiple appearances at Berlinale and last year’s Cannes Film Festival (in The Clouds of Sils Maria, with Juliette Binoche, Kristen Stewart and Chloe Grace Moretz), international film productions shooting every which place, and touring all over the world with the Schaubühne theater. In the future, please remember that I introduced you to him. I accept drink offers.
“I think it’s more truthful for me to be very obvious—I’m an actor who’s playing.”
I have had the opportunity to see Mr. Eidinger in performance a couple of times now, inhabiting two of our drama drool-fests: Hamlet and Richard III. Both were sublime. Uncomfortable. Uncompromising. And a word that can often be used about Lars’s characters: Mad. Capital “M.”
I just knew I had to speak with him. He graciously agreed to chat with me on Skype while on a film shoot referencing the subject of WWII in Europe. Therefore, without further ado, please sir, tell me your secrets….
Ashlee Renz-Hotz: What made you want to become an actor in the first place?
Lars Eidinger: (Silence for a couple of seconds) Mmmm. I mean, I think it’s the same reason why all the actors become actors. We have something in common. When I was young, I always had the feeling that I was looking for satisfaction. Or, that the love the parents were giving me was not enough, or I couldn’t really grab it, and I had the desire or longing for something I can really experience. If you are in front of an audience, you have the feeling that you really can grab love. It’s very simple because there’s a crowd of people listening to you. I realized that was really satisfying.
You know, if you are self-confident, you do not necessarily need others to reflect you. And, I’m not self-confident, and most actors are not self-confident. We need others to act as the mirror. And this is what I’m doing. If I am in the theater, I go into a dialogue with the audience. The only reason I want to be reflected by them is because I want to understand myself. As far as I can remember, I’ve felt kind of lost in the world, but theater gives me a feeling of safety.
What if the recognition is negative? Does that take away that safe feeling?
Yeah, it hurts me, of course. And I absolutely believe in it. If somebody tells me, “I saw you tonight, and it was a piece of shit,” I believe it’s true, and it’s important I believe it because someone who makes himself independent from the audience’s opinion shouldn’t play in front of an audience. If I think I’m a sexy, cool guy, and this is enough, I wouldn’t be very attractive to people on stage. It’s more when you are looking for something, when you are searching. It’s not just to show up; it’s more.
The script advisor is saying, “Oh no, that’s not in the script!” I like it. It creates a very interesting suspense.
Does the weight of people’s perceptions affect how you develop your characters, or your performance?
No. No, because whenever I do something like Hamlet or Richard, I try to avoid to see any other references. It becomes very “self-referential.”
I mean, if we imagined a character like Richard or Hamlet is a real person, it’s something completely different for me and something completely different for you. I don’t think about other interpretations anymore. And some people, if they describe the way they are performing, they say there’s the character, and I try to get as close as possible to this character. The method I’m working is completely different because I try to invent the characters out of myself, so the character is already in me.
I see myself as a puppet player, so I take the character as a puppet and I have the puppet on my arm, and I show the puppet to the audience, but I want to put the focus on the aspect that I’m playing it. The playfulness is something that is very important for me. I think this is much more truthful. It’s a big lie to become somebody else. I don’t ever become somebody else. If somebody like…um…. What is his name? Famous…There Will Be Blood, the actor.
Uhhhh. Daniel Day-Lewis.
Yeah, right. I mean, it fascinates me, of course, if he says everybody on the set has to say “Mr. President” to him. I wonder when Mr. President is going into his trailer, because why should he be Mr. President on a film set? It seems like a big contradiction to me. I think it’s much more truthful for me to be very obvious—I’m an actor who’s playing.
Mmmm. That’s very brave.
You think so?
Yeah, not many people approach it like that—at least from what I’ve seen. Don’t you ever worry that you’ll give too much of yourself?
No. No, because when I’m in privacy, you know, I have the feeling that I’m very shy, or that I’m hesitating, and I’m not really brave. When I look into the audience, if I look into somebody’s eyes, or face, I want to see myself. I think this is what communication is about. This is why I’m not afraid. My feeling is the more offensive you are with the truth; the less you can be attacked by others. If you are lying, if you hide something, people can really get you. If you tell them the truth, you have nothing to lose.
You seem to be very masterful at picking out very silent versus very loud moments. Especially with Richard and Hamlet. Does that come about throughout your rehearsal process? Is it something that’s fleshed out with the director, or based completely on the language?
I developed this way of playing while I was doing a lot of movies. I had an experience when I did my first feature film in 2007. It was Everyone Else, and that director came to the theater. She watched me play, and said, “It’s great, but you couldn’t put a camera on it. It wouldn’t work for film what you are doing on stage.” That was very frustrating for me. Nowadays, I try to play by doing little things with my face. I’m so concentrated on little things, little movements, that are not seen by anyone in the audience. I think that gives me a stronger appearance, and a kind of charisma on stage. It makes the people become more interested. This presence on stage is something people say, “You either have it, or you don’t have it.” I don’t think that’s true. I think you can manipulate presence on stage, and I think this has something to do with it.
My wife always told me, “You have to piss in the corner till it stinks.”
