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The Bi-Continental Actor: Kristina Klebe on Building a Career in NY, LA & Europe

Kristina Klebe is an NYC-born actress who speaks English, German, French and Italian. Her acting career began at age 15 playing Rollie in Rollie & Fitch at Soho Rep. She’s appeared on several noteworthy off-Broadway stages, including NY Theater Workshop, 59E59, and The Jean Cocteau Repertory. She is a graduate of Dartmouth College and received her acting training at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Her film credits include Spike Lee’s She Hate Me, Tom Dicillo’s Delirious, Griffin Dunne’s The Accidental Husband, the Sundance hit Peter and Vandy, and the role of Lynda in Rob Zombie’s Halloween. On television she has appeared on Law & Order, Law & Order: SVU, CSI: Miami, and Criminal Minds. She recently voiced the German lead in Sega’s xbox 360 Kinect game “Rise of Nightmares.”

Also a filmmaker, Kristina freelances as a videographer, is co-creator of the web series Frick, and collaborated with Claire on the Brains of Minerva Acting in Horror interview series. Kristina was recently accepted into the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Kristina appears in Chillerama, Adam Green’s much-anticipated new horror movie, which will see a theatrical release this fall. Her German film Bela Kiss will bow in German theaters in 2012. In the meantime, check out Kristina’s performance as Maks Vex, rogue super heroine here, and follow her on Twitter here.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting on a train from Munich, Germany to Esslingen, Germany- a 2.5 hour journey- where I am going to see a presentation of the first 15 minutes of Bela Kiss, a German thriller in which I played the lead last year. It was an ultra low budget project shot in the Black Forest with English speaking actors, all of whom had to be German citizens. I am taking this trip on my own dime, to show support, reconnect with the director, and also to see whether this is a project I will feel confident promoting in the states (note: it was amazing and I JUST found out that it has been picked up by Drei Freunde for theatrical distribution in Germany – the same company that distributed the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo!).

The reason I am in Germany right now, though, is not to watch 15 minutes of a film I shot. Next week, I’m shooting a TV pilot in Berlin for Germany’s version of HBO and they flew me to Germany. Sometimes the timing works out!

I’m lucky to be a dual- citizen as well as to be quad-lingual… But the recognition that these things could help me in my career as an actress did not occur to me until a few years ago. And, though very exciting, building a career simultaneously on two continents (and in several different countries) has been a gamble.

I strongly believe the only reason I was even able to break into the European acting market was because of my break-out role as Lynda in Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween. It was a studio film that had an international audience. Through it, I was able to go to festivals and horror conventions where I met people from Italy, Germany, France, Serbia and Spain who appreciated my work. I simply made it a point to tell everyone I had dual citizenship and would love to work more in Europe. I took my opportunity and ran with it. I try as much as possible to stay in touch with these contacts and keep them up to date with my work. The term “out of sight, out of mind” applies everywhere in the world. So, working in Europe, NY and LA creates 3 times as many contacts to keep up with – something which has been overwhelming at times. Thank God for the Internet.

You may be wondering why I even would want to work in Europe. The answer is very simple: to go back to my roots and be closer to my large extended family. And then, three years ago, I fell in love with Berlin. I had been flown there to shoot a trailer for a film (the writer and director found me on a website listing all English speaking citizens). Berlin is a city teeming with angst-y, intellectual, chain-smoking, politically conscious artists who love the art for the art and not because of the money that comes with it… I had found my second home, though I don’t smoke and have to say sitting in a bar in Berlin can be nauseating! But from that time on, I knew I had to find a way to work in Berlin while continuing to book jobs in NY and LA.

There are ups and downs to this process. The downs involve 1) difficulty finding a supportive agent in both America and Europe 2) union rules and degree of protection vary from country to country and 3) the money that it costs to invest in this endeavor often evens out with what you earn. The upside is …. you’re working!! And isn’t that what actors are always complaining about? Not working enough? Plus, work begets work. And good work, anywhere in the world, begets even more!

The hardest thing about trying to work internationally is finding support from agents on both continents. I have struggled very much with this. No one in LA wants to hear about their client working overseas for too long – unless they’re getting some money – and the agents in Europe don’t believe me when I say I can be on a plane within a day because I have so many points on my frequent flier card. You do end up missing castings in both places. And the time difference between LA and Europe – 9 hours- is pretty daunting and makes telephone conversations almost impossible. Overall, it seems too difficult for everyone; for everyone except me, who’s actually doing all the work. In October, after I spent 2 months in Germany playing the lead in Bela Kiss where I was able to do some of the best work of my career for deferred payment (yes, feel sorry for my bank account…) my LA based agent dropped me three days after my return to the states and one day after I turned down an offer they sent me for the worst script I had ever read in my life… but, alas… it paid. I still haven’t found a new agent.

The last two years, my agent in Berlin got me this many auditions: 0.

And yet I’m working!! Viral and Skype casting has become more prevalent. And, in Germany, casting directors often cast off of your reel. I have a friend in Germany who’s full reel is about 40 minutes and the casting directors watch every minute of it, are familiar with it, and show only the pertinent scenes to whomever is interested. The guys who cast me in the trailer we shot in Berlin three years ago wrote the part in the TV pilot for me that I’m going to shoot next week. In fact, the part is called Kristina! And I’m supposed to be shooting a film in Italy this fall.

