Maria Dragus: “Acting makes me very happy”
In Romanian cinema, Maria Dragus, actress born in 1994 in Dresden, Germany, with both Romanian and German roots, is known for her role as teenager Eliza in “Graduation” (2016), the film for which Cristian Mungiu won the Best Director Award at Cannes. But the film that changed her life – and which she worked on when she was only 13 – was “The White Ribbon” (2009), for which Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or. In 2010, the performance brought her the trophy for Best Supporting Actress at the German Film Awards.
Maria Dragus has already played in over 30 productions, both cinema and TV, most of them made in Germany. Some of the most important and appreciated performances she had are in feature films such as “Kill Me” (2012, dir. Emily Atef), for which she received an award at the Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, “Tiger Girl” (2017, dir. Jakob Lass), “Mademoiselle Paradis” (2017, dir. Barbara Albert), for which she was nominated at the Austrian Film Awards, and “Mary Queen of Scots” (2018, dir. Josie Rourke), where she starred alongside Saoirse Ronan, with whom she became friends, and Margot Robbie. In 2014 she was part of the European Shooting Stars program at the Berlinale.
Maria Dragus was born on August 28, 1994 in Dresden. Her father, a Romanian cello player, left the country in 1983 and joined an orchestra near Dresden, where he has remained ever since. She says she doesn’t know exactly how her father managed to leave the country during communism: “He said it was a kind of program for musicians going to East Germany.” In 1989, in the theater her father met her mother, a German dancer.
“My mother really liked Romanian culture and everything related to Romania. She even learned the Romanian language and there was a change in her somehow. My mother and I came to Romania at one point, after my brother was born, in 1997. My grandmother was a teacher at a kindergarten near Galati, in the village of Pechea. We spent a few months there, even went to kindergarten, and then, when I had to go to school, we went back to Germany. My mother said that it’s very important to learn the language and the culture”, recalls the actress.
She also says that her mother didn’t allow her to go for any kind of dance education when she was little: “She said it was a very difficult profession and didn’t want me to start with ballet.”
At one point, in the third or fourth grade, a slightly older friend of hers who attended the Palucca Dance School in Dresden, took her to a contemporary dance performance by the students there. She liked it so much that she spent an entire summer begging her mother to let her go to the ballet school, which is also the most famous one in Germany. Eventually, her mother allowed her to give it a try, seeing that she was so passionate about it. She got in on the first try.
“I passed the exam when I was 9 years old and I started school immediately after I turned 10 years old. It was actually my birthday when I moved to a dorm in Dresden, because my parents lived in a nearby town”, she recalls
The idea of acting came up to her at the same time as she started in ballet. On the day of the exam, she had met a girl from Berlin who was already starring in films and who was signed by an agency for child actors. She kept in touch with her. At one point, she visited her in Berlin and, after seeing her in action, she thought that she might also like film acting. A year later, she went to a casting call for that particular agency and, out of 300 children, she was chosen, along with another girl: “We signed a contract. I started acting a year later than dancing. I did them in parallel.” Her parents supported her a lot, but they told her that if that’s what she really wants to do, then she has to dedicate all of her to it.
Before starring in The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke’s film, which was going to change her life completely, she had also acted, as far as she can remember, in a movie and two television productions.
The shootings for The White Ribbon took place in the summer of 2008, when she was 13. The casting process, which began in September 2007, lasted several months. Obviously, it was more difficult to go to casting at that age. So she went with the whole family – her mother, her father, the only one with a driver’s license, and her younger brother and sister.
She was the first to arrive at the casting so she was registered as A1. “After this first casting, the agent called me at one point and told me that they didn’t want me anymore, because I was A1 and Mr. Haneke said that it’s not possible to take the first person who gives the audition, that there must be someone better. Two weeks later, they called me again and wanted me to go for another audition. And this time they gave me the part. It was a very emotional journey”, she recalls. She admits that at the time she didn’t know who Michael Haneke was and hadn’t watched any of his films. “My mother didn’t let me”, she laughs.
She has only fond memories when it comes to the film shoot, which took place from June to September 2008, when she stayed with her family and the rest of the children in the cast at five-star hotels: “It was a great experience, because it was similar with my ballet education. There was a lot of discipline. Working with Mr. Haneke means allowing oneself to be constantly criticized. But I was used to getting criticism. I actually liked it. He was very precise about the way I had to move and pronounce the text. It was very relaxing for me, because all I had to do was act. I even thought: if this is the case and you get to an emotion or a performance so easily, then that’s all I want to do in life. Of course, I found out later that it’s not that simple.”
