Interview: Peta Sergeant (Iron Sky)

Interview: Peta Sergeant (Iron Sky). By Simon Miraudo.

Peta Sergeant – one of the former stars of Satisfaction – plays political advisor/fashionista/vengeance-seeking space captain Vivian Wagner in the fan-funded Iron Sky, a film she describes as “Galaxy Quest meets Mars Attacks. With Nazis.” During our conversation, she described what it’s like to be a working actress in Los Angeles “trying to persevere,” and shared with good humour the semi-traumatic events of filming in Germany, such as conducting a shoot with a broken foot (for which she would need two titanium plates and six screws to fix), and enduring the occasionally devastating feedback from director Timo Vuorensola. Sergeant also explained how her spoofery of the iconic Downfall sequence – in which an incensed Hitler gives his underlings a dressing down – led to one of the best experiences of her life at the film’s Berlin Film Festival debut.

Check out our review of Iron Sky here.

SM: How was the film first brought to your attention?

PS: I was in LA, auditioning here, where I was sent the script and asked to send a tape. You know, in the classic form of, “Can you make a tape?” “Yeah, sure, when do you need it?” “Right now.” I think I made it within 24 hours, sent it off, and amazingly – this has never happened to me before – in less than 24 hours I had a phone call from my agent saying, “They watched your tape in Germany; they loved it. Can you be in Frankfurt in two days? You’ve got the job.” And I was like, “Uh, what?” “Yeah, they want to fly you out ASAP. They want you over there.” So, it was really fast. Really, really fast. Surprisingly simple. Usually you make these tapes and you think, “Do people actually watch them? Does the director actually see them? What happens to all these tapes that we’re making?” Because you make lots of tapes. It was one of those amazing moments where I thought, “Oh my gosh.”

SM: Well, it’s a really uniquely funded and conceived film. Were you cautious at all about signing on for something that had been put together with the assistance of fans over a number of years?

PS: No, I was so excited! It was such an exciting concept, and an extraordinary journey, particularly with the fans. They did this amazing thing where, on one of the days we were shooting in Frankfurt, they had to blow up a building. It’s set in New York, so they had to make it look like New York and have hundreds of people running away from the explosion. The day before we shot the scene, they sent out a call and said to all of the investors, “If you’d invested a dollar or more in the movie – whether it’s this much money or that much money it doesn’t matter – we want to say thank you and invite you to be an extra in a film. We can get our own extras obviously, but we thought it’d be a great thing to give back to the fans, and have them be a part of the film. And also, if anybody has any American cars in this vicinity, bring them in.” It was incredible the response. With 24 hours notice, people were flying in from all over Europe to come and be a part of it. You were sort of there going, “Wow, it’s really rare to be on a project that’s already so admired by the public.” It’s incredible. A project that hasn’t even been made yet and it’s already got fans.

I got sent the script, and then I was cast, and I was at a Halloween party in LA, with this guy Dan Billet who I actually went to NIDA with. I was at this party that he was throwing, and I said, “Dan you won’t believe this. I’m flying to Germany in 24 hours; I’ve got this job in this movie called Iron Sky.” He said, “Oh my God, I watched the trailer online.” They already had a mock trailer online to get funding. All these people at the party were like, “I’ve heard of that movie! I watched the trailer. It’s really funny. It’s about Nazis on the moon, right?” At this party in LA. I was like, “What?” It was really exciting, and it was amazing to engage with the fans on that level, on set. You forget, because what we do, when you’re actually working, is so much fun. But when you’re not working, and you’re trying to get a job, and you’re trying to fulfil a dream, and you’re trying to persevere, and you’re trying to just keep going… it’s really hard work. The off times are “the long dark tea time of the soul”, to quote Douglas Adams. It’s kind of tough going, so it was really just amazing to go from that position, of being in Los Angeles with audition after audition and going, “Oh, it’s… going well” and having call backs. It’s nothing quite like being in Germany and meeting people so invested in the film. “I’m such and such from Sweden, and I put ten grand in, and I’m honoured to meet you.” I was like, “Oh my God, it’s an honour to meet you. You gave me a job! [Laughs]  And I’m so happy to be here.” And then of course we had a night where we had dinner with the investors; I think it was online investors who had put in more than 15 grand – it was never disclosed how much they put in. They all came to set one day and had a meal with us, the cast. It was just awesome. It was so cool. It’s the future, you know? It sounds cheesy to say that, because it’s a sci-fi film, but it is; it’s the future of filmmaking. And by the people who you want to make stuff for; less about whether it’s going to sell, whether or not it’s going to get great reviews, and all this other stuff blah blah blah. It was incredible being on something and thinking, “People already love this.” They’re so drawn to the concept. It was really encouraging to see how much yearning there was, particularly in Europe, for a movie like this. That was really an eye opener and something exciting to be a part of. One hundred fold when we took it to the Berlin Film Festival, because the reaction was so remarkable. You couldn’t have asked for more.

