There’s a gentle rain falling on a grey day in Vancouver, and when Diane Kruger answers the phone she’s contemplating how to spend the next few hours until the weather outside clears.
The 36-year-old, German-born actress has certainly deserved some time off, after almost 12 months of constant work. It’s been a year that has seen her earn acclaim for her work in the recent French-made hit Farewell, My Queen, in which she takes on – and completely consumes – the role of Marie Antoinette. Critics around the world continue to lavish praise on Kruger, who as an artist has never really been one to shy away from a challenge.
That trait has allowed her to chart an impressive and eclectic course that has transcended any boundaries between international cinema scenes. She’s part of an established Hollywood franchise, with the next in the National Treasure series set for release next year, and turned heads, too, with a memorable role in maverick director Quentin Tarantino’s smash Inglourious Basterds (2009). There have also been parts in Belgian director Jaco Van Dormael’s celebrated Mr Nobody (2009) and the South African-shot Goodbye Bafana (2007), while next year will also see Kruger take up a part in The Host, taken from a novel by Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer, and a film she hopes will evolve into another franchise.
Vancouver, as Kruger explains, has developed into a home away from home for a few months every year, with her partner Joshua Jackson taking up his role in the Fox TV series Fringe. She finds the laid-back Canadian city the perfect antidote to the madness that swirls around the stardom that’s followed her since her days as a model for the likes of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton.
That’s why, Kruger begins, she tries to keep things as simple as possible, dedicating her time to honing her craft while seeking out roles that can widen her artistic horizons.
Let’s start by talking about your latest film, Farewell, My Queen.
Well, the script was sent to me and when I received it, I was immediately excited. It gave me goosebumps to think that this part was being offered to me. It’s not a part I ever thought about playing.
Did you feel any sort of connection to the character?
There’ve just been so many coincidences surrounding it. I’m about the same age as Marie Antoinette was when she was taken from Versailles, and the movie takes place from July 14 to 17, 1789, and I was born on July 15. And my mother was actually named after Maria Teresa [Marie Antoinette’s mother]. We arrived in Paris pretty much at the same age and we come from a similar background – she was from Austria, and I was born in Germany and in her time they were all part of the same empire. So it just seems to have so many connections. I basically told the director he wasn’t allowed to make this movie without me.
By all reports, the film is pretty intense.
It was daunting. The way the script was written, she was borderline schizophrenic. Every scene is very extreme and it also uses 18th-century French, which you might compare to Shakespearean English. I speak French but never learned it in school, so it was tedious work to memorise a very different kind of French. I think I prepped for this for about three months.
How different is it for an actor to play an historical figure rather than a fictional one?
I had the experience of playing Helen of Troy before and I suppose you always do set yourself up a little bit for failure, because most people have an emotional attachment or at least an opinion about what this person was like. That’s especially the case with Marie Antoinette, with people so divided about her and there having been so many films about her.
Did you form an opinion on what she might have been like?
I really tried to not judge her. I don’t ever tell people in interviews my personal opinion about her. What I thought was interesting about this movie was that it is not a political movie about her ability as a queen. So the only way I thought I could do this was if I could relate to her on a human level, woman to woman. This movie is a lot more about an intimate portrayal of what went on behind closed doors, maybe what those last four days in Versailles could have been for her emotionally – behind the face of the queen she had to put on for the public. I really like the idea of the script showing her the first time as this young capricious girl, who finally becomes queen but it’s all too late.
The film was a box-office and critical success in France, and received rave reviews in the United States.
People have really responded to it, I think again because it takes a very different approach to that part of history. People are responding to the fact that they get to see a woman rather than a “queen”.
To whom and where did you turn, then, when you researched this character?
I read a lot about her, her biographies. I went to Versailles many, many times and I had private tours. My very dear friend Karl Lagerfeld is obsessed with Versailles and the history of Versailles, and he was helpful when it came to learning all about it. I don’t know why, but he’s very much interested in French history, so there were interesting exchanges coming from him and also when it came to the costumes. He’s just obsessed with that part of the history of France.
It’s another very different role in an eclectic career. Has that been by design or fortune?
It’s been important to me – and it was my dream when I first started out – to be an international actress rather than just working in France or just working in the US or Germany. That’s been my idea: not to be locked down in a language, or an accent or a culture. So I actively try to find parts that will push my limits in terms of that. However, when it comes to the roles themselves, some of them you choose and then some of them come to you. It’s a matter of opportunity.
Do you think different film industries see you differently as an actress?
