Jeff Wilbusch first came to notice in the BBC-AMC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl, opposite Florence Pugh and Alexander Skarsgard. Speaking five languages including German, Wilbusch then landed a lead role in the German drama Unorthodox from Netflix to rave reviews. It was only a matter of time until television titans David E. Kelley and Barry Levinson tapped into this raw talent and cast Wilbusch as the lead of their new crime-drama series The Calling on Peacock.
Wilbusch sat with LEO to discuss the show, his upbringing and what it’s like to be the oldest of 14 siblings.
Tell us a little bit about The Calling.
The Calling is an investigative drama that follows the story of Detective Avraham who I play, that has such deep empathy for the world that it makes him an unusual detective because he feels so much and is so emotionally invested in his cases. And that leads him to solve the most inhumane crimes but it’s also what can cause him to suffer because he feels so much.
I got a mild vibe of potential psychic abilities from him, or was I misreading that?
I think it’s open to interpretation. Avraham is a mystery also to himself and I think that that is something to be detected. It’s an interesting story and some things are just open for interpretation.
Do you personally believe in psychic abilities?
Me as Jeff? I don’t think I believe in psychic abilities. Many of my friends will beg to differ but I don’t. But I do believe in the power of art and the power of storytelling. The power of empathy.
The show comes from David E. Kelley. Barry Levinson directed the first two episodes and acted as executive producer, and Hans Zimmer wrote the music. Those are some heavy hitters! What was it like working with them?
What do you think? [Chuckles] It was unbelievable. My team told me there was a role that they wanted me to read for. The creators knew my work and loved my work, but they thought I’m way too young for it. When I read the pilot from David E. Kelley, I knew I needed to get this role. It’s so rare – actually never [happens], when you just read something and you know how to play it. You know you have to play this part.
Had they seen you in The Little Drummer Girl or any of those films?
Were you already a fan of John le Carré before you got that script or did you become a fan of his after working on Little Drummer Girl?
I heard about him for sure and I also had the pleasure to [meet him]. He played a role in the show. I actually just looked for his signed book that he gave all the cast, but I can’t find it. It makes me very sad because he passed away, unfortunately. Look, I don’t know what I did good in the world to… [Pause] I decided very late to be an actor. I didn’t know you can be an actor before. I studied economics, and Little Drummer Girl was one of my first roles ever, and was not that long ago, just about four years ago. And to just jump in with such people like John le Carré, and Park Chan-Wook directing, and Florence Pugh, Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgård! It’s very… Sometimes dreams come true for sure.
What made you discover acting?
I never knew you can become an actor. I thought it’s like being aristocratic. You either are born into that or you’re not. And in my surroundings, I had talented people, but they never called it art. It’s not something that you become – an artist. It’s not even something looked down on, it’s just not even in the vocabulary. And I really didn’t know there were things like acting school. And for me, education was very important. I was very curious. I wanted to know everything. So, I studied economics in Holland. And after I finished my masters, I played music. And the father of my ex-girlfriend asked if I wanna put my music to his choreography on stage. He was a choreographer. And this was the first time I was engaged with artists that work as artists and called themselves artists. And then I had this idea to try a monologue. And when I came to the acting school to audition with the monologues, it was like I found something that I looked for all my life and never knew that I wanted. Suddenly everything made sense. Also, in hindsight, all my experiences just brought me to this moment.
You grew up in Israel, but you went to college in Amsterdam and then you moved to Munich. Did you speak German? Is German in your family beforehand?
No, it’s after. I speak Yiddish and I speak Dutch, and I have a German passport through my grandma, but I never spoke high German. But because of my speaking some Yiddish and some Dutch, I could pick up the German language very fast. And English I started when I was 14.
What made you decide to go to Holland and Germany to study?
My great grandparents come from Holland and some of them were also killed in the Holocaust. And I think my mother was born in Holland and I think I wanted to explore Holland and it was a good university.
And now you’re in a German independent film that’s coming out in the fall that’s getting quite a lot of buzz, Schächten. Can you tell us anything about that film?
Schächten is a strong story inspired by true events of somebody who comes home and sees that the Nazis who killed his family are still out there. Some of the names are still the same names, and there are many stories like that, but people don’t know them. And I think it’s a very important story to tell. And I think it was a very important work to do, and for me, it was the first lead role ever.
Do you have any interest in doing other aspects of film work outside of acting?
I definitely see myself doing other things and I definitely want to direct and produce, but I’m so psyched about being an actor right now that those dreams will come true. But I have so much to explore as an actor first. I love being an actor. I do have plans in the future. But, they can wait for now.
You’re the eldest of 14 siblings, is that correct? That sounds like a lot of people in the house. How was that for you? Was it great or did it drive you crazy?
Great. It’s very great. My siblings are the most important things for me in the whole world and they’re my inspiration for so many things and they’re the better versions of me.
Outside of family, do you have any role models? And if so, who?
When I worked with people like Barry Levinson or people like Park Chan-wook or people like Florence Pugh, Karen Robinson, Michael Mosley and Juliana Canfield. When I see people that are so talented and have this integrity in them, this genuine respect for other people and sensitivity for the world, that inspires me and it makes me challenge myself to be like that as well. Oh – and also Janusz Kaminski, who I worked with in Oslo. He’s a good, good friend and he’s a role model, and a great man.
CHECK OUT JEFF
As NYPD Detective Avraham Avraham in David E. Kelley’s The Calling