Actress Nina Hoss discusses My Little Sister, Switzerland’s Oscar entry, and why it’s important for her performance to know how a film is going to be shot.
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In the last decade, Nina Hoss has quickly become one of the most exciting actresses working today. We named her performance as a holocaust survivor in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix one of the 50 best performances of the 2010s. In the last few years, she’s played equally complex, often prickly, women in films directed by women: the violin teacher with a problematic relationship with her student in The Audition, an adoptive mother with a child who may not be capable of empathy in Pelican Blood, and now, Lisa, a playwright with writer’s block who is caring for her dying twin brother, Sven (Lars Eidinger), in My Little Sister.
When not acting in film or television, Nina Hoss is also a member of the ensemble at Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre, along with Lars Eidinger, which is run by director Thomas Osteremeier. In My Little Sister, writer-directors Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond blend fact with fiction by making Sven a star actor at the Schabühne, where he’s best known for playing Hamlet, the role that turned Eidinger into a star a decade ago. That Hamlet, directed by Thomas Ostermeier, has actually been in rep now for over a decade, and has travelled the world. We recently discussed a recording of it on the 21st Folio podcast.
Ostermeier appears in the film as a version of himself: someone who runs the theatre, directed that same production of Hamlet with Eidinger/Sven, but is a fictional character who had a past romantic relationship with Hoss’s Lisa. Although you can see photos of Eidinger as Hamlet on the walls of the Schaubühne in the film, all traces of Hoss’s roles have been removed, because here she plays a playwright who has written for the theatre, and more specifically, has written roles for her brother, Sven.
Aside from being a fun gag for fans of the Schaubühne, it also gave Hoss and Eidinger insider knowledge of what their characters’ experiences would have been. Though the two of them are both stars at the Schaubühne, they’d never actually worked together before My Little Sister on either stage or screen. In the film, they play twins with a symbiotic relationship that borders on toxic closeness. Having grown up with a neglectful mother (played by the great Marthe Keller), they became very close, with Lisa always taking care of Sven. When the film begins, Sven has been diagnosed with cancer, and is about to lose his role as Hamlet at the Schaubühne because he’s too sick to play it. What follows is a story about a brother and sister coping with their upcoming separation, during which time Sven helps Lisa to get her life back on track — to leave her self-absorbed husband, and to start writing again.
My Little Sister was Switzerland’s submission for the Best International Feature Oscar, but unfortunately did not make the shortlist. Still, the film is worth catching for the dynamite performances from the entire cast. On the occasion of its North American release (it’s now on VOD), I sat down with Nina Hoss on Zoom to discuss her process as an actor, how she approached developing Lisa, what it’s like working in different languages, and more.
Seventh Row (7R): I understand you were discussing drafts of the screenplay with the writer-directors of My Little Sister very early in the process. How did that help your work as an actor?
Nina Hoss: It was such an organic thing, how this whole film came together. It took them five years to find the money for it. They kept on working on the [screenplay]. [The directors] Stéphanie [Chuat] and Véronique [Reymond] are very close collaborators who have known each other for a long time, so that had a connection [to the story of Lisa and her brother who also work together].
First of all, I enjoyed the idea of working with Lars [Eidinger]. Also, [it appealed to me] to tell a story about twins. The two siblings need each other in their creative work very much, and they both respect each other for their own qualities. What if one of them has to go? Would the other one be able to continue? Would you believe in yourself? Or would you say no, because he is not there anymore. That’s really what [Lisa] needed, this partner, and her point of view is she can’t do it on her own. Or, if you go through losing each other together, can that process bring strength to the other one? When the brother goes, he can’t go before she is writing again. He pushes her to believe in her ability to be a writer, to have something to say, and that it’s worthy to be told. And that’s what she needed. In a way, that’s also what she needed to be able to let him go.
All of that happened in this long preparation journey to get to actually shooting this film. Everything drew me in.
7R: You’ve talked in the past about how it’s important to you to know how a film is going to be shot when you’re preparing your performance. What was important for you to know for My Little Sister?
Nina Hoss: Well, not so much, in particular, how each frame will be. There, I have to trust the vision of the director. But I do like to watch the films that they’ve done before, if there are any. I saw The Little Bedroom [the previous film from Chaut and Reymond].
What I loved about it is that they have the guts, the strength, and the bravery to let air in. They allow moments where everything comes to a rest and you can reflect. We don’t explain everything that’s going on. I saw that they are looking for the lightness in a melodramatic story. I think that’s incredibly important, because it makes it so real. Because you can’t control life. And they observe that so well.
The way they use the camera is they follow the actor. They’re not always close; they give room. It’s all the things that I enjoyed in this movie where I thought, “Okay then, I know how to read the script, because I understand how they will probably film it.”
7R: When you say that they follow the actor, how does that help? What do you like about that?
