Portugese for beginners

Her characters are as deutsch as it gets, but TV actress Cristina do Rego hasn’t forgotten her roots.

Image for Portugese for beginners

Photo by Nico Stank

Her characters are as deutsch as it gets, but TV actress Cristina do Rego hasn’t forgotten her roots.

On first impression, the only thing Brazilian about Cristina do Rego is her name. The 31-year-old has made a career out of playing very German characters in very German productions: Katharina Kuhn in Berlin sitcom Türkisch für Anfänger; comedian Bastian Pastewka’s niece Kimberley-Jolante in the long-running Pastewka; not one but three made-for-TV movies with Schnitzel in the title. “When I was 15, my first agent told me I should consider changing my name because I wouldn’t get offered German parts otherwise,” says Do Rego. “But after a few years, people knew who I was.”

It’s hard to believe that not that long ago, Do Rego was fresh off the plane from Brazil, a seven-year-old with a hip-swaying gait that her classmates made fun of and, despite all the efforts of her German mother, no knowledge of the language besides the word “grün”. Born in Ancieta, she recalls a “happy, colourful” childhood spent in the country’s northeast. “My father’s a Brazilian theatre actor, we always had actors and singers around… Our house was full of life.” But spurred by their desire to provide their two daughters with a better education, her parents moved the family to the Ruhrgebiet, uprooting Do Rego’s life. “It was January, I had to go from walking around barefoot to wearing shoes that were so heavy I couldn’t lift my feet…” she recalls. “When you look at my childhood pictures, you can see my facial expression change the moment we arrive in Germany – from a very carefree child to a serious one.”

She’d adjust soon enough, as school productions and an appearance on the kids’ talent competition The Mini Playback Show ignited her love of acting. But that frown was good practice for the grouchy Kim Pastewka, Do Rego’s first big break at age 17. For the first five seasons of Pastewka, in addition to having a permanent schlechte Laune, she had to wear a fatsuit and acne makeup. “Honestly, I always thought the fatsuit was a good thing for me as an actress – it was nice to play someone else, something far away from me,” she reflects. “Also, I could go out in public without it and nobody recognised me.”

These days, Do Rego can’t take the U-Bahn in Cologne (where she still does most of her shooting) without getting approached. In Berlin, where she’s lived for the past 10 years, “people might look at you, but they don’t come up and speak to you.” Aside from the occasional selfie request from teenage Türkisch für Anfänger fans when she’s out walking her dog Milo around Friedrichshain, she’s mostly undisturbed.

“Brazilians are used to being received with open arms, which isn’t exactly the German way of behaving!”

When she has time, she goes to the occasional Brazilian concert or cultural event. “And I get books and food at A Livraria – it’s nice that there’s a place where I can feel connected to Brazil.” She’s friends with some Brazilian expats here, and recalls that “it was a bit weird” introducing them to her German clique. “Brazilians are used to being received with open arms, which isn’t exactly the German way of behaving! When I’m in Brazil, I see everyone hugging and touching each other all the time – I’m not used to it, either.” She spends a month or two in her home country each year, visiting her father (who moved back after her parents divorced in her teens) and extended family, including “like 500 cousins”. What does Do Rego’s Brazilian family think about her German career? “Well, they don’t understand anything, but they’re impressed that I’m on TV! And they all want me to have a career there.” But it wouldn’t be that simple, she says. “If someone asked me to do a project in Brazil I’d be the happiest girl on earth, but I wouldn’t want to go through the audition process over there. I feel more insecure when I’m acting in Portuguese – I just don’t have the same sense of comic timing.”

She’s played one Portuguese-speaking character in Germany: Filipa, a veterinarian on the ZDF series Frühling. But after a few episodes subtitling her lines, the network decided Filipa should learn German. “The audience for that kind of series is a bit older…” Do Rego says diplomatically. “So now I’m going to be speaking in German with an accent I invented. I heard my dad talk with a Portuguese accent while he was living here, so I tried to talk like him… I don’t know if I did it right.”