Clemens Schick interviewed by Rory MacLean
Schick exuded an air of menacing attractiveness, with a hint of the young Robert de Niro, even as he sipped his apple juice in the members’ lounge atop Soho House Berlin. Born in 1972, he is tall, fit and serious yet prone to warm laughter.
‘But more importantly I became an actor because of my fantasies,’ he told me. ‘My parents did not think that their children should attend the same school. So my eldest brother went to the school nearest to our home. My sister went to a school a bit further away. As I was the youngest of five children, I had the furthest distance to walk, a full 35 minutes. But you know, I was always happy to go because along the way I created stories in my head. Sometimes I pretended that I was a prince. Sometimes I fought for the good. In my mind I was always the protagonist, always living in my fantasies.’
‘Then one day at school we put on a play, and I was on a stage, acting. Suddenly I was giving a body – a real life – to the daydreams which I’d been living for years.’
After graduation Schick was accepted to the Academy of Performing Arts in Ulm but after a year he decided to become a monk.
‘Acting school wasn’t at all what I’d expected,’ he said. ‘I had to learn to dance, to speak, even to walk so as to get “into my body”. For me the experience was too self-centred, too narcissistic. I wanted to be part of something bigger than me. I wanted a challenge, and some instinct told me to go to a monastery.’
At the age of 22 Schick joined the ecumenical Taizé order in Burgundy, staying for eight months.
‘Was it my vocation? Was I called by God to be a monk? That was the central question. I believed that I was. They didn’t. In the end I didn’t make it. But the experience taught me three vital lessons: first, to trust my instincts; second, to accept the disappointment of rejection; and third, to know the sadness at leaving behind - for almost a year - so much of the world’s beauty.’ He laughed again and confessed, with a soft shrug of humility, ‘I wasn’t able to remain celibate.’
Schick’s manner swings from boyish levity to intense concentration, leaving the impression – between bouts of laughter – that he digs deeply into himself to be both true and honest.
In 1994 he moved to Berlin to study at the private Berliner Schule für Schauspiel, earning his fees by working as a waiter at a restaurant near to the Volksbühne, the legendary ‘free peoples’ theatre’. Actors often stopped in for a meal after a performance and Schick befriended Robert Hunger-Bühler, now at Schauspielhaus Zurich. He agreed to come to Schick’s graduation show and was so impressed that he recommended him to friends. Within two months, Schick joined the Staatsschauspiel Dresden. Over the course of the next decade he worked at the Schauspiel Frankfurt, the Schauspielhaus Wien, the Schaubühne Berlin, the Staatstheater Stuttgart, the Schauspielhaus Zürich, and Hamburg’s Deutsche Schauspielhaus.
‘An actor cannot work alone so it’s important to be with good people. As a baby depends on his parents to feed him, so an actor depends on the text, the director, the set and costume design. I have been very, very lucky with my colleagues. I’ve worked with Sandra Strunz at the Kampnagel Hamburg, Christian Stückl, who rejuvenated the Oberammergauer Passionsspiele and now runs the Munich Volkstheater. At the Schaubühne I was directed by Edith Clever who has a very strict approach and once asked me during a rehearsal, “What are you doing with your small, left finger?” When one works with that standard of professional, the artist has the real possibility to grow.’
In the 2006 season - at the age of 34 - Schick was playing leading roles in half a dozen plays including Richard III, Twelfth Night and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
‘The work was fulfilling but I sensed that I needed a change. I had a fantasy – perhaps since my childhood walks to school – that I could play the young hero in movies. So I decided to leave the company. One month later I landed a part in Casino Royale.’
The James Bond remake starring Daniel Craig was followed by dozens of television roles, and Schick became a familiar face on the small screen. But even though he was hugely successful, staying in the best hotels, wined and dined by broadcast executives, he realised that he was unhappy.
‘In television the lines were often bad, the plots contrived, the spirit of the projects so small. Once again I realised that I had to do work that moved, challenged and developed me.’
As before Schick responded by listening to his instincts, and by not taking the easier road.
Immediately after the Bond picture he performed in a no-budget student film Aufrecht stehen. At the same time, his work became more overtly political, for example with Windows..., his one-man show which opens a window into the soul of Microsoft’s Bill Gates. He has performed the play in Hanover, Salzburg, Hollywood and - last year - in Afghanistan.
‘We Germans have a difficult relationship with the military. Two years ago I realised that no one in Germany - myself included - was talking about our role in Afghanistan. My objective in performing to the German ISAF contingent was to stimulate discussion between them and the general public.’
In the last year he has made three low-budget films - including Die blaue Periode and Transit - with Sergej Moya, an ‘inspirational’ 22 year-old director. And over the ten days before we met he had jumped out of an airplane 41 times during the shooting of the international feature The Burma Conspiracy.
‘Time and time again I’ve found that it’s the working relationship which matters to me above all. When it’s right, it feels a little like falling in love.’
The journey from childhood fantasy to glittering international career relies – for Clemens Schick at least – on courage, determination, honesty, skill and an ability to listen to instincts. ‘For me, the vital combination is instinct and craft,’ he said. ‘But instinct without craft is nothing.’
Twice during our meeting Schick used the expression ‘seinen Mann stehen’. It means to live up to one’s standards, to not weaken in a difficult situation, to 'stand your ground'.
I await with fascination to see which new challenge next grabs the heart, soul, body and imagination of Clemens Schick.