Ira Sachs’s Paris-set drama Passages has been the talk of the town since its Sundance premiere earlier this year. A steamy, lovelorn triangle at its center, the film explodes with emotional frailness and confrontations. Ben Whishaw plays Martin, an English printer whose long-term partner Tomas (Franz Rogowski), a volatile German filmmaker, has an affair with a woman. The woman in question is played by French cinema icon Adele Exarchopoulos and together, they form an illustrious trio to guide the film’s emotional journey from betrayal to acceptance.
We met with Rogowski and Whishaw in Berlin, where Passages had its European premiere, and they were honest and direct about how pleasurable working on the film was. Even in a hotel room full of PRs and assistants and people walking back and forth during our interview, their bond and dedication to the final product shine through. Speaking with actors about emotionally challenging roles can sometimes be too technical or too abstract and personal, but both of them strike a balance between articulating their own approach and reflecting on what this collaboration has given them.
Projektor: Did you think you already had something magical when you were filming Passages?
Franz Rogowski: Reading the script, it was already clear to me, it was appealing. I love Ira’s work. And he wrote a very good script. You never know if you’re gonna fuck it up as an actor, but he had a very well-prepared project for us.
Ben Whishaw: Of course, you don’t know how something will turn out, but the elements were so exciting. I felt, even if it didn’t finally work, it was going to be really very stimulating. But honestly, I find it quite hard to watch the films I’ve made now. You find it easier, I think.
Rogowski: Mmmm… no. Normally, when I watch a movie, I feel like, “Okay, this is the last time they’ll give me a chance.” [laughs] But I love our movie!
Whishaw: I love it too! But it’s inherently strange to watch yourself. Also, the way we’re gonna see that film is not going to be like anyone else’s experience.
For example, Ben, there’s this moment when your character finally says, “I’m not interested in you anymore.” How did you work on his evolution to get to that point?
Whishaw: We filmed all of the scenes in the couple’s flat in 10 days or less, quite a condensed schedule. So it was, in a sense, the whole of their relationship. This was the last scene we shot there and by the time we got to it, it felt like we’d lived through something together.
Rogowski: I remember you that day being quite focused, and quite dark to a certain extent because you brought your own life to it. And you were very moved that day. I’m amazed at your skill when I see that and how you were able to condense all those emotions. He’s a very good actor. He finds this thin line between using yourself and your own trauma, your own material, your own feeling, and at the same time turning it into something that is not you but a fictional character, but you do this thing.
How do you even begin to build a character’s long-term relationship, when you’re supposed to show only its end?
Rogowski: Well, Ira, met up with us two in a cafe, and then he left the table. It was very intentional, of course, so we would talk. There we were, for an hour, or I don’t know how long the two of us started to communicate. I love Ben as an actor, and now I love him as a human being. So I was pretty attracted by the idea of playing this couple with him. And it was just a pleasure working with Ira that created this intimate space for us to do so. And I think the reason why it might feel so alive or real is because Ira never went into this position where he would demand and we would have to deliver. I mean, that’s the reality of shooting a movie, but he would be a friend, partner in crime, someone who would wonder with us, what this scene might have to look like, and he was also interested in us, creating whatever we would create in that very moment and start from there and use the reality of who we are in this characters in this very moment of shooting. He never rehearsed and never wanted to make us feel like we needed to defend something that was rather constructed.
In this regard, let’s talk about the sex scenes. They are long, passionate, and telling. How did you work together to have this intimate narrative grow out of them so organically?
Rogowski: I mean, when we started to fuck, I felt like, “Okay, this is just an intimate sex scene.” But then we kept on fucking for, like, 30 minutes, so by then I was pretty sure Ira wanted a longer scene [laughs]. What I really enjoyed seeing was Ben’s spine! And it sounds very stupid, but the way your pelvis moves, you’re like a very sexy sculpture. And I love that it’s a long take which happens at the end of an even longer scene. I think there are a lot of scenes in the movie that are rather sculptural, or they have a certain texture that is as important as the dialogue and the character’s struggle.
Whishaw: Yeah, I think there’s something also about Ira’s willingness to acknowledge that sex is a really important part of relationships and of life. Like without it becoming something that we are embarrassed by or shameful of, but he just looks at it. These people, these are two men who fuck and who really love it.
Rogowski: There are two feet intertwined, and there’s the spine, and it reminds me of… not an animal, but certainly a creature.
Rogowski: It’s not so much about them being in pain, which they try to solve through sex. No, they become one. Also, the first scene that we shot is the one where we are sitting on the bed and we’re having a conversation, when Thomas is turning to Martin for support. We did quite a lot of takes and Ira wasn’t sure, but we ended up sticking with the first take: my figure is hiding your face and my back is facing the camera, so my face is not visible either. So we are this weird clump.
Whishaw: Yeah, clump! You can’t really sort of separate the two out, it’s so nice. I love that scene too. And I can’t think of any other director who would have done that scene like that. I love working with Ira. I love that he has an innate queer perspective. And it imbues everything he does, and how he sees everything. So every frame of the film, and every moment of the film expresses that.
Rogowski: And we are a good clump!
And how was it bringing Adele Exarchopoulos into the couple?
Whishaw: She’s awesome, Adele. She’s a very special creature.
Rogowski: And she has an incredible voice, intimidating almost. In the film, everything is balanced out, so you don’t really know it, but her voice is like ten times as loud as mine, very low, very deep. In fact, the first time I saw her, she was sitting on a window and she [looked] so beautiful. But at the same time, she’s not trapped in a certain kind of feminine code, so she was smoking a cigarette in a non-smoking room. And she came on a Harley Davidson that day. She’s rock and roll.
Whishaw: She’s also super clever and perceptive and intelligent and kind. She’s a really amazing mixture of things. Very, very special, unique creature.
Rogowski: Yes. And she brought herself [into the performance]. She’s a mom, she would know how these things might feel.
Header image courtesy of Berlinale’s Photo Call held on February 20, 2023.