After catching anthology film GERMAN ANGST at Grimmfest 2015 film festival in Manchester, I interviewed one of the film segment’s stars Denis Lyons on the movie and his career in film and stand-up comedy.
How did you get involved with German Angst?
I did a casting for Michael Kosakowski for a TV pilot he was trying to produce and that kind of got put on hold and in the meantime he just called me and said “Hey Denis, I’ve got this other project. Want to work on it?”. He called me over, showed me the script and showed me some of the footage they’d already shot and I just jumped straight onboard.
Do short films appeal to you as much as feature length?
Yeah. It’s really just about the concept. If it’s a good script and if it seems like it’s going to be fun to do, then it doesn’t really matter.
I see that you’ve worked on quite a few German productions…
I live in Berlin right now, for the last six years.
What would you say the difference is between German productions than say British or American?
Really, I guess there’s a bit of a stylistic difference. It’s kind of hard to pinpoint. It’s one of things where you know it when you see it. As far as work, there’s very little difference. Everybody’s so committed and so professional and always so positive and friendly. It’s fantastic. I haven’t experienced the opposite of that in any production. It’s always been good.
I always think German horror cinema pushes the boundaries more and stylistically is grittier and grimier.
I think there’s a ot of repression since the war. The Germans are really afraid to be German and that’s where the term Germanitis comes from: it’s the fear of being German. This repression just bubbles up and it has to come out in some way. I also find the Germans are very free with their bodies and their visceral way of life that is not very prominent in America or England. There’s a bit of more grittiness to the Germans, especially more Berlin and Eastern Germany. So that probably plays a role as well.
How did you get into acting and what made you want to become an actor?
I was in school plays when I was a kid but I was a musician in my early twenties. The singer left the band and broke a lot of hearts and I decided “you know what, I’m gonna do something where I don’t need to count on other people”. My sister was going to the actors studio at the time and she was telling me all the things she was doing and I thought “you know what? I wanna do that. That sounds like good fun.” So I applied to the school, got in and it just blew me away. I fell in love with it immediately. The work, just exploring life, people, emotions… I love it.
So performing is in your blood then?
Yeah… the performing doesn’t really push me that much, it’s really just the exploration of people. I love people. Wherever you come or whatever your story is, I just love it. I just want to hear it.
Have you done any stage work?
Yeah, I’ve done a lot of theatre in New York and also in Prague, I did some theatre when I was living there. That’s definitely my first love.
In German Angst, your character is one of the aggressors. Do you prefer to play the villain or the victim?
I love to play the villain. I’d do it all, I guess. “Give me a job! Give me something” [laughs] The bad guy is something special to play because I don’t do too much of it in real life so it’s really fun just to pretend and to play. It’s just playing and it’s fun.
Did you do any preparation for that particular character?
Going back to parts of my life when things weren’t so much fun and where this aggression was brought out in me that I never really got to act upon because it was during my childhood and what not, so to be able to express that was therapeutic but it was also tough to go back and explore these times.
I believe you’ve done some voiceover work, such as in videogames ARMA I and II as well as adverts. Is it challenging because there’s nobody there to bounce off?
Why I really like doing voiceover work is that you’re in a booth, usually, by yourself with the headphones and if you’re doing, let’s say, a videogame, you’ll have footage. You can really just use your imagination and really have fun with it whereas when you’re working with other people, you have to really listen. So it’s a different structure but just as satisfying, I guess, and I like that.
Where abouts was the Make a Wish segment of German Angst shot?
That was in Berlin. All set in Berlin in an abandoned factory. It was fantastic. It was really cold though.
Was anything added to the factory, such as the graffiti we see in the film, or was everything as it was found?
The only thing that was added was the title ‘Make a Wish’ which you see on the wall.
I did think that was pretty clever…
Yeah, it was nice that.
Spoiler alert! At the end of Make A Wish, we see you pick up the medallion so who would you like to trade places with for a day?
I guess a happy child. [laughs] One of my own children would be fun. See what their life is like and to let go of all the noise of being an adult and get to live in the moment and to play. That would be nice. I’d like that.
How was it working with the Michael, the director of German Angst
He’s great. He gives you freedom. He’s not too stringent on the text. I’ve had these experiences as well with people where English is their second language and they write something which is for an English speaking person and they basically say if you want to change anything to make it sound more natural, you can, and Michael really gave me the freedom to do that. Not just correct the language but to play with it. It was fun.
You can speak German so why did they decide to make the character English amidst a group of German speaking characters?
I think they just wanted to have somebody who speaks English just so they could put it out into the English-speaking market. At first, my character didn’t even exist and then he kind of thought of me so it was like “hey, we could put him in there” so we developed the character together which was great. I came up with the whole backstory and he added some things in. Some of it obviously ended up on the cutting room floor but it was fun.
Do you a have a particular favourite genre, both as a fan of movies and to work in?
I’m a big fan of sci-fi. I love sci-fi. Ever since I was a kid. Big Star Trek, big Star Wars fan. The whole thing. I’ve only done one sci-fi film to date so I would really love to do more. If it explores people, personalities and characters, I’m all for it.
I read that you worked on The Voices…
I did. Yeah, I was brought in to do the voice of the cat. It was me and Ryan Reynolds in a room for two and a half weeks where I’d hide behind a couch and do the voice of the cat. He’s sitting on the toilet and I’m hiding in the bathtub, crunched up and feeding him the lines. He wanted to do the voices himself which makes more sense for the film so I can respect that. Basically I became a stand-in for the voice, a voice stand-in instead of actually having a lead role in a major Hollywood film but, hey, what are you gonna do? [laughs] It was a great experience and he was really nice. Marjane the director was fantastic.
I believe you done a bit of stand-up comedy too?
Yeah, a lot of stand-up comedy in Berlin. I still do it and I love it. For me, that’s where the performance really is. My need to perform is really satisfied in comedy because you can go out and just do whatever the hell you want. You’re writing it and there’s no restrictions. You don’t have to satisfy anybody but yourself, basically, so that’s fun. I really love it.
Do you get nervous when you’re up on stage?
Terrified. Every single time. First time I did it was the most terrifying experience of my life. Almost throwing up before… When I went through my bits, then just forgetting everything! I went to my wife “let’s do it next week” and she’s like “no, you’re doing it now”. “OK!” So I just did it and it worked. It’s satisfying. That’s what I respect most about stand-up comedians. It’s the courage. Even if you’re not funny, I respect the crap out of you if you get up there and do it because it does, it takes a lot of courage.
What’s next for you?
I’ve got seven films releasing 2015 and 2016. Three or four features. Some of them are bit parts, some of them are lead roles. Short films… Also I just did a screenplay, an adaptation of a German film that we just got 10 million dollars for. That will be produced and shot in 2016. So it’s a remake of a German film that will be now set in Ireland. That’ll be exciting.
Will any of those be sci-fi or horror?
There’s one sci-fi without me shooting, that’s another project actually, that’s a webseries. Everything’s done on green screen and everybody works for free. People from all over the world are contributing. They’re doing an amazing job. It’s called Mission Backup Earth. They’ve won a couple of awards for their technical prowess.
Thanks for your time, Denis.