Interview: ‘The Strain’ co-star Richard Sammel on Nazis, vampires and how he’s like Jean-Claude Van Damme

For the past two months, viewers have been disturbed and unsettled by Richard Sammel's performance as Eichorst, the Nazi concentration camp guard turned vampire apocalypse facilitator, on FX's “The Strain.” 

Playing both the human (but inhuman) Nazi version of Eichorst and his steely, arrogant contemporary incarnation, Sammel has given very different monstrous shadings to his role.

That's why it's a bit funny to Skype up with the smiley, voluble Sammel and have him immediately cackle in pleasure at being able to identify my mogwai avatar from “Gremlins,”  before he very politely asks me to switch on my webcam so that we can see each other as we chat.

Sammel is in a good mood because it's the first sunny day in Paris for a while. Or maybe he just genuinely enjoys talking about his part in the FX vampire drama, which was recently renewed for a second season.

“I think basically bad guys in TV or movies, mostly blockbuster movies, they often are very much reduced to their dramatic function, doing bad things so that the hero can shine. But a bad guy becomes interesting when you can follow his motivations,” Sammel says.

When it comes to motivations, Sammel suggests that he has done nearly 100 movies and he's only worked in a Nazi context in 22 of them, a fact he accepts as “generational guilt.”

Sammel, who speaks more languages than you do better than you do (or more languages than I do better than I do), talks in long, articulate bursts, giving answers that sometimes range over 1000 words. Fortunately, they're thoughtful and often funny words and in our 30 minute conversation, I found that he was anticipating my follow-up questions with some frequency.

Honestly, I could have talked about the “generational guilt” idea and how it relates to a show about vampires for the full interview, but I also wanted to talk with Sammel about Eichorst's complicated makeup routine and getting to do stunt work in recent episodes.

Sunday (September 7) night's episode of “The Strain” is a big one for Sammel. Check out the full Q&A below. And be sure to read it in your head using Sammel/Eichorst's German accent…

HitFix: [Following pleasantries about the sun returning to Paris.] So is Paris your primary residence?

Richard Sammel: It's a primary residence. I have two – One is in Berlin and one is in Paris. It's not so bad, because Berlin actually rocks it. It's very popular, actually. And Paris one of the most beautiful cities in the world, so Europe-wise-speaking, I'm doing fine.

HitFix: And how long were you in Toronto for “The Strain”?

Richard Sammel: Oh, it's a five-month period, extended a little bit, so it comes close to six months, but this won't concern all those who work on a daily basis. We actors, even those who are the leads, we have little gaps in-between. I was lucky enough to have a one-month break in March so I could catch up with my family, my tribe. They know that's important too, because actually nobody of us… Natalie Brown is the only actress of the leads, she lives in Toronto. All the others come from New York, LA, elsewhere. Some are from Europe — The two English guys, David Bradley and Jonathan Hyde, and me from Germany. All the others are from the North American countries. So nobody's from Toronto, you know?

HitFix: And this was your first experience working extensively in American TV?

Richard Sammel: Oh yeah, it's my first American TV experience, not that I've not done TV. I've done little spots here and there and I've done American movies. But you know? It happens in TV now. The thrill is in TV now. TV, specifically through series, became such a high-end meeting point for all actors and creatives in the movie business. You see all those cinema people moving down. “Down,” I say? Moving sideways, I should say, to TV now, because that's the thrill now. That's the kick.

HitFix: Your character here, he has a much more central role in the show than in the books. Did that give you more freedom to interpret Eichorst?

Richard Sammel: Oh yes, of course! First of all, it was a very good invitation by Guillermo. I was very concerned about being offered a golden cage, staying in Toronto and doing nothing. My career is booming more and more and now it hits a little kind of peak and if I have any chance to rock it, international-wise, it's the next 10 years and then if you dedicate five or seven years — By my contract, it's seven years of availability — to one series, you'd better make sure that it's a hell of a series and it's worth it. So my point of interrogation with Guillermo, my exchange with him, was basically about, “What is this character? How important is he? What is he going to do? What are the potentials of his evolution?” And you can't take it for granted. The deal in a TV show is that we're all seeds and they wait until it blossoms and the good ones, they take care of them, and the bad ones they cut them off. That's basically how it works. So I was lucky enough that I have a strange figure to play which, dramatically speaking, is very important. But I still had to prove my work on it, you know? They have all the possibilities they want. They can cut the character down to a minimum and they can pop it up to whatever size they want. That's the nice thing about a TV series. 

