Thomas Schubert sat down to talk about his role as Leon, the lead in Christian Petzold’s dramedy AFIRE: a film about a self obsessed writer trying to finish his second manuscript as forest fires raze his surroundings. Schubert spoke about turning 30 while touring the biggest film of his career so far, auteur director Petzold casting him specifically, and the curious introspection that Leon is bringing to a subset of audiences.
Connor Lightbody: So how are you liking Edinburgh?
Thomas Schubert: I love it. I’ve only been here one night but that square near the station, with the tower? It’s mesmerising and beautiful. It kind of reminds me – since the architecture is so homogenous – of Vienna’s city centre. I have a thing for cities that have one specific style. Places like Berlin or places like Cologne don’t have that architecture wise given the history and the bombing.
CL: I would love to know what the casting and audition process was like for AFIRE, with this being your biggest film to date: going from shorts to the lead in a Christian Petzold movie.
TS: There wasn’t really a casting process. I received a call from my agent going out of her mind that Christan Petzold had been in touch and wants me to be the lead in his new movie. Which came as a surprise because I had never met the man before. But apparently Matthias Brandt, who plays the publicist in AFIRE, who I did a Netflix show with, had recommended me to Christian. Christian came up with an offer to me.
CL: What was that like?
TS: I was really excited. Usually, me and my agent have this thing where we want to read the script first and take our time, so she was like “Do we take our time and tell him that?” and I was like “No! Tell him yes!”
CL: What was that first meeting like?
TS: We met for the first time in Berlin, he invited me to come over and I just felt comfortable right away. We had a really lovely chat, and even with me being the new guy in the ensemble, he made me feel very welcome. We hit it off right away.
CL: Does new guy in the ensemble mean that there’s going to be a future collaboration between yourself and Christian?
TS: He has some plans but nothing concrete.
CL: So how was the production, with Christian and Paula [Beer] and everyone?
TS: The working process was just so respectful of everyone’s work. He [Christian] is really that good in planning his movies and writing his scripts. He knows that people can deliver to it in a certain time schedule. He allows everyone to be their best selves on set and I think it was the most relaxed shoot I’ve ever done. We would get up at 9, 10 in the morning and meet for a coffee while no one else was there, and we would chat and rehearse the scenes of the day and when we were sure we’d had it, we’d go into make up and costumes. Then the rest of the team would come in to set up the set and the lights and everything and then we’d do just the one take of every shot.
CL: Oh wow so everything we see is a first take?
TS: Yeah, with some exceptions. So, the thing we had to do multiples of, the take we did the most was the shot in front of the hospital when I’m running. There was just constant people, running in from the side and we had to keep redoing it. We couldn’t block the street off, it was a hospital, so we ended up doing it like ten times. But the rest of the movie is pretty much first takes.
CL: Was there any improv then, if everything was done in the first take?
TS: Not really. We used the time we had to rehearse and try everything out and once we had that, there wasn’t really any need to improvise. I did it once or twice, but I was a bit hesitant to do so.
CL: So I saw AFIRE at the Berlin premiere, and I found Leon to be quite standoffish. I spoke to a friend afterwards and said that “I liked the film but I hated him”. I rewatched the film a few months ago for the New York premiere and found my feelings towards Leon changing from disdain into this overwhelming sense of pity towards the character, in that he’s never going to get over his own ego. With my response to him changing, what have been the other responses you’ve encountered from people towards Leon?
TS: One thing I’ve kept finding is that people recognise themselves in Leon, which is funny because he’s an awful person. Especially a lot of people that are writing, so they totally understand the process he’s going through. A lot of artists that had that same sort of imposter syndrome. I found that people who had history like that were able to sympathise with that more easily. I talked to one person and he couldn’t finish the movie because he is in that creative process right now.
CL: Let’s hope his manuscript is better than Leon’s.
TS: Hahaha, yeah. So there’s this thing in movies where you see people in their private moments, the kind of moments you only experience when you are by yourself and it’s really interesting how people reflect on a character like that who is quite despicable. There’s a saying where the things you hate about a person are the things you hate about yourself.
CL: Leon is a little narcissistic and very self-obsessed. How did you get into the mindset needed for him, were you able to draw from your own time writing?
TS: I do a little writing but I have never put myself through what Leon puts himself through. I dabble, but I always find myself able to stop the process if I need to. I do it for joy, and he doesn’t. What really helped me was reading about the experiences of authors themselves. I read Stephen King On Writing, and others that all said the same thing about it being an awful job. A very lonely process. Christian gave me a book called Eve, which was a story of a man who steals a manuscript, gets the Hollywood deal and when everybody is waiting for his second, he can’t deliver.
CL: That’s a neat little parallel with Leon’s own journey.
TS: There’s also an element of class struggle. Leon comes from a low to middle class household and he’s trying to make a living from this work. We watched the movie with Frank Sinatra, SOME CAME RUNNING, which is about an author trying to get a higher status in society but will never be allowed to because they see him as something exotic but never really engage with him. I feel that’s a thing Leon is struggling with. He doesn’t want to be that anymore so when confronted with his friend Felix (name) who comes from a better household whose parents could send him to university, Leon kind of holds this grudge and this self-pitying insecurity about him. He doesn’t quite fit in.
CL: Yeah I feel that those feelings are universal for people like myself and Leon who come from a lower socio-economic background.
TS: Yeah, me too. Especially coming from Austria where I’m a son of potato farmers. I sort of tumbled into the profession where I did a street casting, and then got a lead in a feature. So I always came from the other side, whereas a lot of the people I have worked with are all nepo babies and I was the odd one out. They’re talented but you also feel there must be some of that talent being passed down while mine passed down potato farming. That feeling of inadequacy is very strong. One of the reasons Leon acts so upset when Felix asks him ‘why do you call it work?’ because it’s not a pleasure for Leon, he doesn’t do this as a hobby. It’s a struggle.
CL: I think that writing as a whole, in the film industry and such, has been made into a hobby by the upper class so they’re taken away funding hence the current SAG-AFTRA strikes.
TS: Yes and they have such a different approach to it when you aren’t surviving on it. They’ve actually done studies on American farmers that you lose IQ points the closer you get to the end of the month, when they’re struggling financially because of the stress of the harvest and money.
CL: You turned 30 a few days ago. I’m 29, just about to hit 30 myself so yeah, tell me what it’s like in the future?
TS: I’m really happy that I get to release this movie this year because I’ve been travelling a lot with it. Which I really wanted to do because after covid where I was locked up in Vienna for four months. Doing this movie now and getting to travel is sort of liberating. Coming to Edinburgh and going to South Africa, it’s been a great year to turn 30. The tours winding down, I think Edinburgh will be my last stop.
CL: So the tour is winding down. What’s your next project?
TS: I’m going to be doing a series for the public broadcast network in Germany which is kind of like an experiment. I’ve not really worked in Germany but there’s not really any good sitcoms done in Germany so it’s going to be really new. We have some really brilliant writers and directors on board to try and make this work. Trying to make a comedy in the unfunniest country on Earth.