PHOTOS BY VITA HEWISON.
Actor Ben Schnetzer is a New Yorker, born and raised. You will never, however, hear him ask for a cup of cawfee. Schnetzer’s accent has a slight Katharine Hepburn lilt. With roles in three upcoming feature films, he has yet to be cast as an American. Instead, the 23-year-old plays an Oxford posh-boy with Max Irons, Douglas Booth, and Sam Claflin in Posh; a gay rights activist who teams up will a small-town British mining community in Pride alongside Bill Nighy and Dominic West; and a Jewish German during WWII in The Book Thief, which is out now in limited release.
Born to actor parents, Schnetzer moved to London after high school to attend the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. “When I decided I wanted to go to drama school,” he explains, “I realized that a lot of the actors whose careers I really admire and whose work I really admire were English and English trained. I felt there was a real vocational feel to work in the UK.”
Based on the popular novel by Markus Zusak, The Book Thief is the first of Schnetzer’s films to be released—and it’s a solid introduction. Narrated by Death and set to a Little Women-like John Williams score, the film follows Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), a young German girl sent into foster care when her communist mother flees the country. Liesl spends the war under the guidance of her benevolent foster father (Geoffrey Rush), and stern but sweet foster mother (Emily Watson). One night, a family friend arrives at the door. He is tired, starving, and desperate. His name is Max Vandenburg.
EMMA BROWN: How did you find your time at Guildhall? Having grown up in London with an American parent, I know that English people aren’t always particularly welcoming to Americans.
BEN SCHNETZER: [laughs] Yeah. It’s weird. I thought, “I’m going to move to England and I’m going to be so different and European, all of a sudden I’ll feel so continental and international,” but then I’ve never felt more American than I did when I moved to England. It becomes a real kind of part of your identity: “Oh, Ben. He’s the American guy.” I think when you say you’re from New York you get a different reception then if you just say, “I’m American.” So I’d always kind of make sure I was a New Yorker first. But people were pretty chilled out about it. Drama schools are very small community—a very incestuous community—so you get to know one another very, very quickly and it just washes over after a while. Every now and then I’ll say “dude” or I’ll say “bro,” and people will laugh. [laughs]
BROWN: Was it competitive?
SCHNETZER: My year was super supportive. I can’t say that there was really any animosity or anything like that. The nature of competition in this business—if they’re going to cast one person and not another, it’s not rejection of your talent, it’s just that they want one person and not someone else. As an actor, unfortunately, it’s not your job to cast the movie. There’s a phrase, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” It’s just the nature of the beast. If I audition for a job that I don’t get, to be honest with you, I’d rather my friend get it. I think there also has to be an acknowledgement of the fact that as an actor, being in employment is not the norm.
BROWN: I presume your English accent is pretty good.
SCHNETZER: Yeah, I knew if I went to school there that I didn’t want to any special treatment. I knew that when we were going to start doing shows to the public in the third year, I didn’t want it to be like, “Wait, why is there an American guy on stage?” I wanted that to not be an issue at all. So I just worked quite hard on it with our dialect coaches at school and on my own. When you live somewhere for a while, the tonality of an accent just kind of becomes second nature to you anyway. So the rhythm and the melody of it gets quite familiar. I think it’s all right. I did an English accent for a film I just wrapped called Posh, and that was quite fun.
BROWN: I just read the play. You play Dimitri?
SCHNETZER: Yeah. His father’s Greek, but he’s educated at Oxford. One of the kind of idiosyncrasies of the character is he really wants to be accepted as being English, that he’s almost more English than the actual English guys are. It was a real trip getting to work with everyone; we had a great time. Actually a lot of us all got together last night for a little mini-reunion.
BROWN: Did you film up at Oxford?
SCHNETZER: We filmed in Pinewood Studios and we filmed in Oxford for a couple days. But a lot of the school scenes we shot in Winchester at the boarding school.
BROWN: Could you go out afterwards?
SCHNETZER: We went out a few times in the hotel we were all staying in. But we didn’t really go into town. It was a quaint little town, pretty small, and we were shooting on weekdays, so we had early wakeups and stuff. It wasn’t too debauched up in Winchester.