I’m not really sure that if Farewell, My Queen had been an American film I would have been considered for this role. It’s been interesting in my career to be able to make films in different languages and to make very different films because it does show such a different side of me. I feel like I am constantly between two chairs. I’m not sure anyone could tell where I am from – I often pop up in a movie that nobody expected me to be in.
What about Hollywood – how do you think you’re considered there?
I’m not sure that going from National Treasure, anybody expected me to turn up in a Quentin Tarantino movie, for example, or as Marie Antoinette. I think I’ve really avoided typecasting so far. Sometimes that has happened because I’m able to do foreign-language films as well.
The National Treasure films have been a massive global successes. What does that mean to you as an actor?
Being part of a franchise is very cool and it’s actually a really rare thing. As an actor it can be daunting because you get so identified with this specific role. The last one was four or five years ago so I don’t feel that close to the franchise. I just made a film called The Host with Andrew Niccol, so hopefully that will turn into a trilogy – and I might be involved in that trilogy, too. There’s just something very cool about having a fan base that follows you because the franchise is successful. But it can be intimidating. The kids from Twilight will have to fight being typecast and will face trying to get away from those characters for a long time.
You have a high-profile career and a high-profile relationship. Do you still manage to find much privacy?
We have our privacy. Vancouver is pretty relaxed. In LA it depends where you go. If you want to be photographed, you will be. There’s the odd paparazzo that hangs around the supermarket, but I’m not Angelina Jolie. Also, we don’t have anything to hide. We don’t go to nightclubs, so I suppose the photo opportunities aren’t really there. There are moments of my life when the attention is more intense, when a movie comes out or when I’m with my partner who’s very well known. So I suppose it depends, but mostly I’m just not concerned with it at all.
How hard was it for you as a young woman to give up ballet?
It was tough, but it came, not at the right time, but with my body changing and the realisation that I probably didn’t have the talent to be a prima ballerina. So it was getting harder and harder. It meant the end of life as I knew it, and I wasn’t sure where life was going to take me, as I just didn’t see myself as having a traditional career or a traditional way of life. But modelling came in and thankfully that pointed me in the right direction.
How did you find the transition from model to actor? Was it hard to find acceptance in the film industry?
Nobody knew I was a model before. And, physically, I don’t really look like one. I’m not six feet tall, I’m five-seven. It was never really an issue. It’s something the media makes something out of but it’s not an issue. If you look at history, there have been so many people coming in from a modelling background, whether it’s Cameron Diaz or Sharon Stone, Grace Kelly or Brigitte Bardot.
Why did you make the change in careers?
Acting was just something that I so really wanted to do. I come from that ballet background. I was used to being on stage as a child for 11 years. I’d become bored with modelling and I really wanted to find something that was emotionally satisfying to me, something where I could get back this feeling of performing.
You certainly threw yourself in at the deep end by joining the Cours Florent drama school.
Yes, it was also daunting. I didn’t do French at school, as I mentioned, and this is a classical theatre school, so that aspect of it was quiet difficult for me. But it was wonderful. I had two years there, learning all the time, and then I had to start going to auditions and trying, trying, trying, until I got a job.
Are you someone in constant need of a challenge?
To be honest, I think that’s true for most people. Sure, I want to be challenged. I am my own worst critic for sure. But I want to be alert, I want to go through life with my eyes wide open and feel like every movie that I make and every character that I tackle adds another layer to my experience. The older you get, fortunately and unfortunately, the performance you give is going to be more complex, because you can bring those layers of experience from your personal life to it.
You seem to have distanced yourself from a lot of the madness that surrounds celebrity.
It’s all about the acting for me. What I actually prefer most about my job is being on set, and everything that comes with that. When you go to a drama school, you dream and you hope that you’re going to make films that people come and see. You do also want to do the promotion side of things, but I love the circus life, I love creating something and having the support of my fellow cast members or crew. We’re all there trying to make something fun or in the case of this latest movie something that is very challenging.
When you have the support of all these people working together to do the one particular thing, it gives you a great sense of being able to explore emotions, creativity. You’re continuously at play and it’s just wonderful to spend your life like that.
PHOTOGRAPHY / GILLES-MARIE ZIMMERMANN, H&K / CPi
STYLING / SASCHA LILIC
MAKE-UP / NATSUKI øNEYAMA
HAIR / PERRINE ROUGEMONT
STYLING ASSISTANT / ALEXANDRA BERNARDINNI
LOCATION / TRIANON CASTLE, NATIONAL DOMAIN OF VERSAILLES