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‘12 Monkeys’ star Barbara Sukowa praises character’s strength

Barbara Sukowa stars on Syfy's "12 Monkeys."

Barbara Sukowa stars on Syfy's "12 Monkeys." Credit: Invision / Chris Pizzello

It’s probably safe to assume that no actor working in TV has a resume quite like Barbara Sukowa’s. The 66-year-old German, one of the stars of Syfy’s “12 Monkeys,” has won the best actress award at the Venice and Cannes Film Festivals; worked with top-tier film directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, David Cronenberg and Lars von Trier; has performed as a classical music narrator and speaker; been a jury member at the Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals; and recorded an experimental rock album with her band, Barbara Sukowa and the X-Patsys. She’s also the wife of internationally known artist and Long Island native Robert Longo. Lewis Beale spoke to the New York-based actress during a break in filming on “12 Monkeys,” in which she plays Katarina Jones, the operator of a time machine. The show’s second season debuts Monday at 9 p.m.

You haven’t done American TV in years. What made you decide to accept the part in “12 Monkeys?”

I had mostly worked in Europe, in Germany. But it was exhausting to always go to Europe and work there. So two years ago this director called me and asked if I wanted to do this part. I thought it was a complete change from my work. It is really hard to get women’s roles at my age that are strong, intelligent, that have something to say. That is what that role brought. And it’s science fiction, and I have never even seen science fiction movies.

What is it about the part that you like so much?

What I like about my role is I don’t have to play a cute old lady. It’s a woman who has power, and that’s what I really like. Many of the writers are young men, and it’s really great they have a number of strong women in the show.

Since the show is about time travel, I was wondering, if you could go back in time, where would you go?

I would want to go to the Italian Renaissance, where the great painters lived. Living in America, where religion plays such a big role, I would love to go to the year when Jesus was born. And I would like to go to Germany in 1930-33, to see how Hitler came to power.

You started out in the ’70s and ’80s, when Germany was going through a sort of artistic renaissance, in film and theater. Why then?

My generation asked what had happened in Germany. We looked at our parents and it was hard to believe they were involved in this horrible time, and we tried to find out and we rebelled. It was a rebellion against all the institutions in Germany.

Your big break came working with the legendary director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with whom you made several films. He had a reputation as a wild man. What was he like to work with?

I think he really treated everyone differently, and he had this community around him he called the family, they were totally devoted to him. And he did a lot of psychological games with them. Then there were actors like myself not totally dependent on him, and he treated them a little different. He instinctively knew how to get into the inner soul of a person. He worked very quickly, never did more than one take. He was very nice with me, very respectful, but I didn’t want to become dependent on him. Yet I loved working with him.

When you came to America, what differences did you notice between European and American filmmaking?

My roles could not compare with what I played in Germany, they were much less interesting. The one thing I learned in the beginning that made me want to work more in Germany, I felt incredible competition here, and also a hierarchy on the set. In Germany, you became a family, you all ate lunch together, with the crew. And because there is such a huge talent pool and people have to work hard to achieve a place here, that was different. And we talked more about the script in Germany. We all worked more together. And also the sets were not as big.

You also have a sort of avant-garde rock band. What are your musical influences?

I was never very knowledgeable about rock, pop music; I was into classical music. What I’m doing in the band is a little fusion, a German folk song into a rock format, or a Schumann number into rock, or Patsy Cline and darkening it.

You’ve been in the States a long time. Is there anything you still don’t “get” about America?

I think I’m getting it, but it is still very different. I can feel this is a younger country. There is a lot more struggle here, money is much more dominant here. I’m living in New York, and the country is so big, somebody who lives in North Dakota is so different from someone living here.

Any American habits you’ve particularly picked up and enjoy?

Basketball. I’m a Knicks fan, and unhappy the Knicks are struggling so much. I have season tickets, and just struggle as a Knicks fan.

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