While Maria Dragus was still studying dance at the Palucca University in Dresden at only fourteen, she was cast in Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” where she played the priest’s daughter Klara. The film that won the Palme d’or in 2009 garnered her a German Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She has since worked in numerous productions, including “If Not Us, Who?” by Andres Veiel (2011), Emily Atef’s “Kill Me” (2012) and “Summer Outside” by Friederike Jehn (2012). Romanian director Cristian Mungiu wrote for his Cannes prize-winner “Graduation” (2016) specially for her. More recently, we can see her in “Mademoiselle Paradis” by Barbara Albert (2017) and Josie Rourke’s “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018). She will play opposite Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench in Andy Goddard’s upcoming film, “Six Minutes to Midnight” (2020). In 2014, Maria was chosen as one of the ten European Shooting Stars and was part of the Face to Face with German Films initiative at the beginning of this year.
Tara Karajica caught up with her at this year’s Black Nights Film Festival, where she was one of the six Black Nights Stars.
What made you want to become an actress?
Maria Dragus: I never intended to become an actor. My parents worked in a theater, where I spent my days dreaming of becoming an opera singer. At age ten, I entered the National Ballet School where I trained for seven years to become a dancer. I was introduced to film acting through a friend. I thought it would be fun to try. Her agent signed me when I was eleven and that’s where it all started.
When did you become interested in your Romanian roots? How did you explore them in Cristian Mungiu’s The Graduation?
M.D.: I partially grew up in Romania, so it is home to me. When I worked with Michael Haneke, I realized how acting could actually be a career path and I started watching a lot of European films. At the time, I wanted to understand better which stories I could be part of. I bought a stack of DVDs, among which Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. When I watched the film, I fell in love with the way he guided his actors and I thought I’d be the luckiest girl if I ever had the chance to work with him. When it happened, it was a true gift he made to me. He is an extraordinary director and one of the smartest human beings I know.
You have starred on TV and in film. Which medium do you prefer? Why?
M.D.: Do we still make the difference between TV and film nowadays ? Our industry is shifting and to tell stories, there have to be new ways to get them out there. Our market is becoming more and more global and thanks to the fact that VOD platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, etc. are producing in Europe as well, they’ve created new possibilities. Instead of telling a story in ninety minutes, you get to have six hours. That’s a fantastic opportunity!
How much of you is there in every character you play? Do you manage to dissociate yourself completely from your persona in order to play someone else?
M.D.: To me, acting is giving away my body as a temporary vessel to a story. It is only that that I have in common with my characters. Sometimes, I have a story that I cannot connect to on a personal level, and it is extremely important for me to keep the distance. With every character I play, I get to know a different side of our society and that’s what I find intriguing; it’s like making new friends outside of your usual circle.
Which of your numerous roles is your favorite? Is there a particular role that you would like to play, someone you would like to be?
M.D.: I try to do projects that I love; asking for a favorite is like asking for a favorite child. They are all so different and they all have made me grow in one way or another. I know it may sound weird, but any role can become my dream role, no matter how big or small. It’s all about the playful aspect. Sometimes, the circumstances are not great, but there is always something that I try to find for myself which will help me grow.
How do you prepare for your roles? What is the most interesting skill you have had to learn for a role?
M.D.: I come from a dance background, so the physical preparation is my main approach. Every part I play has its start in a dance studio. I try to find a physicality to it. Because everything we go through is manifested in our bodies. How we walk, how we move when we talk… I try to build my parts like layers. Body, speech, thoughts. It’s the small things that enrich the performance. The most thrilling experience has been to use exactly this approach in preparation for Mary Queen of Scots where we spent two weeks with the Royal Ballet’s choreographer, Wayne McGregor. We would train with him in the mornings and work on our Scottish accents in the afternoon, apart from rehearsals with the other actors. Rehearsing is surprisingly extremely uncommon for movies, even though I think that preparation is eighty percent of the work.
Has there been a role that has had such an impact on you that it has completely and deeply changed you and the way you perceive the world? If so, which one and why?
M.D.: All of them do. They help me create an awareness of different aspects in life that I didn’t necessarily have beforehand. I try to challenge myself through the choices that I make.
You were a European Shooting Star in 2014 and you were part of the Face to Face with German Films this year and your also now a Black Nights Star. What do you think these initiatives mean for your career and how do you think they are impacting it?
M.D.: I am very honored to continuously be chosen as an uprising talent, even though I’ve been working in the industry for fifteen years now. An important part for us actors is to create visibility for ourselves, and on a global market this becomes especially harder to do. These programs obviously help us a lot. I am very thankful because I don’t take it for granted to be chosen over and over again.
What does it take to be a star, according to you?
M.D.: For this answer I’d like to quote Frances McDormand: “Being a movie star is a very specific job and it takes a very large group of people to help happen. An actor can work in movies all by themselves, with some very good representation, but you can do it by yourself, same as you can do any job.”
There has been a lot of talk about women in film these past two years. What do you make of the situation of women in film today? How is the situation in Germany?
M.D.: If we talk about women in film, we have to talk about women in our society. What is our stand for today? How has the behavior towards women actually changed after #MeToo? I think there is a certain awareness that has been created and that helps us shift the “old ways.” But this process takes time, in Germany and everywhere else.
On that note, who is your favorite female filmmaker? Is there one you would love to work with?
M.D.: I’ve been lucky enough to work with quite a few female filmmakers up until now. It’s always exciting. If I could make a wish, I’d say Greta Gerwig. That would be a dream!
What are your next projects?
M.D.: For next year, I am prepping two series. It’s going to be my first time outside my ninety-minute movie box, so I am very excited to explore this more!
This interview was conducted at the 2019 Black Nights Film Festival.
Photo credits: Natacha Lamblin.