Rory MacLean meets Sibel Kekilli
At the age of 31 Kekilli is one of Germany’s most dynamic and beautiful young stars whose credits include the award-winning Head-On ('Gegen die Wand') and When We Leave ('Die Fremde'). But as a child she never dreamed of being an actress.
‘Germany was different in those days,’ she told me when we met at Berlin’s Hotel de Rome. ‘At my school one never considered such a possibility. You mostly thought of being a hairdresser, or working in an office.’
On graduation Kekilli moved from Heilbronn to Essen, worked as waitress and a clerk for the city council, sold fruit and veg, even managed a nightclub for a month. Then in Cologne in 2002 she was spotted by a casting director and asked to audition for a role in a movie.
‘I’d never heard of Fatih Akin and I had no idea what to do at the audition,’ she said with a gentle, self-effacing laugh. ‘He sent me a script and I read it and I thought, “All I can do is be myself.”’
Against a field of 350 professional actresses, Kekilli won the leading role in Akin’s Head-On ('Gegen die Wand'). The powerful and disturbing movie – about the struggle of immigrants for acceptance both within their families and by their German peers – helped to propel Turkish-German film into the mainstream. Among its dozen awards were a Berlin Golden Bear for Best Film and – for Kekilli – a Deutscher Filmpreis ‘Lola’ for Best Actress.
‘People fascinate me,’ Kekilli told me when I asked about her motivation. ‘I love to watch them: to see how they move, to listen to how they talk. When I watch the television news, and see for example a report on a crime, I want to understand its perpetrators. I’m fascinated by what makes a man or a woman to behave in such a manner.’
Acting – the art of becoming someone else - gives Kekilli license to ‘suck up’ the fullness of life, as well as to release her own vivacious, emotional energy.
‘Acting serves as a sort of pressure valve for me,’ she went on. ‘I can scream, I can cry, I can be crazy without having to make excuses because I am behaving within the role.’ In so doing Kekilli helps those of us who lack her courage to understand better our humanity.
After the success of Head-On, Kekilli risked being sidelined by industry prejudice into playing pessimistic – and clichéd – roles of the feisty immigrant struggling against prejudice. But her heartfelt honesty and professional range enabled her to rise above typecasting, for example in her performances in Winterreise and Der Letzte Zug ('The Last Train') where she played a Jewish woman deported to Auschwitz.
Last year her eighth picture When We Leave ('Die Fremde') won her New York’s Tribeca Prize for Best Actress as well as another ‘Lola’. This September brings the release of Fox International’s What a Man, a feel-good comedy starring and directed by Matthias Schweighöfer in which Kekilli plays the irresistible love interest. Its English-language release is planned for 2012.
‘What a Man gave me the chance to show that I can do comedy, that I can be funny. I love to laugh.’ Her fineboned face filled with light as she emphasised, ‘I’m an actress. I may not have blonde hair and blue eyes but that doesn’t mean I can’t play German parts. I am German and I feel German, with Turkish roots. My country and my work are here. I am lucky.’
Kekilli’s success springs from her ability to enter her characters with her whole heart, and so instil into them a remarkable empathy. I wanted to understand her working method and she admitted, ‘When I’m shooting I sleep with my character, I wake up with her, I eat with her. Sometimes I’ll catch herself mid-gesture, and stop, and tell myself, “No, it’s Sibel who drinks tea in this way, not the character.”’ Kekilli went on, ‘But most of all in my work I need silence and time to help me focus. I get myself into a kind of trance before a shot and then – to hold on to it before the camera rolls - I wear earphones and listen to music. Maybe some people think I’m being arrogant but it’s simply my way of holding onto the mood for those last, few, vital moments.’
In person Kekilli moves with remarkable lightness. She speaks in a soft voice, asking as many questions as she answers. But behind the gentle exterior is a courage rooted in her sincere curiosity for people and her will to experience life to the full.
‘Das Leben muss rückwärts verstanden und vorwärts gelebt werden,’ she concluded. Life must be understood in reverse and lived forwards.