German-born actor Falk Hentschel is one of the stars of Robert Zemeckis’ upcoming true-story drama Welcome To Marwen.
Falk spoke to Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge about playing the villain in Welcome To Marwen, being a backup dancer for Mariah Carey and what he owes to Cameron Diaz.
Q: You play Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Topf in ‘Welcome To Marwen’. How much did you relish taking this villainous role?
A: It is really funny that you say relish because I actually have been dreading playing a Nazi my entire career. I’ve tried so hard to be accepted as “an American actor”, giving up my own language and culture in order to do so, I’ve always feared playing anything German at all. If you look back at my career there is very little German in my resume.
That said, Welcome to Marwen was a very different beast. Topf being a doll allowed me to expand myself as an actor. Doing motion-capture was somehow very freeing and allowed me to be larger than life. Plus the fact that I also got to play an American in this film kind of made it a perfect project for me.
Quite honestly, it was very challenging to do some of the scenes as the American who beat Mark. Knowing that this really happened and embodying the person who attacked Mark was quite overwhelming at times, especially when we shot the attack scenes. I took a salt bath and brought out all my new age cleansing gadgets and shooed away anything negative. So overall this role was a lovely and amazing challenge in more than one way.
Q: This is an incredibly powerful and inspiring story. What attracted you to the project and its messages?
A: To me, Mark Hogencamp’s courage was the most inspiring element of the story. He was a man courageous enough to try to live his truth and was then beaten within an inch of his life, resulting in severe PTSD, losing many of his motor functions and most of his memory, because ignorant people felt threaten by him.
Not only did Mark pick himself back up after this tragedy but he decided to remain true to himself and be unapologetically one-hundred percent Mark Hogencamp.
I admire the bravery it takes to truly be yourself no matter what people say, think or do. Especially in our industry and our society in general, that’s a very hard thing to maintain. To me Mark is a true hero, an example and inspiration for so many of us right now. Mark’s story encouraged me to always be authentically me.
Q: I love the look of this cast with yourself, Steve Carell, Eiza Gonzalez, Janelle Monaé, Diane Kruger and our friend Siobhan Williams. How was your experience working with such a talented cast?
A: Unfortunately, I didn’t have very many scenes with the incredible “Women of Marwen.” But the short experience I had with them was very lovely. Most of my scenes were with Steve and he was wonderful to work with. Kind, professional and most of all very committed to the role which was impressive to see. I made amazing friends with Matt O’Leary (who plays Benz) and Neil Jackson (Kurt). Look out for those two, they do incredible work.
I made friends for life and had the opportunity to work in an incredible creative and magical environment.
Q: What did you learn from your time with the legendary Robert Zemeckis?
A: In short, I learned so much! Bob is a true artist and an absolute genius at what he does. His vision is so clear, he communicates so flawlessly and also allows for the actors to play and have fun. He embraces ideas if they help tell the story, no matter who the idea comes from.
My favourite part of the day was the morning. Bob would sit every one down and lay out his vision for the scenes to come. It felt like a captain talking to his troops, giving them a battle plan. The energy in the room was awesome; full of excitement and anticipation.
He’s a leader that you’d follow into any battle blindly. It was film making at its best. The biggest lesson I took from watching him though was his handle on the story. He never loses sight of it, always knowing what the focus needs to be on and managing to create an emotional journey like an orchestra conductor. It was magic.
Q: You have a fascinating background coming from Germany and making your way through the world of dance. I hear you were inspired by the likes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?
A: I’ve wanted to be an actor since I was very little. Apparently, I told my grandmother at 4 years old that I wanted to be in films. But when I was 12 years old I took my parents’ home video camera and ran through the woods behind our house with a childhood friend of mine. We made very terrible, but incredibly fun little martial arts action films. We shot and edited everything as best as we could in the camera. When we then watched our footage back on our TV, that’s when I knew I didn’t want do anything else.
Unfortunately back then, there was very little opportunity for kids to get into acting in Germany. So my mother was the one who told me how many actors had a background in dance. Her favourite was Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing. I started to dive deep into the world of dance and took a little detour that ultimately landed me in Los Angeles where there was plenty of opportunity to go back to my childhood dream, making films.
Q: I’m glad you bring up your dance background. Tell us more about how you went from Germany to performing as a backup dancer for stars such as Britney Spears and Mariah Carey?
A: I started my dance career in Germany back up dancing in music videos and doing tours. I decided I wanted to be more international and moved to London, which is where I very randomly got a quick gig free-styling in a club for Mariah Carey. It was a very quick gig. I ended up performing for an artist called Jamelia who was the opening act on Justin Timberlake’s first solo tour. I met a bunch of people from LA and made the choice that it was time to make the big move to the states.
A few months later I arrived in LA. I ended up teaching at the millennium dance complex and Debbie Reynold’s dance studio. That and choreographing for music videos and performing at live shows helped support me while I was studying acting and trying to find a way into the market.
Q: I was fascinated to hear that Cameron Diaz was an important force when you transitioned into acting. What do you owe to Cameron?
A: I owe her quite a bit. Number one, the fact the she was incredibly welcoming, giving and so kind to me. She made me feel like I belonged, even though I was brand new to the game. When you get on a set as big as Knight And Day, it can be very lonely and intimidating – especially if it’s your first big film. So to be treated with respect, generosity and kindness makes a huge difference.
And even more importantly, it sets the tone for your career. Starting out with such a positive experience makes you expect no less for the future. She also made me feel like she believed in me, which is such a gift in an environment often void of that. I think of Cameron often and send her gratitude for being so graceful with such a greenhorn. I’ll never forget.
Q: I am a huge fan of some of the young talent coming out of European cinema at the moment. What would your advice be to young European talents looking to make their way and perhaps work in the States?
A: Quite honestly, I think the real advice is to not chase Hollywood. Create a life that you enjoy living. If you love to tell stories then find them wherever you can and connect with like minded creators. The industry is becoming more and more global and less centralised.
To me as long as you’re fulfilled and happy with what you do it doesn’t matter where you do it. If Hollywood wants to create with you, they’ll find you. Forcing anything in life never works, at least not for me. Magical things happen and the right people connect with you if you can get out of your own way. I try to remind myself of that as much as I can.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects or ambitions to share with us?
A: I’m currently shooting a sci-fi thriller show called Spides in Berlin. It’s lovely to finally shoot a show in the place I came from. A lot of very talented actors and creators are involved and it’s exciting to be a part of it all.
I’m planning to produce my own film. I’m currently putting together a feature that I wrote. A medieval indie action drama. Fingers crossed that it’ll all come together soon.
My biggest ambition is to build a big little studio that helps filmmakers tell their stories, fund it in a way that the power remains in the hands of the creatives and distribute the money in a fair way. Holistic filmmaking.
Title photo by Maarten Deboer