Natali Broods: “My main goal is to become a better actress by playing roles that I’ve never played before”

The career of four-time Ensor Award-nominated actress Natali Broods (b. 1976) has been going pretty strong in Belgium, her native country. Ranging from stage roles in plays such as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Les antigones,” to numerous appearances on TV, portraying a villain psychiatrist in the drama series “Zone Stad” (2013, about the Antwerp police department), or as the mayor’s daughter in tragedy-comedy “Met Man en Macht” (2013), and occasionally making guest appearances in series such as the highly-rated “Safety First” (2014) comedy series, she also left her mark on the booming Flemish film industry, considering her leading roles in some of her latest features “Waste Land” (2014) and “Galloping Mind” (2015), both splendidly acted dramas with a classy cast, and with the dramatic punch definitely hitting its mark.

Ms. Broods, a talented, engrossing, and skillful actress known and praised for her convincing in-depth, intense, and subtle leading and character roles, is one of Belgium’s acting ambassadors of the decade. After the Academy Award nominations in the Foreign Language category of two Flemish films recently, “Rundskop” (2011, a.k.a. “Bullhead”) and “The Broken Circle Breakdown” (2012)—which directly or indirectly paved the way for several of Ms. Broods’ Flemish fellow-actors to work abroad, including Matthias Schoenaerts, Veerle Baetens, Sam Louwyck, Jan Bijvoet, Johan Heldenbergh, Lien Van de Kelder or Wim Willaert, as well as directors as Michaël R. Roskam, Robin Pront, or Pieter Van Hees—they are all leaving Flanders at least temporarily, simply because they are such great craftsmen. They therefore are being noticed easily by foreign talent agents and producers. Ms. Broods is undoubtedly standing next in line to join their company. By the end of the year, she will be performing once again on the Paris stage. Ms. Broods is going places.

She has been a reliable actress ever since day one—with her impressive screen debut in “S.” (1998), playing a young girl in a highly dysfunctional family who is unable to get her life on the right tracks. Primarily aiming at the art-house market, it didn’t stop her from going from one film to another, earning her the Plateau Award as Best Actress in her second feature “Any Way the Wind Blows” (2003). Later on, she was nominated for Flanders’ most prestigious film award, the Ensor, for her supporting role in director Felix van Groeningen’s “De Helaasheid der Dingen” (2009, a.k.a. “Misfortunates”), as best actress in “Swooni” (2011), a drama set in a luxurious Brussels hotel (also nominated at the Chicago Film Festival), and “Waste Land” (2014), a psychological thriller about a man and a city in crisis during the nine months of pregnancy of his wife (character played by Ms. Broods). The following year, she appeared in “Galloping Mind” (2015), a drama about twins separated at birth whose paths cross again in their early teens, which another Ensor Award nomination.

“Galloping Mind” (2015, trailer)

Last June, I met Ms. Broods at the 14th Brussels Film Festival. She was a member of the jury; in between the films she and her colleagues had to view, judge and rate, this is the conversation I had with this stunning actress who’s not afraid to accept challenging and demanding roles.

Ms. Broods, what standards do you use to accept or turn down a role?

The most important things to me are the screenplay, who will be directing it, and who else will be in the cast. When I first get a new screenplay to go through, I don’t read it back-to-back: sometimes it helps me to put it away for a while and continue reading it the following day. It gives me time to reflect, think things over, and an important issue for me is how I feel about it and how it triggers my curiosity. As far as the director is concerned, it makes it easier if it is someone that I know, or if I’m familiar with his work—although this is not crucial to me, because then you won’t get to work with someone new. It is important, though, that I can talk to the director about the screenplay, my character, and that you’re both on the same page, on the same wavelength.

Even though the Flemish film industry is booming enormously, we’re not that productive compared to most other countries. We’re only a small community of six million people, after all. But looking at the films you did so far, not to mention your television and stage work, you’ve played many challenging roles, and made very interesting choices up until now as far as your projects are concerned, didn’t you?

I am pleased with the choices I made so far, although I regret that some of the films we do here deserve to be in the spotlight a little more than they are now. I never choose a role in terms of commercial success but rather focus on what the part has got to offer. Whenever people recognize me in the streets, it usually has to do with something I did for television, and not because of a film that I am really proud of. I do realize that certain films I did, such as “Waste Land,” are considered to be art-house films, and it’s a pity that this label automatically assumes that it’s a film that is difficult to understand. But on the other hand, I don’t make movies to become a famous actress, that’s not my ambition. My main goal is to become a better actress by playing roles that I’ve never played before or exploring new characters.

Don’t we, at least here in Flanders, tend to be a little bit too serious at times when we make films? Wouldn’t a light touch of comedy now and then make the Flemish films even better than they are now?

