Today, we embark on an extraordinary journey—one that goes beyond the frames and into the soul of the filmmaker herself. Silvia de Leonardis, a creative force whose cinematic prowess has garnered acclaim, invites us to discover the deeply personal layers of her artistry. In this exclusive interview, we delve into the emotions, challenges, and inspirations that have shaped her and her award-winning film, “On the Line”.
Join us as we uncover the heart behind the lens, in a conversation that is both powerful and profoundly inspirational.
1. Silvia, your journey into acting has been quite remarkable, especially considering your father’s initial reservations. Can you share a bit more about how you pursued your passion for acting against those odds?
Oh Lord! Yes, that was an exciting time! My father was southern Italian and to him actresses were, well… hookers. He expected me to be a saint without verifying what a saint was. So I was never enough. I grew up in very simple circumstances in a working-class neighborhood and learned the terms “spaghetti eater” and “Itaka” (a dirty word for Italians) at an early age. The stupid thing was that for the Italians I was “the German” and for the Germans I was “the Italian”. I didn’t feel at home anywhere. In addition, my childhood was anything but rosy. When I was 6 years old, I saw Bette Davis on TV for the first time and thought, “If I become like her, no one can harm me anymore.” From then on it was clear that I had to become an actress. I actually secretly fled from Munich to Constance from my father to finish my acting training. He found me after two years and actually came to the Opening Night of my first role in “The Jungle Book”, based on Rudyard Kipling at the Constance City Theater. From then on he slowly became my biggest fan. Shortly after that, I got my first leading role as Abigail in “A Glass of Water” by Eugène Scribe, where I also sang. But I was always a whirlwind and wanted to try everything and till today don´t accept limits easily. Around that time fellow actors started asking me, if I can give them private acting lessons, because I was always a very strong actress, I said „Why not?“ and started teaching actors, opera singers and also drag queens, which was very funny! Over the years I became quite successful and popular as a Film-Coach on Set and still teach selected actors if I have time. The next step was on the horizon and so I produced, directed and starred in my first theatre play “Gretchen 89ff.” by Lutz Huebner in Munich, which was sold out every night. What an experience! I also got my first TV and movie roles around that time.
2. “On the Line” is a powerful short film that delves into the complexities of addiction and family relationships. What inspired you to create this particular story, and what message were you hoping to convey to your audience?
Both “On the Line” and my first short film “Kaufkrank” have autobiographical features. On the one hand, I have an inner urge to exploit these experiences so that they can take on additional meaning for me, and on the other hand, I have an insatiable desire to express myself as an artist in any form. I´ve spent my life researching and understanding the mystery of human beings and humanity. On this journey I was able to heal many wounds and now this is a great strength at my disposal, because today I not only know both sides, but I ´ve also found ways of healing I´d like to express. Such as in “On the Line”, in which there is intentionally no villain, but two people who each deal with loss in their own way. I think that we artists have the task and the ability to entertain or making people laugh, as well as demonstrating deeply buried longings, wishes, feelings of guilt, shame, love, pain – sometimes clear, sometimes cautious and sometimes abstract – to bring it on-screen so that the audience can recognize themselves or people around them in it and experiences can be stimulated to heal or at least to think about. For me this is true art. Based on the motto “Art is to console those who are broken by life” by Vincent van Gogh. When I finished editing “On the Line” in L.A., out of the blue I decided to celebrate the Opening Night of „On the Line“ there, and quickly subtitled it overnight in English. What happened next, was breathtaking. The applause and the enthusiasm of my nearly 50 guests were phenomenal. After the screening, when I finally looked around, I was so shockingly surprised seeing that many of my guests had tears in their eyes and were deeply touched. They all said I should go to festivals with it. And so, I did – not expecting to succeed!
3. Your experience working in Los Angeles was a turning point in your career. Can you tell us more about your time in the Mecca of acting and the valuable lessons you learned while there?