SM:  At least now you’re prepared for all the fan conventions you’ll likely be heading to.

PS: [Laughs]

SM: You’ve already dealt with the fans. You’ve figured that out.

PS: I was recently in Vancouver, shooting this pilot, and I revealed my true inner nerd, because I’m a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica.

SM: Oh, of course!

PS: I’m a huge fan of sci-fi in general. I loved Galaxy Quest. So, I was instantly onboard to be a part of this movie, because I thought, ‘This is like Galaxy Quest meets Mars Attacks. With Nazis. Awesome.”

SM: The film comes from a long lineage of b-movies, and grindhouse films, and even political satires like Dr. Strangelove. Like Galaxy Quest, did you look to any particular pictures, or even real figures, for your character?

PS: Not from that world. It was a really interesting journey with Vivian, because she kept shifting. She was a real shape-shifter on the page. When I arrived in Germany and first spoke to Timo about her, it was really hard to get a handle on who she was. She’s this campaign manager, but the character’s first brief was as a fashionista. I was like, “So she’s this political person that is a fashionista, and then she goes into space? [Laughs] What, this doesn’t make any sense?” And Timo was like, “Yes! It doesn’t make any sense!” We really worked hard to try and ground her and bring whatever reality we had to something like that. I really had to, from the very first moment, abandon any technique, or form, or way of working that I ever had in the past. Namely, that was because on the second shoot day I broke my foot. I now have two titanium plates and six screws from surgery when I got home after the shoot. It was crazy. I shot most of the film – that’s all but one day of the film – from a wheelchair. Did you notice?

SM: I honestly did not.

PS: [Laughs] There was a double. When you work in television, which is predominantly what I had done before in Australia, you use the wide shot to work out what you’re doing. You’ve done the homework, you know the lines, you know who the character is; all that stuff. You’re never 100% sure what’s going to happen in the scene until you get in there and work with the other actor and the director. You use that wide shot to emotionally grasp where the scene is, and what happens in the scene, and really make it cook. So, when you get to the close up, you’ve already done several takes, but not the takes that count, because they’re not on your face. It was a real challenge, and learning curve, to lose all of that because I wasn’t in the wide shots. They would do all these set ups and shoot these scenes the way you would normally, for hours and hours, doing all the wides and the masters and the other person’s close up.

All that time you usually get to warm up and run in and work out what works and what doesn’t, I didn’t get to do any of that, and they would just bring me in for the close ups. It’s minus ten degrees – I’d forgotten about all of this, I think I blocked it all out – every four hours I had to inject myself in the stomach with this stuff that prevented me from getting thrombosis, because it was so cold, and I had this cast on my leg so I couldn’t put a shoe on my foot. Then they would wheel me in on the chair, and from the waist up I was Vivian, and from the waist down I was dishevelled – covered in blankets and heat packs, with my leg sticking out in this massive cast – trying to act, and be in the moment [laughs]. That really forced me, instantaneously, to go, “I’ve just got to lift and watch; there’s no time to warm into this, no time to figure it out. Just gotta trust every conversation you’ve had with Timo.” I really had faith in him, I really had to go, “He is so clear about the vision; he’s so on top of what he’s doing. He’s really extraordinary.” I had to trust that he knew what funny was. If it’s not working Timo will tell you and you’ll go again, and if it is working, we’ll move on. That’s what he was like. He was very Finnish, I like to say. I learnt that the Finnish are very direct people who don’t mince words, and that was at times a good learning curve for my ego, and at other times it was really devastating for my ego [laughs]. He was not backwards about coming forwards if he didn’t like what you did. Which was great, but it took a little bit of culturally getting used to. That was amazing; being on set, and having English being the second language, for all but three people on set. There was me, Stephanie Paul, and Chris Kirby. Steph is a Kiwi, Chris is American, and I’m an Aussie. Everyone else was German or Finnish. They would make these creative decisions, and all this talk would go on in Finnish, and then someone would relay them in German, and then someone would tell us. And Timo spoke English, obviously, but he didn’t mince words, whether that’s his artistic manner, his cultural manner, or because it’s his second language. The other big thing was… you’ve seen the movie right?

