When clownish school teacher Winfried’s (Peter Simonischek) clumsy attempts to bond with his high-flying corporate daughter Ines (Sandra Huller) backfire terribly, he disguises himself in the eponymous persona of Toni Erdmann, complete with wig and false teeth. Following her around at her Romanian workplace in a manner that borders on stalking, his ostensible aim is to get closer to the child from whom he has been long estranged.
We caught up with the brilliant Peter to discuss the complexities of his character, the impact of the movie – and the possible implications of that hotly rumoured Hollywood remake.
Well, firstly can I say thank you for a wonderful performance in what is a fascinating film. I’ve seen it broadly described as a comedy in many places yet the humour is tinged with a real sadness and melancholy.
It is, yes.
How did you interpret it when you first read the script?
I tell you, when I first read the script, I didn’t realise what sort of film it was going to be. I was fascinated. It was, how do you say, “dancing out of the row”. I called my friend, because I knew some others had this script, and I asked, did you read it? “Yes, incredible!” So we went along to the casting.
After all, we knew Maren Ade because she had already made two wonderful feature films by this stage, especially her first, The Forest for the Trees. Just wonderful. Not a lot of people know it but it’s about a teacher who comes to a school for her first job, but she is so alone. When I saw it for the first time I needed half a day afterwards to adjust, to come out of it. Dark feelings.
That’s exactly how I felt about this film. It stuck in my head for days after I watched it. As for your character, Winfried, when he adopts the Toni Erdmann persona he appears to become freed and liberated. Is that what it feels like to be an actor when playing other characters?
Sure, but for me it’s a profession. The important thing with Winfried is that he is a teacher and he behaves like an actor, but he isn’t one. He is a private person.
When Maren Ade first picked us up at Bucharest airport in the white stretch limousine seen in the film, she was waiting in there, disguised. Beard, glasses, everything. And she was so nervous! She said, “I’m so glad you’re here, I’m so nervous because this is so embarassing!”
In that moment, I understood what the big difference is between an actor, to whom this sort of thing comes naturally, and a private person. This was very important for me when it came to playing Toni Erdmann as Winfried Conradi: because Winfried is not an actor, adopting this persona costs him a great deal.
It’s a father/daughter story, it’s about estrangement and Sandra Huller is fantastic in the film as Ines. How closely did you work with her to make that authentic?
There were some actresses who came for the casting, wonderful people with whom I’d worked on stage in Vienna. And then came Sandra. And after five minutes it was clear to me that she had to be the daughter. I was afraid Maren Ade would have another opinion but fortunately she shared the same opinion as me.
I was so, so happy about it, because I knew her from theatre. My eldest son is also an actor and he acted with Sandra in Munich. I watched it two or three times because she was wonderful, and he was wonderful, too. He’s a really good actor but it’s like tennis: if you have a good partner, you will play better.
You step up to the mark.
Yes, and it’s the same on stage and in film. Depends on the partner. If they are really, really good, your job becomes a lot easier.
What was Maren Ade like to work with?
She’s very professional, in some ways very German and in other ways, not. She’s also very light. Everything is perfect and on time but there are no psychological games. We had many heart to hearts; when we were filming it was hot and in Romania and it wasn’t easy. We were shooting at certain points in oil fields and waiting around, lots of dirt, dust and heat. But there was never a moment in which it was uncomfortable, it was always honest.
The character of Toni Erdmann himself with the wig and the false teeth – was that all there in the script or did you work with Maren Ade to develop that?
It was nearly all in the script. Even the cheese being grated onto the hair. When I first read it, I thought the script was wonderful but I said to Maren, what’s with the cheese? You have to tell me what that’s about! But when we were shooting, it soon became clear. You remember the scene when Winfried is offered cocaine at Ines’ work party? He is fearful because of the police, yet on the other hand he wants to stick around, so he grates the cheese on his head! It’s an incredible moment! [laughs]
And that was entirely in the script?
Yes, it was.
In life, we all play roles – fathers, daughters, business people, actors. Do you think the film is an accurate reflection of this?
Yes, I think so, especially from the point of view of the daughter because she plays a role in her job. She has to. And through the changes in costume, we’re often witness to the change from the girl to the businesswoman.
The father also plays a role, but in a different way. When the daughter was younger, the father was sitting on her bed, telling jokes and making stories. And she said, “Daddy, the teeth”, and asked him to put in the false teeth and she was laughing before falling to sleep.
Now, 15/20 years have gone by and she tries again with the teeth, putting them in herself. And it doesn’t work any more. It touches me when I talk about it!
Who do you think goes on the most important emotional journey in the film: Winfried or Ines? Who do you think grows the most as a person?
I think that the change in character is not so telegraphed. For that, I think we have to wait for the Hollywood film. I’m sure they will make this much more obvious. At the end, there is maybe a question mark over how much has changed, if something has changed at all. The love between the two characters was never gone but it was covered, and this for me is so touching because I can believe in it. For me, it’s true.
So you think it’s truer to life that the outcome isn’t always clear?
Well, it’s also a question of taste for me! [laughs]
The movie is getting very serious awards attention and it’s been nominated for an Oscar. How do you feel about that?
Sure. It’s exciting and I’m glad about that. It’s not so easy to believe. The most exciting thing for me is that such a lot of people like the film and can relate to the film. It works in Europe and I saw that it works in the United States, and I hope that it will work here in the UK.
One day a girl came up to me in my hotel in the lift and she thanked me for Toni Erdmann. She recalled having a very bad relationship with her father and that she hadn’t spoken to him for about seven years. But after watching the film, she invited him for dinner.
Toni Erdmann is released on February 3rd.