She acknowledges that what she learned from Michael Haneke is the foundation on which she relied later on: “Mr. Haneke gave me a gift through this film. I learned to listen, I saw that there are people who have strong vision. It made me want to be part of such a chef-d’œuvre. I joined the project without knowing anything about him and his films. And I discovered a lot. At some point, there was no stopping me. He gave me so much that I wanted to give back even more. Mr. Haneke made me begin to understand what acting really was, how to get to that point where you play as if it were your own life. The whole process was very interesting. When I went back to school, I missed being on the set.”
She attended the film’s premiere at Cannes, where she went with her father. It was her first time in France and on a red carpet, so it was an unforgettable experience. “When I saw the film, I was very nervous, but also surprised that our work could lead to a film like that. The film seemed very real. As if those emotions were true. I was really taken by surprise, because I knew how easy it was on the set and how simple it was for all of us to work together.”
The White Ribbon was also nominated for Best Cinematography (DoP – Christian Berger) and Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, so it was an opportunity for Maria Dragus to go to Los Angeles, this time accompanied by her mother: “It was crazy. It was really cool.” After that, she was nominated at the German Film Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress. So she started giving interviews and things changed.
The whole experience made her think seriously that acting could become a profession. “If this is a job I can do considering everything that’s happened so far, I said why not. Until then, it was like a hobby I enjoyed doing when I was on vacation. But then, if everyone tells me I’m talented – and this wasn’t something I was really aware of, I had little experience – I should give it a try and see where I end up. I haven’t reached the final stop yet”, she says amused.
She realized that it was very important to continue by the same teaching her parents gave her, which is to dedicate all her energy to acting, in parallel with the dance school. In an attempt to understand what acting is and what she actually wants to do, she started watching movies. Because her father liked very much the European films made in the ’60s and the ’70s, including the Romanian ones with the actors in Dem Radulescu’s generation, she started with them. She wanted to know if she was more interested in arthouse cinema or if she would rather go for commercial cinema. She went for the first option.
“To me it has always been very important to know what I want to do and especially who I want to work with. If you don’t know what kind of movies you like, how can you work in this field? That was important, to begin from there. I realized that I’m very interested in approaching topics that have some political or social value and make me get into situations that normally I wouldn’t be able to get into. For example, after The White Ribbon, my first film, Kill Me (2012), was about a suicidal girl”, says the actress.
She has no acting education and confesses that she did wonder for quite some time if she should attend a specialized school. However, in 2017 she enrolled in a famous acting school in Berlin, where she lived, but she only went for a week and afterwards she dropped out. “Now I find it funny, obviously, but for them it was a little sad and I’m actually sorry. When I decided to go, it was too late, because I had already had a foundation. I had built my own way of working through dance. I could have done the four years in acting school, but I already had a lot of projects and I was very fluid with all the work. I think in the end it would have done more harm than good. That’s how it was meant to be”, states Maria Dragus.
She admits that the dance school she attended between the ages of 10 and 18 now helps her a lot in acting: “You need to have a sense of space, to know how your body works in a space. But also how your voice works. This is my formation. I can already work with something. In film, you need to know what your body is like in relation to the camera. You have to know how to work with such a presence – withdraw your presence or widen your presence.”
“I am very technical. To me it’s very important to be able to get out of the character right away. Once the camera is turned off, I’m back to being Maria. I also had a time when I worked on a set where we improvised the whole film, and the director asked us not to leave the character. But for me it was important to have at least 2-3 minutes between scenes to be myself so that I could relax, refocus”, she explains.
She developed a personal technique for preparing for each role, and her ideas were confirmed, to her surprise, by a Royal Ballet choreographer, Wayne McGregor, who was hired to prepare the actors for Mary Queen of Scots (2018).
“Maybe things will change over time, with the films I will work on in the future, but at the moment I work like this: I get the script, I read it and get familiar with the story. Then I read it again. After that, I go to the ballet studio. I look at my body and try to find music that I think is right for the character and I start moving. I try to find out what the character’s energy center is, where it’s moving from. Then, out of that energy center I try to develop some kind of movement for the character. From there, step by step, I get to the voice and then I try to find what kind of accent my character has, what language it speaks. I work a lot with a coach, with people who teach me to speak correctly, to have the right diction”, details the actress.
All this preparation is done in parallel with the discussions with the director: “Anyway, this is for me, so that I can rely on something. I only do this depending on what the director wants from the character. After that, I say what I can offer, and at rehearsals or on the set we find common things and I can see what the person in front of me wants.”
