Interview Dennis Overeem / Actor-Writer
“Don’t get too self-absorbed. It’ll only make you miserable."
Dennis struggled to be accepted for most his life, and being bullied as a kid damaged his capacity to trust. However, this also created a rich vein to tap into as a writer later on. Dennis became well known as an actor for his role in Onderweg Naar Morgen, but that sort of fame never really fulfilled him. He found he’d rather help others achieve their goals. For the past three years he's been offering his home to refugees, a gesture that resulted in the Buddy Film Project, a collective of refugees and Dutch professionals collaborating on a feature comedy called Welcome.
Interview by Daphne van Langen Translation by Siji Jabbar
Photography by Jerome de Lint
What kind of household did you grow up in, and what were you like as a child? My dad worked in an abattoir, and later became one of Amsterdam's first metro drivers. My mum stayed home to look after me and my brother Marco. We lived in the eastern part of Amsterdam until I was eleven, whereupon we moved to Almere. I was horrified. I had no desire to live in what was a sterile half-built neighbourhood with no shopping centre or train station. For a long time, Almere just felt as a desert to me, nothing but sand everywhere.
I was a very quiet child who could be quite happily absorbed for hours on end if left to play with farm animals or toy cars. I conjured these imaginary worlds and was fascinated by aquariums, yet another miniature world. But I was also bullied a lot as a child, and called fat.
Were you? When I look at old, school pictures, I think, “Come on. I was just a solidly built kid.” But it went on for years, and carried on even after I switched to a different school. I wasn’t taught to stick up for myself at home, so I had to figure it out myself, which didn’t happen until my secondary school years. The toughest kid in class picked on me one day, and I got up and stared him straight in the eye without looking away. And that was the end of the bullying.
What lasting effect did this have on you? Nothing has caused me more pain than being bullied. It’s the source of my low self-esteem, and the reason I used to allow myself to be overlooked, or remain loyal to people who didn’t deserve it. I’m still hypersensitive to aggressive teenagers; I immediately freeze. Classic post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s given me a rich vein to tap into as a writer, but it also damaged my capacity to trust people, and my parent’s divorce really didn’t help.
“My mum was shocked, not because I was gay, but because she felt she ought to have deduced it herself if she hadn’t been so caught up in the break-up of her relationship.”
How old were you? I was sixteen when the family imploded. I think those two scars are the reason I find relationships difficult. The last time I lived with another man was in 1999, and that relationship left me disillusioned about love. But being a filmmaker allows me to create the kind of relationships I’d like to have. And writing about it while I stay out of the action is safer, for now.
You attended fashion school after secondary school. Why fashion? I wanted to do something unconventional, something out of the ordinary. But I realised on the very first day that I didn’t belong there. Enrolment had been an act of rebellion committed in an attempt to break away from the status quo. I dyed my hair and wore a cross necklace like Madonna, as if to say, “Hey, I’m different.”
Why didn’t you finish school? I turned into a nasty and unruly young man, and even began doing some of the things others had done to me: I became a bully. So I was expelled. My parents were going through their divorce at the time, which was also when I decided to come out of the closet.
How did your family respond to your coming out? My brother was the first one I told; he thought it was so cool: “A status symbol in the family!” My mum was shocked, not because I was gay, but because she felt she ought to have deduced it herself if she hadn’t been so caught up in the break-up of her relationship. My dad found it harder to accept. It confused him, and his incomprehension and inability to talk about it created a two-year silence between us. It was only when he started dating a woman who told him there was nothing wrong with being gay that we repaired the bond. My relationship with both parents is now pretty sound, and Louis, my mum’s new husband, became something of a father figure to me, as well as my sounding board.
The urge to create remained and you took up acting. How did that happen? I took acting classes at the Centre for Artistic Studies in Almere. I tried everything before settling on acting: one week of volleyball, half a year of judo, a month swimming. I sucked at almost everything but loved acting class. The drama tutor, Peter Huppes, has been a major influence in my life. He saw the potential I didn’t realise I had, and brought out the best me; it’s what I try to do now as a filmmaker. He also helped with the monologue I had to deliver for admission to drama school. He suggested I adapt a dialogue from Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, which was a pretty audacious thing to do. He taught me to swim against the current, which I still do. “Only dead fish go with the flow.” I almost peed my pants during the audition. But a sort of transformation occurred that allowed me to perform well enough to be admitted.
