Lights, Camera, Masks, Action!

Reflections of an actor returning to a film set in Germany during COVID.

By John Keogh

The set looks the same as ever - except of course that everyone is wearing a mask - but it’s all a bit muted. There’s less banter and everybody seems a bit more withdrawn than usual.

So you want to know what’s it like returning to set? Well, to misquote Spock: ‘It’s filming Jim, but not as we know it’.

Once we learned that we were to recommence shooting in June (having shut down in March), the latest version of the script arrives and is the first indication that things aren't quite the same. There are no major changes in plot or structure but some scenes with even a few extras had been cut completely.

We also receive the new guidelines for shooting – all six pages of them, written in small print and covering just about everything you could think of. These guidelines are issued by the BG ETEM, which is the professional association in Germany responsible for employees in the media industries. Having digested these, I get a call from the director - my agent also receives one from the producer - reassuring me that the guidelines will be strictly adhered to and asking if I’m happy to return to work under these conditions. 'Yes', I reply.

Preparing To Go On Set

One of the guidelines relates to actors who, due to the nature of the scene, won't be able to keep to the required social distancing norms. As I have a scene that involves an embrace, I’m requested to go into semi-quarantine for a period of five days before it's shot. This means I promise to strictly adhere to all of the guidelines and keep to myself as much as possible.

At the beginning of the quarantine, both my partner and I (who live in the same household) were tested. For five days, I’m twiddling my thumbs confident that I have never been as prepared for a shoot as I have for this one – at least in terms of knowing my lines. I’m getting sick of my lines. They're my main companion if the truth be told.

The day before shooting I received the call-sheet. I actually thought they had forgotten to send the complete document as the full shooting day consisted of only four scenes, none of them especially long or complicated. But right there on the call sheet between scene two and three was the column ‘lunch break’. 

Back On Set

The production company request that actors make their own way to the location. One of the guidelines states that if actors use public transport to get to the set, they're obliged to wash their hair once they arrive. I’m able to avoid this and drive to set on the outskirts of Berlin. I get there 90 minutes too early and I'm almost ecstatic with the thought of being able to work again.

First up is hand disinfectant, a temperature check and a few questions from the dedicated hygiene specialist. All good. I notice a small team of people constantly on the move with disinfectant spray, wiping down surfaces, handles, any points of contact.

The unit manager informs me that my trailer has been freshly disinfected and that my costume is hanging there. "Would you be able to put it on yourself without assistance from the costume department?" he asks. "No worries", I assure him.

On to hair and make-up. I’m sporting the COVID look - meaning I haven’t had my hair cut for about three months - so the stylist masks up and an hour later, I’m back to my former self.

Time to hurry up and wait.

I have a coffee and a quick bite at the catering truck and notice that all utensils are now disposable, which in environmental terms is an unfortunate knock-on effect of the guidelines.

Spread around the catering truck are small individual tables with one chair each, all facing the same direction. I sit at one and exchange some loud conversation with my socially-distant neighbours, reflecting that this is just like being in a school classroom again. Weird.

I’m requested on set so on goes the mask and away we go. The set looks the same as ever - except of course that everyone is wearing a mask - but it’s all a bit muted. There’s less banter and everybody seems a bit more withdrawn than usual.

Filming Begins

Here’s an interesting thought: it’s only as an actor and when filming such [intimate] scenes that you can experience and remember what it was like when our world was ‘normal’.

I'm working on a 90-minute TV Movie for a German state broadcaster where I play a local politician in the North of Germany who attempts to quash an emerging scandal that threatens to engulf his entire family. The first scene I shot was fairly straightforward and ‘safe’. A straight one-on-one in a large ventilated office with the other actor sitting across from me with a good six feet between us. This was all normal enough - until it came to the close-ups.

As I was stuck in beside the lens to deliver my lines in to the other actor, I turned to the camera operator to check the distance between us. His head was bent over the camera and almost touching mine, but now in addition to his mask, he had donned a pair of goggles. Goggles? For a cameraman? That must be excruciating both in the practical and aesthetic sense. So fellow actors, whatever difficulties we may have with the new normal, they are nothing compared to the 12-14 hour shifts worked by the crew under such conditions.

