Having followed what has become a fairly well-trodden path from modelling into acting, Diane Kruger seems determined to ensure that her career is more diverse and challenging than that label might suggest. In this endeavor she is undoubtedly helped by being fluent in German, French and English, meaning she can pursue roles in all three languages, and critically, for her, be part of the French cinema that she loves: "…there's a poetry to it, for me it’s what makes me dream…the kind of movies that I could [watch and then] die and go to heaven."
Attending the Berlin Film Festival to promote her latest French-language film, festival opener "Farewell, My Queen" (review here), we were part of a small group of press who got to talk to Kruger during her quick visit. Kruger plays Marie Antoinette in the film, but here the interpretation of the French Queen is coloured by the suggestion of a passionate same-sex relationship with real-life friend and courtier Mme Gabrielle de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen). How far does Kruger believe that relationship went?
"I don’t know. I've got to be honest with you. I think it doesn't matter because she was certainly the favorite of the Queen. They met at a masked ball so Gabrielle didn't know she was meeting Marie Antoinette and I think they just connected on a level, whether or not you call it love or lesbian. I don't know if they were ever physical but…if you live in a world where you felt so isolated and alone, and you have a person, whether a woman or a man, who you think loves you for who you are rather then the Queen you are, then that is a very, very powerful relationship," she explained. "You know I think it's only because our notions of two women being that affectionate with each other has, in our world, a sexual connotation but I'm not sure that it was. It doesn't really matter. I think they are very close, I think Mary Antoinette felt very close to her. And that is documented."
A new twist on a familiar story or not, Kruger was well aware of the pitfalls of portraying a historical figure who has has so many previous onscreen iterations. "The perception of Marie Antoinette is already so established. That's the danger of playing a historical figure because people have an opinion about her and have already judged her… [from] movies that have been made about her," she said. "You can clearly see that [Sofia Coppola] was fascinated with Marie Antoinette and that she very much was of the opinion that she was unjustly done by. For this movie it was irrelevant what I thought about it. I wanted to connect to her on a human basis…I wanted her to be more complex than just the symbol of what people think Mary Antoinette is or was."
But if the actress hoped, in some way, to extract Marie Antoinette from her retrospective historical context, that's not to say she was unaware of the story's potential for contemporary resonance. "I think any revolution starts by the same problems, right? It's people in power that abuse that power and lock themselves in ivory towers and forget what the real people are going through and have no sense of reality, right? So the French revolution started like that and, and I think what's happening today started like that, and so it is very resonant."
The role presented her with some unique challenges, however, not least of which was the language. "Even though I speak French, I never learned French in school and this is 18th century French, which is only comparable to Shakespearean English. It took me sometimes two weeks to learn one scene and then, you know, learn it and then forget about it and actually be able to perform it." But far outweighing the challenges were the parallels between herself and the French Queen, which made her "a good cast for Marie Antoinette":
"She was from Austria, which then was Germany, [and I am German]. She arrived in France very young, just as I did — not knowing the language…I'm about the same age as Marie Antoinette. The movie takes place July 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th and I'm born July 15th and my mom's name is Marie Therese [also Marie Antoinette's mother's name]. So, I don't believe in fate, but it was kind of weird."
The doomed French queen, Helen of Troy, even the fictional glamourous movie star/spy Bridget von Donnersmarck in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," many of Kruger's higher-profile roles have been as women whose physical appearance is central to their story. But Kruger prickles slightly whenever the subject of beauty crops up.
"I think whoever is born with a pleasant face is lucky because most people respond to that favorably for a minute, but you learn very quickly that it is not enough…at least in my business it's all about emotion and being able to convey emotions." She went on to clarify, in response to a question about whether she felt in danger of being pigeonholed for her beauty, "I don't agree with that, that's what I’m saying. I don't think at the end of the day your physical aspects have anything to do with how well you’re going to do in this industry. Certainly it's Hollywood and if you look a certain way they might be more likely to audition you, but if you're not able to convey emotions or make a character come alive through your performance, you're not going to do well."
The subject is swiftly changed. Kruger recently went on safari in Kenya and while there, she had a close encounter with some wildlife. "I had a leopard in my shower, it was kind of cool but then it wasn't. I was so shocked. The showers are outside so I was completely undressed — it's not like if you're wearing a T-shirt it's not going to eat you — but I felt very vulnerable. And literally he was there, sitting in my shower…"
Right now, the actress is shooting "The Host" in Louisiana for director Andrew Niccol. Based on Stephenie "Twilight" Meyer's other mega-bestseller, Kruger plays an alien known as The Seeker, in what is clearly being pitched as a potential new blockbuster franchise. And with the as-yet-unwritten third book rumored to be titled "The Seeker," we can only imagine that if all goes to plan, Kruger will find herself a bigger star than ever in a few years' time. But as to whether this will spell the end of her involvement in smaller, arthouse or foreign films, Kruger is adamant:
"I would get bored if I just did one or the other [big films or small]. Because if you have no money you have to make decisions faster, you have to be prepared, but they're very satisfying creatively because you have to be so in touch with your emotions. The Hollywood thing is fun too because a lot of the characters are larger then life, there's a lot of fiction and [you get to] invent more, in a way — right now I'm playing an alien. I would never make a movie in Europe about that. I feel like European cinema tends to be more reality-driven and you have to bring more personally, maybe, to a part."
Indeed, her list of directors she'd most like to work with spans the Atlantic, topped by "my favorite director, Jacques Audiard in France and then in America I'd say Darren Aronofsky." When asked if she'd be willing to commit to the level of intensity Aronofsky famously demands from his actresses, she shrugs, "Hey, listen I lived in an asylum for six weeks on my first movie."
For now, though, it's all about Marie Antoinette, and we identified Kruger's performance as one of the film's highlights. She may not be the central character, but her lesser screen time belies the impact of her arc. "I think that the script was beautifully crafted. The first scene you see her as most people would assume she was, you know, very aloof, frivolous, doesn't have a care in the world, worrying about her dresses. But then you also see her very vulnerable and very real and then you see her become the Queen at the end of the day. She's quite extreme. She's a little borderline. I think she was a little crazy at the end, you know?"