Ken Duken Interview


by Neil Young

Ken Duken is one of the best known and busiest young actors in Germany. Born in Heidelberg on 17th April, 1979, he made his feature debut with Schlaraffenland in 1999. He’s worked extensively on stage and on TV, earning particular acclaim for his performance as a wheelchair-bound would-be mountaineer in Gran Paradiso (2000).

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve just finished an international co-production called Daddy, about the Third Reich – set in the 30s and 40s – it’s about a young boy who is hunted by the SS. It’s not a typical ‘Germans are bad’ movie – it’s about people in the third reich – it’s not about the war, it’s about one person in the war.

Who else is in it, and what is your role?

Klaus Maria Brandauer – he plays an old German, who collaborates with the Nazis for his own reasons, not for the Nazis’ benefit. I am the leader of the SS troops, and I’m trying to find the boy.

So you’re presumably the villain, not the hero this time?

I’m the bad guy, yes. But I mix my roles, and most of the time my characters aren’t ‘good guy’ or ‘bad guy’ or anything like that. I always try to find the good and the bad in every character. The Nazis didn’t think they were the bad guys, for instance, they thought they were the good guys. I just try to find out the truth of each character and how they see themselves.

And next?

Well, I think I’m going to Tunisia for another international production, for nine weeks, but I haven’t signed the contract yet. I am to sign in a few days, so it’s bad luck to talk about it now, if you don’t mind. But the next film to be released is Kiss and Run which is a romantic comedy coming out at the end of the year. There are also several films I’m doing this year with historical themes.

Such as?

There’s a film called Nipchewo, which is a little like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? It’s a love story, kind of, but I don’t think very mainstream. Very simple, but very emotional. Someone comes back into the former East Germany after the border comes down, to look for his son. He just wants to find him, he doesn’t want to make contact. But he sees that the kid has serious problems, he thinks about suicide. The father tries to save him. I play this young man who is good-looking, handsome, etc, but he’s losing his mind.

Another dark project. Do you find yourself drawn to darker material?

Well, I do a lot of comedies and ‘nice films’, but I like to do some more challenging types of roles, at least twice a year if I can.

You seem extremely busy.

Well, I’m not the busiest actor around – last year I didn’t like any of the scripts I was offered, so I didn’t work for eight months. The thing is, I will commit and fight to do a film even if the budget is not in place. If the finance breaks down, then there’s no film for me to do. I believe that film should be a family, like a family business – like a kind of ‘rat pack’ idea, if you like, but positive. This is an industry which, maybe more than others, is full of corruption and back-talking. I don’t want to be alone in that kind of industry – it’s better if I can surround myself with film-makers and actors, and that we can be friendly. That way, if they see me going wrong, they can say “Hey, Ken, you’re changing into a fucking asshole!” Then I’ll know if something is going wrong.

Has that happened so far?

Not really. There were some bad times earlier when I did think about giving up, it was affecting my personal life. I know about 30 people who would say “Come on, Ken, shut the fuck up!” and they believed in me. They say that you find out who your real friends are when things go bad, and I thought maybe only two or three would turn out to be good – but it was about 30 of them!

So now, it’s a better time, and you don’t think of giving up?

It wasn’t about quitting, to be honest. It’s just that, when I do a film, I really fight for it. When I did Gran Paradiso I spent eight weeks in a wheelchair, you know. I got to know disabled people and none of them knew I could walk. They spoke so amazingly honestly to me, and that’s what I call family. And that film was a flop in Germany. I thought “Shit!” – my friend who produced it was in trouble, and he’d needed balls to do a project like this. He got Warner Bros to believe in the film, so we tried to do it together and we did it. I was really sad, I saw some friends having their dreams broken, and so on.

How has your career developed in Germany?

Here we have a system that says “He’s handsome – get him on TV straight away.” There’s no real education for young actors like that, and you need to study what you’re doing if you want to get better.

Did you go to acting school?

Well, I played on stage when I was five, and then I studied acting for maybe six years. And I still take acting lessons – the eight weeks’ preparation for Paradiso, that was a kind of acting school.

Which actors do you admire in particular?

I’d have to say first of all Dominque Pinon, who I acted with in Daddy. And in England you have a fabulous young actor called Stephen Moyer, who I appeared with in Prince Valiant. He was also in Daddy, and became a friend.

I try to make this kind of connection with other European actors. Me, I’m really just a stupid small actor who believes in things. We can connect these actors in different countries and make more European productions, or maybe like an ‘Off-Broadway’ type of cinema. At the moment I’m trying to get people together in different countries to make a film of a novel called Into Something by Barnd Kazemaza. The story is about a young man who wakes up next to a dead girl in bed, he realises she’s his girlfriend, and it’s like a kind of Trainspotting sort of story, but also a thriller maybe. I admire Trainspotting, of course, but I have no idea if we can make this kind of movie. We have ‘letters of intent’ from some investors, we’re still a long way from shooting the film, maybe next year. We have everything we need, apart from the money. I have some producing friends and I sent them the book just a week ago.

You’d maybe be listed as a producer on this film?

No way – I’m just an actor. To be a producer is much more. I like to connect people together, but to be a producer – holy shit!

Many American actors are now producing their own movies, like Sandra Bullock and Drew Barrymore.

They have a different kind of system. I’m only 23, and I’m still mainly an actor. I have a huge family of directors and producers who like to work with me, and it would be a huge lie to tell them I can do what they are doing. Maybe one day I can produce for myself, but the best thing I can do is believe in what I’m doing, and what they are doing. It’s all a matter of doing a good job – like some journalists can write a serious piece, and others will just be ‘yellow press’ and write scandal items.