So why did you leave after the first year? I was insecure and imagined that others were much better at it than I was, so I sabotaged myself. I’d feign anxiety about performing a particular part or pretend I wasn’t feeling well, and in so doing slowly threw in the towel. Story of my life. But I’ve recently begun facing up to this self-destructive pattern by talking about it with friends.
And despite the pattern, you ended up in the TV series Onderweg naar Morgen. Indeed. I left drama school but carried on performing, first in a cabaret group and later at corporate outings, and ended up in a comedy revue. I put myself on the books at casting agencies and got some small roles in TV productions. That’s actually how I landed the role in Onderweg naar Morgen. I assumed it was a guest role, but ended up playing the part for almost three years.
“Being a familiar face from a soap opera made it difficult to get cast in anything other than really commercial fare. I remained “that doctor from that soap.”
What did you learn during those three years that remains relevant? Practical things. How to work with three cameras without blocking someone's light, but also how to memorise your lines quickly, how to get into character, and how to cry on command.
How did it feel to become a Dutch celebrity? It opened doors: clothing brands want you as their ambassador and you get invited to things, though I have deliberately avoided things like cutting ribbons and pulling pints. You’re also suddenly fair game for the paparazzi, who stake out your place armed with their long lenses, and complete strangers grabbing you for pictures. But being a familiar face from a soap opera made it difficult to get cast in anything other than really commercial fare. I remained “that doctor from that soap”.
How did you shed the stigma? While working at Kemna Casting. It started with office work and digitizing film stock, but I eventually began casting people myself, for smaller productions and commercials as I still took acting jobs. I cast Harry Piekema as the Albert Heijn man, for instance and ended up working as a casting director for ten years. I had a wonderful time, met loads of fun people, went to some great parties and saw hundreds of shows. It created my network of actors, directors and producers, and one thing led to another and I began writing and directing.
What was your first script? And how did writing it feed your knowledge, experience and development? My first writing-directing gig was Gooische Frieten, an online comedy series for RTL-XL, with three-minute episodes featuring two women running a snack bar. Then I created the Aandacht AUB [Consideration, please] campaign for the Dutch Cancer Society, which consisted of eight episodes dramatizing how healthcare professionals shouldn’t treat cancer patients.
The campaign lasted all of fifteen minutes on YouTube before it got taken down. People didn’t see the funny side of it, and took offense. I still stand by my scripts, and the experience made me realise I could write comedy. I also realised it takes a while for people to take autodidacts seriously.
You’re currently working on The Buddy Film Project, an initiative that connects refugee film professionals with their Dutch colleagues. How did you get the idea? It arose from a personal situation. When cancer claimed my stepfather, Louis, in 2013, I felt my safe haven vanish, and realised I had two choices: I could become a hermit, or I could do the opposite and open myself to the world. At about the same time, Katrien van Beurden, a friend and colleague, was looking for people to take in actors from Theatre Hotel Courage, an international theatre company that performed in war zones and refugee camps. So I chose not to become a hermit and threw open my doors. I cleared out my cellar, painted the walls, bought a second-hand bed, hung up some paintings and bought a bedside-table lamp.
I took a selfie with my lodger one day and posted it on social media, and I became associated with refugees. Dewi Reijs, an actress and colleague, approached me shortly afterwards to ask if I’d be interested in brainstorming on the subject of diversity, as the Dutch Film Festival wanted to do something around the theme. I was immediately enthused, and proposed a feature film whose entire crew, in front of and behind the camera — actors, focus pullers, lighting technicians, makeup artists, the lot — would consist of refugee filmmakers paired with their Dutch “buddies”. It was greenlit immediately, and The Buddy Film Project was born.
