Close-Up: An Interview With Gabrielle Scharnitzky

Well-known and well-rounded actress, and also the founder of “The Lodge Berlin“, Gabrielle Scharnitzky speaks to Aimée Woolford about her life as a mentor for upcoming actors; whilst mentioning her future aspirations and life on-set for Target.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be an actress, or did it take experience to know that you wanted to act professionally? 

A: Born in 1950’s Germany into a post-war society that was struggling to build up the country. I started acting early on. Acting always felt like a perfect escape from the atmosphere of lack and poverty. We were lucky though; we were the proud owners of a TV. I still see myself sitting in front of the black and white screen, in awe of what I saw… Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, Louis Armstrong, Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. I felt drawn to that world that felt so real to me, so much bigger, so much freer and so much lighter.   

I immediately tried to copy those I had seen on screen. I realised that I could lift up others when I started to move like M.M., or impersonated Louis Armstrong by singing with a raspy voice. Nothing could make me happier than when I saw others laugh and giggle, and make them forget their struggles. For me acting always felt like breathing. I wrote my own theatre plays, directed and acted in them and even won an award for it when I was 9 years old. Being a “green frog” at a theatre contest of Bavarian schools was proof of my talent. But I never thought that I would “become” an actress. I simply was.  But times were different then. My parents would never ever have allowed me to walk that path. 

In those times you did what your parents told you and, even though I felt a strong urge to go to England as an au-pair and venture out into the world, I obeyed and started an apprenticeship as a travel agent in 1972 – I was 16 years old. Mainly to not be a burden to my mother who, after divorcing my father, had to take care of us three girls all by herself. Having always been interested in our beautiful planet and loving to speak foreign languages, I was convinced that I could live with that choice. However, whilst travelling the world for 12 years, I realised that, even though I enjoyed the beauty of the world and the many encounters life had given me, there was a deep feeling of lack. Nothing could fill that emptiness, which was very hard to endure. 

When this led to suicidal thoughts, I realised that it was high time for me to change my life and take responsibility. At that time, I did not know that it was the artist within me that was yearning for expression. But remembering the joy in acting I had as a child and teenager, I knew I had to at least give it a try. After my early shifts at the airport office at Pan American Airways, I went  to attend afternoon classes of a private acting school. One year later, even though my family considered me crazy to leave a well-paid job, I said goodbye forever to what had been my life and identity, and ventured out into the absolute unknown.  And I never looked back.  

Q: What was it like to be on-set for “Target”? 

A: Target with Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon, directed by Arthur Penn, was my real first experience with Hollywood’s movie industry. Since then, it has been my paradigm; my guiding line for working as an actress, no matter if it is on a movie or television set. In October 1984, I was still working for Pan American Airways when the production team of Target asked for one Pan American employee who would be willing to act in front of the camera. My supervisor, knowing that I was attending an acting school, was so sweet to give me the assignment and sent me to Hamburg Airport, where Targewas shot.

I was super excited about the prospect of meeting Arthur Penn, the creator of Bonny and Clyde. I considered him as one of the Gods of film-making. So, I already knew that I was up for an incredible experience. Arriving on set at Hamburg Airport, I was told that I would have a scene with Matt Dillon, one of my favourite actors of that time. The scene was very difficult to shoot because of the choreography in the background, with hundreds of extras moving from one end of the huge airport hall to the other. 

In the scene, Matt Dillon had to approach my “check-in desk” whilst having a dialogue with his scene partner and checking in his luggage. First take – the luggage fell off of the belt. “Cut”. Second take — Matt forgot a line in the dialogue. “Cut”. And with every new take, Matt got more and more nervous. I really felt for him. I don’t remember how many times the extras had to be “shuffled back” to their positions, but I still see Matt in front of me suffering from the fear of failing. 

Then something extraordinary happened which, to this day, remains in my heart as an example of working under the wings and love of a great director. Arthur Penn stopped everything, left his seat, walked slowly to Matt and- like a father – put his arm around his shoulders, pulled him aside a little and spoke with him for quite a while. 

