A smouldering story

Thomas Schubert on imposter syndrome and tonal ambiguity in Afire

by Amber Wilkinson

Thomas Schubert on playing Leon in Afire: 'I always felt like there was quite a bit of myself in my character. It is really interesting that we all sort of have that memory of being that way'
Thomas Schubert on playing Leon in Afire: 'I always felt like there was quite a bit of myself in my character. It is really interesting that we all sort of have that memory of being that way' Photo: Curzon
Austrian Thomas Schubert stars Afire in the latest film from Christian Petzold, an offbeat comedy of sorts set on a summer that is smouldering with possibilities, both literal and figurative. Schubert, who was a non-professional when he took on his breakout role in 2011’s Breathing, at the age of 17, has since established himself an impressive and varied career, notching up more than 30 TV and film roles. His latest sees him play Leon, a writer who is heading on a summer retreat with his buddy Felix (Langston Uibel) in a bid to complete his second novel.

On arrival at Felix’s family’s summer house, the pair discover they are not alone, with a young woman, Nadja (Paula Beer) already in residence. As the summer lazily unfolds, so does a wry comedy as the uptight Leon increasingly isolates himself, claiming he is burying himself in his work and too busy to swim when, in reality, he is drowning in boredom. Funny but also laced with melancholy for opportunities missed, the drama is further complicated by the arrival of Leon’s editor Helmut Matthias Brandt, who also stars alongside Schubert in Netflix’s King Of Stonks). I caught up with Schubert as the film screened at Edinburgh Film Festival to chat about the role.

What did you think when you first saw the script, because Christian Petzold has been doing some fairly heavy movies in recent years?

Thomas Schubert: Right. So it was difficult for me toget the right tonality for the script at first, knowing Christian's earlier films. So of course, there's a big question mark. The way he writes scripts, in hindsight, is really beautiful, but when you first read it, it sort of leaves a lot of space in between the read of the scene and the scene. It is very specific, but it has spaces that need to be filled. So after the first reading, you don't really get a feeling for the script.

And what really helped was our first table read of it together, which was, for me, the first meeting with Paula Beer after a long time. We shot a movie 10 years ago [The Dark Valley]. And now we met again, after all this time, at the table read. And then Mateus Brandt, who I've also done a Netflix show with, so it was a very nice atmosphere and we just burst out laughing during the table read. So that was really the moment that Christian and I sort of understood that the story just works best over the lightness and the easy summer feeling that you sort of slowly take away.

A colleague of mine was chatting to Christian about the film and he said that you said you were “always laughing about your character, because in a way, you were laughing about him, the director”, because there's quite a bit of him in this. Is that how you felt?

TS: Here's the thing, I always felt like there was quite a bit of myself in my character. It is really interesting that we all sort of have that memory of being that way. When I started in film, I was quite young, I was 17. And I had a big sort of breakout role. After that, of course, you feel like an imposter, you have a huge imposter syndrome, because I didn't study acting, I didn't really know yet what the sort of formula was for a good character and everything. So there was a lot of pretending there was a lot of sort of making up for something. So I feel like I have been that guy as well, at some point.

Leon is quite interesting in that he doesn't want to do anything simply because he doesn't want to put himself in the position of being terrible at. It’s a very lonely position.

TS: Yes, he has this wrong idea of perfection. What really makes an artist is just doing and that sort of is the difference between the people that don't do it, and the people that do it - the action itself.

The script has got quite a dark undercurrent about our environmental future. For a summer movie, it's kind of bleak on some level.

TS: Well, somehow, it's very reflective of the times we live in. This generation always has the feeling of being the last generation and so every lightheartedness today comes with sort of a bitter undertone of the troubles ahead. I feel like it's very reflective of the state of mind that people are in today.

How was shooting the film, because your character is permanently kicking about in quite a lot of linen fabric, while everybody else isdressed for the beach. Did that make it quite uncomfortable to shoot for you?

TS: The fabric was fine for most of the time. I did, however, get heatstroke one day. When I had a shirt with like this light sort of blazer above it and we were shooting at the boardwalk on the sea. There was just no shadow they tried to protect me with with all the umbrellas they had to but, at the end of the day, it just got a massive heatstroke.

Thomas Schubert and Paula Beer as Leon and Nadja in Afire. Thomas Schubert: 'We shot a movie 10 years ago [The Dark Valley]. And now we met again, after all this time, at the table read'
Thomas Schubert and Paula Beer as Leon and Nadja in Afire. Thomas Schubert: 'We shot a movie 10 years ago [The Dark Valley]. And now we met again, after all this time, at the table read' Photo: Curzon
But there was really something about the costume that I liked. This person hiding his body in contrast to… there's a scene where I come out of the woods, and I see them working on the roof like The Village People, which I found such a beautiful contrast with this person trying to hide away.

Leon is so brash about it, he’s hiding but he’s simultaneously so cocky. It seems to be a good patch ofwork for you at the moment. I mean. You were very good in Axiom, too, recently and you’re doing plenty of TV work as well. How do you find that sort of balance between doing the film work and the TV work? Do you like to do both? Or do you have a preference?

TS: I like to do both. I like the difference in the projects you do. I like doing really hectic and pressurised projects that need to be done. I did a show for public broadcaster and we shot like six episodes in six days which was a very different process, it was very improvised. In contrast to that, working with Christian is a very relaxed sort of shoot, very thoughtful, and very planned. So I enjoy doing all the different sorts of work. That is a really big privilege, when you work in film, to not get one lane, but try out different things.

You were saying there is space in the script for you to do that. Does that mean that when you're on the set, it's a bit more flexible in terms of the performance?

TS: Well, every day, we would rehearse for a couple of hours in the morning, before anyone is on set. Before the team members are there, the actors and the director would sort of sit at a table and just chat about anything. And sometimes, mostly, we would rehearse the scenes of the day. And that really is a space where you can try out different tonalities of a scene and try how it feels different then we would fix on it and apply that when we start shooting.

A lot of Afire is dependent on tone, it's such an atmosphere-driven film.

TS: Right. So yes, it’s super important to know where you're going and to have a feeling for what the tonality has been and how we need to sort of change it and what are the steps inthe characters, and that it really helps having all this time to reflect and implement those steps in the character development.

Afire poster
Afire poster
Leon is such a big character. The music that plays more than once, In My Mind, reminds us we are in his mind in a way.

TS: Yes, that sounds like a huge responsibility at first, but what really helps, of course, is that the camera would be on my side and seeing the things I see. It just naturally pulls people into my state of mind. It’s a really interesting interaction between the camera and the actor.

I think people might be quite surprised by the shifting tone. Near the start, it almost could be a horror movie when you and Felix get out of the car.

TS: Yes, but I feel like all good stories are sort of hard to pinpoint in the beginning. There's an ambiguity, when you get into the story to not know what's going to happen.

Afire is out in cinemas this week, so hopefully people can catch that even if they’re not in Edinburgh. What else do you have coming up just so that we know what to look out for you in next?

TS: I'm going to be doing another thing with Christian next year and the next thing for me will be asitcom for a public broadcaster in Germany.

Afire is released in UK cinemas on August 25 and will also be available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema

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