“How are you not a big damn star?” This was the question I most itching to ask German actress Diane Kruger when we sat down to discuss her curious career and her latest lauded film, Alice Winocour’s surreal thriller “Disorder.”
A striking beauty with regal cheekbones, the tri-lingual Kruger has been awing audiences for years, thanks to turns in French prestige pictures like Benoît Jacquot’s “Farewell, My Queen” and bold American movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” Yet somehow, Kruger’s path has not led her to A-list status. Retracing her steps from ballerina to model to internationally acclaimed thespian, we explored the whys and why bother of it all.
Kruger’s earliest artistic ambition was ballet, which she studied at the Royal Academy in London. “I didn’t know it then,” she told IndieWire, “But now looking back, I was a very angry kid. I had a lot of (anger), because things at home were tough. Unconsciously, dancing and performing was a way of getting those emotions out. And then you’re being rewarded for that by being on stage.”
“You Should Be a Model!”
A broken knee shattered her prima ballerina dreams at 13. “When that ended,” Kruger recounted. “I was really lost for a long time. Somebody saw me dancing and said, ‘You should be a model!'”
Coming from “a village of 2,000 people” and being only 5’7″, a career in modeling had never occurred to her. But the daring teen gave a “funny modeling contest” a shot, and was flown to Paris, where this fashion fantasy became reality. Landing big gigs with brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Chanel and Giorgio Armani broadened her horizons. As Kruger remembered, “I got to travel the world, and also (was) taken seriously as an adult in a way. I was 15, but you’re expected to be an adult. You can’t kid around. So it was educational about the world, about your power over men, your self-worth. It was a great time in my life.”
Despite the glamor and success, Kruger grew restless. “I get really bored with the posing, because I didn’t find it creatively all that challenging,” she said. “I started meeting people in Paris who were actors, and they were like, ‘Well, just go to drama school.’ I didn’t even know you could do that.”
Leaping Into Hollywood
Just two years after making her film debut in the 2002 French thriller “The Piano Player,” Kruger was cast as the legendary beauty Helen in the Hollywood swords-and-sandals epic “Troy,” an experience she described as “totally intimidating” and “completely overwhelming.” Though that particular tentpole tanked, Kruger thrived, co-starring in “National Treasure” and its sequel “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” opposite Nicolas Cage, who she remembers fondly as “so crazy in the best possible way.”
But her growing Hollywood cred didn’t help her score the role of movie star/spy Bridget von Hammersmark in “Inglorious Basterds.”
Tarantino was dedicated to “cast people who were from the countries their characters were from,” so the German actress flew to Berlin to audition and show off her passport. “It was hard to get the job,” she confessed. “But then once you get it you can only thrive because he chose you. He 100% believes you’re the person for this.”
Kruger and Tarantino hit it off, and their creative collaboration culminated in the film’s most eye-popping scene and mythic behind-the-scenes story. When the vicious Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) strangles poor Bridget to death, it was Tarantino — not Waltz — whose hands clutched Kruger’s throat in the disturbing close-up.
Looking back on that production day, Kruger remembered, “It was great and really sad. I think we had such a love affair — as a director and an actor. We got along so well. And I didn’t want it to end, and I could tell that he didn’t want it to end. It was the last day. And he kept shooting more stuff. They kept adding more days. I think he was really dreading that day. And so was I. It was really sad.”
Tarantino didn’t make the call to sub in for Waltz until that day. “It was kind of great that he came in, and it was going to be him,” she said. “It’s a mind fuck in a way, having your director ‘kill’ you. That was really strange, but also great. We remain really good friends. And I love him. It was like the perfect ending to a perfect movie.”
Strong Women Characters
Stars like John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson and Waltz have been (re)launched by the Tarantino movies like “Pulp Fiction” and “Basterds.” Despite the eccentric auteur’s long line of complex female characters, no actresses have enjoyed a similar meteoric rise in Hollywood’s stratosphere from the Tarantino bump. Asked why that might be, Kruger shrugged, “Maybe because they don’t write strong women characters (in Hollywood). I mean, how many? You can count them on one hand.”
Do women face more obstacles to stardom than men? “100%,” she said. “We don’t have half the opportunities. And also, they don’t groom you like they’ll groom big male movie stars. We (women) don’t get fifty chances. A guy that Hollywood has just decided is the next Tom Cruise, he’ll get five big tentpole movies. They’re going to make him a movie star. That just doesn’t happen with women.”