It was a challenge. What got me into it was the intensity and the passion with which Guillermo talked about his world. He's a world inventor and Carlton Cuse is one of the best dialogists, contemporary dialogists, in TV series, so as a European actor being invited to such a thing, you can't reach higher than that.

HitFix: As you say, the character could have grown or diminished. When you saw Eichorst, what were the possibilities that interested you or concerned you about him? What were you able to bring to the table and what did you want to bring to the table?

Richard Sammel: As an actor, I've met a lot of actors who have three dreams: You dream of making a sci-fi, you dream of making a Western and you dream of making a vampire movie. So this is one of my life-dreams as an actor coming true, you know? And that's the thing. The kick is playing a vampire and not only a vampire, but a vampire who was still human. We have a time machine incorporated in this series with all the flashbacks. We can tell the story as we did already between Setrakian and Eichorst, but there are flashbacks possible with Palmer. There are flashbacks possible with The Ancients, the Master. You have a time machine going on. So basically this is a character who works as a human and then you can play a vampire and both are quite the opposite. And then you play the in-between gray tones and then it becomes really interesting. And he's a weird guy already as a human and becomes even weirder as a vampire. And then he's a power person. He's fundamentally perverted by greed, by power, by hubris. He invents or he follows big dictatorial ideologies in order to frame the existence of life. And life is chaotic, creative. You can't frame it. I'm in-between these big, big, big fights that actually happen, could happen, inside a human being — How good do I want do be? Or how bad am I able to become because of what I want to achieve? And he's a very final and extreme product of those reflections.

HitFix: Talk to me a bit about the differences between the vampire Eichorst we see in the present day and the Eichorst we meet in the camps, who is human, but very much inhuman as well. How are you finding the subtle differences between those versions of this guy?

Richard Sammel: Well, it was a challenge for me to base the vampire side on an extreme minimum of expression and movement, all what you can do to salt the soup, I tried to bring it out. And it's really the thing, less is more. This is always what I thought fits for Eichorst. Also, in order to bring something weird… You know, they're talking about the waxy skin, something weird about his behavior. When we talk now, we let our bodies just go. But if you would and you wouldn't give me every 10 seconds a kind of acknowledgement with your head, you would just stand still and just stare at me, it would become really weird for me, you know? And that's actually not so easy as it seems to be, because you're always tempted to give comments, body comments with a lot of tiny little things. And to eradicate them all, then you come to an interesting point where people think of you, you become weird. And then they, because they're afraid of you, they give you a power you actually do not have, but you create a power by reducing your expressions to a minimum. You become a big surprise. So that was my challenge with the vampire Eichorst. But I also studied it from the biological point of view, all that I could get from Guillermo about how these creatures function. They have bigger powers. They work in a different way. They have telepathic capabilities. All these things. You become more a kind of lizard or snake. You can actually find a lot of inspiration in nature, in animals. They behave differently. They just do. If you take a bird, they're always like [He mimics the staring expression of a bird]. Or you take a snake and they're like [He hisses and uses his tongue to sense things]. So that's the thing. 

And the other thing is that I could let me go completely to a very, very human behavior, humanizing him extremely, because I basically think that at the point we catch up with Eichorst as a human, even though he's a Nazi guy, he's a lost guy. He's actually exactly at the point of how Setrakian defines him. He followed a false messiah and he actually realizes it exactly in the moment we catch up with him, but still he's empowered by his function and the choices he made. He would not regret that he had become a Nazi. He's a convinced Nazi guy. But he regrets that the very master he has chosen is so weak and does not fulfill his promise. And then he has this chance to catch up with The Master and there the promise gets new energy, the promise of the thousand-year-old Reich. The promised Reich of a thousand years is basically what The Master offers. So there is a lot of passion, a lot of compassion, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of conviction. That's a guy who is eagerly convinced. He has very strong beliefs. That doesn't make him less human. 

I think basically bad guys in TV or movies, mostly blockbuster movies, they often are very much reduced to their dramatic function, doing bad things so that the hero can shine. But a bad guy becomes interesting when you can follow his motivations. It's like Anthony Hopkins in “Silence of the Lambs.” You understand this guy and then that's so horrifying. It's basically what happened with the Nazi guys. I've worked a lot in this period, because that's my story, my backpack I got when I was born. I'm guilty by… Generational Guilt, let's say. So I took care of it and what I was so disturbed with was the fact that they tried to explain the Nascism by the fact they're all sadists and brutal beasts, which is not the case! It was the most evolved, industrialized, philosophically, culturally advanced country in the world at that time, but the fact is that if all this culture and all this knowledge and all this intelligence does not prevent a human being from falling into a disastrous ideology? Even those guys were completely human. They were completely capable of taking care of their kids and their wives and then torturing… That's the weird thing, that's the unbelievable thing that we can't bear and which we can't explain. So that's where we have to dig in. 

