Franka Potente: Franka goes to Hollywood

Although she's now hit the big time, Franka Potente still likes to indulge her quirky, indie tastes. She tells Matthew Sweet why

Franka Potente. It's not a name made for the marquee, is it? Too harsh. If this was 1935, she'd have been shunted back to the publicity department until she'd concocted something more mellifluous. Something less butch. Something less German.

But it hasn't done her any harm so far. In fact, it would be hard to find an actress of her age - 30 - with a more eclectic CV. Since her breakthrough film, the slick thriller Run Lola Run, she's made Hollywood blockbusters, art films and American indie movies. By the end of this year, Peter Greenaway, Todd Solondz, Terrence Malick and Stephen Soderbergh will all have gazed at her through a viewfinder, and she will have shared the screen with Matt Damon, Benicio Del Toro and Glenn Close. So why has she involved herself with a low-budget British flick for a director whose main experience has been writing scripts for EastEnders?

"That's the cool thing about my job," she breezes. "You can have little adventures with different people. You can take little tours. You get to see different things with different leaders."

Creep is a horror film set on the London Underground. You'll know the territory if you've ever seen Death Line, a 1970s classic featuring a cannibal troglodyte. Potente's heroine, a confident, sassy young woman, spends much of the film being pursued through dank tunnels by some nameless shuffling horror, and having her confidence and sassiness terrified out of her.

The writer-director, Christopher Smith, the man who scripted the romance between Kat Slater and Dr Trueman in EastEnders, is a diffident chap, who admits that he was inspired to create Creep after reading a newspaper article about the lost world of tunnels that straggles under the capital. He still seems dazed with pleasure that he managed to attract an actress as employable as Potente to the lead role. "We were," he concedes, "very fortunate to get her."

Potente has a novel way of securing work with directors. She pesters them until they say yes. She begged Todd Solondz for a part after seeing Happiness. "I totally stalked him," she says. "He's the sweetest little guy." Her reward was a small role in Storytelling. But not every plan has gone so smoothly. The happy experience of playing Matt Damon's squeeze in The Bourne Identity was balanced by the dispiriting experience of having her character killed off in the first reel of the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy. Potente is indignant about the decision. "I'm in the movie for seven minutes and I had the lead in the first one. Of course I was fucking disappointed! Why would I lie?"

In Hollywood, she's learnt to make careful choices about the men with whom she has lunch. "There's a vast community of executives at studios who set up meetings with you not because they want to work with you but because they're bored out of their minds, and they want to tell people that they've had lunch with the girl from Run Lola Run," she says. "I'll only go if there's a proper reason. I don't want to provide free entertainment."

In February 2004, the legendary director Terrence Malick cast her opposite Benicio Del Toro in Che - a biopic of the Cuban revolutionary leader - assigning her the role of Guevara's fellow fighter, Tamara Bunke. They spent weeks engaged in preparation and research. "We would do things like sitting down and listening to Wagner for a day, and discussing our responses to it," she recalls. "Things that on first sight don't appear to have anything to do with the project, but he was building an ambience that helps you make the film."

Malick also introduced her to a former associate of Guevara and Bunke who lives in exile in California. The old man told her Bunke's extraordinary story - how she received an offer of marriage from the president of Bolivia; how she wrote to Guevara begging him to extricate her from the situation with an assassination; how she fled to the jungle where she stayed with the rebels until she was killed in an ambush.

"This guy's in his seventies. He has eyes like nobody I've ever seen before. You just look into them and think, if you want to start a revolution anywhere in the world, then I'll go with you. When he speaks about Che it's like he's speaking about Jesus. On the way out I asked him who in the world today is the political equivalent of Che Guevara. And he thought about it for a bit and said Nelson Mandela."

Then, half way through preproduction, Malick decided he didn't fancy it any more, and relinquished the picture to Steven Soderbergh. Potente still speaks of him adoringly, though. "He was a fatherly friend to me while I lived in Los Angeles. He is shy and sweet and well-mannered."

Potente might still one day see that unwieldy name next to Malick's, spelled out in lights on a Hollywood marquee. And if not, Christopher Smith could always have a quiet word with the producer of EastEnders.

'Creep' is released today

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