There’s a rule in theater: “When there is an animal on stage or a child on stage, you don’t have a chance.” Everyone is looking at the child or the animal because they are more anarchistic. They aren’t really following instructions. They are more free. These are my biggest idols. For me it’s a challenge—I want to be like an animal on stage. Unpredictable. It makes theater or films boring if you have the feeling everyone involved was talking about it beforehand. If they were saying, “You do this, and I do that,” it loses its attraction. If you just improvise or go for it, if you do “wild” things, you are much more attractive to somebody who watches you. This is what I’m trying to do.
You think this translates to film as well?
Yeah, I’m doing a movie right now, in Riga. I’m currently filming every day. What I sometimes do is to say a line that is not in the script because I have the feeling that everybody, the DP, the director, my partner, are completely attracted, or they feel there is something different going on. Okay, what did he say? The script advisor is saying, “Oh no, that’s not in the script!” I like it. It creates a very interesting suspense. I mean, you cannot do it all the time, but sometimes I work with these tricks.
Throughout your career, have there been specific milestones along the way you’ve wanted to check off? Or has it more been, “I just want to work, let’s see what I can do?”
You know, I do not really believe that you can influence your career so much. You cannot plan it. I always dreamed to play Hamlet. I say, as an actor, you have to plant a tree, you have to build a house, you have to give birth to a child, and you have to play Hamlet. So, I was really looking forward to play this part. On the other hand….
Wait, wait, wait. I know you have a baby…have you built a house and planted a tree?
At least there are still things left to accomplish.
Yeah, or maybe in school we planted trees, and I bought a flat, so maybe that’s kind of building a house nowadays. That’s something. My wife always told me when I was younger, and when I was not so successful, she said, “You have to piss in the corner till it stinks.” Do you understand?
You have to piss in the corner till everybody can smell it. You understand?
I don’t understand the meaning.
The meaning is that if you do your job well and passionately, people will see it. Even if you are just in the corner, and you do your thing, people will smell it.
For every interview I’m doing, I have the headline, “Believe my hype.”
And, I think that now everyone smells my pee.
(Laughs) Wise woman.
Yeah, maybe it’s not the most beautiful image, but to describe the phenomenon, it’s maybe helpful.
Have you had a favorite role? You mentioned Hamlet—was that THE role for you?
Yes, it is still. I think there is no bigger role. Part of the reason Hamlet is so attractive to actors is because you can fill it up with all your fantasies, all your dreams, and all your interests. There is nothing that this character doesn’t allow you, so it’s completely free. The question, “To be or not to be,” is the most basic question you can ask. I love this character because it really broadened my personality to another level. It helped me a lot in developing as a human being. I played it now for six years, and we played it 250 times.
I saw you in London actually, at the Barbican. I can see what you are saying inside of that character. It seemed that throughout the performance you were growing on stage. It was something extraordinary.
Yes, thank you. There’s one line; it’s from a song—kind of a stupid song—called “Teatre, Teatre” from Epstein in the ’70s or ’80s, and I’m quoting the song in our production. There’s one line, and if you think about it, you suddenly realize how clever this song is. It says, “Everything is just theater, but it’s also reality.”
This is what I mean. Whenever I do a movie, it’s fiction, and tonight we will shoot a sex scene all night long. We will operate with our bodies. It is something that is going to happen tonight. We are not animation; we are human beings. It’s fiction, but it becomes part of our reality. That is something that really fascinates me in my profession.
I know you work a lot with students. What would you say is the biggest thing you have learned over your career so far?
I mean it’s not something very spectacular. I think it would be—there’s a line in a Beastie Boys song that says, “Be true to yourself, and you will never fall.” This is what it’s about for me. If you betray yourself, you are not attractive to others. You will not discover anything about yourself. If you’re truthful—you are not in danger.
I mean, if I go back to this image of the mirror, some people are unable to even look into the mirror when they are alone without making a face. I’m sure you know this phenomenon of a duck face. You look into….
(I make pouty lips.)
Yeah, exactly. It’s important if you want to get to know yourself to look as pure as possible into the mirror. And, that would be my advice. To be brave enough to look into the mirror as you are.
Okay, so tell me, if there was one thing about yourself that you would want the world to know, what would it be?
It’s kind of frustrating that everybody’s aim is to live in the moment.
For every interview I’m doing, I have the headline, “Believe my hype.” Do you know this expression from hip hop songs, “Don’t believe the hype.” A lot of people, some celebrities, when I read interviews—I love to read celebrity interviews—they say at one point they were afraid that somebody would realize they are not as talented as they think they are. That they are kind of discovered as being fakes.
Right. Everybody’s just bullshitting, and they are bullshitting with everybody.
Yes. But with me it’s the other way around. I think I’m a genius, and I’m always afraid that nobody sees it. You know.
(There is a shocked pause, then lots of laughter)
That is fantastic. That is the first time that anybody has told me that, I have to say.
Yeah, yeah. I love it.
One thought I really like, although it’s more…I mean, everybody is looking for something. And it’s kind of frustrating that everybody’s aim is to live in the moment. But, the moment is always gone, because it’s moving. It’s a contradiction. The moment is moving away all the time, so you are always in a flow. I think everybody is looking for something without really knowing what it is. Sometimes I have the feeling, or the idea, that we will understand what it is when we die—because it’s death that we are longing for. I kind of like this idea; that the only reason why we live is to die. It makes me, maybe, less afraid of death.