An Interview with Christiane Seidel
Christiane Seidel is an actor and producer known for Boardwalk Empire, Fosse/Verdon, Godless, The Queen’s Gambit and Paradise Highway. I spoke with Christiane about training as an actor, portraying Sigrid Mueller in Boardwalk Empire, prepping for period-specific roles, and genres she’d most like to work in.
Did you receive any formal acting training?
I went to The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York. I got an extended amount of time programme after I went to University in Germany. After I finished at Strasberg, I continued taking classes and attending workshops. The wonderful thing about New York is that you can cherry pick some of the best teachers in the business. I’ve been working with Larry Moss for a long time, and I continue to do so. I’ve continued to take classes with some other greats like Jean-Louis Rodrigues or Patsy Rodenburg to stay sharp and to expand my toolkit. There are so many ways to go about it and approach a role. I have found different techniques and tools from different beliefs in acting for myself. I’m not just using the Method by Strasberg, but I use different approaches depending on the role.
Who are your acting heroes?
When I first think of real acting heroes, or people I get inspired by, I think of Joaquin Phoenix. He is one of the best actors of our generation in my opinion. I’m in awe of him. Of course, there is also the Grande dame Meryl Streep. I’ve been following everything Jessica Chastain has been doing for years. I think she’s very inspiring and really strong as an actor. There is Viola Davis, Daniel Day-Lewis, Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand, Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett. Juliette Binoche is one of my acting heroes as well. Getting to work with her was an absolute privilege.
How did you get your first acting break?
That was Law & Order: SVU. In New York, as an actor it’s a rite of passage to be in the Law & Order universe. Usually, you would start out with a co-star role and after a few or many of those, you move on to guest-star roles. Somehow, I skipped the co-star category and got really lucky. This was the first time when I thought maybe there is a place for me in acting because I was very insecure and not sure what I was doing. It’s not like this was the huge break. It was one episode of a TV show, but for me, this was the first time that I got a role that was professional and which my parents back in Germany could watch on television.
How did you first get involved with Boardwalk Empire?
It was a regular audition, but the original role description for Sigrid was completely different in terms of physicality and age. I already loved watching the show and I when I came in in season two, towards the end of the season, it was going to be for one episode, possibly two. My character ended up being a part of the show for four more seasons. First, I was the Nanny, then the wife, then a murderer and a betrayer. I was so grateful that the writers and producers would keep writing me in and giving me more. I heard that they liked the chemistry between Michael Shannon and me, so they kept expanding that storyline. Anytime I got script I would skip through to see if I died because this was a show where you expected to get a bullet to your head at some point. I made it to the end shockingly, and I will always be grateful to the team behind Boardwalk for that.
I grew through these seasons. I came in as this very innocent and naïve character and I feel that I grew with the role as a woman, which was really interesting. I spent a long time on this show with this character that completely evolved, as did I as an actor.
Could you discuss your role as Sigrid Mueller, and the preparation involved?
The big thing was the accent. For the audition, I’d worked with my dialect coach Jerome Butler. I wanted to be so comfortable with the accent that I didn’t have to think about it during the audition. Somehow, the accent informed the character in so many ways. It’s hard to put into words. I still have this accent and can just pull it out and it gives me immediate Sigrid vibes. It was an old school Norwegian accent, which is something I fine-tuned later on when I was working on the show.
Once I got cast, the production wanted to find a real Norwegian to coach the accent with me. Anna Gutto, who directed me in Paradise Highway some ten years later, was an actor at that time and came highly recommended. I’m half-Danish and Danish is one of my mother tongues. Danish and old Norwegian are very similar in writing, although not the accent, but I felt authentic and connected to the language and the accent immediately. That was the main thing for Sigrid. And then, once you get to set and wear these beautiful period costumes, which were authentic even down to the pantyhose, it completes the character, it makes you move and walk differently.
