Daniel Day-Lewis is unsurprisingly great in “Phantom Thread,” the thrice-awarded thespian’s supposed swan song, but the movie doesn’t belong to him. That honor goes to the remarkable Vicky Krieps, who’s far from a newcomer but essentially unknown on this side of the Atlantic — outside of “A Most Wanted Man” and “Hanna,” most of the Luxembourgian thespian’s work has been in Germany. One suspects that’s about to change.
Day-Lewis plays a mid-century fashion designer in Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, which reunites him with his “There Will Be Blood” star a decade later. Brilliant and neurotic, the esteemed Reynolds Woodcock can’t stand deviations from his routine and, according to his old so-and-so of a sister (Lesley Manville), is disoriented for the rest of the day whenever breakfast doesn’t go exactly as planned — which makes it a minor disaster when Alma (Krieps), whom he meets in a seaside inn, scrapes her toast even more loudly than she pours her tea.
Opposites attract, and so do people who may not belong together despite intense mutual attraction. Reynolds and Alma at first appear to be two sides of the same coin: he an exacting artist, she a swaggering muse. “For my hungry boy,” the waitress writes on a note upon meeting him. “My name is Alma.” He asks her to dinner; she says yes.
Far from a pushover, Alma proves to be a creative force unto herself. She’s happy to resist Reynolds’ many attempts to put up a wall between her and his work, carving out a space for herself as their push-pull power dynamic becomes ever more combative and passionate. “Phantom Thread” isn’t quite the movie it initially appears to be, and each reveal of what Anderson is really up to is paired with a moment of surprise from Krieps; like Alma, she’s so compelling a presence as to eventually become the main focus of attention.
Save for a few outbursts of anger, most of them arising from his work being interrupted, Reynolds finds Day-Lewis at his most subdued in many moons — allowing room for Krieps’ clever playfulness to come to the fore. It’s a stellar performance sure to be recalled as the moment she announced herself to the world.
During a recent discussion, the actress elaborated on her revelation that she originally thought she was auditioning for a student film, revealed her approach to working alongside Day-Lewis, and alluded to the ghost haunting one of her favorite scenes in “Phantom Thread” — which didn’t make it into the final film.
Krieps was on a bus when she first received an email from her agent about the project, which is why she didn’t know who was involved with it. “There was Paul’s name there, of course, but I really just scrolled down to the document — which I always do, because I always want to first know what’s the script, what’s the language,” she said. What she found wasn’t an entire screenplay, “just some text from Alma. And that, of course, got my attention straight away because it was interesting and unusual.”
Being more interested in the what of the movie than the who was the cause of her initial confusion about “Phantom Thread,” but Krieps was still pleasantly surprised when her agent told her who was directing it. “Like always, I’m not a big fan of names. It was not like, ‘Paul Thomas Anderson, my favorite.’ I just knew all his movies and loved them for a million reasons, not so much for his name.”
The same is true of her co-star, arguably the most revered actor on the planet — and, with three Oscars to his name and a well-known penchant for immersing himself in his characters both on and off set, one of the most intimidating. Krieps, quietly eloquent and with a calm air about her, had a strategy for acting opposite Day-Lewis, who far all intents and purposes was Reynolds Woodcock during production.
“At first I decided not to think about it too much because I knew I could only lose — how can you prepare for something that’s supposedly so crazy and far out? — so I tried to forget everything about Method acting,” she said. “I didn’t google it; I didn’t google him. I just wanted to get into it and then just meet, you know, let the experience do the talking. Doing it was surprising — how I could relate to it, how it didn’t feel strange at all.”
She may not have googled Method acting, but her own in-the-moment style proved to be surprisingly compatible with it.“I would never say I’m a Method actor,” she said. “I’m not a fan of methods of any kind; I hate definitions of things; I really believe in all of chaos — but I think that my way, how I go, I also end up in this space where you are completely now. I often have the feeling that acting is really not difficult because all I do is I just listen. I just listen. I just listen to what there is. And if there’s nothing, then I listen to nothing. If there’s a chair and it’s empty, I listen to an empty chair and I will respond to it.”
She added that there was an instinctual element to her process. “It’s actually really just listening and being aware, honestly aware, which is only possible if you empty yourself of your fears and of your ego and all of this shit, you know?” she said. “If you are empty like this, you can really listen, and then all you have to do is respond — which is then easy.”
The same indifference toward the notion of celebrity that colored her response to the news of working with Anderson extended to Day-Lewis’ retirement announcement, which Krieps heard about from her neighbor: “Yes, of course it’s important, but it’s also just a man deciding something for his life.”
Her focus always returns to the work and its effect on her — even if some of it was left on the cutting-room floor. “It’s not in the movie anymore, but there’s a scene that was very strong where Alma goes and wanders off on her own in the country house and finds the wedding dress of their mother,” she said. “She takes it out and actually tries it on; she’s discovered by Cyril [Manville]. And that was a scene that was just unlike anything I’ve ever done — it was like there was a ghost in the room the whole time. It really was.”
There’s a similar feeling throughout “Phantom Thread,” albeit with one key difference: You can see the ghost as she haunts you, and you don’t want her to leave.