For Replica, Eidinger adopted a different and more familiar guise, wearing the white mask, or “blank canvas”, as he describes it, that he sees as the perfect mirror to his audience. Turning the theatre into a metaphorical hall of mirrors is the key to unlocking Eidinger’s strange, enduring appeal as a performer; it’s just one of many tools, though, that he uses to bring his characters to fleshy, full-blooded life. Here, with typical thoughtfulness and candour, Eidinger shares the unlikely creative outlets that have helped him through the past year, the storytelling potential of fashion, and why the pandemic should serve as an urgent wake-up call for renegotiating how we understand our relationship with nature
What has the experience of the past year been like for you, especially given theatre and performance have been such a foundational part of your life and career? How did it feel when all of that stopped?
To be honest, I feel very privileged, because I was still able to shoot films. I did a few movies, and the film industry was better able to deal with the testing and safety measures, making sure everyone was working in different bubbles, so that makes it a lot easier. Of course, I missed the theatre a lot, even if that sounds like a first world problem. I’ve been part of the Schaubühne theatre company since I finished acting school in 1999, and all of us have continued to be paid even though we’re not working, so I’m very lucky, given there are so many people who are suffering because of the pandemic. But theatre is a very important part of keeping up my confidence as an actor. It keeps you thinking about the process, and it keeps you in the moment. Now everything is changing, the way I think is changing, my body condition is changing. Doing theatre constantly is like training for professional sports. If you stop doing it from one day to another, it’s not good for your health. That’s kind of how I’m feeling.
I know that you do many other things too – directing, photographing, DJing – have you been able to find other creative outlets to keep you stimulated or excited during this time?
I did a lot of photography actually. I did it beforehand, but it became more intense last year. I would leave my house early in the morning and walk around and take photos, and I actually released a photo book that was released by one of my favourite publishers, Hatje Cantz. It was always a passion of mine, but I had more time to go back through my archives and to make this book.
What was it you were exploring more specifically in the photography book?
I mean, I’ve been photographing since I was a little child, so the first picture in the book shows my hamster when I was six years old. I took a picture of him with an analogue camera and flash on a coffee table in my parent’s house. I was very lucky because in the theatre we travel so much, so I’ve travelled all over the world and I’ve always taken pictures while doing it. For example, I took pictures of all the hotel beds that I slept in over two years – I think there are around 180 of them. Contradictions and paradoxes have always been something that fascinates me. When I’m acting, but also in my photographs – I think that they create a kind of strange energy, these oxymorons. Whenever I see something like that, I take a photo of it.
Tell me a little more about the Replica story. I know that you’re well-known for playing an excellent villain – was that something you were riffing on with the make-up and the poses? What kind of character were you trying to inhabit?
I mean, first of all, I would say that villains do not really exist for me. I think this is a description which pretends there are only good people and bad people. I think that the phenomenon of what makes human beings interesting is that they are ambivalent. There’s a very nice quote from Hamlet, which has become one of the most important quotes for me, that says: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” And I think this is very important in art, and even in life in general. It doesn’t help you to think in moral binaries. The villain makes it very easy to say, that’s not who I am. And my biggest aim as an artist is to always question myself. I see myself as a mirror and I see the audience as a mirror. I’m looking at myself through the audience, and the audience is able to look at themselves through me. This is really the beauty of theatre and live performance, is that ability to look into a mirror. It’s something you cannot really put into words. The interesting thing with the make-up is that I started to work with white face paint when I was playing Richard III, and this white face is also a signature of the artist I worked with when I did Peer Gynt, who is always colouring his face white. There’s also the influence of bands like The Cure or Alice Cooper, who wear it when they perform. First, I like it aesthetically, because it’s like a blank canvas, and it’s almost reflective so that the viewer can see themselves in it – again, like a mirror.
You’re quite a fabulous dresser – I’ve seen some photos of you at fashion shows in amazing looks. Have clothes and style also been an important part of how you approach your characters and your performances?
