An Interview with Verena Altenberger
Verena Altenberger is an actor known for her work on The Best of All Worlds, Polizeiruf 110, Magda macht das schon!, and Shillings From Heaven. I spoke with Verena about pursuing a career in the industry, what draws her to a role, The Best of All Worlds, and her upcoming projects.
Did you always want to pursue a career in acting, and how did you land your first role?
I always dreamed of becoming an actress. My mum used to tell stories about the time when I was three or four years old, when I first articulated my wish of becoming an actress. Growing up in a little town in the middle of the mountains in Salzburg though, I first had no clue how to make my dream come true. Once I moved to Vienna when I was 18, I started consuming every available kind of acting. I went to the theatre almost every day, I went to the library and rented scripts of movies. Back home I would watch the movies while reading the script in order to understand the “language of making a movie”. But still, my own career as an actress seemed to end before it even started, I just couldn’t get a foot in the door.
After studying communications and media and after working as a journalist, I took another chance to make my lifelong dream come true – and this time I succeeded. One of the very renowned acting universities in Vienna would accept me as a student and I started at the Music and Arts University of Vienna. When I was 28, I finished university and soon after, I would land my first role in the drama The Best of All Worlds by debut-director Adrian Goiginger. He was looking for a young actress with a fresh face, able to speak Salzburg dialect and willing to put a lot of unpaid preparation work into transforming into the character of his own mother Helga Wachter, who this movie is about. Helga was a heroin addict and a wonderful mother, and he wanted to make this movie to honor her immense strength in overcoming her own demons.
Is there anyone in the industry who has particularly inspired you?
No, not really. I admire so many women with different approaches to acting and different directors who make completely different movies. But in general, I am very much inspired by filmmakers who use their voice to change the world to a better place.
What draws you to a role?
When I read a script for the first time, I have to emotionally understand the person I am reading about. That doesn’t mean I have to understand immediately every word she is saying, and that doesn’t mean I had to have had similar experiences. But I have to understand instinctively why this person is the way she is, and why she behaves the way she does. As an actress I see it as my job, to be the lawyer of the character I am playing. I have to make other people understand her motives, her dreams, her hopes and her fears. Make them relatable and able to be experienced by the audience.
Could you tell me more about your work on Die beste aller Welten (The Best of All Worlds)? How did you approach the role of Helga Wachter?
Sure. I always explain my preparation for Helga with “from the outside to the inside”. I first started talking to doctors about heroin addiction and what it does to the body. Because I not only had to play the inner condition, but also had to know exactly how my body would react. When is my heart bumping, what kind of pain would I be feeling, when would I be sweating, etc. Then I contacted organizations that work with people, who want to get clean, or who are ex-addicts and want to start a new life without drugs. I learned a lot about addiction there. The best description about what heroin does to your soul, and why it is so hard to stay away from it, came from a former addict I met there. She said, the moment she takes heroin, she feels like when she was a child, and the family would gather around the Christmas tree. She said, heroin is her compensation for real love and the feeling of being safe.
Working deeper in the field of drug addiction, I got to know a few people, who were still on drugs, but wanted to get clean. I gained their trust and the biggest gift for me was them allowing me to be part of their lives for a few weeks. They invited me into their homes, talked to me about drugs, about their pain, their needs and their dreams and families. That was the point where I truly understood how someone can be a heroin addict, but also a loving mother.
Well and then there was my body transformation: I had to lose weight, and for more than half a year I wasn’t allowed to do my hair, my nails, or even shave my legs. I looked quite messy when we started shooting, but it was definitely worth it.
What was the biggest challenge on this production, and how did you overcome that?
When I started working on The Best of All Worlds I was still somehow trapped in prejudices about drug addicts. I caught myself thinking – how can someone, who needs heroin three or four times a day, be able to take good care of her son? How could that person possibly be the best mother for a little child? And first, I had no access to the drug scene, so of course I had no one to really talk to about it and no one I could rely on. We all know images or have seen someone really high, or maybe really low, at the station, or in a documentary or so. But what about the everyday life of a drug addict? I really needed to get some insights and I needed to lose my own initial reservations. That’s why getting to know some people who really let me be part of their lives for quite a time was the biggest gift for me. That enabled me to play Helga afar from clichés, to see the human and the mother behind the stereotype of “a drug addict”.
What’s your mantra, or the best advice you’ve ever had?
Be brave. Be brave enough to be yourself.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I do. Currently, I am preparing an Austrian movie with the working title Sub Surface Love. It’s about two people who don’t want to fall in love but – of course – it happens anyway. The man is afraid of falling in love because he has seen his father lose his mind about a woman, the woman – me, “Caro” – only has a few months left because of a rare disease. But once they overcome their fears, their love becomes kind of eternal.
After that I will be playing the prestigious role Paramour in Jedermann – The Play about the Death of the Rich Man at the renowned Salzburg Festival which is another childhood dream coming true.
And on April 15th my new streaming series Wild Republic will be released on Magenta TV.