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Che’s Franka Potente on Working With Benicio, Peeing in the Jungle

Franka Potente is sort of the Toni Collette of Germany: an international star who has played characters of multiple nationalities and alongside some of the biggest actors (read: heartthrobs) in Hollywood — Johnny Depp, Matt Damon — but still managed to maintain a certain indie sensibility. In 2006, she had her agent call the producers of the cop drama The Shield because she was such a fan that she wanted to be on the show. Now, she’s starring as an earnest Cuban guerilla and lover to Benicio del Toro’s hairy, brooding Ernesto Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s two-part, four-plus-hour epic, Che, which opened last week. Potente spoke with Vulture from “fucking dark” Berlin about working with Soderbergh and her upcoming book on fitness for slackers.

So Che is essentially a four-hour movie; what a feat.
Yes. I saw it in Cannes, with an intermission, as one film. And that totally worked for me. It felt really epic and it was very emotional, actually. I don’t know if that would work the same way with two movies. The thing is, people are afraid to see a movie that long. And it’s shot in Spanish, which I think is really cool, but that’s one obstacle right there.

What was your experience of watching it?
The challenge, I think, when you have somebody like Che or like any other big historic figure is that a lot of people know a lot about that person, or they want to see it idealized a certain way. I felt like part one kind of prepared me for part two. There’s a lot of information there that I didn’t know. “Ah, okay, oh, interesting! This is how it happened! This is how he met Castro! Aha! And this is how the Cuban revolution…” And then he’s become an antihero, almost, in part two.

How was it to work with Soderbergh?
When we were working, he was almost invisible, in a sense. He always stayed in the forest. He was like a chameleon. He was hidden behind leaves and stuff. He almost made himself dissolve to get the result that he had.

Was it unnerving to not see the camera?
Sometimes I would ask, like, “Where’s the camera?!” You kind of want to know, so you don’t look into the lens or something. But then it kind of makes sense, because we were wearing always these outfits with like heavy belts and all the guns were like the real guns, and the real shoes, and everything was heavy. And then we would hang out, basically. If we had breaks, we would sit around, and we would pee in the forest. So after a while, it kind of almost felt — not like we were being guerillas, of course, but it felt like we were comrades.

Did you feel tough?
You know what was weird, it was not so much the toughness, it was … in my guerilla group, we had a lot of Cubans and Bolivians, and it felt like a really nice group of comrades. I felt reminded of when I was in camp, when I was young. That’s something that you lose when you’re an adult unless you’re in a bowling club or whatever, which I’m not. But it’s something you lose, the feeling of just being with people — people that have your back, and of course we were doing extreme things. We were wading through rivers and climbing.

So you understood the appeal of becoming a guerilla?
Yeah, for sure. A lot of the Cuban actors, most of them were Cubans in exile, and politics is always something they talk about. And so yeah, we found ourselves very often speaking about, you know, just views of the world, of politics in whatever sense.

What’s it like to work with Benicio?
Oh, he’s very sweet. I like his humor. I think we’re in sync when it comes to a little bit of the childish, goofy, silly humor. He’s very Che, in a way, how I imagined Che. I’m not gonna say he’s Method acting, but whatever he did, it was good. He’s a good guy.

So, you released a silent short film in 2006 that was well received in Germany. Do you have aspirations to direct?
Yes, definitely. The next film that I have in mind is gonna be almost like a Bollywood film, in three different times and three different countries. And it’s gonna be very expensive and very huge.

You’re also a writer.
Yes, I’ve published one book before, and now I’m writing a book of essays and stories about life in Tokyo. And I have one book coming out in May in Germany, about fitness. But it's not the typical workout book. It's more for people that party and drink and don’t like ladies in leggings to show them what to do.

Photo: Courtesy of IFC Films