Yes, I´d love to. Los Angeles was both the end and the beginning. Graduation because I dreamed for decades of acting in the US and now that dream has come true. And beginning, because I completely rediscovered myself as an actress and artist. L.A. has been nothing but good to me. I didn’t know beforehand whether I was “good enough” for the Mecca, where tens of thousands of good actors and actresses lived. So, I went there with the uneasy feeling “Now it shows.” What I then experienced was beyond anything I could have imagined. Not only did I feel like L.A. was welcoming me with open arms, but for the first time I was in front of countless people who appreciated, admired and respected my work so much. I still remember very clearly one of my first auditions with a very well-known and excellent caster. I had just received my O-1B work visa for the US (Individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts or extraordinary achievement in motion picture or television industry) and arrived in L.A. 2 days earlier – and still was totally jetlagged. I acted out my scene and she just looked at me quietly for a very long time. All sorts of thoughts went through my head, including: “Was it so bad that she doesn’t know what to say?” I noticed how tears were slowly welling up in my eyes, also because of tiredness, then she said finally “Silvia, that was perfect. A+!” I couldn’t hold back my tears anymore and she came hugging me. She wanted to know how long I’d been in L.A. I said “Since the day before yesterday” and she said “No, I mean, how long have you been here as an actress” – “I came here the day before yesterday.” Then she said she was so happy I came to L.A. and that I totally remind her of Vivien Leigh. She was so excited and said so beautiful things. That was my start and I had the privilege to experience a lot of similar situations over the next 3 years. I also got my first job in “Fight or Die” the first week. And by the end of my first 8-week unit, I had already worked on three productions. The sentence “You’re more than enough” from my beloved teacher Alex Taylor, who prepared and accompanied me for this journey, materialized. There I was more than enough. People liked the way I acted, they liked me and of course they were surprised and amazed at my strength, my will and my tireless commitment. L.A. and this incredible playground that opened up, which I exploited to the fullest and worked until I dropped, was so intense and shaping, so exciting and fulfilling that today I have the feeling that only under this pressure could I become what I am today. The inner restless urge turned into peace and serenity. I can enjoy art and being an artist much more today. I was a diamond in the rough being polished. Although of course I also firmly believe that the journey to continue to develop as an artist never ends.
4. As a mother, you had to balance motherhood, partnership, work, and your filmmaking dreams. How did you manage these multiple roles, and did it bring you any unexpected insights about yourself or your relationships?
Yes, especially the realization that I can work until I drop… hahaha
My L.A. days were usually 16-to-18-hour days. I packed everything into these days, photo shoots, updating my material in the acting databases, casting workshops, auditions, filming tons of e-castings, rehearsing, shooting days, accent training with Kennedy and of course, whenever there was time left, I sat in class of my teacher Alex Taylor and trained tirelessly or let my prepared roles check, because after 8 weeks I was flying back to Munich to see my family. There I worked again, took care of my family and everything that had been left behind, and was almost preparing for the next flight to L.A. again. Of course, this dream that I was living also brought family challenges. And that also took a lot of strength and had to be overcome. It was certainly all incredibly tiring, but for me it was also the best time of my acting career so far. I think during the 3 1/2 years in L.A. I went out exactly 6 times. I didn’t allow myself more. I wanted to learn everything, try everything out and take everything in. There wasn´t even time to process all, that often came much later.
5. Your daughter, Cecilia, had a role in “On the Line.” How was it working alongside your child, and did it add any unique dynamics to the filmmaking process?
It was incredibly beautiful, we both work exceptionally well together. Cecilia knows me so well and vice versa. She always brings a sense of calm and happiness into it and is extremely funny. She already played a leading role in my first shortfilm “Kaufkrank” when she was 8 years old. Back then I played the shopping-addicted, violent mother who physically abused her. Cecilia has an exceptional acting talent and so it was a pleasure for me to work with her again. She and Bastian Theurich, who played my son in “On the Line” and was an acting student of mine, were the source material for “On the Line.” Bastian needed material for his reel and Cecilia wanted to work with me again. So, I quickly thought about what I could do with the three of us actors. At that time, I was also tormented by a guilty conscience and fears about my daughter because of my many absences, even though we skyped for 1 to 2 hours almost every day when I was in L.A. This fear of failing as a mother and losing connection with my daughter formed the storyline of “On the Line”. Except that Bastian played my son. So, I was able to live through it with a little more distance.
6. You took on numerous roles in the production of “On the Line” due to budget constraints. Can you share some memorable moments or challenges you faced while wearing so many hats during the filmmaking process?
Yes, on the one hand there were budget reasons, but not only. I commissioned the first script for it, but – although it was good – it wasn’t what I wanted to say. As already said, everything always has an autobiographical background – and I couldn’t find this deep feeling in the first script. So – due to a lack of skills – I wrote a new script with great difficulty during my 2-week vacation. And from then on, I wanted to stay in control and make the film exactly how I felt and wanted it to be. I coached my two actors Bastian and Cecilia in advance, because we shot the film in just 5 days. I directed and made sure that both actors and all extras played well. If not, I got out of my role in a matter of seconds, briefly watched the recording, gave instructions or coached, said “Action!” and immediately continued acting my part. At the same time, I did lighting, catering, took care of the camera settings and resolutions, extras, filming locations, set everything up and took it down again. I remember dropping dead in the evenings or nights and sometimes not knowing what my name was. Then I edited it in I guess more than 300 hours in nightshifts. Most of the hours were eaten by program breakdowns, mistakes, starting again from the beginning and struggling with my cutting program. I never had training in editing nor am I very talented in computer programs. It was an ongoing failure, but giving up wasn’t an option, so I persevered. Looking back, I wish I had given myself more time back then, but that was the way the 3 years with my O-1 were… I worked at a crazy pace! And: It wasn’t at all planned to go to festivals with it. I actually made the short film just for us.
