Two weeks ago, Franka Potente (Copper) entered the Briar Cliff Manor, claiming to be Anne Frank (yes, THAT Anne Frank) and that Dr. Arden (played creepily by James Cromwell) was a Nazi war criminal, who performed experiments on young girls. That’s just a sliver of this wild, disturbing and unsettling season of American Horror Story: Asylum has in store for viewers.
Potente who is still fondly remembered for her starring role in Run Lola Run, saw more exposure with roles in Blow and the Jason Bourne films. Brief stints on The Shield, House M.D. and Psych opened television to her and she is currently a regular on BBC America’s Copper, which just got picked up for Season 2. Potente is also working on her first fiction novel. We recently spoke briefly with Potente on a conference call about this juicy role and some of the elements about AHS that make it so compelling. (This is a warning if you’re not caught up on American Horror Story: Asylum)
Potente found out she would be playing Anne Frank if she had survived the Holocaust in Asylum just a week or two before she shot her scenes. Creator Ryan Murphy wanted to create something out of nothing, based on the thought, ‘what would Frank be like if she was alive, if she had survived, and what would drive her?’ She’s not sure why Murphy chose Frank, but if someone came back a was accusing Dr. Arden of being a Nazi, Potente said, “It couldn’t be anybody. It had to be Anne Frank.” We all found out last night that she was actually a woman suffering from schizophrenia, and was deeply affected by the Diary.
BuzzFocus: Franka, could you talk about the ambiguity of the characters on Asylum and that theme. What’s your take on that switch (in trust or faith) for the audience as well as an actor playing out the role? Characters come into Briar Cliff and then are not what we think they are.
FP: That’s the fun of it of course, you know. It’s kind of the Hitchcock moment of, “is it possible?” and then you feed the audience some seemingly plausible reasons, and within all that madness, anything is possible and this is what I think is great.
You have to keep in mind the title sequence. What that does to you invites you into a world, which the texture of it is like a nightmare, and that’s so well done. We’ve already seen glimpses of an alien, weird creatures in the park– So, anything is really possible, and I think if you keep watching the show, you’re open to anything, which I think is beautiful. That’s what you want in horror or suspense or this kind of supernatural environment. Otherwise, it’s a different show.
BF: So you’re kept in the dark as far as knowing those turns in characters?
FP: I don’t know who Bloody Face is [we know now]. For the other characters, I don’t know. I’ve seen them now, but I didn’t read the scripts before my shows and I don’t know the lines [that come] after. I have ideas about it, but I really don’t know. The cool thing is I think the actors don’t even know.
I knew the outcome of my character, and obviously, Anne Frank is proven historically–even though there’s a tiny question mark, a little window–she did not survive the concentration camp because she died of typhus or something. But I love the idea and this is what movies and movie magic are about that what if. What if she was still around?
She would be my age and what would she be like, and to kind of indulge in that for a little bit until we learn, “well, too bad it’s not Anne Frank.” It’s someone who took over that schizophrenic episode. Actually a lot of women I guess did that at the time, but for that moment, to indulge in the possibly–that’s what TV or movies are made of.
BF: Did you do any personal study on people who were admitted into asylums or go some extra mile on the trying to accurately portray the atmosphere or state of mind?
FP: Many years ago, for a German film that I did with Tom Tykwer, The Princess and the Warrior, I actually worked at an insane asylum for two weeks. I have very vivid memories of that awkward time. On the other hand, American Horror Story: Asylum is set in the 60s. All of those experiments that they conducted with patients were very new at the time and stuff was very different.
So, I’ve spent quite some time that was very intense many years back in an institution like that. But on the other hand, it’s always nice to have a fresh take on it. This is at the end of the day, a normal person that she of course thinks she’s not insane. That’s the one thing especially that I remember. The beauty about insanity is that nobody who is insane runs around thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m really insane.’ So, you have to play into that as normal as possible. Everyone else is insane but the insane person. Then, you take it from there to be honest, and in this case especially, the setting that’s already there does a lot. If the series was just about this one case, I would have to put a little bit more work into it for mood and all that kind of stuff, but it’s so loaded at episode four already with all the creepiness and all these things that, to be honest, I don’t have to play into that. It’s already there anyway.
BF: Well, it was a wonderful two-episode arc, and we hoped your version of Anne Frank would’ve stuck around longer but we hope to see you come back in some fashion. Nonetheless it was a great appearance!
FP: I hope so too, thank you!
Here are some other tidbits Franka Potente shared about American Horror Story: Asylum.
About the set:
“The set is pretty eerie, which is great for an actor because we basically we need to step in and the mood is already created. We say our lines and that’s that. [The set is] definitely half the magic. The first thing that came to my mind when I saw it, was if you’re a Catholic, it’s kind of intimidating, dark, strict and regal; it’s very impressive. So, you get to really play with everything that’s there.”
On why people love watching American Horror Story: Asylum
“If you commit yourself to watching something like this, you want to be creeped out. I saw some stuff online where people are like, “This is so gross! It’s so creepy!” What do you think you’re watching? This is not a cooking show or a book club.
People watch this because it’s like this weird, ambivalent, naughty feeling of I’m watching these sick things and there’s sick stuff on this show, but people are intrigued and I think they feel bad at the same time, I can’t believe I’m watching this! There’s a scene of a guy masturbating and another puking. Oh my God, people went crazy online about that scene. What a great scene that is. People were almost offended, but I think that feeling comes from a weird feeling of “I can’t believe I just watched that and I have to watch. I can’t look away.” That’s what this plays into and why there’s a great attraction to it too.”
On the audience reaction and hoping Anne Frank’s story would go longer:
“I kind of wished for a second they’ll think maybe it is Anne Frank. Let her linger a little longer and be Anne Frank. I kind of liked that idea. It’s like with a lot of historic figures, you sometime think, what if they weren’t dead, what would they be like now? If you put them into new historic context, how would that work? It’s a very intriguing thing to think about.”
On working with Jessica Lange:
“When I went to work I would tell my husband I’m going to take some acting lessons now. I think in the beginning, it was a little bit intimidating. I remember my very first day of work was only scenes with Jessica and I think I had about 20 pages of lines. So, I was very, very nervous. I didn’t want to mess up.”
What she hopes for Eva on the second season of Copper
“She’s such a fun character being this brothel owner at the time, not having so many boundaries. So, I would love to explore that a little bit more and have her be like more of an active part in what’s going on in the men’s world, like in the tough business and all these things. There was one episode where she killed someone. She was like cutthroat and this is the side I would like to see a little bit more.”
Her thoughts on the last scene reveal that Arden is indeed a Nazi criminal:
“So, we just got the confirmation that he is a Nazi, and he’s already involved in so much horrible stuff. That’s going to be interesting. He’s obviously protected by the Monsignor and other people. So, I have no idea where this is going to go.”