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How to make it as an actor

Want to be an actor? With 50 theatres, some 20 acting schools and the Babelsberg film studios, Berlin is the place to be. But climbing to the top is not easy. Exberliner outlines it for you.

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Philip Bender, Sandra Hüller, August Diehl. Photos by Smalltown Boy, Wikimedia Commons, Katharina K

Want to be an actor? With 50 different theatres, some 20 acting schools and the Babelsberg film studios a train ride away, Berlin is the place to be. But the climb to the top is no easy feat. And keep in mind that in Germany a solid classical theatre training and a role in Tatort might be your shortest way to big screen celebrity.

Three second-year students of the Ernst Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts lie lethargically on stage. The director calls out, “Demetrius, Hermia, Lucinda” as they carelessly repeat his words through bouts of sneezing, coughing and giggling.

Then he calls “action” and the music starts to boom through the loudspeaker sitting on side of the stage. Suddenly the auditorium has filled with a phantom audience as the students seamlessly transform into the feral figures of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Today they’re learning the ropes of stage acting, but one day they might be starring in blockbuster films: the list of Ernst Busch alumni who went on to successful acting careers is a long one.

If they make it here, chances are they’ll make it at one of Germany’s many world-class stages, and from there, with some luck, into the casts of high-profile movies – and back again.

But not vice versa: here in Germany, a country that values theatre as a superior art form, the stage is more often than not a required springboard to a respected film career.

From August Diehl to Sandra Hüller to Milan Peschel, many are the actors who made a seamless transition from classical theatre school to the stage to cinema, and have since led successful double careers bridging high art and celebrity glitz.

Setting the stage

The Ernst Busch Hochschule für Schauspielkunst, a large concrete building located a 40-minute train ride from Alexanderplatz in the post-industrial eastern district of Schöneweide, offers a curriculum that encompasses more than traditional theatrical training: two weeks of horse riding camp, daily fencing and weekly singing classes, one-to-one vocal coaching and occasional clown classes are some of the alternative methods by which they’re asked to evoke the creative spirit.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all fun and games. “Competition amongst the students is ever-present in the school, keeping the standards very high,” says Professor Harry Fuhrmann. And it begins before they’ve even enrolled.

Out of 1300 applications, a mere 25 make the cut. Fourth-year student Christian Löber experienced for himself how difficult it can be: he applied to acting school 17 times. It took him four years and the completion of a mechanical engineering degree before he was finally accepted.

Yet for Löber, a tall, effusive Hamburg native with conspicuous good looks, there was no other option: “I was in a number of bands and it happened: I fell in love with the stage. From that time on I knew I’d go to acting school!”

Names like Brecht, Shakespeare and Stanislavski dot the traditional Ernst Busch syllabus, and like his peers, Löber is now officially trained in the methods of classical theatre acting.

The 27-year-old cites actress Sandra Hüller among his role models. After getting her diploma in 2000, Hüller appeared on major stages across Germany (Leipzig, Jena, Hamburg), before receiving top distinctions for her work with Theater Basel (2003) and for her portayal of The Virgin Queen at Prater in Berlin.

Since 2006 she’s been affiliated with the successful Munich Kammerspiele, to which Löber is currently applying. But it was not until her role in Hans-Christian Schmid’s 2006 film Requiem, for which she won many awards including a Silver Bear at the Berlinale, that she really made her breakthrough.

She’s since been popular among film and stage directors alike, accumulating difficult film roles, while pursuing a successful stage career. When asked whether after all his theatrical training, he, too, would opt for the screen, Löber laughs: “Of course, if someone offered me a film role and money, why not?”

The balancing act

Whereas in the US the film actors who turn to the stage are established names in search of critical validation, in Germany the theatre is almost a prerequisite to a film career.

It is no coincidence that most German film stars come from theatre schools, explains Professor Fuhrmann: stage training gives aspiring actors “the necessary tools and techniques, which can be transferred to film acting rather than the other way around.”

A further example can be found in Andres Veiel’s excellent 2003 documentary Die Spielwütigen (Addicted to Acting), which follows the path of four Ernst Busch students over seven years, from first acting dreams to initial auditions at Ernst Busch to first castings.

Symptomatically, they all follow the same route to success: education in classical theatre and a constant back and fourth between screen and stage. In the years since, all the actors have broken into film.

One of them, Constanze Becker, was dubbed “Actress of the Year” by Theater heute magazine for her role in Uncle Vanya at Deutsches Theater Berlin in 2008. She, too, made the jump to celluloid, playing a role in Detlev Buck’s Same Same But Different in 2009 and starring in two made-for-TV films.