A green room had been set up to accommodate the actors between takes. Chairs labelled with our names and a bottle of sanitiser were set well apart from each other. As I wandered in with the other actors, I asked if there was any water available. The unit manager happened to be in the room at the time and in very apologetic terms informed me that they're “not allowed to bring anything to the actors” and that I would have to get it myself from the storage area just outside the set. Unbelievable! So I called my agent, my manager and my publicist and told them I could not possibly work under such conditions... actually, I didn’t. I walked the 10 yards myself and picked up a bottle of water.

The second scene was my primary concern as it’s the one where I come into close contact with my scene partner. The line run through, the blocking and the rehearsals were all done with masks on and then we’re ready to shoot. The masks are removed, "Action" is called, and I pass through the door from the office into the long corridor, entering the frame. The actress playing my ex-wife stands up and hurries toward me. It takes about three seconds until we are face to face with about 18 inches between us. This is a strange and startling moment. For months, I have never been this close to a ‘stranger’ and in this case, I know that in about 30 seconds, she is going to collapse into my arms.

We go through the lines but my brain is racing with my primary thought being: ‘Oh man, I really hope she kept to the quarantine guidelines’. She’s a good bit shorter than I am and as she leans forward, her head rests on my chest with her hair brushing my face. Cue ridiculous panic on my part, reinforced by months of unfamiliarity with physical embrace. I feel strangely and ridiculously exposed.

The scene requires, and the director requests, that there be some reluctance in my embrace. Reluctance? No problem there and no acting required. In this sense, I was very lucky. If this scene was one where say, I realise I had made a terrible mistake, that my ex-wife was the one true love of my life and we were to passionately embrace, it would've been considerably more difficult for me. The end result would've probably been questionable if not downright unintentionally comic.

But it does get easier as work progresses through the various takes and scenes. And here’s an interesting thought: it’s only as an actor and when filming such scenes that you can experience and remember what it was like when our world was ‘normal’.

Final Thoughts

It would be inaccurate to say that as work progresses you forget about the risk. The measures in place are a constant reminder but you get on with it.

There was one moment of revelation. I was finally able to answer that somewhat annoying question that actors sometimes ask themselves, namely: ‘What’s my motivation in this scene?’ with the deceptively simple reply: ‘Not to get infected’. You could build a method around that. 

It would be inaccurate to say that as work progresses you forget about the risk. The measures in place are a constant reminder but you get on with it. You’ve made the decision to turn up, you’re aware of the risks, you’ve taken the precautions you can and you trust that your fellow actors have done the same. Put bluntly, it’s a calculated risk and one made based on the current information available about the virus' transmission.

I think each actor will need to make this calculation for themselves based on:

  1. The state of their general health
  2. The latest insight into how the virus spreads
  3. Their confidence in the measures put in place to protect both them and their loved ones
  4. Their propensity to panic.

All of us who work in the industry are not unfamiliar with shooting in extreme circumstances, under extreme conditions and sometimes with extreme fellow actors. Some of us even relish it. Our skills of adaptation are probably better developed than those working in other industries.

The big question for us actors is, of course, will the volume of work pick-up to pre-COVID levels? Even if it does and even if I have a part, am I willing and able to travel to the locations? As I live in Germany, the current restrictions mean that I couldn’t take a part in projects filming in some countries without first self-isolating for 14 days on arrival. It’s a logistical and financial headache of considerable proportions.

And speaking of finances, the financial security of the vast majority of actors is either non-existent or precarious. Even though the financial consequences of the current crisis are severe for us, and the longer-term economic outlook is looking bleak, this is a state of affairs that many actors – rightly or wrongly - consider to be ‘normal’. In that sense, little has changed so we’re possibly able to adapt better than those in other occupations who only now are coming to terms with continued uncertainty, unemployment and financial insecurity. That at least is my hope.

I wish all of you the very best.

John Keogh is an actor and writer based in Berlin and Dublin with many credits in European features and TV series.

Credits include the German Amazon Series ‘You Are Wanted’ with Matthias Schweighöfer, the Italian-French feature ‘Le Confessioni’ with Toni Servillo and most recently the German TV crime thriller series ‘Der Usedom-Krimi’ with Katrin Sass.  

Headshot photographer: Marcus Staab