All whilst totally calm, as if nothing in the world was more important than this moment.  Matt visibly relaxed and a huge smile on his face released all of his tension. Everyone was happy for and with him. Arthur went back to his seat, the extras were again at their positions, he said “And action” – and the air, just filled with love, made the scene an easy ride. There is nothing more fulfilling than these moments when “being human” is embraced with compassion, humour and… LOVE – THE FUEL FOR ART! Movie or TV set – it doesn’t matter – this rule applies always. 

Christian Wewerka Photography (Berlin)

Q: Was it a massive shift going from acting in movies to television series? How did you adjust to the different atmosphere? 

A: I still remember the soothing sound of a huge 35 mm camera, which was like music to my ears. When video cameras entered the technology world, I experienced it like a sensorial withdrawal. I didn’t like it. Well – I had to get used to it. And I did. But the biggest change that hit movie and television industry alike were the cuts in production time to save money. Suddenly, we did not have 8 weeks to shoot a movie. Suddenly, it had to be done in 4-6 weeks or sometimes even less. No matter if it was a movie or television; there suddenly was much more pressure on everyone in the team, but especially on the director. We had to rehearse, ponder or discuss structure and turning points of scenes in a much shorter amount of time, if at all. Less time equals more stress – yes. But in the end, it doesn’t change rule number one: know thy craft. 

Work is so much more fun when everyone in the team knows that each and every person is a pro and gives their best. No matter how much or little time we have. I am a team-player and I expect of myself to be a gift to the team, rather than a burden. Coming well-rehearsed to set; knowing my lines; knowing my character inside out, from top to toe, from skin to bone. This is my contribution. And there is nothing better than a team and a director trusting in what you’re doing.    

But we all know the real challenge we are facing in the film industry nowadays is not so much the time – we already got used to that – but how to minimise our carbon footprint. There will be a time after Coronavirus, and we cannot avoid that issue anymore. According to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), one hour of television creates an emission of 13 tons of carbon dioxide. A movie like The Day After Tomorrow, for example, created an emission of 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide. And if you look closely, it makes sense. The actors and crew often have to fly around the world – and sometimes several times for one movie; day by day we have an overload of garbage on set, plastic cups, plastic cutlery, plastic, plastic, plastic. Diesel generators that run for hours and hours to create electricity . And the list goes on and on. So, how we can create movies in a much “greener version”? This is the pressing question of the very near future.  

Q: What was it like to go from working for an airline to becoming a well-known actress? 

A: Accepting my own calling was always fraught with challenges—I had to face many fears and difficulties. For instance, no state acting school accepted my application. 

I was told that I was “too old” as a 30-year-old to start out as a beginner. My family believed that I was wasting my time. My father told me “You are betting on the wrong horse.” My mother tried to convince me to get back to my job. In the end, none of this mattered: I had to listen to my calling. 

I didn’t succumb to the belief that I was powerless. To the contrary, I knew I had to set in motion a new way of dealing with obstacles. And believe me, the obstacles soon turned out to be far greater than I could have ever imagined. To be able to survive, I had to learn to turn all those challenges into opportunities. One big challenge was that I always was short of money. My dream of studying in New York was out of reach but, since American acting teachers like Geraldine Baron, Dominic de Fazio, John Costopoulos and Susan Batson had come to Berlin since the mid 80´s to give intensive seminars of 6 or 12 weeks, I started working with them. In the long run, I became their simultaneous interpreter which gave me the chance to work with them for a very long time. Being close to my teachers speaking their words, that resonated deeply within and through me, was a huge gift and a great lesson at the same time. It showed me that there is no excuse – that things always work out when I put my all into it.   

I am not trying to “beautify” my experiences. Truth is, I had to sacrifice a lot in my life to stick to my calling. Relationships, possessions, motherhood: just to name a few. But living with rejection after rejection for years and years was the toughest part… and necessary. Because through all of it I learned that the most important thing is to sacrifice my own limiting beliefs. I had to discard the stories my parents & others had told me about myself. I had to discover who I truly was in my quest of becoming and being an actress. All I knew was that art is my true path, and that I need to honour the artist within me.  I had to become an alchemist and turn that passionate flame within me to pure steel. I had to let go of the painful suffering of wanting to be acknowledged. I had to start to write my own story. My own destiny.   