My Danish background did help a lot because sometimes it can take you a while to be comfortable with a certain accent. With this one, I felt like that somewhere deep down I had permission to go all in because I felt that’s a part of me and my history. Even though I’m not Norwegian, there is a lot of history between Denmark and Norway, not necessarily positive, but I’m able to read old Ibsen for example and understand it because it is essentially old Danish. That was extremely helpful. We also had Anette Lian-Williams, a make-up artist on set who is Norwegian. She told me that I did sound really old school, and that actually meant so much to me.
Is it more challenging to dig into the older dialect as there is limited recording of that?
On the one hand it’s a lot easier to go really far back if there is no recording because nobody can tell you if you are doing it wrong, or right. I think it helped me to do it a little bit more old school because my Danish is a little bit old school as I learnt it from my mother and I didn’t grow up with the contemporary sounds. It’s similar in that sense to the older Norwegian and that’s why it helped me in this case. I’m not sure for other period accents as it's very individual how you connect to accents and how you work. I don’t think there is a general answer for that.
You’ve worked on a number of period dramas. What’s the most challenging aspect of prepping for a period-specific role?
Yes, besides Boardwalk Empire, Godless and The Queen’s Gambit were also both period dramas. I would say the most challenging aspect is to stay true to the time period. When the costume designer and the set designer have created very researched and authentic surroundings, you don’t want to distract from it with something too contemporary in your speech, for example. All the different aspects that make up the period of the time have to create synergy and complement each other.
Sometimes we don’t have enough material or records of a certain time and that can be very freeing, too. You leave your contemporary world, and a layer of yourself behind. You are speaking and moving differently. Not necessarily by a lot, but there are small adjustments you can make and that is what I think is so fun.
You’re also an executive producer. Could you tell me more about this?
My husband and I have a production company together, Red Rope Productions. We take on different roles depending on the project, sometimes I am a producer or executive producer. For example, on our most recent film, Fraud, I was the Key Creative Executive Producer. One of my favourite things about producing is to help connect the right people with a certain project, and to see an artistic vision being fulfilled and flourish. Getting certain people together knowing if they meet something great will happen. I don’t believe that you have to be precious about your connections, I really believe that there is space for everyone.
Has working as a producer changed your perspective on the filmmaking process? How has it impacted you as an actor?
Yes, it has absolutely changed my perspective on filmmaking and the role that I have as an actor. Being a producer puts everything into perspective. The actors are not the most important element on set. We are all working together like parts of a machine. If the lighting is not good, then the actor cannot be seen and then you will have issues in the edit. Everyone has an important function on set and of course, there is no film without the actors, but there is also no film without the script, the editor, or the director. You also have to train yourself as an actor to not take everything personally because a different direction or an adjustment often has to do with the big picture. It’s definitely helped me have a healthier perspective as an actor. I knew this before, but I really didn’t see it until I was looking at it from a producer’s perspective.
Do you feel like you can be bolder now in the roles that you choose?
To be quite honest, I’m not in a position where I can choose a lot of my roles. I do say no to certain things. I’m not in a position where I can just pick and choose, unless it just happens that there are two projects at once and I have to choose because of time constraints. I do feel, however, that I am bolder in my acting choices when I work and I feel more confident as an actor. I have my insecurities too and I work with them and against them.
Is there a particular genre you would like to work in?
I would love to do a gory or even fun horror film like Scream. A superhero movie is also on high up on my list. I am often physical in my roles and have done quite a few stunts. Somehow, I often get cast in roles where I end up murdering, or killing someone, or I’m being violent in some shape or form, which couldn’t be further away from who I am in real life. But it would be such a treat to do something otherworldly like flying or scaling buildings.
What are you currently watching/reading?
I’m religiously watching Succession. I loved watching The White Lotus. I went through the first season in a heartbeat. I’m reading a bunch of different books at the moment. I’m currently reading The Surrender Experiment by Michael A. Singer. It’s a great book about how he decided early on in his life to always surrender to what life throws at him and how his life has unfolded because of that. It’s a very spiritual book that I find very inspiring. I’m going to read his book, The Untethered Soul next. I also just started reading the first book of the Department Q series by fellow Dane Jussi Adler-Olsen.