What I prefer in film is a tragedy with a little humor; it makes it very interesting, and I think that’s a perfect combination. But I have to say that he evolution of the Flemish film industry has been enormous, and I have experienced it myself. My first film, “S.” [1998], was made in fourteen days. I was still at school back then, and the difference with studying and learning your craft, compared to working on a professional film set, is that you’re very much aware that at school there are a lot of things you’re not able to do, while you want to surprise everyone. On a set, you want to know what your character is all about, where the story is going, and all of this in a very professional way with everyone involved and serving the same purpose. After “S.,” I did “Any Way the Wind Blows” [2003], which also did pretty well—not an uptight project, but more rock ‘n’ roll—I got to work with [director] Fien Troch… When I started out, we still shot on tape. You had to concentrate and focus much more then: there was no way we could do several takes with the budgets we were working with. Now it’s all digital, which makes a huge difference on the set. That doesn’t mean you can do as many takes as you want because there’s still a tight shooting schedule, but there are more and better opportunities now.

Jérémie Renier and Natali Broods in “Waste Land” (2014), directed by Pieter Van Hees

Which do you prefer: performing on the stage, shooting for television or making a movie?

I did a series a few years ago, “Met Man en Macht” (2013), and I recently finished another one called “Tabula Rasa,” two great series and such projects, such miniseries, are almost like making a movie—a huge difference compared to appearing in a TV series when you have a small part: there’s often no rehearsal, it all has to go very fast, and I don’t know if I’d do that again. But with these two series, we had the opportunity to talk about our characters, rehearse,… That’s very rewarding and for me personally—I like TV series. A lot of them are very good. But overall, I did more movies than I did television work, while my work on the stage is also very interesting. I like it very much, and I am very proud of what I did so far, so I try to combine things as much as possible. Theater work is always planned way ahead; I’m involved with a theater company, “DE KOE.” I am responsible for our working schedule as well. We also go on tour, we play abroad, and I love performing live on stage. But I had periods in my life when I worked on a film set all day long—getting up in the morning at 6 AM—and in the evening I had to be on stage. So this is a complex working schedule, but I have a very nice job on the stage that I really love. On the other hand, being committed to the theater the way I am, I sometimes have to pass on interesting roles in film or television, and that’s a pity. But fortunately, most of the time, things work out pretty well. Next September and October, I will be making a new film, and a play in Paris, scheduled at that time, will be postponed to December. It takes a lot of planning, taking some chances, and always hoping for the best. That makes it all exciting. But to answer your question: I would love to continue combining the stage, television, and film, and if you love doing what you do, you got a tremendous amount of energy.

Does working abroad sound appealing to you?

Earlier this year, we performed on the Paris stage; we also worked in Berlin. Flemish theater is doing very well; we have a good reputation across the border—in France, they really love us. We often play with the three of us, along with other actors that we ask to join in. We don’t have a director, so we have our own style. At this point, both Flemish theater and film are doing very well, and of course, I would love to work abroad in an English or French-language film, but then I need to focus more on it, I think. Unless I’m lucky and they simply pick me out—even if it would be a small part, I won’t mind. As an actor, sometimes you can do with a small part as much as with a leading role: there are no small parts. This makes it all the more interesting to appear in a foreign-language film.

“Swooni” (2011)

What is, in your opinion, one of the difficult things about acting?

The here and now, as you got it in daily life. You have the same issue on the stage: when you do five performances a week, it’s very difficult to do it as fresh time and time again. That’s a real challenge: you have to forget the performance you did the day before, but you also need to forget about the errands you still have to do or the things you have to do when you are at home later in the evening. You can face that very same problem on a film set as well: suppose there’s a scene you think you have rehearsed too much, then you’re not there anymore when the camera starts rolling. The momentum is gone because you start thinking, ‘I will do it exactly the same way as I rehearsed it.’ And if you do that, the magic is gone. I remember when we did “Swooni” [2011], there’s this scene at the hotel lockers, and at one point, I had to cry. It didn’t happen right away; it took a while for the tears to come. Everybody was waiting, and I remember—all of a sudden—the tears were there. Our DOP Frank Van den Eeden had seen it, and without hesitating, even before director Kaat Beels had said ‘Action,’ he had turned on the camera, and he was filming me the whole time. That was the right moment—perfect timing—and we had exactly what we needed, without any specific rehearsal. What acting is all about, in my opinion, is that you have to know your lines perfectly, then forget them entirely and say them as if it were the first time you’d say them. Even if it’s take after take… you have to know a lot in the beginning and at the same time forget a lot, that’s what I learned from [Flemish actress and drama coach] Dora van der Groen [1927-2015]. When I do my first and second take, I am always at my best, and when they decide on the set to do a few more—just to make sure they get it right—then I feel I am lost for a number of takes, until it comes back. It is the same when you are performing on stage: the first performances work out brilliantly because it’s all brand-new, then you sort of get used to it, until you start to discover new things, and you’re back on the right track.

When you decide to go to the movies, how and why do you choose the film you would like to see?

I prefer psychological dramas or psychological thrillers, but it doesn’t have to be necessarily a film; it might as well be a series. I loved “The Lobster” [2015]. Lately, I saw a very good series called “The Affair” [2014] with Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, and only very recently, I got to see “Toni Erdmann” [2016], which I thought was terrific. There are many others as well, but I am not that much interested in the “Spiderman” sort of adventure films, probably because I’m not too familiar with them.

