Every year, hundreds of young Swiss actors try to break into the highly competitive film industry. Two young award-winners explain why they are determined to pursue their dream career, despite the odds being against them.
“For me, acting was love at first sight. Even as a young girl, I watched spellbound the actors on stage and dreamed of being up there with them,” Marie Leuenberger, 33, told swissinfo.ch.
“I love stepping into people’s clothes and trying to decode their personality. Sometimes I seem to be able to express myself better acting than in everyday life…”
Leuenberger has various films under her belt and a secret wish: to be able to live from her art and act in theatres all around the world, as well as on the big screen.
“For the moment I’m getting by fine: I’ve got various contracts in Germany and try to kill the down time by doing small jobs.”
Her cinema career began in 2009 with the Swiss romantic comedy Die Standesbeamtin (Will You Marry Us?), directed by Micha Lewinsky. For her role as Rahel, a civil registrar who falls in love with someone whose marriage she’s meant to officiate, Leuenberger won Best Female Actor at the Swiss Film Prize and the World Film Festival in Montreal.
Like many other young Swiss actors, Leuenberger started out in the theatre, before being catapulted onto the big screen – almost by chance.
Her stepping stone – or trampoline – was the Young Talents project, launched six years ago by two casting directors, Corinna Glaus and Susan Müller, and supported by the Federal Culture Office.
Every year, eight unknowns are picked out following an audition and presented to various European producers and directors. This was how Leuenberger came into contact with Micha Lewinsky.
Glaus says the initiative is the only one of its kind in Switzerland and fills a gap.
“Unlike other countries such as Belgium or Denmark, Switzerland doesn’t do much to promote young actors. Once they finish their studies, they’re left on their own and often only manage to make a name for themselves after the age of 30,” she said.
The competition is fierce. Every year in Switzerland, around a hundred young people leave a professional school with an acting diploma in their hand. Two or maybe three times as many attend various private institutes and theatre schools linked to a theatre company. In other words, supply is considerably greater than demand.
Up until a few years ago, Swiss directors rarely chose young people as main characters, according to Glaus.
“Nowadays interest is growing,” she said. “And sometimes it’s really these up-and-coming talents who create the force of a film and who win at festivals. These awards are essential for making a name internationally and for improving one’s chances of getting a break.”
Lack of training
Max Hubacher is one of these up-and-coming talents. Last year, aged just 19, he was named Best Male Actor at the Swiss Film Prize for his role in Verdingbub (The Foster Boy), directed by Markus Imboden.
He was then chosen as a Shooting Star at the Berlin International Film Festival, which every year lists the ten actors considered the best in Europe.
Hubacher has had a lightning career. Having lived and breathed acting on the stage, he made his film debut at 16.
“They were looking for young actors for Michael Schärer’s film Stationspiraten (Station Pirates) and it was an open audition,” he told swissinfo.ch. “I decided to have a go, even though I’d never acted in front of a camera. It was a huge challenge and I have to say I was really lucky.”
The fact is that in Switzerland, there isn’t any specialised training for those who dream of acting on the big screen. However, more and more theatre schools are offering specialist courses in collaboration with the film industry.
Some institutes also teach young people how to manage their own career, how to sell themselves and even how to live with the consequences of sudden fame.
Although the road to the big screen is often uphill, acting continues to be a career that many dream of.
“Every day we receive tens of on-spec applications from professionals and amateurs who would like a part in a film,” Glaus said.
“But few of them realise the amount of energy and willpower that’s needed to do this job, which is always a precarious balancing act between dreams and success.”
What’s more, today it’s almost impossible to live solely from the cinema.
“In Switzerland a young qualified actor earns about SFr1,000 ($1,070) a day,” she said. “Filming can last two days or a week. If an actor lands a main part, on the other hand, he or she will be employed for a whole month and will negotiate a lump sum payment of around SFr20,000. Those who have made a name for themselves or perhaps have an agent can ask for even SFr50,000.”
Bearing in mind that an unknown actor will struggle to land more than one film role a year, the maths doesn’t take long to do.
As a result, young people find themselves having to navigate between a film contract (if they manage to get one), a stage role, maybe a few adverts and – who knows? – maybe even the odd job for a bank hosting of one of those fashionable team-building activities.
Lure of Hollywood
But Leuenberger and Hubacher have not let themselves grow disheartened.
“Now that I’ve finished high school, I want to study acting in Germany. I’m currently taking the entrance exams,” said Hubacher. Not wanting to tempt fate, he prefers to keep his cards close and not reveal any future projects.
Does he dream of Hollywood? “Obviously Hollywood remains a big dream – albeit one that’s probably impossible to realise,” he said.
Indeed, apart from Ursula “Dr. No” Andress and Bruno Ganz, who has landed relatively chunky parts in a few English-language films, Swiss participation in US films has recently been limited to bit parts in a couple of Bond films: Carlos Leal in Casino Royale and Anatole Taubman in Quantum of Solace.
“But I have to say that the experience I’ve gained so far in Switzerland has given me a lot,” Hubacher added. “My goal is to act – it doesn’t matter where, but how.”
Leuenberger agrees. “I want to be in films that interest me – I don’t want to necessarily be famous. And, in this sense, maybe Europe has much more to offer me than the American dream.”
(Translated from Italian by Thomas Stephens), swissinfo.ch