To Act Well, Niels Schneider Needs to Forget

by Eva Barragan

Niels Schneider | All Photos by Fe Pinheiro

Niels Schneider | All Photos by Fe Pinheiro

Behind the extravagant costumes, dramatic makeup, and delicate, entrancing movements of modern ballet lies the brutal reality: a heavy levy of blisters, warts, bunions, calluses, bruises, Snapping Hip Syndrome, meniscus knee tears, lateral ankle sprains, muscle spasms, ingrown toenails and gory feet injuries (just to name a few). It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that in 1975 the New York Times reported ballet as the most physically and mentally demanding sport, followed by bullfighting and football.

“You have to like suffering to be a ballet dancer,” Niels Schneider admits. “It’s totally unnatural.” The French actor and I are talking over the phone as he sits in a cafe in Paris. Schneider is 30 and Franco-Canadian, with an impressive burgeoning resume. After a decade in the film industry and over 20 films under his belt, he is the latest recipient of the highly prestigious César Award for Most Promising Actor (a distinction given to a breakthrough performance or for best newcomer) for Dark Inclusion, his first lead role.

Schneider also has a background in both theatre and cinema and can add “professionally trained dancer” to his C.V. after his turn in the role of Adrien in the 2016 French film, Polina, an adaptation of Bastien Vivès’ striking novel about a young Russian ballerina who moves to France to pursue love and her passion for dance, while she struggles to master the intricacies of the more contemporary style in which she finds herself immersed. 

Prior to taking on Adrien (a modern dance student) Schneider had only a very brief encounter with ballet. “I did, like, two classes of ballet dancing. I had to wear these incredibly tight tights and I had a friend who saw me in them once. I never went back after that.”

To prepare for the role, the choreographer for Polina, Angelin Preljocaj, invited Schneider to train with the dancers of his show, Retour à Berratham, so that Schneider could have the opportunity to live and breathe dance for six months before filming for Polina began.

“I was really scared of being a dancer, especially because all the other dancers in the film are professional,” Schneider tells me. “But Angelin is the best choreographer in the world, so when he called me to be a part of the show I knew I had to say yes.”  As I sit on the phone and listen to Schneider talk about his love for theatre and film I can’t imagine him wanting to be anything other than an actor.

While Schneider tells me this may be the case now, he was completely repelled by the idea growing up.  “My dad was a dancer and a theatre teacher so I wanted to do anything but act,” he says. “No child wants to do the same thing as their parents, but my older brother was an actor and when he died I wanted to connect with him in some way.” As a teen Schneider was quite timid and thought there was no way he could possibly be an actor.

“But then when I was on stage for the first time,” he tells me with a heady warmth in his voice, “I felt more free than in life.”  In Dark Inclusion Schneider plays a sleazy, erotically overbearing character seeking vengeance from his diamond-dealing family over the death of his estranged father. His character is lucid, cool, and precise.

The film captures the essence of film noir with a silver/blue color scheme, betrayal, and forbidden love. Schneider previously described his role as “complex in its morals and values – emotionally charged.” 

“Niels is a very committed actor. He was incredibly focused and even obsessed with the character,” writer and director for Dark Inclusion Arthur Harari tells me. “I really saw him become Pier: his voice kind of changed – became softer, almost child-like. We found that the key for the character was that he kind of remained an unfinished child. Niels found that in him, along with a great darkness.” 

Schneider’s next project sounds similarly fraught – an adaptation of Christine Angot’s novel, An Impossible Love, which recounts a complex relationship between a young girl and her two parents. When it comes to preparing for a specific role, Schneider tells me that throughout the years he’s never really developed a “method,” that acting is learning to be an idiot in a way.

“I mean you have to forget about what you know and you have to be just present and free in your mind to let the character be,” he explains. “I cannot really tell you what I’ve learned. I really try to forget about everything I did before when I start a new project. I don’t think you have to put some space in your head or in your heart – it’s all about forgetting who you are.”

Written by: Eva Barragan