Nina Hoss: Well, in this case, it was different actually, because the camera was very much moving around. So Filip [Zumbrunn], the DP, he was really part of us and made the inner life of Lisa visual. And that is good for me to know. I know that feeling will be conveyed by the camera. Otherwise, I would have to do different things to convey the same [feeling]. So these are the things where if I know [they’re happening through the camera], I don’t have to also do that, because it would clash or it would be too much.
7R: Oh, interesting. So you’re taking away parts of your performance that you otherwise might have emphasized because the camera is doing it for you?
Nina Hoss: Yeah. Also, when the character has a certain look, like if the hair is frazzled, or if it’s very tight and nice, that tells a lot. If your makeup is droopy or something, I don’t have to play that anymore. Those are the things that make it so interesting, that make it so rich, but also tricky, of course. You have to be aware of all of these things. But sometimes, that helps so much, because there’s one thing being taken care of already. People will get that part of the scene.
7R: Does that mean you can focus your performance on other aspects of the character?
Nina Hoss: Yeah, it really depends on the scene. I knew, for example, when we have the scene with him [Sven] in the hospital, and he’s nearly dying, and he doesn’t know what’s going on. I mean, the camera was right there, you know. The whole team was breathing together. It was a real pressure chamber. It, of course, makes it much better for me to feel it all. That was not intentional, but I tend to incorporate everything that’s really there into the situation that I have to perform right now.
7R: You’ve got a bunch of scenes in My Little Sister where you’re all by yourself and you don’t have another actor to play against. Does that mean that your relationship with the camera becomes even stronger?
Nina Hoss: Sometimes, but not always. I also tend to forget about [the camera]. Maybe never completely, because one part of your brain is pure technique: where to stand or don’t turn your head otherwise [the camera] can’t see. These things, of course, are always switched on. It helps if you know that the camera will pick up what it wants. That is very comforting, if you know you can rely and trust on that dance partner. It comforts me then because I know I don’t have to force anything. Things will happen and the camera will see it.
[Scenes on your own are] also these very crucial moments. This is maybe where the truth of a character comes out, when you’re not interacting with someone else. We’re always this other persona, the one that you want to be. In Lisa’s case, she’s got it under control. She’s strong. She never breaks down. She can be a mother, daughter, sister, lover. She’s everything, no problem.
These moments when you’re on your own are the moments where you can let the audience into what she’s actually struggling with, or if she is even lying to herself. What does [Lisa] need to be working on in these private moments so [the audience is] even more fascinated about how she can get herself together in the next moment to meet someone? That’s maybe more what I’m working on, and not so much about my relationship with the camera.
7R: What is your process to prepare to play a character?
Nina Hoss: [My prep process] changes, the longer you do it. When I was younger, I would write a lot. I would prepare the biography [of the character]. And that’s all very good. And some still do it. But I had an experience once where I saw [someone’s script and] every sentence had 1,000 other sentences written around it. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’m not prepared.” And then, once we were on set, nothing happened [even though that actor seemed so prepared]. I was just like, Where is everything that I thought that [this character] was? How do I feel it [from the other actor]? And so I thought, yeah, that’s not the essence for me.
For me, mainly, I prepare with the book, which gives me the questions that I have, like why would she react like this here? I do have to know where each character comes from. What is their family situation? If you don’t see them with friends, is that a problem? Or is that just because [the story takes place over] three days, and that’s not an issue?
These things are what forms a character, potentially, so that I understand where her reactions come from at every moment. If I don’t understand that, I need to construct something for me so that then, when I’m on set, I can forget it all again.
When I meet the directors and other actors, I’m letting everything go and seeing what’s actually going on and reacting to it.
I [also] prep by watching films. I watch documentaries. I look at other actors’ work that inspires me. Everything is inspiring in the moment of preparation.
7R: How does that translate into your physicality and voice for how you’re portraying the character?
Nina Hoss: The physicality, for me, always comes from, is this a person who has a guard up? Is she very loose and free? Is she flirty? Or is she very, “I would like to, but I can’t.” That immediately does something to your body. And the way someone walks: Is it confident?
The shoes! I did this film, Pelican Blood, where she is in this western kind of scenario. So this person can’t walk. Lisa [in My Little Sister] would walk in little heels. These shoes do everything [to your physicality]. You’re more grounded.
It’s about other things, too. Your femininity is another one. That helps for where the voice sets. It depends. I don’t want to have too many ideas. Because then they’re sometimes in your way. You try to fulfill these ideas, but then you’re not open for what’s actually going on. I try to feel it out. That’s my joy.
7R: Do you like rehearsal for films? Did you rehearse for My Little Sister?
Nina Hoss: It depends. For [My Little Sister], we didn’t do too many rehearsals. We mainly spoke. But that was also because we knew each other so well. I knew Lars [Eidinger], I know Thomas [Ostermeier]. And by then, I knew the two directors very well. In a way, we had already discussed all the questions once we had started shooting. We rehearsed on that day [of shooting], to find the scenes, but we didn’t really have a rehearsal camp beforehand.
