After her much-lauded portrayal of Sonia Gandhi in The Accidental Prime Minister, a look at Suzanne Bernert cinematic progress.
German-born Suzanne Bernert always wanted to be an actor. Daughter of a now retired Customs Officer, Bernert’s childhood was spent moving in and around Germany before the family finally settled near the border of Austria and Switzerland. “It was a gorgeous, beautiful, wonderful place but with no scope for acting,” she says.
While her mother had been an amateur theatre artist, except for participating in school plays and occasional ballet lessons, there was hardly any formal training available until Bernert turned 16. “Nowadays kids, who want to take up acting, have various options at hand—be it in Germany or here in India. They have so many activities from which they can easily choose but back then it wasn’t so common. I remember that my mother used to drive me two times a week for my ballet lessons to a place which was 30-40 km away from where we lived,” remembers Bernert.
She acted in several films and television serials in India over the last decade, the most recent being Vijay Gutte’s controversial screen adaptation of Sanjaya Baru’s The Accidental Prime Minister where she played the role of the former Congress president Sonia Gandhi. After her initial years of acting in school plays, Bernert was trained by the noted German actress Heidelotte Diehl in Berlin for three years.
She subsequently did an acting course under American producer and acting coach Susan Batson who is known for mentoring leading international actresses like Nicole Kidman and Juliette Binoche. “In 2004, while doing theatre in Germany, I was holidaying in Dubai when I saw a casting notice looking for the role of a lead Indian girl’s best friend. So, I called up the guy and we met. Things got finalised with me ending up as the film’s lead. But unfortunately, it didn’t come out. It was to be called Destined Hearts and the trailer is still available online on YouTube.”
Bernert subsequently got an invitation from Ajay Sinha to do a small character in a movie called Stop! which also starred Om Puri. “The producer was launching his son through that movie and so they took all these actors around him. Ajay then invited me to come and visit India. In those days he had a television show running called Astitva…Ek Prem Kahani starring Niki Aneja Walia and Varun Badola. Then I went back to Germany and about six weeks later, he called me regarding a role he had for me in Astitiva and that’s how my acting journey in India started,” she explains.
Bernert was encouraged by Alyque Padamsee to pursue theatre in India. Interestingly, it was while doing theatre in India that she met her future husband Akhil Mishra, a veteran film and television actor who is perhaps best known for his cameo as the librarian in Rajkumar Hirani’s 3 Idiots. After Astitva, Bernert landed roles in TV serials like Aisa Des Hai Mera and Kasauti Zindagi Kay before getting signed for Reema Kagti’s Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd.
As an actor, she isn’t limited by language. “I can speak German, English and Hindi. I also studied French, Italian and Spanish, out of which my French is pretty good as I have done auditions in that language. I can act even in Bengali and Marathi films if the script demands. Also, I can understand Marathi,” says Bernert, who acted alongside Konkona Sen Sharma in Aparna Sen’s 2011 Bengali film Iti Mrinalini.
Her preparation varies according to the role and the director’s approach. “I love being a director’s actor. I don’t question the director unless I have something that I absolutely can’t do. If a director likes to talk, I do that. Of course, with television, you are usually on your own and so I try to read up on the characters in order to understand the interiorities.”
“My teacher once told that like Julia Roberts and Kate Winslet, I like to feel my characters from the inside, as opposed to the actors who need a lot of external inputs. I think every actor has their own method and they need to go by that method,” explains Bernert, who played Queen Helena in the popular TV series Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat.
“As an actor, you can’t be completely out of control. You have to switch on and off. I think we all have grown from the early days of method acting. We started with the Lee Strasberg method, then there is Susan Batson and more new methods are always coming in. Every actor needs some method to begin with and then later you make your own one,” she adds.
Her portrayal of Sonia Gandhi in The Accidental Prime Minister brought her a lot of media attention, both positive as well as negative. But she is unfazed by the negativity surrounding the film. “As an actor, my only priority was that I wanted to do justice to the character. I just wanted to make sure that I look, sound and act like the person I was playing so that there is consistency and conviction in my portrayal. Beyond that there is not much in your control.” Bernert adds that she’s suddenly found herself inundated by acting offers.
This piece was first published in Patriot.