Franka Potente Interview

After becoming world-famous in kinetic German hit, Potente's career has taken off in several directions

After becoming world-famous in kinetic German hit, Potente's career has taken off in several directions

Franka Potente may be destined to be remembered as the breathless and flame-haired heroine of 1999's "Run Lola Run" -- the innovative German hit which was such a worldwide sensation that hair salons began offering a color called "Lola Red." But at 27 years old (on July 22), she's most definitely not resigned to that fate.

With Hollywood calling, her career is blossoming with roles opposite Johnny Depp in "Blow" (she's his stewardess girlfriend) and Matt Damon in "The Bourne Identity" (due in Spring 2002). But the part she's most proud of at the moment is that of Sissi, the timid, shrinking, simple-hearted heroine of "The Princess and the Warrior," written and directed by Tom Tykwer, the brilliant hand behind "Lola" and Potente's boyfriend of four years.

Emotionally and socially underdeveloped, Sissi is an attendant at a psychiatric hospital where she grew up a virtual in-patient after the death of her mother, who had been a live-in nurse there. Withdrawn, chaste and awkward, she is the polar opposite of tomboy-sexy, take-charge punker Lola, who saved her boyfriend from the mob three times over. "Princess" is the story of Sissi's unusual emergence from her turtle shell after being rescued from a traffic accident by an extremely melancholy petty criminal (Benno Furmann).

Potente is almost unrecognizable in the role -- and not just because she's blond. She carries herself with acute insecurity. She speaks in a near whisper. She is the childlike embodiment of innocence and naivete -- which is all the more remarkable having met her in person.

In San Francisco for the American premiere of "The Princess and the Warrior" at the city's international film festival, Potente comes across more like a happy-go-lucky version of her Lola persona. Her hair is red again and shorn to a butchy inch-and-a-half long. She's wearing oversized painter's blue jeans with a matching jacket that has a large rhinestone "F" pinned to its lapel, and a red- and blue- striped T-shirt with a funky white, buttoned collar. She's buzzed on coffee and cigarettes, and will get up energetically to run across her hotel room if it will help illustrate a point. And she smiles broadly and warmly almost half the time while speaking about this new film in her melodic light German accent.

Q: You were so fully immersed in this character. Do you have techniques for getting inside your characters' heads?

A: [Laughs.] I don't know. I first select the projects really well. After 16 movies I've done, I'm close to knowing what I want and what I don't want, then really throwing myself into (what I do want). This was really for me the hardest movie in a way because the character was the furthest away (from who I am). But every day for me was a new task, a new obstacle to overcome, and it's so fulfilling to do something like that. This character is very extreme -- the way she walks, the way she talks -- she's just not an ordinary person. We don't know immediately what to make of her. Talking about methods or whatever, for my character there was a lot of preparation. We rehearsed and tried out a lot about the way she talks, she walks, the gestures. That doesn't just come. You have to prepare for it. But I think you really start off by casting (and choosing) your director and your script well. Once you've really decided 100 percent on something, you can pretty much go anywhere (as an actor).

Q: I did notice the way she walks. There's an insecurity about her, like she's walking on a frozen pond and isn't sure how thin the ice is. She was interesting to me because this character is 180 degrees from Lola.

A: We wanted her to be very child-like, like somebody who hasn't learned to walk completely. She has no knowledge of life, love, sexuality. In that way she's like a child, she's curious, she goes forward, but bumping the head, falling down, getting up again -- she's a curious person. Then by meeting Bodo she gets stronger and stronger and more demanding for herself because all of a sudden she's walking towards an aim, which is love and life and a man, which she didn't know about before because she lives in a surrounding that doesn't trigger or motivate any of male or female or sexual or erotic actions. Or at lest she doesn't consider them erotic.

Q: Is this the first time you've had a role written specifically for you?

A: Lola was written for me, too.

Q: When did you meet Tom, then? Before "Lola"?

A: That was the first time I met him in person. I knew his work and I admired him. I knew what he looked like, too.

Q: He wrote it with you in mind, but he hadn't met you?

A: He saw my very first movie (at a festival). I remember that because I saw him standing over there in the movie theater and I was really excited because Tom Tykwer was there to see my movie! And later he told me that he started thinking about me for Lola. But it was two years later that we shot it, actually.

Q: Do you feel international after the worldwide success of "Run Lola Run"?

A: I feeeellll -- this is different but I think it sounds better -- I feel cosmopolitan. To put it in a very banal way, I know how to pack a suitcase in five minutes. If you tell me I have to fly to Hong Kong tomorrow, I can do it. It doesn't stress me out. I have gotten used to talking in two different languages about my work. I've gotten used to flying a lot and living in all kinds of countries and hotels. I've experienced the luxury of my work being shown to a larger audience than just my country, especially with "Lola," and now with this movie again. I'm aware of the fact that this doesn't happen all the time with German movies. And it expands your working territory.