This is an interesting subject actually, because on the one hand, I’ve never wanted to support any specific fashion label – I really try to avoid aligning myself with one brand, or be forced to support them in any way. It’s more of a private interest, and the interest comes from the fact I’m really aware that a costume or a look or what you wear is such a big part of your personality and identity. You can express yourself through fashion, and that’s something that fascinates me. On stage, it’s really so much about the costumes. When I have a great costume designer, it becomes a really important part of finding the character. And on the other hand, for me, I see fashion designers as artists. Sometimes I just go into shops and look at their creations in the same way I go into museums and look at paintings. I don’t necessarily have to buy them or have to wear them, I’m just interested in what they are creating and what they are coming up with. All of the famous designers I’m interested in, like Karl Lagerfeld or Demna Gvasalia, they are truly artists, and almost even philosophers. They say very clever things, but they also express those thoughts through clothes. It’s something I’m really fascinated by.
I was looking at some of your previous shoots, like the various projects you’ve done with Juergen Teller. Do you approach appearing in a fashion story, even if it’s just for one day, with the same rigour and mindset that you do playing a character on the stage or in a film?
It’s interesting, because when you look at me in the pictures, you would think that I’m really comfortable in that situation. But it’s actually the other way around! I’m really frightened of photoshoots, I’m really scared of them. I’m really shy, and it’s because I’m aware it’s a very, very intimate thing. To have good results, it means that you have to find a connection with the photographer, you have to come together or unify yourselves in a way. If I start getting shy or afraid, though, I close myself off and protect myself, and the pictures are not interesting, so I have to force myself to open up. But in the most beautiful moments on nice photoshoots, I’m able to show something new by opening up. The longer I do acting, and the longer I work with artists, the more I understand that. There’s a very nice quote from Helene Weigel, who worked with Bertolt Brecht, and she said, “If you have an idea, forget it.” This has become really important for me. Whenever I go somewhere to do a photoshoot for the day, or filming, I’m trying to go there blank. Because then I’m most open to the situation. I think it limits you to go there with a concrete idea of what you’re going to do. That means you can’t react to what’s there, you can’t react to the situation. But that requires you to be very brave, because to have that idea in place of what is going to happen offers you a kind of protection and you can feel secure. But I want to be insecure, to be as blank as possible, even if that makes it more exhausting.
I noticed that you cosigned a letter in Le Monde last year along with a number of artists and creatives and scientists, stating that the world should not ‘return to normal’ after the pandemic. What do you think a ‘new normal’ would look like? Do you think the idea of ‘normality’ in the performing arts and film is now completely redundant? I know that’s quite a broad question, but I’m curious to hear what your thoughts were when signing that letter.
I have many thoughts on that. One thought was that I realised the facial expressions of the people I was surrounded by became really, really sad. There was a melancholy, due to the fact that we were forced not to open ourselves up for one and a half years now. It’s very important to be able to express yourself, to let your emotions out, and the fact we were not allowed to do this leads to a kind of melancholic atmosphere. We’re looking more at the inside than the outside. I would be happy if we could find a way back to some kind of lightness and hope. On the other hand, and I think this is much more important, I think it’s completely wrong to think that the situation before the pandemic was in any way ‘normal’. I really liked the image or the metaphor that the pandemic came because someone had eaten a bat, even though we don’t know if that’s true or false. Because eating a bat is wrong, but it’s a perfect image for what we as humans are doing with nature. I like it because the bat hangs upside down: it’s like the Hamlet quote, “time is out of joint.” There’s something all wrong about it. Maybe it’s time for us to understand that if we continue living this way, we will destroy ourselves. We will have no future. I hope that we can gain a new awareness that nature is a fragile thing, and that we have to change the way we treat it and maybe in the end, to remind ourselves that we are nature. When did it start that we don’t see ourselves as part of the natural world? We always describe it as human beings versus nature, and as long as we separate these two things, we’re destined to fail. So yes, my greatest hope is that we understand we need to unify ourselves with nature again.