"You know, my grandfather was originally from Russia," the tall, distinguished-looking man said. "I think if he had just taken that extra step, and come to America, he could have been a Sam Krichinsky, instead of having his grandson playing him.
"Playing him was all right, though," he said after a pause.
The tall, distinguished-looking man is Armin Mueller-Stahl, and he's in the new movie "Avalon," which opened Friday to wonderful reviews that seem equally divided between him and the film itself. He picked up the kinds of notices that almost guarantee him consideration when Academy Award time comes around.
"Avalon" is the story of a family over three generations, how they try to stick together, how inevitably they must separate. It begins in 1914 in a section of Baltimore called Avalon, with five brothers who have immigrated here from Russia, who become paper hangers by day, musicians by night.
They take root, marry, have families, watch them grow, watch them move away. It's the story of how the world has changed, particularly since World War II, and how it has changed this family.
Mueller-Stahl, who has had a long career as an actor first in East Germany, later in West Berlin, is proud of the film for many reasons. "You know," he said, "many American actors could have played this role, but Barry Levinson [the screenwriter and director] wanted someone Americans wouldn't know.
"Unfortunately, today, there are lots and lots of writers, but less and less readers. Now is the time film takes over to explain things to the next generation."
Levinson saw Mueller-Stahl in "Amerika," the TV miniseries, and arranged to meet with him, first in Rome, then in New York.
"We had a long talk here, and I told him I was very interested in playing the role of Sam, but he didn't commit. So my wife and I went to the theater that night, to see 'Black and Blue,' then came back to the hotel.
"Soon the switchboard lady called. She had a message for me, but she couldn't find it. She called later. She found it. It was from Barry. She said, 'I don't understand it, but the message reads, "Let's do it!" '
" 'That's all right,' I told her," he said. "'I understand. And thank you very much!' And I was delighted!"
"Avalon" is Mueller-Stahl's second movie in the United States. His first was "The Music Box," in which he played Jessica Lange's father, accused of being a Nazi war criminal.
"But I've made over 100 movies in my life," the 60-year-old said, establishing credentials early on. "I've worked all over Europe, mostly in the East. I'm not proud of all the movies, but I made some very good films, if I say so myself."
Small pause. Small smile. "I make some very bad ones too. But I like working here, though," he said, his accent showing through. "I am lucky I am one of the few who has made films from Russia to Hollywood."
He was one of the best-known actors in East Germany, on stage, in films and on TV, but because few of these works ever climbed over the Berlin Wall, Americans know little of his work.
Then, in 1976, the East German government blacklisted him for signing a manifesto critical of it, and for his outspoken attempts to open the borders.
Banned from acting, he spent the next three years working on a book. "Because I had a stage, I could say things other people could not. One day obviously I went too far, and the government pushed me out. I was too popular to put in prison, but I couldn't work, either," he says simply.
He did not defect, he simply moved West. "They were happy to see me go," he says. He went to Berlin in 1980 and a whole new career opened.
"And now I am happy to be here. I still live in Germany, but this is the country of my film heroes. I remember after the war, when I could see films with people like Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. It was different, so wonderful."
Mueller-Stahl is a Berliner, and he was avidly following the events in Germany this past week. He was in New York early in the week to promote the movie, then was off to Baltimore, where the film is set, for its premiere.
"I was in Baltimore last year making this movie when the Berlin Wall came down," he said. "And I didn't even realize what happened! We were making this movie, and working like 16 hours every day. When I would get to the hotel, I would be so tired, just fall into bed.
"That night, I had the TV on but no sound, and I saw people on top of the Wall, people crying. I thought it was a film. The next day I read about it in the newspapers, so I knew it wasn't a film I saw, and it wasn't a dream I had."
He still hasn't lost his political views. His parting words were cautious. "I would hope very much that in the next decade, we find that Germany becomes a Germany in a strong Europe, not a strong Germany in Europe."