Do you get much of this kind of unwelcome coverage in the German papers and magazines?

I have a good agent who protects me, I think he’s doing a good job. Some journalists in Germany I don’t want to talk to, I don’t need that kind of attention. There are a lot of actors who are only doing this job because they want the extras, like being in the press, being famous, being loved by everybody. I think that success is something that may happen to come with the job, but it’s not the target to aim at. Every film you start, you’re starting at the beginning – you can be great in one film, and fuck up in the next one. It’s about building confidence – I used to think that to be an actor means you have to be very deep and Shakespearean all the time, but it’s more difficult to just ‘do nothing’, or simple things like buying a cup of coffee. A lot of actors think about themselves too much – do I look good, move good, sound good? – they end up being very insecure, very tight and not loose like they should be.

Did you learn much from Pinon and Brandauer on Daddy?

Always, I learned from them all the time. I learn from everybody – my mother and uncle both played on stage all their lives. You can learn from everyone, the good ones and the bad ones. On Daddy I worked with a young British actor called Thomas Sangster, who plays the child in the movie. I learned more from him than from anyone else. He’s doing a film with Liam Neeson next, and you are going to hear a lot more about him in the future. He’s about 10 or 12 and he’s so fuckin’ professional. You can study from all your colleagues – I mentioned Steven Moyer earlier, he was great to learn from. You have to believe in what you’re doing and do your best.

What about Hollywood projects – do you get offered any of these US productions that have been filming in Europe, places like Prague and Budapest?

Well, I don’t know what a “Hollywood production” means these days, it’s very complicated with the funding arrangements. I play all around the world – I have done a lot of projects in many countries, but I think I will always go back to Europe, because that is where I am from. We have a lot of great movies coming out of Europe, especially the British and French ones. At the moment I have more scripts on my desk than I am able to read. At the end of the year, I have to decide between eight different projects.

How do you decide?

The characters, the people involved, and whether it’s different from what I’ve done before.

There are a lot of strong young German directors around – people like Henner Winckler, Ulrich Koehler, and Christian Petzold. Do you know them?

I have heard of them but I haven’t seen the movies. There’s a lot more that we could mention – a lot of talent here in Germany. But always there are the comparisons with outside – people say “It’s a good German film, it’s the German equivalent of such-and-such a Hollywood film.” Like they say sometimes that I am “the German Brad Pitt.” But I don’t give a fuck about that kind of thing. Maybe it’s a positive thing, they are saying like I’m good looking and a good actor, but look at it this way – if you are the audience, which would you rather see, the real Brad Pitt or the German equivalent? You’d go for the real thing. That’s a problem in Germany – we make ourselves small, and smaller than other countries. You don’t get this so much in England, where they know how to publicise movies like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, on their own terms.

It’s more difficult in Germany?

Definitely – because of the language. The only films we send out around the world are stupid comedies.

What about someone like Tom Tykwer, a serious film-maker whose films are widely released?

Well, yes, he’s successful – whatever you think of his movies. I liked Heaven. But it’s just that we should be more like one family in Europe. We European guys could ourselves together and we could kick some American asses! Everybody is always looking to America for movies, and they make some great ones. I love American History X and Man on the Moon, for example, but there are also a lot of good movies coming out of Germany. We should try to tell our own stories in our own way.

What German films have you especially liked lately?

Das Experiment, I thought was very good. Of older films, I’d pick out The Bridge. Then there are Austrian movies like Funny Games. And of course I have to mention some of my own films, like Paradiso, Kiss and Run and Nipchewo – otherwise I wouldn’t have done them. But then there’s a film like The Name of the Rose, which was a German production, and a great movie.

What about from other countries?

Ali – Will Smith was amazing in that. And Malcolm X with Denzel Washington. And, like I mentioned, British movies like Billy Elliot and The Full Monty. And Cast Away with Tom Hanks.

What do you see as the role of cinema?

There are always serious problems to deal with in life – like now we have serious problems in Germany with the water [heavy flooding in Dresden, etc]. It’s my job to bring the audience out of those problems for two hours, and touch them, bring them out of their lives. And in terms of my own job, I think that acting increases your tolerance of things – I’ve made about 17 movies, and I’m getting to know a lot about different countries and lifestyles, and it’s good for your tolerance that you have different experiences and aren’t just stuck in the same job.

Were you personally affected by the floods?

Yes – I was directly affected when I was in Prague, because we had the mother of all high waters coming up! We were lucky, it didn’t halt the filming, but half of the crew were affected by the water in their houses. Maybe we should have stopped for a while, but we kept on filming.

What was the Prague movie?

It’s a thriller, the title translates as something like Night Fears – it’s a little bit like Flatliners.

It’s difficult to keep track of all these movies.

Well, the main ones I’m proudest of are Paradiso, Save Your Skin, Kiss and Run, and Nipchewo. The most important thing is to be proud. I often say no to big money deals and yes to low budget projects, because the big money also often means no sense.

But if you were tempted by a big Hollywood offer?

It depends on whether the film is any good. I think you can easily make a wrong move. Someone could come up and offer me millions of dollars to do, say, a film about an alien who goes around fucking people and cutting their heads off, and at the end he turns out to be Satan or something. If it’s a script like that, forget it, I’m probably never gonna work again after that – I’m scared that people might lose respect for me if I appeared in movies like Alien Fucker!

September, 2002

by Neil Young
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