Q: As happened with "Lola" leading to Ted Demme's "Blow."

A: Yes.

Q: And by the way, your American accent in "Blow" -- very impressive.

A: Two months of hard work! You know what my hardest sentence was? Remember the scene where she comes out with a nosebleed at the restaurant? "Honey would you be bummed out if I didn't go to Chicago with you?" It was the most horrible sentence! I was like, oh gohhhd! I can't do this!

Q: How many takes?

A: Jeez, I don't know. I had a Yegermeister. We had to stop in between the scene because of sound. We were shooting by a bar, and I thought, "Oh god, I need a Yegermeister!" I was getting really stressed out (with) the accent thing, and everything got to be too much. The Yegermeister helped a lot! [Laughs.] You know, my French is best when I'm drunk, too! So I can really recommend it. Oh, but don't write this. It's just free advertising for them every time I tell that story!

Q: Maybe when you get home you'll have an offer from them to be their spokesperson.

A: [Cracking up.] But my point was that this constant control of the language that you normally never think of was really getting on my nerves. The dialect coach had this tiny head and these huge headphones, then after every scene (I'd get notes).

Q: But obviously Ted Demme loved something about you because he could have gotten an American for that role. How did that come about?

A: You should ask him! He was a big fan of "Lola," he wanted to bring together an international cast, he liked the idea of Jordi Molla from Spain and Penelope (Cruz), who wasn't that famous (in the U.S.) at the time, and me. Ted is a fun guy and I think he thought if you bring together all these people from all over the world, it adds a kind of flavor to it. I need a cigarette. I'm going to open this door. [She slides a glass patio door open and scoots her chair toward it.]

Q: Let's go back to Sissi for a moment. The emotional instability of growing up in an asylum, that must have been an interesting thing to explore. Did you do any kind of research? Can you do research for something like that?

A: I did, and I found out that you can't. I worked in an insane asylum for a week, but I didn't really find out anything, basically because it was me, Franka, being in an asylum and Sissi is just so extraordinarily different. What I took away from it was that I wished I could have been Sissi while working there for that week. Me as a grownup person, it just didn't work out.

Q: You're probably better equipped emotionally to deal with the kind of things you came across while you were there for a week than she is having spent her whole life in an asylum.

A: It's actually the other way around. It messed me up. I didn't know what to do. All your communication patterns, anything you know doesn't work there. These people don't match any patterns. But for Sissi it's very natural.

Q: So you were there from the very beginning on this movie, collaborating with Tom. Was that a very different experience for you?

A: Yeah. Normally I don't like it. I want a perfect script. I hate it when people send me stuff and are like "Well, you know, this is not the last draft. We don't really like it yet." And I think, what the f**k? Why did you send it then? With Tom it was different because we're going out so I know him as a person. And I trust him and I love him as a director anyway. He did all the writing and at a very early stage we started to get to know Sissi and what she could be like. We tried out her walk and her talk and all kinds of stuff that's not in the movie. I don't know if I would do it with any other director, but with Tom I just know him so well and I know him in his work that I didn't mind. I trusted him completely. And, of course, I happened to be there.

Q: But this kind of collaboration doesn't appeal to you?

A: I'm a very, very traditional actress. I just want to be the actress. I'm not telling people how to light me, I'm not telling people what lens to use, and I want the director to be the boss. I'm there to please my director. I want him to be happy with me at the end of the day. I'm not interested in being involved in anything but that really.

Q: How do you feel about your Hollywood experience now that you have two big movies under your belt, "Blow" and "The Bourne Identity".

A: [Laughs] People keep asking "How was it kissing Johnny? How was it kissing Matt?" Ohhh, I don't know. It's less different than I thought it might be. The major difference is the language, which was nice on "The Bourne Identity" because I could just talk like I talk now since I was (playing) a German person. So I was much more relaxed (than on "Blow"). The major difference besides the language was working with a DP (director of photography), which ads a little distance (between the actors and the director). That's about it. You (still) try to have a strong bond with your fellow actors and the director, the script matters every day, the same problems, the same happiness.

Q: So do you look at all scripts the same, as opposed to thinking about doing something in Hollywood or doing a blockbuster?

A: I don't plan that at all. It's not an American script, a German script, it's just a script. It has to get my attention. I have to like it. The luxury of the situation is, at the moment I feel my work is like a huge buffet, and according to what I ate last -- what the last movie was -- I chose. I feel like something hot or I feel like something a little more sweet. The buffet has just gotten a little bigger because I've expanded my working territory a little bit.


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