Talk about pressure. Newcomer David Kross faced a starring role in "The Reader" opposite five-time Oscar nominee Kate Winslet, a role in which he'd be the one required to convey the emotional complexity and ambiguity of the film. Nerve-racking for a young performer, right? It gets worse. The film is also the German actor's first English-speaking role. Oh, and did we mention that Kross is just 18 and the movie required sex scenes and full frontal nudity?
And now he's learning all about Hollywood promotional campaigns. Obviously tired from traveling to Los Angeles from Cambodia, where he is shooting a new movie, Kross joined "Reader" director Stephen Daldry recently to talk about the award-season hopeful over a quiet lunch in Beverly Hills.
"The Reader," which opened Friday, reunites Daldry with screenwriter David Hare, their previous collaboration having resulted in Academy Award nominations for each of them for 2002's "The Hours." "The Reader" is adapted from the 1995 novel by Bernhard Schlink, and the story begins with Michael Berg (Kross) as a young man in the 1950s, drawn into an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmitz (Winslet). Years later, as a law student, he is stunned to discover that she had been a guard at a Nazi concentration camp.
Moving further forward, an adult Berg (played by Ralph Fiennes) renews contact with Schmitz while she is serving a prison sentence as a war criminal, yet he still isn't quite sure what his feelings toward her are and how to reconcile them with his memories of their past together.
The story of their relationship is easily understood as standing in for how each succeeding generation of Germans must grapple with the moral legacy of World War II and the Holocaust.
For Kross, yet another generation removed from the events of WWII, these issues of national guilt had, he said, never particularly weighed on his mind. When he was first presented with the project, at 15, he did not immediately know how to process some of the deeper complexities of the story.
"I read the book first," he said, "and I thought, 'Oh, my God, I have to do these sex scenes.' And then I -- to be honest -- I didn't quite understand the book. I didn't understand what it was about, that what it was actually about was Germany."
When Kross seemed to shy away from discussing the larger issues raised by the story -- the questions of ongoing guilt and lingering feelings of complicity for the German people, as well as ways to move forward -- Daldry stepped in.
"I think for Mr. Schlink," Daldry said, "he comes from a generation that had to find a way, where you're brought up and loved by your parents and your teachers and then you discover they've been involved in one of the unspeakable crimes of the 20th century. So the question is how do you love and how can you possibly exist with this idea of being born guilty.
"I think that we worked quite hard to allow an ambiguity about the character of Hanna, and I hope that people can have a very complicated personal response to it without feeling that it's overly schematic."
After a few sips of coffee, Kross became more engaged in discussing the process of making the film.
"I remember how you told me that I had the part," Kross noted to Daldry. "You didn't tell me for a long time, and then we were talking about the part like I was playing it, and I asked you, 'Am I playing the part?' And you said, 'Oh, by the way, I didn't tell you. . . .' "
"Well, we spent a lot of time auditioning other actors," picked up Daldry, "and doing all that. I do remember I'd sort of made the decision and hadn't actually passed it on."
As Daldry tells it, the film began shooting in fall of 2007, took a break just after the holidays, picked up again in the spring, took another break to wait for Kross to turn 18 before filming his love scenes with Winslet, and finally finished production this July.
"It's very funny," noted Daldry. "I watch the movie and sometimes from one shot to the next there might be almost a year difference. But people don't notice. I notice because I was there."
For Kross, the interrupted filming schedule actually helped his creative process.
"The breaks were good, they were fantastic," he said. "I got everything into my head and then I could go home and let it settle, think about it and go over the story again. It helped for me very much."
Daldry asked Kross about a specific moment during the filming, when the actor tears up during a scene at Schmitz's trial. Perhaps inadvertently, the young German points to at least one way out of the endless cycle of guilt and shame the movie implies.
"It's hard to talk about this because it's such a long time ago," Kross responded, "and I'm in a different movie. That's probably what an actor does, but my mind is still in Cambodia."