Brussels Film Festival, Brussels (Belgium)
June 18, 2016

“Swooni” (2011, trailer)


S. (1998) DIR – SCR Guido Hendrickx PROD Luc Reynaert CAM Jan Vancaillie MUS Patrick Riguelle ED Ewin Ruckaert CAST Natali Broods (S.), Isnel de Silveira, Katelijne Dame, Josse De Pauw, Jan Decleir, Jurgen Delnaet, Inge Paulussen, Dora Van der Groen

ANY WAY THE WIND BLOWS (2003) DIR – SCR – MUS Tom Barman PROD Alex Stockman, Kat Camerlynck CAM Renaat Lambeets ED Els Voorpoels CAST Frank Vercruyssen, Diane De Belder, Eric Kloeck, Natali Broods (Natalie), Matthias Schoenaerts, Dirk Roothooft, Jonas Boel, Sam Louwyck, Frank Focketyn, Jan Van Looveren, Johan Heldenbergh, Guido Hendrickx, Ben Segers

10 JAAR “LEUVEN KORT” (2004) DIR Vincent Bal, Dirk Beliën, Lars Damoiseaux, Hans Herbots, Evelien Hoedekie, Daniël Lambrechts, Erik Lamens, Koen Mortier, Wouter Sel, Reinout Swinnen, Patrice Troye, Fien Troch, Lieven Van Baelen, Dorothée Van Den Berghe, Pieter Van Hees, Hilde Van Mieghem, Christophe Van Rompaey, Joël Vanhoebrouck, Brecht Vanhoenacker, Jakob Verbruggen, Willem Wallyn CAST Frank Vercruyssen, Damiaan De Schrijver, Peter Van den Begin, Veerle Dobbelaere, Dimitri Leue, Jenny Tanghe, Gene Bervoets, Frank Focketyn, Fred Van Kuyck, Hilde Van Mieghem, Dirk Roofthooft, Els Dottermans, Stany Crets, Natali Broods, Sam Louwyck, Tom Van Dyck, Kader Gurbüz, Bert André, Ianka Fleerackers, Pieter Embrechts, Nand Buyl

EEN ANDER ZIJN GELUK, a.k.a. SOMEONE ELSE’S HAPPINESS (2005) DIR – SCR Fien Troch PROD Antonio Lombardo CAM Frank Van den Eeden MUS Peter Van Laerhoven ED Nico Leunen CAST Ina Geerts, Johanna ter Steege, Johan Leysen, Natali Broods (Gerda), Elmo Mistlaen, Peter Van den Begin, Josse De Pauw, Viviane de Muynck, Geert Van Rampelberg, Jan Decleir

DE HELAASHEID DER DINGEN, a.k.a. MISFORTUNATES (2009) DIR Felix van Groeningen PROD Dirk Impens SCR Felix van Groeningen, Christophe Dirickx (novel by Dimitri Verhulst) CAM Ruben Impens MUS Jef Neve ED Nico Leunen CAST Valentijn Dhaenens, Kenneth Vanbaeden, Koen De Graeve, Wouter Hendrickx, Johan Heldenbergh, Bert Haelvoet, Gilda De Bal, Natali Broods (Rosie), Pauline Grossen, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Steven Van Herreweghe, Tom Audenaert

SWOONI (2011) DIR Kaat Beels PROD Peter Bouckaert SCR Michel Sabbe, Annelies Verbeke CAM Frank Van den Eeden ED Philippe Ravoet CAST Geert Van Rampelberg, Sara de Roo, Viviane de Muynck, Natali Broods (Vicky), Issaka Sawadogo, Maaike Neuville, Stijn van Opstal, Wim Danckaert

WASTE LAND (2014) DIR – SCR Pieter Van Hees PROD Koen Mortier, Eurydice Gysel CAM Menno Hans ED Nico Leunen CAST Jérémie Renier, Natali Broods (Kathleen Woeste), Babetida Sadjo, Peter Van den Begin, Peter van den Eede, Mourade Zeguendi

GALLOPING MIND (2015) DIR – SCR Wim Vandekeybus PROD Bart Van Langendonck CAM Gábor Szabó MUS Marc Ribot, Mauro Pawlowski ED Dieter Diependaele CAST Jerry Killick, Natali Broods (Sarah), Orsi Tóth, Balász Meszáros, Zsófia Rea

MY FIRST HIGHWAY (2016) DIR – SCR Kevin Meul PROD Geoffrey Enthoven, Mariano Vanhoof CAM Menno Mans ED Thomas Pooters CAST Natali Broods (Mom), Ruth Becquart, Romy Lauwers, Mathias Sercu, Victor Solé, Aaron Roggeman

HOME (2016) DIR Fien Troch PROD Antonio Lombardo SCR Fien Troch, Nico Leunen CAM Frank Van den Eeden ED Nico Leunen CAST Jeroen Perceval, Tom Audenaert, Kevin Janssens, Natali Broods (Teacher), Els Dottermans, Katelijne Verbeke