SM: Of course.

PS: In the movie, there’s a scene which is purely there as an homage to the Downfall YouTube viral sensation.

(Bruno Ganz in Downfall)

SM: I was going to ask, how many times did you have to watch that scene to prepare?

PS: You’re the first interviewer who knew.

SM: Really? It was such a blatant homage.

PS: I know! Well, that was the first big key to Vivian, because as I said, the normal avenues that an actor would take just wouldn’t work. The character didn’t make sense, and it was so outlandish. She’s a facilitator; that character is there to facilitate the story, and that’s it. The rest is irrelevant. That was actually my audition scene. The night before we shot that scene, I called Timo, as we’d never rehearsed this or even spoken about it. “We’re shooting it tomorrow, and I’m really nervous about it. I don’t know how to play it. I don’t know what to do. Why don’t you, when you wrap on set, come over and I’ll cook dinner?”  We were all staying in the same apartments. He’s like, “Great.” He wraps on set, comes over, and he says, “You know this movie, the Downfall?” And I hadn’t seen it, so I said, “No.” Then he says, “Well, have you watched all these things on YouTube?” “No, never heard of them.” I don’t know; I must have been living in a sock. Anyway, he showed me a couple; the one where Usain Bolt wins the 100 meter dash, and a couple of others. And I, to speak very much like a character from Iron Sky, I LMFAO, or whatever it is, and laughed my effing ass off. I said, “Wow, this is hilarious.” And he said, “Yeah, this is what the scene is.” It had no purpose in the movie other than as a homage to this. “I’m glad we talked about it! I’m glad I called you! You were just going to tell me that on set?” “I just assumed you had seen it!”

Also, because of the nature of the film, because of the fan base and online community, everyone was very protective over what got out. There were so many spoilers in the movie; people were just coveting, protecting so ferociously. We never got to see rushes, we never got to see dailies. We never had a sense of what we were in until we saw it at the Berlin Film Festival. We watched these clips, we talked about it, and he said “I’m going to shoot it shot for shot identical.” Hilariously enough, I don’t know if you picked it, but Otto who plays Herr Adler in the movie Iron Sky, is one of the generals in Downfall. He got out of his Nazi costume, and he’s actually an extra that I’m yelling at in the background of that scene. For the real fans out there, when they’re watching the scene. “That’s Otto! Oh my God!”

(At the Berlin International Film Festival, from L-R: Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Stephanie Paul, Timo Vuorensola, Götz Otto, Peta Sergeant)

That night, I just watched it and watched it and watched it. I didn’t have an iPhone at that time, but I had an iPod, so I recorded the sound of it onto Garage Band, put it in iTunes, and put it on my iPod so I could listen to it on set, and get the rhythm of it. I marked all these moments in the script where he does certain physical things. It was really a terrifying moment for me, going to Berlin, and I had never seen the film, had never seen any of it at all. I had been told the festival directors love the movie, they’re going to screen it on the opening night of the festival, just before In the Land of Blood and Honey, which is Angelina Jolie’s film, to get as many people as they can. The cinema was 1800 seats. That’s a lot of people in a movie cinema. It’s the biggest in Berlin. We were all just creaming our pants. We all arrived in Berlin and were so excited it was part of the festival; we all were so nervous. I was particularly nervous about that scene, because Downfall was a long time ago, but the clips are lovingly in people’s memory, and people are making new ones all the time. So I kind of knew it was still out there, but I thought, “What if people don’t get it? What if it’s passé? Downfall is four years ago. Oh God.” There’s no purpose for the scene other than that, so it’s not like you can watch and go, “Oh, the acting is great,” or “Oh, that’s important to the story.” There’s no reason if you don’t get it. The movie was playing, people were laughing hysterically; the response was incredible. Then it came to the scene before that scene and I started sweating. I grabbed the hand of Otto sitting next to me, and I probably subconsciously dug my fingernails into him. The first frame, when my hand shakes and I take the glasses off, 1800 odd people all laughed. There was a moment of silence, and then roars of laughter. You could hear people audibly going, “No way! What?” They couldn’t believe that we put that in the movie. They completely got it, and laughed and laughed and laughed. When I throw the pen, and then slump back in my chair, and say, “What am I going to tell her?” People were all but rolling in the aisles. It was an experience in my life and in my career that I’ll never ever forget. It was unbelievable. I don’t know if I’ll ever experience anything like that again.

Iron Sky arrives in Australian cinemas May 10, 2012.

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