Franz Rogowski’s Sexy, Lonely, Beautiful Worlds

“You and me, if we would both sit here naked, it would change the energy.” That sounds like a safe bet, but Franz Rogowski is getting to a point here. “We wouldn’t have to do anything. We’d just take off our clothes.” He smiles at my nervous laugh, then gives an eyebrow raise that keeps his interviewer on his toes. This is the way Rogowski answers a question about the experience of filming a sex scene.

“You always depend on intimacy when you create scenes for a movie—it’s more obvious when you’re naked and you’re moaning,” he says. “But it’s not just having sex, you know? Having a conversation can be very intimate—as now, in this lovely Zoom conversation.”

Speaking with Rogowski, it seems, is not unlike watching him onscreen. The 37-year-old German actor has emerged as one of the most dynamic talents of his generation through a peculiar combination of wit, sexiness, vulnerability, and transparency. That last quality is key. His characters can behave cruelly, unbearably, or with bracing kindness and empathy; either way, Rogowski offers access into their vibrant, messy interior worlds. In his portrayals, they are funny and strange and deeply sad—the kinds of people we all recognize and who too rarely fill up the movies.

The honesty catches you off guard, and with that comes a thrilling unpredictability that explains his status as the art house man of the moment. The German auteur Christian Petzold cast Rogowski in 2018’s Transit; the next year, the actor took on a small but pivotal role in Terrence Malick’s World War II drama A Hidden Life. He’s now a global star primed to soar, completing ADR in three different languages on a given movie, acting around the world, and learning new ways of working along the way. He is in production on Andrea Arnold’s new movie, Bird, as we chat, shooting in the English town of Gravesend (Rogowski calls it “Brexitland”)—near where the director grew up—and giddy at the fact that he knows nothing more about his character or storyline than what’s on the pages Arnold gives him to act out for the day.

“We are dealing with all kinds of birdy issues here,” he says of the mystery project. Is he into that bird stuff? “Yes. I think I am an owl.” Okay, how so? After a pause, Rogowski hoots a few times in response. It is weirdly charming, and definitely confounding.

The superb film Passages (in US theaters August 4), which serves as the occasion for this interview, contains Rogowski’s most explosive and delicate performance yet. Not coincidentally, his character is highly chaotic. We meet Rogowski’s Tomas as a German filmmaker living in Paris, wrapping work on his latest movie. As he transitions back to regular life, he briefly loses interest in his long-term partner, the British Martin (Ben Whishaw), and finds himself intensely attracted to a French woman, Agathe (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who worked on the project. He begins an affair, swiftly moves in with her, and then starts pining for his old life—setting a fraught and heated love triangle in motion.

“He’s a fun character,” director Ira Sachs says, before qualifying with a laugh: “I mean, he’s a bad guy.” When it came to casting, Sachs thought about Jimmy Cagney. “Orson Welles once said [Cagney] was the greatest cinema actor ever—which I think is not far from true. [He] played people whose actions seemed despicable, and yet you loved him.” That model tracks here: Rogowski’s warm expressiveness barrels through even the most selfish of acts. He plays Tomas with delirious commitment. “He’s not really capable of putting a gloss over things or making something tidy when it’s not,” Whishaw tells me. “[Franz] is very frank. He’s very direct. At least, that’s how he seems to me.”

Rogowski fell in love with acting and got his first acting lesson in the same moment. “I was looking in the face of my mother, and I was trying to figure out what she would want,” he says. “Then I made the right gestures and I gave her a smile. She smiled back in return.” He lights up at the memory. All these years later, the basic takeaway from that interaction still applies. He wants to act so we react; he wants to feel right along with his audience. And he wants to grow from that process each time.

To inhabit a person as tricky and volatile as Tomas, Rogowski looked inward. In some ways, he came out of Passages with a richer sense of self, as well as a better sense of his personal style. He took home some of Tomas’s most provocative garments, including a striking snakeskin leather jacket, and has since integrated them into his wardrobe. He wears these pieces when out with friends, or at parties, or “maybe also at a campsite—you never know.” He likes the feeling the clothes give him, creating “a little push” to stand out from the crowd.

Of course, Tomas’s efforts at self-exploration come with a brazen disregard for the man with whom he’s chosen to spend his life. Rogowski says we all know guys like Tomas, that there might be a little of him in all of us. “How would you describe his behavior?” Rogowski asks me, intrigued. Terrifying, human, and, perhaps, primal, I reply. “Mm-hmm. Primal,” he says, delighted. “We all need some primal energy in our life. I’ve been working hard on the primal energy.”