Jeff Bridges made his screen debut at the age of two, Jodie Foster at seven, Shirley Temple at four. Sebastian Koch, who stars in the coming of age comedy drama Albatross, has waited till the grand old age of 49.
To be precise, Koch is making his British feature film debut at the grand old age of 49. In his native Germany, the actor has a stage, screen and television career going back more than two decades, and an Oscar-winning film, The Lives of Others, to his name.
Although he has done a television mini-series in English, Sea Wolf, and appeared in the Berlin-set thriller Unknown with Liam Neeson, Albatross marks his own coming of age in English language cinema.
For someone who learned a little English at school then learned again on the job years later with 2009’s Sea Wolf, Koch didn’t line himself up with the easiest of gigs. It’s a move akin to a Brian Cox or a Ralph Fiennes suddenly announcing they want to work full time in German cinema, or Owen Wilson, hero of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, delivering all his lines in French. But the father of one is determined that this will be the beginning of a long and beautiful linguistic friendship.
“I don’t know so much about the language, so I don’t know all the little traps and I am a bit more naïve about it, but I like it and want to continue acting with it,” he says.
In Albatross, which had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, Koch plays Jonathan, a one hit wonder author struggling with writer’s block and a mid-life crisis. With 22-year-old Jessica Brown Findlay of Downton Abbey making her first feature film, Koch had company on the debut front. Findlay plays Emelia, aspiring writer, new best friend to Jonathan’s daughter (Felicity Jones), and a young woman who cuts through the quiet English seaside town like a tornado.
Koch says of Findlay, who gave up ballet for acting after ankle problems, “She’s a bit like Emelia, she’s quite close to the character, she paints, she used to dance, she’s a real artist, a free spirit.”
Besides acting in what was for him a foreign language, Koch was taking on one of the more difficult genres, the comedy-drama. But he knew the field, citing Peter’s Friends, Kenneth Branagh’s 1992 ensemble drama, as a favourite. When he was approached by the makers of Albatross he didn’t hesitate. “I love British comedies. I was almost honoured a British company asked me to do it.”
Germans have a sense of humour, he says, but it’s different, “more superficial”. He prefers a deeper, tragicomic style. “Like Oscar Wilde, this wonderful arrogance yet this huge heart.”
Huge heart was a quality much associated with The Lives of Others, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s 2006 drama set in Stasi-terrorised East Germany in the Eighties. Koch played another writer – this one being spied upon by a government agent. As the regime tightens its vicious grip, victim and victimiser begin to question their lives to date.
Though it starred actors largely unknown outside Germany and was made for the relatively miniscule sum of $2 million, The Lives of Others won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2006. Koch remembers the picture as one of those rare occasions in movie making when everything felt right from the start. The script was intelligent, the director was sensitive enough to do it justice, and the cast was perfect, he says. “Everything was in place, the whole thing started to breathe. You feel it. You think, ‘Wow it’s going to be wonderful.’ That sort of magic translates.”
In Germany the response was mixed, with some arguing the period was not like that at all. “Of course it was,” says Koch. Others were grateful, relieved, that a light was being shone on those grim times. Outside Germany, the film was a global hit making $77 million worldwide. To put those earnings into perspective, this year’s foreign language Oscar winner, the highly regarded Danish drama In a Better World, has grossed $9.6 million worldwide.
Attracting rave reviews from The Herald to The New Yorker, the period after the release of The Lives of Others might have been the moment for Koch to move to Hollywood, but instead he found himself stepping back.
“As an actor you always want to do one film which remains. Change the world a bit. If you achieve that the first moment you don’t know what to do. You did it. I retreated almost for two years doing not so much.”
He stayed in Germany partly because he didn’t want to do just anything after such a landmark film, and partly because he was simply in need of a break. Before The Lives of Others he had played several major historical figures, including Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect, in German television movies. “I worked like an idiot, three or four films a year. I was exhausted. It was important just to have a break, breathe out.”
There was also a happier reason for taking a break in that his daughter, now 15, decided that she wanted to live with him in Berlin full-time.
Koch’s own childhood was remarkable in that his first six years were spent in the orphanage where his mother worked in the kitchen (he grew up without a father, though the two have always been in touch). Although an only child, it was far from a lonely childhood.
“That was a great time. Of course I had my mother next to me, so I was a bit spoiled. To grow up with 35-40 children was wonderful. It was a big family. A lot of fun.”
After the orphanage his mother started her own health food shop, filling the youngster with the best of nutritious grub. This led to a craving, he laughs, for white bread, butter and other not so healthy food, which he indulged in at friends’ houses.
Now that his daughter is settled in, is a bit older and can handle dad being away working for a couple of weeks, he is more willing to take on work outside Germany again. Although sometimes, as in Unknown, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring fellow German actor Diane Kruger, the work comes to Koch at home.
Having dived into British comedy drama, does he want to work in America next or stay in Europe?
He doesn’t care, he says, as long as the character grabs him. So long is spent with characters, he says, that “it’s almost like a little marriage. It’s a commitment, and I want to commit to things I really like and have to do. It’s a complicated process to say yes”.
Should Albatross be a success, and with his derring-do on the language front, saying yes might not be such a hard task in future.
Albatross opens in cinemas tomorrow.