From Phoenix to Tár, Nina Hoss Never Misses Anything

oh, Nina Hoss‘s eyes—there’s always a whole movie in them. They ask questions, cast suspicions, fall in love, spill secrets. They first came to prominence in her native Germany, particularly in the films of Christian Petzold, for which Hoss has served as his ever-complex muse. In 2014’s phoenixshe played a concentration-camp survivor shielding her identity from the man who turned her in, until a corker of a last scene—a feat of performance calibration that the Washington Post called “breathtaking.” (She won several US critics awards for best actress, including from Toronto and Seattle, for the film.)

She takes audiences on a similar ride in Todd Field‘s masterful tar, right down to another delicious closer. The difference this time? Finally, Americans are meeting Hoss’s gaze. She’s been working in English-language projects for over a decade now, but it’s taken until now for a stateside director to realize her singular, mesmerizing quality of her on camera. Hoss plays Sharon, enigmatic wife to Cate Blanchett‘s renowned conductor, Lydia, in tar. They share both domestic and professional lives: Sharon is First Violin in Lydia’s Berlin orchestra, a woman of her own musical ambition and obsession. Their very livelihoods are tied up in one another—a fact that turns dangerous as the film teases Lydia’s downfall.

Lydia, we learn, has wielded her power to troublesome ends, the allegations of grooming younger female musicians surface against her. How much does Sharon know? How much does she care? How will she step in when the reckoning finally comes? These questions loom in the background, unspoken, but prove utterly central to the film via Hoss’s every expression. The camera can’t stay away from her eyes. They propell the narrative, subtly, and mark a major moment for a major actor in the process.

Hoss was in Telluride for the first time this year, joining Blanchett and Field for the film’s US premiere. She mingled with fellow actors and filmmakers and fest-goers as we met, at an outdoor brunch thrown by the film’s studio, Focus Features. We snuck away to a table for an in-depth conversation on her exceptional career—and this thrilling next chapter.

Cate Blanchett and Nina Hoss at the Telluride Film Festival.

Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

Vanity Fair: Your performance is very slippery and quiet, until your big final scene. But there’s very rich characterization throughout, just in us watching you.

Nina Hoss: You just hope, when you don’t have so many lines to express it—when you’re shooting it, you never know: Will this gaze be there in the end?

Were you surprised at how much Todd leaned into Sharon’s gaze? Because she really is kind of an audience proxy, in the final cut.

Yeah. I was happy, because it creates this character. That character has her own life for her. It was just an amazing project to work on, especially also with Cate, of course, who gave it all this intensity that I have to position myself [opposite], because Lydia leads the whole thing. There are less women in the position of First Violin than there are female conductors. That is the position orchestras don’t like to give to females yet. So that Sharon has this position in the greatest orchestra of the world means a lot and must have been so hard for her to achieve, and to keep that position, you are not done. Everyone in the string section has an eye on your position.You have to prove yourself again and again and again to stay there. That to me was also so informative, who Sharon is, in the juxtaposition to Lydia. That’s where they meet, I think, in this passion for music.

Todd Field has said you challenged him to some degree on Sharon’s role in the story, particularly one scene—I assume it’s that final confrontation?

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