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Stephen Fry on Playing Holocaust Survivor in Lena Dunham’s ‘Treasure’

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Stephen Fry has been described as a “quintessential Englishman” and, thanks to his Cambridge University degree and roles in films such as “Gosford Park” and “Wilde,” he’s got a resumé to prove it. But it turns out his latest role, as Polish Holocaust survivor Edek in the upcoming feature “Treasure,” is closer to home. Premiering at the Berlin Film Festival this month, “Treasure” sees Fry star opposite Lena Dunham (who also executive produced the project) as a father-daughter duo who return to Poland to confront their family’s tragic past.

Despite the heavy subject matter — the Julia von Heinz-directed feature shot on location in Germany and Poland, including Auschwitz — there’s comedy too. As well as speaking Polish throughout the movie (a language Fry is not fluent in) he even sings karaoke in it. Fry spent last winter taking Polish lessons on Skype in between shooting Season 3 of “The Morning Show,” in which he currently guest stars. “I did quite a bit of practice,” he tells Variety. “I wanted to try and do it for real.”

How did you get involved in this project?

I was sent a script. I’m not going to say I get sent the same number of scripts that tumble into Barry Keoghan or Timothee Chalomet’s letterboxes but I do get a fair number and most of them are disappointing in some ways. This was remarkable. I thought it was so moving and touching. Also I have to confess there was a personal element; a Jewish man of that generation who had survived the camps rang a lot of bells in my own family story. Plus I loved that Lena Dunham was involved as the EP and star. I so admire what she did with “Girls” and I think she’s such a talent. The idea of working with her was really thrilling.

What was the most challenging part of the shoot?

No question: going to Auschwitz. Nothing can quite prepare you for that experience. I’ve never been before. We couldn’t film the scenes within Auschwitz, you’re not allowed to do that, but we were able to be outside it. It happened to be a beautiful morning, quite frosty, so you could see [the barracks]. Standing on the railway there, knowing that the trains that came in [were transporting people to their deaths] — it’s a very, very extraordinary experience. We had a day before filming to — I don’t know what the word is — “acclimatize” ourselves to the fact we were at that place.

You and Lena play a father and daughter. What was it like working with her?

Absolutely wonderful. She’s the sweetest and most wonderful company. What makes a happy shoot is when you trust the director, when the director knows what they want. This was a wonderful feeling that we were a team all working together. Julia actually suffered from COVID at some point when we were filming and directed us from outside the location. But it was a very happy shoot, there were no disasters.

There’s one scene where there’s a fire alarm at the hotel and you have to run out in a flimsy dressing gown. Given it was February in Eastern Europe, how cold was it to shoot?

Very! And I wish that trays of vodka that were taken around by the hotel manager [in the scene] were real vodka to warm me up inside. It’s the snow at night that make you feel you’re earning your money. But honestly, it wasn’t that bad.

This will be your first time at the Berlinale. How are you feeling about it?

I’m looking forward to it very much. I know it is very important festival for this kind of film and I hope people like it. It’s not in competition so we don’t have to sweat about how it does in that sense. You just hope that the people respond to it in a positive way and get something out of it.

Things you didn’t know about Stephen Fry…

His first acting job was as an extra on “Chariots of Fire” when he was a student at Cambridge University in England.

He once randomly found himself in an elevator with Clint Eastwood in Edinburgh, Scotland where they exchanged compliments.

He first fell in love with Oscar Wilde when he caught Anthony Asquith’s 1952 film adaptation of “The Importance of Being Earnest” on TV as a young boy. Fry went on to play the writer in “Wilde.”

He was first introduced to “House” star Hugh Laurie at Cambridge University by Emma Thompson. Laurie was playing a guitar in his dorm room and they immediately began writing a song together. The duo later formed a comedy act called Fry & Laurie.

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