How Barbara Sukowa Built a Lasting—and Legendary—International Acting Career

For the better part of 50 years and more than 60 screen credits, Barbara Sukowa has been one of German cinema’s most transfixing stars. She cut her teeth on the Berlin stage playing famed Shakespearean women like Helena in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Rosalind in “As You Like It,” and Desdemona in “Othello.” But it was in collaborations with filmmakers Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1980’s organized crime miniseries “Berlin Alexanderplatz” and 1981’s “Lola”) and Margarethe von Trotta (with whom she’s worked seven times, beginning with 1981’s “Marianne & Juliane”) that she established herself as a fearless performer with formidable grit. The fact that she was strikingly beautiful became secondary to the strong-willed women she embodied onscreen, and she cemented herself as a true-blue European screen legend. Since moving to Brooklyn in 1991, she’s also built a résumé of English-language credits, from “M. Butterfly” in 1993 to the 2015 Syfy series “12 Monkeys.”

Sukowa is the recipient of many German film awards, plus accolades for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival, the Venice International Film Festival, and the Montreal World Film Festival, and is a three-time winner of the prestigious Bavarian Film Award. She again enters the awards race this year with “Deux” (released in the United States as “Two of Us”). From co-writer and director Filippo Meneghetti, the French feature follows an elderly lesbian couple, Nina (Sukowa) and Madeleine (Martine Chevallier), whose plans to spend their golden years together in Rome are halted when Madeleine’s health takes a tragic turn. The feature was nominated for best foreign language film at the Golden Globe Awards; was shortlisted as France’s official selection for best international feature at the Academy Awards; and, at the country’s native Lumières, took home prizes for best first film and best actress for both Sukowa and Chevallier. 

Speaking with Backstage over video call from Liverpool, England, fresh off a mandated quarantine prior to filming Mary Harron’s “Dali Land” with Ben Kingsley, Sukowa discusses the significance of showcasing two women in love at her 71 years of age; shares how she creates a performance, whether in German, French, or English; and explains why, since her early days onscreen, she has been turning down everything from femmes fatales to SS officers in order to chart her own path in the performing arts. 

“I instinctively knew that all beauty, sexy things—that’s a time frame that you have, you know? That’s a short time. And if you don’t develop character roles, then it’s hard to transition.”

How did you come to play Nina in “Deux,” and what made you want to sign on?
I read the script, and I thought it was very well-written, and I thought I had not seen two gay older women onscreen. I thought that was interesting, because I have seen sort of attractive, young, beautiful actresses in these lesbian relations, but I had never seen older women. And then I heard that it was a young director, and I thought, That’s interesting: a male, young view on two gay older women. And so I agreed to meet [Meneghetti], and when I met him, I felt he was very, very invested and very passionate about the project and had really tried to get a deep understanding of these two women. 

Were you familiar, as colleagues, with Martine Chevallier before starring with her in this film, or did you meet for this project? 
No, we met for this project. But we’re the same age, and I also started out in the theater and love the theater, and so we had points of communication, definitely. 

To speak more to those points of communication, the central relationship between Nina and Madeleine is so important. How did you go about building that chemistry and trust with each other? 
Oy, I think that’s just acting! We knew we wouldn’t have rehearsals, so Filippo invited us to a dinner; he did a dinner in Paris at which Martine and I met, and we knew, in order to establish this relationship, we just had to be very open with each other. And we sort of started talking about our lives during this dinner—about our love lives, of course, mainly—which is not something you usually do with a stranger. But I remember I did a film years ago [“M. Butterfly”] where Jeremy Irons and I were a couple, and we also had, the next day, to be in bed and talk to each other. So it happened—the same thing; although we didn’t know each other, we had to open up during this dinner about a lot of things that you normally don’t do with a stranger just to get a feel for each other. 

The interesting thing is—which I only realized during the shooting—is that you know something about Martine’s character, Madeleine. You don’t know much about Nina. You don’t know: Was she always gay? How had she changed in her life? She was a tour guide, but was it really her learned profession? Did she always live in Berlin, or she lived in Rome? You know very little about her. 

I’m glad you mentioned that. You get some little pieces about her, but did you flesh out a backstory that we don’t see? How do you typically build a character? 
I do imagine things for myself, but I don’t tell them on set. It depends. When I play a historical character—Hannah Arendt [in 2012’s “Hannah Arendt”] or Rosa Luxemburg [in 1986’s “Rosa Luxemburg”]—I do a lot of research on the character and try to find out what this person really was. Anything I can find out: private letters, what other people have said about this person. 

In a fictional character, that’s not the case, so a lot happens when I am on set and I see my partner. The relation and even the character of my character sort of unfolds in the connection with my acting partner, so my acting partner is always extremely important to me. That’s why I’m not good at auditioning—things that you have to do alone, you know? I really need the eyes of the other person; it’s my greatest joy to work with a great actor. 

“A lot happens when I am on set and I see my partner. The relation and even the character of my character sort of unfolds in the connection with my acting partner, so my acting partner is always extremely important to me.”

Looking ahead, you’re filming “Dali Land,” and you’ve otherwise stayed working for years and years. How do you find ways to keep it fresh and to challenge yourself as an actor? 
It’s funny, I haven’t done as many movies as people think. I had three children, and when I moved from Germany to America, I didn’t work for long stretches, because in America, I had this accent. Now, there are many more people that have accents, but at the time, that was a real challenge to have this accent; and I didn’t want to play just Nazis. It was difficult to continue a career in Germany while living in New York, and so I didn’t do as many films as people think. When I did something, I chose something that I found interesting enough to leave my three kids for. It had to have a meaning for myself. So that helps. And, yeah, I think every situation, every film, is just so different. You play with different actors, you have [a] different crew, a different director; and if you are attentive and open and observant, it’s always a new, fresh thing. 