However, if I do not book a US based job in the next few months, I will possibly lose my SAG health insurance, and this leads me to the next point: Unions. Working in different countries involves learning and dealing with different customs and different industry standards. In Germany, I recently found out to my astonishment that the crew have a union that enforces overtime, while the actors do not. There IS a union for actors in Germany. You can find it here. However, it simply has no negotiating power. It offers free legal services though for a small fee of 50 euro a year.. If you don’t have an agent and need someone to look over your contract, they are specialized in this.

So you’re probably wondering “what about the SAG universal rule?” Well, most European productions will have nothing to do with it. It is completely foreign to them. Why should they have to pay SAG for an actor who is working in their country under their rules? And that is exactly what I’m doing.when I use my EU passport. I am going there to work in rules. However, what this means is that, although I’m getting paid, SAG is not registering it and if I don’t make enough money in a year, my health insurance falls through. Again, this is a gamble.

It is also very interesting to learn how an actor’s daily rate is calculated in Germany. Actors get higher wages if they attended an acting conservatory. Yes. You heard me right. The main television stations ZDF, RTL and ARD have a rating system. For example, you would get paid the most if you attended the best acting school and have worked previously for said station.

Now, to the cost of working bi-continentally. So far, in my experience, I have made no money. This pilot I will shoot next week will be my first real paycheck. All the other work I’ve done has been pro-bono or deferred payment with travel costs paid for. So no money lost but none earned. It’s kind of like when you’re first starting off acting and do theater for free or short films for free. I considered it an investment. And it HAS paid off. If the pilot is picked up, I will have a recurring role that will work for at least a few months in Berlin. And since Bela Kiss will be playing theatrically, I suppose that will lead to more work.

But the experience I’ve gained is priceless. And the opportunity to play roles that would most likely be played by film stars in America is also priceless.

The experience of working with highly trained actors on set – most German actors have gone to a conservatory and worked extensively in theater – is definitely different from the US. The art of acting is taken very seriously. I would probably say there’s less FUN on set and people are really intense – there are less compliments thrown around. But I see how seriously they take their job and with what respect acting is treated and it makes me PROUD to be an actor… In a casting session in Germany, it is highly frowned upon to arrive with your sides! In fact you are automatically disqualified if you are not off book. Quite different than here wouldn’t you say? The down side of this is that German acting can be quite stiff at times. However, I think this is changing as American TV and American style naturalism is becoming popular over there.

Concerning languages and accents, I have had to work very hard to get rid of any trace of an accent when I speak German. In Italy, they love the accent. In America, my languages and accents have helped me do voice overs for video games. I shot a movie in Serbia for six weeks. A year later, there was an audition for Criminal Minds for a Serbian serial killer. Guess who got the role? I went into the audition with the little knowledge of Serbian I had learned on set. It all ends up intertwining.

So, in the end, is it worth it? Well, probably not if you don’t have dual citizenship to start off with. Without that, there are simply too many hurdles to conquer. And probably not if you don’t love languages and traveling! After that, though, how much effort do you want to put into working overseas? I would say, if you don’t have to spend too much out of pocket, it’s worth trying. If you have contacts that you can start off with, that’s good. And just ask, ask, ask. Ask people to introduce you to casting directors and agents and producers. If you are a working actor and have an acting reel with American television shows on it or any film work here, they really love that. Hollywood is still the mecca of film after all. And in the inter-connectivity of today’s world, who knows if working overseas cannot actually get you on Hollywood’s radar a little bit quicker than waiting in traffic on the 405…

  1. Kat Primeau on Tuesday 9, 2011

    thanks for the insight and interesting perspective! best of luck to you

  2. Miki Yamashita on Tuesday 9, 2011

    Thank you for this article! Kristina, I appreciated your honesty about the difficulties of making this lifestyle work. With all the traveling and out-of-pocket costs, may I ask how you are actually able to manage these costs, and how you are able to maintain your videography business to augment your income when you are overseas so often? I can’t quite picture how an actor is able to stay financially afloat with all the expenses of pursuing the industry globally. Thank you.

  3. Kristina on Tuesday 9, 2011

    Hey Miki…

    I totally understand what you’re saying.
    The people I’m working with usually fly me over there and I have family to live with in Europe or the production will put me up in a hotel.
    My videography work I wouldn’t quite call a business…. I haven’t made money with that in a few years.
    I mostly live off my residuals and any acting jobs I can get.
    And, if this pilot in Germany takes off, I could finally make some income and perhaps save.

    Pretty much, I don’t go shopping for myself or buy any unnecessary things and save that way!!


  4. Aaron Munoz on Tuesday 9, 2011

    Yo Kristina – great read. Keep up the intercontinental hustle!

  5. Randy Masters on Tuesday 9, 2011

    Great article, Kristina! Very informative. Best wishes to you in your career!

  6. Sara Fenton on Tuesday 9, 2011

    Thanks for your article. I like how frank you were about your struggles and how much work is involved keeping your career popping in more than one location. I’m working on getting some more momentum in my hometown of Toronto, while also working here in LA. I think what you’re doing is smart, not to mention the breadth of experience you’re getting. Keep it up!