Politics and espionage for principle and pay are served up in EPIX‘s excellent spy thriller Berlin Station Season 2.
One of the best actors in the ensemble, Leland Orser, brings his character Robert Kirsch to the forefront with perfectly written dialogue and an energetic ferocity.
In the titular city, a charismatic female leader, Katerina Gerhardt [Natalia Wörner] — more Marine Le Pen than Angela Merkel — has risen in the alt-right ranks. She has a formidable shadow enforcer named Otto Ganz [Thomas Kretschmann] muscling behind the scenes.
The storyline is frighteningly close to real life and we spoke in depth with Orser about how prescient the writers were in picking it up.
Robert Kirsch is the difficult one in the cast. He is the curt, not cuddly and quite precise CIA Deputy Chief of Berlin Station — a perfectly charismatic and profane foil to the newcomer, cool cucumber BB Yates [Ashley Judd].
In our exclusive interview below, Orser shares with us how much this season chillingly parallels the current events, as witnessed by the rise of Austria’s rising star, Sebastian Kurz.
As the world order all around us from Boston to Berlin seems off-kilter, we spoke with Mr. Orser about his exemplary work on Berlin Station and beyond:
Monsters and Critics: There’s a new opening to the show. Energetic. It gets you pumped for whatever lies ahead.
Leland Orser: That’s just the tip of the iceberg, April.
M&C: The series feels like art imitating life. I just read a news story about Sebastian Kurz in Austria, this alt-right young gorgeous guy. This is the real thing, happening…
Leland: You say art imitating life. I got to tell you something, it could be a little bit of the opposite in this case because these guys, Bradford Winters and the writing team, pitched this storyline and these stories and these events that take place in Season 2 before our elections here in the States.
They have to start that far in advance and we were shooting this series with scripts locked and loaded watching the events unfolding across the world of this last year. We had finished filming, the show was in post-production and being edited. We were home with our families.
I was back here in the Hollywood Hills when the German parliamentary elections took place. And we watched them live from here. So it’s really astonishing how kind of ahead of the political curve cycle our writing team was. And when you see the rest of the season, you’re going to go ‘there’s no possible way that they could have written this before it all took place’.
M&C: When you’re on location there and when you were filming, what were your observations of the place and the people who live there?
Leland: So, it’s an amazing city, first of all. It’s a beautiful city. Last year we shot there during the winter. This year we had the wonderful opportunity to be there during the Spring and Summer where the city just comes to life. There’s green in the city, which there isn’t during the winter, and flowers and wildlife, and everybody’s out on the streets and the cafes are bustling and the bars put tables out on the streets.
It’s an extraordinary time to be there. The city has just blown up. There are construction cranes absolutely everywhere. The price of apartments is going up every single day. The art scene, the food scene, the music scene, the club scene, there’s a huge reawakening happening in that city right now.
That being said, everywhere you go, west, east, doesn’t matter where. You are never that far from something that reminds you of the past. Of the good things and the bad things that happened in the past, that happened there specifically in Berlin, and it being the capital of Germany. There are memorials, there are plaques, there are remnants of the Wall, the Berlin Wall.
Where the Wall is no longer they have marked in cobblestones in two lines, the full length of it across the city. So you can look down, depending on where you are in the city, and know in what part of old Berlin you are standing.
The people that we work with, our crew is predominantly almost 100 per cent German. We live and work with these wonderful people every day and they all have family, and generations behind them, and their own stories of the city and their own stories of German history, that we get to share with them that brings our idea of Berlin and of Germany.
It humanizes that and what we know from the history books, what we know from school and what we’ve read and were taught actually takes on a whole different light.
M&C: Dovetailing off of what you just said, the villain in Season 2, the baddie behind Katerina Gerhardt, Otto Ganz, he’s tired of being sorry for the past. Did you ever get a sense of that, with anybody that you met there, that there’s a segment of the population that’s tired of apologizing?
Leland: A hundred per cent. And that’s one way of looking at it. I don’t feel personally that’s a constructive way of looking at it. We have a memorial in Oklahoma City, we have a memorial in downtown Manhattan.
Memorials are there for a reason. They’re to remind us, because if we forget…while we were in Berlin the events in Charlottesville took place. While we were in Berlin, neo-Nazi white supremacists, not carrying swastikas because that’s against the law, but every single thing else, marching freely through the streets of…I think was either Hamburg, or a city that was not Berlin. Astonishing. Astonishing.
Unbelievable in this day and age that you could ever imagine that happening again. So lest we forget.
M&C: Right. Your character Robert is just a genuine suffer-no-fools, get-it-done fellow. You have a brush up with the ambassador, Richard, he doesn’t like you. And you don’t like him.
Leland: That’s the first of many, by the way.
M&C: Yet Frost has a cordial relationship with him. It seems like the ambassador is trying to end run you with sort of a super secret spy organization there in Berlin, outside of your realm. Is that something you can talk about?
Leland: Guilty until proven innocent. It’s sort of Robert Kirsch’s motto and he feels that way about Ashley Judd’s character as well. Like, who are you? What do you want? What do you stand for? What’s your motive?