That's why I basically worked on an ideal of friendship. This Young Setrakian, he's my friend, even though he's my pet-friend. That's the inconscience arrogance of Eichorst is he treats him like a pet. He's decided that this is a pet, but he treats him like if they were equal. The scenes where he tries to talk him into the fact that they're equal – “You work for the Reich. I work for the Reich. You had a choice. I had a choice. We both made choices and now we're in the same boat.” We're not at all! Objectively speaking. But that's what he's talking himself into. It's also a little bit of a father-son relationship. He might be the son I might have liked to have. Or he might be the first Jew he thinks is worth living because he's so nice and he's a nice artist? You find a lot of material for this relationship, to make layers. And then you combine it with his perversion. If you combine perversion with friendship and very basic, human good feelings, it becomes interesting for an actor.

[More on Generational Guilt, Eichorst's makeup and why he's The Jean Claude Van Damme of “The Strain” on Page 2…]

HitFix: I'm fascinated by the idea of this Generational Guilt, as you say. You've played a number of Nazi roles over the years. What is the responsibility and seriousness that come from putting on that costume, from wearing that uniform and being at the camps, as it were?

Richard Sammel: The fact is that not one single actor, German actor, who has made it over the borders and made his name outside Germany could prevent himself from playing a Nazi — Hardy Krüger, Gert Fröbe, Curd Jürgens — and now we have Thomas Kretschmann or we have Christophe Waltz, you have me. Nobody, nobody escapes from it. But the fact is that cinema was invented to take care of themes that bother us, that preoccupy or occupy our minds and the fact is that the Second World War was the most traumatizing event of the 20th Century, so it's obvious that cinema and TV takes care of this, because that's the biggest thing we have to swallow and to digest. So of course it's over, but it's a thing that occupies our minds and our spirits — How this could happen? There are a lot of stories to be told and a lot of lessons to be learned for it. So that's one thing.

So as a German actor, you take care of this part of history as you would as a Jewish actor in Tel Aviv, or as an American actor, look at how many movies you've done about the Second World War, because you engaged in the Second World War and a lot of soldiers died because of the intervention of the American Army the World War II was won by the good side. Imagine if America wouldn't have done it! And Hitler would have gone through with his idea! Where would we be now? So it's a burden and it's a chance. The burden is that you don't want to be — How you say? — just put into a small box and then when they need a Nazi guy, oh they think of you. And my pride is that I actually refused a lot more projects about the Nascism period than I accept. I'm not far away from 100 movies I've done and I made my count and about 22 were about the Nazi time. So it's not so much, but the fact is that those were the ones that had the biggest audience, because it's “Life is Beautiful,” it's “Inglourious Basterds,” it's now “The Strain,” we had some blockbusters here. I do a big French TV series, it's called “The Line,” and it's about the French occupation by Nazis and I play the bad guy. It's basically the same dramatic function as in “The Strain,” even though I'm not a vampire, I'm just the bad the guy investigating everybody, even German soldiers. As long as you are capable of focusing on the challenge and the opportunities that gives you the fact that you are a German and when there is a Nazi thing coming up and they think of you, if you make the good choices, it could be a nice step forward. 

Recently I had an interview with a French journalist who said, “Don't you have enough of playing all those Nazi guys?” And I answered, “How about you? Don't you have enough about seeing me as a Nazi?” And he answered, “Yes!” and I said, “Well that makes two, you and me. Let's hope that this group grows bigger and bigger.” In the meantime, carefully I choose what I do and specifically what I don't do. When I decide to do something, I bring all my heart and all my commitment to it, because if there's a lot to do, if there is a very big, nice challenge for me as an actor, I'm interested. It's not so much that fact that it must be, now perhaps a little bit more because I have a name, it must be a big part, but some years ago I said, “You know? I don't bother if it's a big part or not. What interests me is that it's challenging for me. It must be something that I've never done before.” So when I put on the Nazi uniform, I'd better get sure, before I commit to the character or to the role or sign the contract, that there is a big opportunity for me to do a thing I've never done before. 