“There is a definite connection between theatre and film in Berlin,” says Helena Huguet, who’s worked for four years as an administrator for the Deutsches Theater.

“While directors rarely cross over, actors are constantly doing film productions to pay the bills. Many would rather do theatre though – they see it as more of an art.”

Yet maintaining solid footholds in both worlds can be something of a high-wire act. “It can be difficult for our actors to balance film and theatre, as there are scheduling issues,” says Huget.

Whether the theatre will be accommodating to these conflicts often depends of course on one thing – whether said actor’s name can fill a house: “If the actor has reached a certain level of ‘stardom’, we do our best to work around their film schedule.”

From Schöneweide to Hollywood

One former Ernst Busch student who’s definitely permitted to adjust his (busy) acting schedule is August Diehl (photo), winner of the Deutscher Filmpreis, Germany’s most distinguished film award.

The Berliner made it all the way from Schöneweide to LA, reaching global star status with such roles as Angelina Jolie’s husband in the big-budget flop Salt and an SS officer in Inglourious Basterds, in which he outs the Basterds in the film’s notorious bar scene.

Typically, Diehl says his prime ambition has always been to act for the stage. His first film role came as an accident: on summer vacation from acting school he was offered a lead role in a low-budget flick.

The hacker drama 23 was a runaway hit, and Diehl’s destiny was written in the sky. But despite his big-screen success, Diehl insists he’ll remain loyal to the theatre, citing his stage work, notably his collaboration with late director Klaus Michael Grüber in Vienna, as the most memorable experience of his acting career.

The TV pay-off

Most of Germany’s successful actors have also had roles on television. Popular TV series such as Tatort have been the bread and butter that keeps them fed.

Actor Vlad Chiriac, a 30-something Romanian-born Berlin actor, is one of many to have benefited from this trade-off, starring in a one-off Tatort episode. Chiriac was a student at Berlin’s reputable Schauspielschule Charlottenburg, which also has a famous alumni list, albeit one not nearly as long as that of Ernst Busch.

After graduating, Chiriac was recommended to the Berlin Hexenkessel Hoftheater and is now signed on for their annual summer and winter productions. As an actor with a blue-collar background who now funds his life with his career, Chiriac is something of a rarity in Berlin.

For him the stage provides a certain degree of security: “You sign contracts, either as a guest actor for a particular piece or, at the bigger theatres, for a year. Then you work your way up.”

Working your way up can be quite a treacherous path, a fact that local actor Philip Bender (photo) is well aware of.

After being cast for the trashy German TV series Anna und die Liebe, he missed the first day of rehearsals after a celebratory binge and was immediately placed on the blacklist. He failed to get castings for five years.

If the agencies know how to do anything, it’s hold a grudge. Bender was finally able to overcome his blacklist fiasco with a comeback role in A Damn Killer, which he also co-produced, going on to win “Best Supporting Actor” at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival, becoming the first Afro-German actor to win an award in America.

The expat factor

Another graduate from Ernst Busch, Jeff Burrell has had it harder, not least because he’s a nonnative speaker, who came to the school from New York 20 years ago as a guest student.

“Englishspeaking actors have a tough go at making it in Germany,” he says. Burell was cast in a theatre ensemble, but after a short run was dropped due to his American-accented German.

Now his accent is almost gone, but, still met with endless casting rejections, he decided to focus on voiceovers, commercials and other audio work to pay the bills.

According to English agency Friends Connection, the film industry often offers “non-budget” (read: non-paying) roles, stating, “70 percent of gigs are unpaid.”

Even as an accomplished actor, Burrell is forced to act for free in the hopes of landing more interesting paid work.

Nevertheless, he insists that making it in Berlin is no more difficult than in LA, New York or London, adding: “I hate actors who complain about how difficult it is. Of course it’s difficult – that’s why we do it.”

When asked about the secret of his success, August Diehl coyly replies, “I was good.” He offers little advice to aspiring Berlin actors, explaining that “nothing’s ever sure in acting”.

He continues: “Directors are always hungry to see new things from you. If you’re a mechanic you know how to fix a car. But for me, acting is always like being an adolescent.”

Maybe it’s the mercurial nature of the form itself that makes Berlin such a popular place for aspiring actors. Diehl sees the capriciousness of acting reflected in the city, and this in turn inspires his work.

“Everything is changing so fast,” he says. “I’ll only leave Berlin if it stops changing.”