Even when an actress lands a Hollywood role, there are other issues to face.
“I find it mind-gobbling,” Kruger said with a shake of her head. “I have had this conversation with certain directors or certain studios about developing a character that has more nuance. Not everybody is open to it. The studios are often not open to it. I think there’s most variety and diversity in television. But for women in movies, it’s heartbreaking sometimes. They don’t want you to get loud, because that’s offensive. There’s just so many stereotypes. It’s terrible.”
“I don’t find myself represented in studio movies often,” Kruger said. “Every once in a while, there’s a studio movie that I want to see. Not that I don’t enjoy a big blockbuster. I went to see ‘Jason Bourne.’ But I just don’t find myself emotionally invested in those movies. You go to check out of reality. I see the fanboys, and all the Marvel movies. And that’s fun, but I really want to feel something.”
“I guess I crave extreme feelings,” she said of her attraction to acting. “I’m looking for an emotion. I think I want to be an actor because I like to really feel things in an extreme fashion.”
“A Real Auteur”
It was such a “feeling” that drew Kruger to Alice Winocour’s “Disorder,” which won praise out of its Cannes Film Festival premiere for its arthouse approach to the home invasion thriller.
“I loved Alice’s first film,” Kruger said. “I think she’s a real auteur. I think she’s able to convey an emotion or a situation without many words. Her camera is very precise. I can sense a real director.”
The added bonus of a juicy part and a thoughtful co-star were also alluring. “I wanted to work with Matthias (Schoenaerts),” she said. “There’s just something about this movie and her being a woman directing this kind of genre, I don’t know that I would have felt as comfortable playing this trophy wife if it was a man. I think it would have been more on the outside. I think even in the beginning of this film, where you only see her at a distance, you can tell there’s more (to her).”
Asked if there’s a difference between working with male and female helmers, she said, “I find women very tough as directors. I’ve done at least five films with female directors. All of them have been very challenging. They’re much more involved in bringing out nuance. They’re very real. They don’t like when I’m too done up. But I feel very understood and really safe with them. I feel like I can’t get away with anything. There’s no way of charming them, you know? ”
Part of the nuance in “Disorder” comes the “weird moments” that Winocour added during production, like one where Kruger’s trophy wife, draped in an elegant backless dress, bends down to feed the family dog. “She’s a quirky filmmaker who I think has great ideas about how to go against type.”
And that includes a cerebral subplot between this glamorous woman and the PTSD-suffering security guard assigned to her. “It’s a sexy movie,” Kruger smiles. “But there’s no sex in it. That’s her talent again. If this was an American movie, there’s 100% be a love scene, or at least a full-on kiss. But here, it’s so subtle.”
“A Bit of an Odd Duck”
It was here I cracked, asking “big damn star” question I’d been tip-toeing around. Kruger laughed loudly, before saying, “To a certain extent, you are slave to the opportunities you get. But then it’s also personal taste. I don’t want to do a lot of things.”
She added, “I think I’m a bit of an odd duck, because I’m not American and I definitely want to continue to make movies in France…I don’t know. I just feel like people don’t know where to put me. Which I’m actually really excited about, because it means I don’t really get typecast… I’m very satisfied — let’s put it that way — with the opportunities I’ve had.”
“I just don’t want to be bored,” she continued. “I feel like I need to be challenged.”
Kruger’s path from one artistic ambition to the next, one film to the next has not been strategy, but serendipitous, and more importantly satisfying. “It took me a long time to also figure out who I am as a woman and what I want to do,” she said.
Her next challenge will be Fatih Akin’s “In the Fade,” a drama where Kruger plays the German widow of a Turkish man murdered by Neo-Nazis.
Determined to collaborate with the controversial filmmaker, she approached Akin at Cannes, proclaiming, “If you ever want to work with me, that would be my dream. I would work for free.” Retooling a script he’d started 10 years before, Akin genderswapped the protagonist.
“Literally that role — he wrote this for me and he sent it to me — I cried,” Kruger said. “Like, ‘I don’t even know how you thought about me for this.’ And I still to this day don’t know if I can do it. Like, I am so fucking freaked out about making the movie. But that’s life. That’s what is so great about my job. You always hope that one person will see you completely differently, as you don’t dare to see yourself.”
“Disorder” opens on Friday, August 12.