7. Despite facing challenges and not managing to renew your O-1B US Visa in 2020 due to the pandemic and the US restrictions, you’ve continued to push forward with your career. What drives you to persist in the face of adversity, and how do you stay motivated?
I love acting. Since my childhood and until today. It gives me a feeling of freedom and intensity that I can’t find or live out anywhere else. Especially the roles that I played in L.A. or produced myself. In Germany I usually play in comedies – also very nice – and sometimes I play a lawyer, inspector or something similar. In L.A., however, I once played a mother with cancer in a family drama, then a mother whose daughter was murdered by his boyfriend. And who then kidnapped the friend’s mother, tortured her and ultimately killed her because the pain of losing her daughter robbed her of almost all humanity. I really love climbing into such abysses, also or perhaps especially because it is physically and mentally very exhausting. Drama is the genre in which I feel at home and certainly have great talent. Well, when the O-1 couldn’t be extended in 2020, I was of course sad. Then I cried for 2 or 3 days and thought about what I could do instead. The pandemic has left many very depressed, so I thought something to laugh about would be good! I remembered my first play, “Gretchen 89 ff.”, which I produced in 2002 and now, 18 years later, I asked for the rights again, got them and produced it. There is always a way, and it always goes on!
8. In addition to “On the Line,” you’ve been involved in theater productions and upcoming feature films. Can you share some details about your recent and upcoming projects, such as “Kiss & Die,” “Rat Pack,” and “The Spiritualization of Jeff Boyd”?
The producer of “Kiss and Die” and “Rat Pack” called me while I was in L.A. and invited me to be casted for the leading role in his movie. So, I flew from L.A. to Munich and was once again completely jet-lagged at the casting in Lindau the next day – on my birthday! Only 2 actresses were cast for it. A dark-haired woman and me – the blonde. This time the role went to the brunette – the investor wanted her, the producer wanted me. But, as we all know, top beats bottom and so she got the role. But the producer created a new role especially for me and asked me if I would like to take it. I said “I’d love to” and played along. And “Kiss and Die” and “Rat Pack” are now the sequels to that. Two films and a series were made in which I played Silvia Bayer, the poker player and seductress. I love working with this wonderful team. Especially with HG, the producer, who I like dearly and who always writes particularly beautiful scenes for me. I also met Uwe Schwarzwalder there. He was my acting partner and we got along exceptionally well from the first second. He is the producer of “The Spiritualization of Jeff Boyd” and offered me two roles to choose in his really cool film, which is currently in post-production. To Uwe’s surprise, I chose the psychiatrist. And we shot that at the beginning of the year in beautiful Davos, Switzerland.
9. Your favorite roles often involve strong women leading characters fighting for love and justice. How do you approach these roles to bring depth and authenticity to your characters?
That’s who I am. I carry this depth and authenticity within me. For me, love is the only answer to life and true justice for me is the greatest good in the world. That’s why I feel so free and whole in these roles. Not that I don’t live that in my real life, too. Of course, I do! But there it is – thank God! – much more contemplative than in films. In my private life I love peace and seclusion. I need a lot of time for myself and my family. But then I want to get out again – into the so-called spotlight – and create something.
10. Thanks for being with us today, Silvia. Your journey from Munich to Hollywood and back is truly inspiring. it has been a great pleasure having you as a guest for this FilmmakerLife Interview. Would you like to dedicate these recent wins to someone in particular?
First of all, I would really like to thank you for giving me the opportunity for this interview. Working with you and your team was simply wonderful!
Then comes a whole staff of people whom I´d like to thank dearly: First and foremost, my teacher and friend Alex Taylor, who believed in me from the very first moment and tirelessly taught me the Meisner technique all over the world, even on the phone if necessary when I was in Munich, supported me on both short films and finally told me “Try to get the O-1, you can work until you drop in L.A.” And he was right. Then of course Jim and Gerson, who I always stayed with when I was in L.A. They became my second family and I love and miss them both very much. My friend Heidi Schultz, who is also a wonderful and strong actress & children’s book writer in L.A., my good friend Alan Reeves, who gave me the film music for “On the Line”. Of course, also my husband, Cecilia, Bastian and the entire crew from “On the Line”. And last but not least, may she celebrate and sing in heaven, Miss Mercy from the GTO’s, with whom I shared a deep and wondrous love. At the end of the screening of “On the Line” in L.A. she was first to jump up and emotionally shouted “That’s the way it is to be an addict! That’s the way it is!” Her being so deeply touched by my film will always remain in my memory. That’s why we make films, right?!
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