But for a film like Pelican Blood, for example, or the one I did before, The Audition, we did some rehearsals, mainly also because there were kids involved. [When working with child actors, we needed] to get a relationship going, so they’re not afraid of me, and so you can tell a mother and son or [mother and] daughter story without having to spend too much time on set while shooting to establish that.
With Pelican Blood, the director had a coach who went with me through all the different stages of this character. We did lots of exercises: things I knew, and things I hadn’t known.
That’s the magic in this profession. You’re always starting anew. There’s always something to learn and experience, and a new way to approach things, and that was fascinating to me. I wouldn’t want to miss that. I carry that with me for each character now. So I do like rehearsals, but only to a certain point. Then, the camera has to be there, because otherwise, the magic is lost.
7R: The film mixes fact and fiction regarding your relationship with the Schaubühne. You’re in the company there in real life, and you play a playwright for the theatre in the film. Lars Eidinger is playing Sven, who has Lars’s history with the role of Hamlet at the theatre. And Thomas Ostermeier is playing the director of the Schaubühne, which he is in real life, but with a different name in the film. What was it like to work within this space that you know so well, and with people you know so well, in a way that’s sort of real and sort of not?
Nina Hoss: I think it was very comforting, because we didn’t have to get to know each other. We all like each other’s work. So that helps a lot. There’s a lot of respect on set, but there’s also a lot of humour and freedom with each other. It doesn’t always have to be harmonious on a set; friction can be interesting too. I’m not the one looking for it, but I’m not afraid of it. But it really helped that you can rely on each other, that you always know the other one will have my back if I’m frazzled.
At the beginning [of the process of making the film], when [the directors] told me the idea that, “Yeah, Lars will be Sven, and he will play Hamlet at the Schaubühne.” I thought, “Huh? Why? Is this a good idea? Let me think about it.” I thought, maybe this is a bit vain. And then, if I had any doubts, the moment when we shot the scene, in the first week in Berlin, where Lars has this wig on; he’s backstage, he hears the text of Hamlet, and he goes out through the curtain and says the line. I’ve seen Lars playing Hamlet twice now. And you hear it, and it has nothing to do with Lars. Here is a person [Sven] that has cancer and is about to die. And that gives something else to the way he says these lines that he has said 400 times already in the show. It adds something else because you are a different person.
From that moment on, I knew, there is no comparison. It’s a different person. Just the facts are a little bit similar. And he, of course, can say these lines like probably no one else can — only one who has performed Hamlet so many times. Because they’re yours. They sit in your body, these lines; you’ve got them. You own them. And that’s different if you learn them just for the film. I thought that, at the end of the day, it gives it all more depth. Because we know exactly what we’re talking about. If we talk about the Schaubühne, it is a real place, a place we all know by heart.
7R: I know you’ve worked in a bunch of different languages on film, and a bunch of languages within My Little Sister. What’s different for you when you’re working in, say, German versus English or French?
Nina Hoss: Because it’s my mother tongue, German, I would say, is the language that I have to think about the least. If someone says something to you, you immediately feel something. It’s, let’s say, deeper.
In English, I feel very much at home now, but I still always translate everything beforehand, to have felt it once. [I want to understand] what it would do when I hear what the person is saying in German. Because there’s always a little distance between the language and you. Even though you’re good in it.
But on the other hand, [working in another language] gives me an interesting freedom, because I can’t control it completely. I don’t know about all the movements that you do, even in English. I decide how I will say it, but I don’t know if it comes across exactly as I intended, and it doesn’t matter.
That’s interesting to me about performing in a different language, and French is the same. I enjoy it. Also, you will learn about another culture. You have to think about that. Where does this language come from? You’re surrounded by people from another culture: in Homeland, I was surrounded by Americans, and with Gold, I was in Canada with Canadians. It does something to you and your acting. I just love that aspect of the job.
7R: You’ve worked in a lot of different acting styles. How does your approach for a character differ when you’re in a more naturalistic style like My Little Sister versus something that’s a bit more stylized like Phoenix?
Nina Hoss: I don’t know if I think in these categories. In a way, Nelly in Phoenix, for me, is maybe even hyper-realistic. The situations, for me, are realistic, even though I know it’s a construction. But even more so, I have to be incredibly natural and realistic in it. That’s maybe the same as what I said earlier about knowing what the camera does. If I know the structure, and that there is a construction behind it, or a different level of storytelling in it, then I can’t play that. That’s something the director has to take care of. Within it, I have to be as real as I possibly can with this character.
That isn’t so different to what I have done with Lisa, in the approach. I don’t know, I haven’t done so many films like Tilda Swinton, for example, where you can really go full-on and create a big character, [that’s] theatrical, even. She can do both fantastically. That is something else. That is then maybe where you know, I am in a stylized film, and I have to convey the realism in a different way.
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