And that’s his approach to people in life in general. To begin suspicious. To begin confrontationally. He has no filter. He speaks the truth from his heart, from his mind. As you said beautifully, he does not suffer fools, he expects nothing less than 110 per cent from everybody. He is a perfectionist. He is a workaholic and his personal life is a disaster.
M&C: Well, since you mentioned that, your son Noah has come back, in Episode 3, which I’ve not seen so I’m shooting a question blindly. Can you tell me about your son and your relationship and why is he coming to Berlin?
Leland: It’s a big part of the season. It’s a day of reckoning for Robert Kirsch. Let’s just put it that way. He chose his work over his marriage, over his family. And he lives very far away from them, he’s separated for big long chunks of time from this boy. And this boy, Noah, played by Brandon Spink, is coming of age.
He has questions that only his father can answer. Questions about himself and questions about his father. Who are you? Why are you here? Why aren’t you home with me? What do you do? And the last question is the most important of all of them because if you work for the CIA you take an oath from day one to never reveal what it is that you do. And how do you deal with that as a parent?
It’s a coming of age season for Noah. It’s a coming together and a journey back to fatherhood and finding each other for the two of them. It’s really beautiful.
M&C: Do you think Noah will want to follow in your character’s footsteps?
Leland: He’s a really good liar. I hope not. I’m speaking as Robert Kirsch. You know we always want a better life for our children, but god knows if that’s what he chose to do it would make the character Robert Kirsch extremely proud but also probably very scared.
M&C: So there’s this complex history and relationship between Daniel [Richard Armitage] and Hector [Rhys Ifans]. How do you interact with them?
Leland: So Rhys, Hector, is Robert’s protégé. Robert hired him. Robert runs him as an agent. He was in charge of him. And for Robert’s money, Hector betrayed the station and him personally and as the season ends and Hector goes walking off into the sunset, good riddance. And I think Robert would believe that Hector should be locked up and the key should be thrown away.
And Hector’s appearance on the show is somewhat of a tease and a surprise that comes at the end of the first episode so…I think we were asked not to reveal that, but you, since you asked…so that’s how it starts between the two of them. It’s almost a case of the student becomes the teacher. The student, or that’s what it appears at times to be in this season.
Anyway, I love Rhys, love him to bits. We have such a great time together. And there is possibly nobody on the planet who can make me laugh as hard as he does.
M&C: Let’s talk about your arch-villain here. I keep calling him the Steve Bannon of Berlin Station. But Otto Ganz is a cult-like leader and do you get a handle on this guy?
Leland: You know he’s a thug. He’s a bad guy. It’s my job to do away with the bad guys. In whatever form that takes. Daniel goes undercover and actually enters his world. And in an alter, in disguise. So I run the operation, I send Daniel into that operation. I monitor it and I call the shots of it together with BB played by Ashley.
M&C: But your character did not send Daniel to Hector when he goes to Spain? It feels like Daniel bucked you on that.
Leland: Correct. Correct, I had no idea he was going to do that and I’m furious that he did.
M&C: Who would you say your character Robert is most closely aligned to in this cast of characters? In mind and mission?
Leland: Richard Jenkins’ character, Steven Frost, comes back this season as well and he doesn’t work for the CIA so I think that audiences will be very interested to see how his storyline is woven into the fabric of our world. We interact closely.
I interact closely with my son, Noah. When I stop to take a breath, there he is staring at me and needing a snack or needing to talk or needing a ride to school, or a ride anywhere. I interact closely with him.
I interact very closely with Ashley Judd’s character BB Yates. She’s the new chief of the station and we work closely throughout the season together. I work closely with KeKe Palmer’s character. She’s the new recruit, [April]. Again, guilty until proven otherwise is my take on her, but I watch her and I clock her and I think I sort of see myself as a young recruit in her.
M&C: Are you and Valerie [Michelle Forbes] playing nicer together this season?
Leland: Yes, I think Robert realizes that she’s still in shock, suffering from the events of last season and he definitely takes it easy on her. He overcompensates for her. I think he’s very worried about her.
M&C: Switching gears. You’ve done so much work, your acting CV is so impressive. Can you tell me what one of your favorite moments in film, not TV but film, are? That you’re really proud of?
Leland: I mean, it was really fun to have an alien burst out of my chest. In the Alien series…I’d always loved that franchise and then holy smokes there I was walking on to a sound stage and a part of it myself. That’s was incredible. Sci-fi is incredible and always wonderful.
Also, I was outside of London shooting the crashed glider scene. I was the glider pilot in Saving Private Ryan and it was 100 degrees out and I was dressed in a World War II uniform, my head was shaved, I was covered in dirt.
There were hundreds of extras around playing prisoners of war and wounded soldiers and displaced persons and I looked around and I had a sense, just a brief sense — I have four brothers of my own — I had a brief sense of, oh my God, I have the tiniest inkling of an idea of what it must have been like on that day. To not know where anybody was, what was happening, was anybody you knew still alive…
Every job that I’ve ever done has an incredible memory for me. I enmesh myself fully in everything I do and I miss them when they’re gone.
Berlin Station is back for season 2 on Sunday, October 15 at 9 p.m. on EPIX