Years later, when my father had died and I had inherited a bit of money, I finally made my dream come true. I studied and worked in New York with the best acting teachers. I am forever grateful to them for believing in me and my talent, and supporting my quest to truly become who I am. I learned with every fibre of my being that making art tells you who you are, and art in turn makes you.  
Q: You’ve been involved in a huge variety of TV shows and films. Does it ever get challenging to juggle your career and your personal life? 

A: Oh boy. As a single mother of two cats it has always been a nightmare! Not being able to take my cats with me when I had to travel for work was the most difficult for me.  I always found a solution for their well-being, but missing them was the toughest of all.  

Q: What job would you love to have, if you were not an actress? 

A: I would have loved to be an archaeologist: time-travelling by digging in the earth and finding treasures; studying history and entering dimensions of other lifetimes; holding artefacts in my hands that had been made thousands of years ago, carrying stories with them, feeling their energies.  

In 2008, I was invited to audition for a part in the upcoming BBC Mini-Series called Bonekickers: a series revolving around archaeologists and their finds, with Hugh Bonneville, Julie Graham and Adrian Lester – directed by Nick Hurran. The part? A German archaeologist in the fields of Verdun. When my agent called me to tell me that I had nailed the job, I was beyond grateful and so, so happy.  

“The Empty Plan”

Q: You had the leading role in “The Empty Plan””, a documentary about Bertolt Brecht. What was it like to star in a documentary rather than a film? Was this an educational experience for you? 

A: Actually, it has been the most profound experience as an actress.  Not only because I was allowed to embody the legendary Helene Weigel – THE Mother Courage! But because the directors, David Panos and Anja Kirschner, encouraged me to let go of any expectation and just create from my own perspective and understanding – a very democratic approach that really opened up all my senses and enhanced my joy in acting even more. Truth is, I had studied Bertolt Brecht’s work for decades. I was always in awe of the power of simplicity that shines through all of his work. It is in that simplicity where wisdom speaks. Shakespearian. Every word a manifest.  

The directors David Panos and Anja Kirschner did not want to create a typical documentary. Instead, it was an experimental look onto Brecht’s theories and the difficulty to apply those in the superficial world of Hollywood, where he and Helene lived in exile. While shooting, the directors encouraged us to be co-creators. No hierarchy. This was an approach to film making that I always wanted to experience. The best example for this kind of work are the films by John Cassavetes. It was mind-boggling: allowing the epic truth of the moment to be there while applying Brecht’s “Alienation effect” in the process. The film was only shown in museums worldwide. It is considered an art-piece. I am really proud of it. In 2011, the film won the prestigious Derek Jarman Award.

Q: It seems that you love supporting the younger generation of aspiring actors, with your own acting studio and workshops. Tell us about your work as a transformational coach.

A: In 1998 when I returned from New York to Berlin, there were two private acting studios where you could train as an actor. However, having had extraordinary training in New York I knew I wouldn’t be able to train in the same style that I had learned. That inspired me to create my own acting studio, the ‘Actors Lodge Berlin’. Since then, I have been accompanying actors of all ages, professional backgrounds and careers. Many of those actors who came to me in the beginning of the Studio are still coming back when they need help with creating characters or preparing for auditions, TV shows or films.  

The greatest reward as a teacher and coach is to see acting talents and their careers blossom by just applying my rather-unique approach of combining the ‘Stella Adler Acting’ technique with the deep inner work I was taught by the native-American Chief of the Seneca Nation, Grandmother Twylah Nitsch. She adopted me into the tribe in 1992, at the Cattaraugus Reservation, and gave me my native-American name Joasha Blue Heron. But that’s another story!

Over the years, the growing demand for my approach of transformational inner work made me realise that non-actors should also be able to apply it. I refined the tools and teachings so that they could be applied by anyone. Thanks to technology, I am nowadays able to coach online. So, no matter where I am in the world because of my acting work, I keep mentoring people from all walks of life in Online Group or 1:1 Sessions, helping them to better and transform their lives.  

Title image by Robert Recker Photography (Berlin)

1 comment

  1. Wonderful interview of my friend, Gabi. She is the most dedicated, sensitive and loving actor I have known. She is more than willing to try something new, anything to increase her knowledge of life. To experiment. And her language skills are amazing, Luckily, Europe is willing to use ‘older’ actors as opposed to the USA.

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