A lot of kids grow up with dreams of starring in big glitzy Hollywood action films. Matthias Schweighöfer actually did it.

Born in Anklam, East Germany, Schweighöfer “was eight when the Wall came down,” he tells me from his home in Berlin. “It was a very special time. Everything was very gray, and suddenly there was color.” With that came Western cinema. “All these great American films and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” Schweighöfer says in his German accent. “I just fell in love with American culture.”

Schweighöfer in Army of Thieves.

His parents are both successful theater actors in Germany, and as a result Schweighöfer grew up finishing his schoolwork during rehearsals and in dressing-room corners. Where other parents might push their children to study law or medicine, Schweighöfer’s considered acting to be the only sensible profession.

“My whole experience with my family was always theater. There was no other perspective, nothing else,” Schweighöfer says, before adding, “O.K.—there was a time I wanted to be Michael Jordan. But no chance…. It was always acting and directing.”

Schweighöfer joined his high-school drama club and then spent one year at Berlin’s top acting school, Ernest Busch Academy of Dramatic Arts, before dropping out to pursue parts in major German films.

Then, in 2008, he was cast in his first English-language project, Bryan Singer’s World War II epic, Valkyrie, which dramatized the failed 1944 assassination plot against Adolf Hitler and gave Schweighöfer the opportunity to act alongside Tom Cruise and Kenneth Branagh.

In 2017, Schweighöfer was tapped to direct, produce, and star in You Are Wanted, the first German-language Amazon Original series. And last year he produced and starred in Resistance, about the mime artist Marcel Marceau—who has been credited with saving hundreds of Jewish children during the Holocaust—opposite Jesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, and Edgar Ramírez. Now Schweighöfer, 40, runs his own production company in Berlin.

Schweighöfer in Resistance.

This fall, Schweighöfer directs, produces, and stars in Army of Thieves, a feel-good thriller prequel to Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead. The film has reached No. 1 on Netflix in more than 90 countries since its release late last month.

But his biggest moment is perhaps yet to come. “Four years ago I received an award in Germany,” Schweighöfer says. “I was so happy and so proud. And then, like 20 minutes later, these two sisters came onstage to receive an award for bravery.”

The girls were Yusra and Sarah Mardini, who nearly drowned fleeing war-torn Syria before going on to swim in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “I was like, O.K., wow, that’s a story. That’s real.”

Not long ago, Schweighöfer got a call asking if he wanted to play the girls’ coach in an upcoming film. Naturally, he was in.

Army of Thieves is available now on Netflix

Bridget Arsenault is the London Editor for Air Mail