It’s set to be a comedy, with the title Welcome. Why comedy? That was deliberate, choosing to make it a comedy. We want to take people away from ISIS and all the problems of being a refugee. Some of the crew members have experienced truly tragic things and have some very sad stories, but they are much more than the familiar stories of refugees; they are quite simply talented people. You typically write a script and then cast the parts, but we’ve done it the other way round; the actors were the starting point. It’ll be a cinematic mosaic exploring the universal themes of love and family, and posing the question: "what do human beings want". A sort of Love Actually, with refugees.
“I need an outlet for my love. I realised I’d been too self-involved for too long, and it didn’t make me happy.”
What’s your role in the project? I seem to have become its public face as well as its helpdesk. I drove people to and from asylum centers, transfer funds and carry out tasks every day that have nothing whatsoever to do with making the actual movie. And yet I’m enjoying the role; I find I’m capable of taking charge and steering the wagon, so to speak. I’m also writing the script and I’m directing the film next year.
You’re crowdfunding this. Have you reached your target? We’ve hit the €50,000 pre-pre-production target. That’s for setting up the entire office. We’ve run acting workshops and had people recount their stories, as inspiration for the script. We also shot a fun promotional video with all of our colleagues from abroad and their Dutch buddies.
We’re organising a fundraiser to meet some of the remaining costs, and are hoping to make up the rest with help from the film funding body. We’ve already got a distributor, so all being well we’ll shoot in spring 2018 and premiere around Christmas.
You’ve managed to involve quite a few Dutch celebrities as buddies; Tygo Gernandt and Susan Visser, for instance. What qualities do you need to get something like this up and running, and which do you lack? You need determination, your heart has got to be in the right place, and you must love the business of filmmaking. These I have. But I find the business side of things difficult.
What would you like this project to say about you? That I’m a good filmmaker and that I have what it takes to tell a story. That I can make people laugh, and perhaps even get them to think about something they might not previously have considered. And that asylum isn’t about unfortunate people asking for help, but about human beings with talent.
You’re quite deeply involved with refugees. You’ve been inviting “strangers” into your home for almost three years now. What’s that been like? I need an outlet for my love. I realised I’d been too self-involved for too long, and it didn’t make me happy. Me, me, me does nothing to enrich your life. I'm like a little “dad” to some of the guys and girls in the house, and that feels good. In practical terms, we each do our own thing. I don’t have to eat with my guests every day, for instance, and I don’t adapt my life to the situation or accept money for sheltering anyone. But ultimately, there’s no such thing as pure altruism. I’m doing this for myself, too, not just for the refugees, because it makes me happy.
Do you remember your first lodger? Of course. That was the actor Saber Shreim, who had just finished playing a major role in a film by the Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad. He stayed for three months while working with Theatre Hotel Courage, and it was fantastic. He made hummus, smoked joints at coffeeshops, brought friends home. I’d sometimes come home or wake up to find a stranger asleep on my sofa, and I never knew who had keys to my house. “Coffee’s in the kitchen and smoking’s outside” became my standard greeting.
What advice would you give anyone aspiring to start a career in the film world? Don’t trust anyone; everyone’s an asshole. And start at the bottom. Get as much experience as you can. Keep learning under your own steam. Much of what you learn in this field is done by taking every opportunity to observe how others do things and by paying attention to what they say.
It’s never plain sailing. You have to really put in the effort in everything that you do. And show respect for anyone that works hard, whether they’re a greengrocer or a filmmaker.
You’ve taken the rather long and rocky road. What advice do you wish you’d been given earlier? Nothing to do with advice; it’s more about care and consideration for others. Children need to know they’re wanted, that they’re allowed to decide what they want, and that their choices will be respected. My parents gave me some of that, but not society. At least that’s how it felt.
Finally. How would you love your future to unfold? Creating something with a team is the most wonderful experience there is, so if I’m able to keep doing this till I’m ninety, the second half of my life will be just wonderful. It doesn’t matter if I’m still single at that point or in a relationship, or whether I live in a big house or a small one, have or don’t have a dog, I just hope it’s peaceful in my head and in my heart. Because, ultimately, appearance doesn’t matter; it’s how you feel inside that counts.