BROWN: The Book Thief made me cry. It was quite embarrassing. Sophie Nélisse was fantastic. Can you tell me about filming it?
SCHNETZER: Yeah, she’s great in it. I left drama school to do The Book Thief—it was a real trip going straight from school kind of right into it, but I feel like the momentum of being in school put me in a good mindset as far as going into it as a learning experience. As much as I learned from Geoffrey and Emily, I learned just as much working with Sophie. She’s very, very present and super receptive. She really taught me a lot about priorities when you’re working and having fun and being spontaneous.
I read a great interview with Jeff Bridges that resonated with me. When you’re working on a film, it’s not theater; you don’t have a few weeks of rehearsal. A lot of times you are showing up on set and you’ve never been to the place, you’ve never met the other actors you’re working with. The odyssey of it is navigating this balance between prepping and being free and available on set. You have to let go. Jeff Bridges talks about how it’s like a dance: you can beat your head against the wall in your little flat learning how to dance the cha-cha, because that’s how you read the scene, but then you show up on set and your partner is dancing the Viennese waltz. You can’t play a scene with one person dancing the cha-cha and one person dancing the waltz. You have to learn to waltz on the day and have fun with it. It’s all just listening. Emily Watson also gave me great advice that she said she got from Stellan Skarsgård when she was doing Breaking the Waves (1996), and she just said, “Never aim for anything. Don’t ever think about the result. It’s just about process. It’s just the other person. Surprise yourself.”
BROWN: Did you have time to do social things while filming The Book Thief in Berlin?
SCHNETZER: Yeah, I had a decent amount of time. There wasn’t really anyone in the cast my age, so there wasn’t a super social aspect to the cast. But at the time I was going through a massive German theater phase. When I found out I was going to be in Berlin, I totally flipped out. I went to the theater quite a bit when I was there.
BROWN: Did you have to starve yourself for the role? You look very gaunt in the film.
SCHNETZER: Yeah, I lost quite a bit of weight for it, and that was a really intense experience. Probably another reason I didn’t go out that much—it makes you feel quite weak. That put a very interesting filter on the way that I saw Berlin. It was something I wanted to do for the part. I felt it was quite necessary.
BROWN: Did you do any research outside of the novel for your character?
SCHNETZER: Yeah, I read just about everything I felt would be pertinent to the time period. I read as many memoirs as I could, trying to get kind of more firsthand experiences. I was very lucky and was able to get in touch with a few people while I was back home in New York prepping who were in hiding during the Holocaust, and they were generous enough to meet with me and share their stories with me. I went to as many museums as I could just to get as strong an idea of the time period as possible.
BROWN: Researching the Holocaust and starving yourself simultaneously sounds pretty depressing.
SCHNETZER: [laughs] Yeah, it was pretty grim at some points, certainly.
BROWN: What did you do to lighten things up a bit?
SCHNETZER: I’d call my best friends back at home. Call my mom and my dad. Just try and listen to music, read, paint—do something to get outside myself.
BROWN: Do you paint?
BROWN: What’s your preferred medium?
SCHNETZER: [laughs] Finger paint. I like charcoal drawing a lot. I’m not very good, but I always find myself buying canvases and paints whenever I’m on location, because I always have this ambition to fill the hotel room I’m in and turn it into an art studio. I find myself at three o’clock in the morning painting something and throwing things around and seeing what works. I’d like to properly study fine art. I think it would be quite an interesting endeavor.
BROWN: Do you paint in character?
SCHNETZER: Not necessarily. I think with Max I did a couple times, because he paints and he draws in the book. So there were a few that were quite close to Max. But the majority of it is more an outlet.
BROWN: Where do you think Max ends up?
SCHNETZER: I think Max ends up with Liesel. I don’t think it happens right away, but as they grow up, I think he’s the only person that she’s got and she’s the only person that he’s got. Having gone through what the two of them went through, there’s a bond that’s unparalleled. It would be futile to look to establish something beyond that between two human beings.
THE BOOK THIEF IS OUT NOW IN LIMITED RELEASE.