You moved to Brooklyn in 1991. Did you actually find yourself turning down Nazi roles? 
Yeah, I do remember when I was in America before, in the ’80s, I think when “Lola” came out here, there was a question for me to stay in America. I came here to promote the movie, and then a couple of times, there were some SS roles, or they wanted to make miniseries about the SS. I thought, If I stay here, I’m probably gonna always play these kinds of roles. And so I went back. 

“Lola” was your big break. In terms of pigeonholing, did you receive a lot of femme fatale offers after that? How did you push back against those expectations?
All the time. [Laughs] But I turned down most of it. I instinctively knew that all beauty, sexy things—that’s a time frame that you have, you know? That’s a short time. And if you don’t develop character roles, it’s hard to transition. I think it’s probably even psychologically hard, as a woman. So I very early on played roles that were older than I, or that were not the “attractive” roles, per se. That was a good choice, I think. I also was very lucky that I met Margarethe von Trotta, and that I did—in America, they call it “Marianne & Juliane,” that film. And then “Rosa Luxemburg.” I had a director who was interested in women that were more than—that were not defined by their beauty or their sexiness, that were defined by their mind or their strength.

What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever done for a role? 
Well, I’ll tell you something: When I did it, I wasn’t even aware that this was quite extreme. It was in “Berlin Alexanderplatz,” the [1980 Rainer Werner] Fassbinder series. I was supposed to be dead, a decomposing body. So they put makeup on me for hours and hours and hours to decompose me. Then I was put in a suitcase, then worms were put on me—real worms. Then they closed the suitcase, I was put in a ditch, and they put earth on the suitcase. That was all real. And then [there] was the inspector who was supposed to discover me, and they took the earth off and they opened the suitcase, and there I was with the worms crawling on me. I just did it. I was so young and it was my first big role, and I thought, Well, I guess that’s what it is to be a film actor.

“Be aware that [acting is] a longer-term thing, and when something bad happens or you don’t get something, it’s not over. It’s really a long run, and there are many chances. You might lose some, but don’t dwell on anything that doesn’t work out the way you want.”

When it comes to these characters that you’re tackling, how would you describe your process? Do you have any pillars or tricks that you rely on from project to project? 
For me, one thing is really important: that I know my lines. It makes me free. I can concentrate on other things—especially, of course, if I act in English or in French. In German, it’s a little different, because it’s my mother tongue. It also depends on how close a character is to myself, or how far a person is away from me. In the end, it’s always I who is doing it. There are the words of Lady Macbeth in the content in the play, but in the end, I put it together, and you can read any line in so many different ways. And people see it in different ways. I’ve also learned that you don’t have to play everything. I think that’s something that I also like in “Deux”—that there is room for an audience. You sometimes have to leave room for your audience to feel. You don’t have to put out every feeling that you have right into their face. 

You’ve always seemed comfortable leaning into the silences as a performer. Is that confidence something that simply comes with experience? 
I think it took time. I think in the beginning, I talked when I was insecure about what I was feeling. I was talking more quickly to get it over with. [Laughs] I figured out sometimes, it was good for me to say lines loud, even if they’re not meant to be loud, because you have to make a decision. I’ve often realized, with young actors, especially lately, that they have this very kind of mumbling, quiet [way of performing], because then it can be anything and you don’t have to make a decision. So they speak very low, almost, you know, not giving anything away. I think you can get to that again, but it’s good, at one point, to at least ask yourself if there’s a decision required. If you speak slower and louder, you have to make a decision: what you’re saying and what you feel. 

Is language ever a barrier for you? 
It is a challenge, definitely. French is more difficult than English now because I’ve been living in the United States for a long time. It was even [difficult] reading scripts. In the beginning, I couldn’t even say whether it was a good script or not. In German, I know right away if that character speaks right or if that’s truthful, whereas in English, in the beginning, I really just didn’t know. I was fluent in English, but there’s more to language than just the language itself. It’s the character. And I just didn’t know people from different areas in the United States, or different classes. In Germany, I would know: Oh, this is a working-class woman who talks like this. In English, I couldn’t say that. Now, I’ve gotten much better. 

What advice would you give to international actors who want to begin acting in the U.S.? 
Immerse yourself. In America, I watched a show like “Judge Judy” where they were real people—more than just watching actors. I went to a diction coach in America to learn American diction, but I felt that’s not a language; it’s vowels and consonants. You have to kind of get the attitude. I think you have to immerse yourself somehow in the culture, try to be there.

What advice would you give to early career actors? What is something you wish you’d known when you were starting out?
It was such a different time. Things were so different. I would say: Look more at life than at movies; observe yourself and your situations and fellow human beings in real life. And be aware that [acting is] a longer-term thing, and when something bad happens or you don’t get something, it’s not over. It’s really a long run, and there are many chances. You might lose some, but don’t dwell on anything that doesn’t work out the way you want. You will see it very differently later on.

This story originally appeared in the April 8 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Jay Mawson on 3/10 in Liverpool, UK

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Benjamin Lindsay
Benjamin Lindsay is managing editor at Backstage, where if you’re reading it in our magazine, he’s written or edited it first. He’s also producer and host of a number of our digital interview series, including our inaugural on-camera segment, Backstage Live.
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