This is guaranteed by Guillermo del Toro's vampire world. The Nazi thing is a flashback. It's not about Nascism. It's very contemporary. I like very much what Carlton Cuse said about it at Comic-Con. He considers it more a thriller with horror elements. That's also why I'm worried about all the fantastic stuff and sci-fi, or let's say the monster stuff, not becoming too overwhelming or too present, because then you have just a very clear similarity between “Walking Dead” and this or “World War Z.” There are a lot of zombies you have to kill and then boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom and that goes on for one, two, three, four, five, six, seven seasons. Not very interesting. What's interesting is there are a lot of different metaphors included. From point of view, I've said, I don't think that vampires are evil. From the vampire's point of view, we're not evil. We just do what we need to do to survive and to thrive. Look what you've done with the world in 2000 years. You have submitted the rest of the Earth to your needs. Cows only live to be eaten by you whenever it pleases you. Pets are here to be liked and hugged. And chickens, they do not even have an outside life. They're in cages! What if we turn the thing around and made this happen to you? That's a little bit what happens in “The Strain.” So metaphorically speaking, that's a strong thing. Put the mirror into human mankind's face. “Look what you're doing to the world! God! It's not good. It's not good at all. You're bloodsuckers. You suck the world.” That's of course just one layer. The fact is that there's also the clash of ideologies. I see a little bit of the old clash between Good and Bad. It's “Star Wars” or “Starship Troopers.” It's “Star Wars” on the ground… Each of us fights for his ideology.

HitFix: You talked about not letting the vampire or genre elements overwhelm, but you had that great introduction to the third episode where we see Eichorst applying the makeup in the mirror. When you were told about that scene, how did you approach what that said about Eichorst?

Richard Sammel: It basically says exactly what makes him different from all of the newly turned vampires. He's an old vampire. He's empowered. And he is one of the few chosen who can keep his human character. So he's not turned and sucked dry completely, been infected and then let the infection go on until it becomes a kind of creature completely submitted to The Master. He has his own mind. He keeps his personality. He's empowered by The Master, but he has a big strength. Talking about that scene, for me it's basically the proof of his hubris. He's very narcissistic. I think that might be what Setrakian understood. His hubris is his weak point. Once he's been challenged, he won't go away from it, even when he knows it's a trap. That's what happened in Episode 107. His makeup is not only to hide himself from the humans who are still in charge, but it's also… You know? He likes it! He likes nice clothes. Look at the apartment he has. He's in a wonderful five-star apartment. It looks very high-end. He has wonderful clothes of silk and wonderful suits and he likes seeing himself in the mirror as a human. Because humans are nice, much nicer looking than vampires. And also, I think if you would continue it, which you do not see and we haven't talked about it, but I even would bet that he doesn't s*** like all the other vampires when he eats. No. He wants a separate culture, for God's sake, take what is good from the humans. And culture and behavior and being able to control your instincts? He does not just drink when he has hunger. I think he chooses his food like you would choose a nice bottle of Bordeaux. “What Bordeaux would I like? Please, let's bring the Bordeaux bottles in and let's choose one of them.” And it says something about the worth of human culture. The best thing, I think, that we have created for this world is culture — books, philosophy, music, paintings, sculptures, whatever.

HitFix: In Episode 107, which you mentioned, we got to see a little bit of Eichorst in action. How much stuntwork did you get to do in the subway scene?

Richard Sammel: [Huge smile.] I'm very proud of that. They call me the Jean-Claude Van Damme of “The Strain” because I did all my stunts on my own. [He laughs.] That's what you do. It's my potential, so I train myself. I do not pump up my muscles, but I do a lot of yoga. I was a dancer before, so I'm used to a daily practice. It's also very nice that you can have close-ups. That doesn't mean that I canceled the stunts-work. I don't want him to lose his job. He's always there and he does some stuff too, but basically we double it. We have done a lot of stuff, we have done both. The fact is that he needs to hide his face and I do not. So that's a big advantage for me. But still, the stunts now become very important. We work second and first unit. First unit does the official schedule and second unit wipes up all what the first unit wasn't able to do in time. We have two units workings all the time and it possible that my stunt takes care of establishing shots or when you see me from the back, that I could not do because I'm on the other unit where you need to see my face. So it's actually a nice collaboration. But I'm taking care of doing my own stunts, the nice ones. Yeah, yeah.

“The Strain” airs Sunday nights on FX.