Acting makes her very happy, although she confesses that she’s always afraid to perform when she’s preparing for a role. “Honestly, I feel like I know nothing. I’m very scared and very shy. But then, after I start doing it, at some point I manage to get this stuff out. So I just have to start. I don’t know why, but acting makes me very happy. I think that’s why I keep doing it. If it didn’t make me feel so good, I probably would have given up a long time ago. It’s a pretty hard profession, you spend a lot of time waiting between projects. You have a lot of time at your disposal to work only on yourself. For two years, I found a way of my own and got used to it. I think this is much more difficult than being on set”, she adds.
She enjoys all the stages in playing a part: “Every stage is different. Even the casting makes me very happy. That’s something that came more recently: I have to audition, to make the videos by myself at home. I find it cool that you have this very weird space, which is also private, where you have to make out the part you have to play. Sometimes you don’t even have the script. You just get a few scenes. I read them. I learn them. And in 90% of cases, it doesn’t even work out, you don’t even get the part. But that’s another discussion. Everything is very diverse. I never get bored. I travel a lot, I meet people, I explore the world. What also makes me very happy is that I have a kind of mutual inspiration with the artists I work with. That is very important for me, to have an exchange.”
She thinks that acting is an art, but she doesn’t consider herself an actress: “It’s my way of expressing myself. I can’t help it. That’s why I really like playing with the characters. Every time I’m amazed that people trust me and have not yet discovered that I am pretending, when in fact I know nothing (laughs). I’m honest. I’m glad and I’m honored to be able to do this job. I was very lucky to meet people who are inspired by what I do as much as I am inspired by what they do. It goes without saying that working for nothing doesn’t last forever.”
When asked how difficult it is for a young film actress in Germany, she admits that she is in a privileged position, because she has reached a status where she can choose what she wants to do, especially since the country where she lives in invests a lot of money in cinema and productions for television and streaming platforms like Netflix. Even though the shootings of a series she had started working on in March, and would have lasted until June, have been suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, her project agenda is already full by July next year.
She says she is aware that where she stands now is not an usual thing and that she was very lucky. That’s why, “I care a lot about this profession, because that’s what I want to do. It’s very important to learn, to read, to watch movies, to stimulate myself intellectually.”
The fact that she had the opportunity to play in a Romanian film and especially in one made by Cristian Mungiu was a dream come true. “The first time I wrote to Cristian was in 2012. I had watched the films he made up to that point , especially 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, and I wanted to meet him. I was very surprised by his filmmaking style and I wondered how he works with his actors to get them to play as in real life. Until then, I only saw that at Haneke. He has a very clear and very precise vision. In his films there is a kind of reality besides our reality. I like that a lot”, she recalls.
“I got his email address. I wrote him a very nice e-mail, which started with “Dear Mr. Mungiu”. I also sent him a photo. He answered me very kindly. But, after that, I didn’t hear anything from him, we’ve lost contact. But, in 2014 I won an award in Berlin, at Shooting Stars. Among the ten selected actors from all over Europe was Cosmina Stratan (who played in Beyond the Hills). That’s probably how they saw my name. Before the Berlinale, I got an email from Tudor Reu (the producer with whom Cristian Mungiu works), so I met him in Berlin. Two or three months later, when I came to Bucharest, I also met Cristian”, adds Maria Drăguş.
The experience of working on Graduation and with Cristian Mungiu “meant a lot” to her: “It was very interesting, because he included me in the writing process somehow. Six months after the first meeting, I saw him again in October at Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest, when he told me that he was writing a screenplay and that there might be something for me, too. After another four months, I think that in February-March 2015, he called me to come and give another audition for the film. Later, I came to Bucharest for the audition for the role of Titi (Adrian Titieni, who plays the father in the film ). It was strange, because I was given the part before they chose the actor for the role of the father.”
“The whole experience was surreal, because I wasn’t even dreaming I could get to do that. Cristian, too, gave me a gift – to play in a Romanian film and to be involved in the whole process. Obviously, I hadn’t experienced that before, nor have I lived it ever since. It means a lot”, she says gratefully.
She learned her part with the help of her father: “For me it was important to read the whole script with my father for the first time, in order to understand the emotions that Eliza experiences. To see where the character is, what relationship I might have with it, what I can take from my life, from my relationship with my father.”
“What I find beautiful about the story in Graduation is that it could happen anywhere. Of course, it has a lot of elements that place the action in Romania, but for me the emotions between father and daughter mattered more, and this is universal”, the actress points out. She was also present at the film screening in Braila, where her Romanian relatives came to see her, including her grandmother, where she spent part of her childhood. “They were very happy. I was over the moon. “Finally a film of yours that we understand”, they told me”, she recalls with delight.
She knows that, in Romania, a limited number of films are made, and those ones are quite hard to complete, but she’s not shy to admit that she would like to play again in a Romanian production: “There has to be the right moment. I think I’ll play again, but who knows. I would like to, though. It would be a dream come true.”
Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.