A New York Times critic once described Diane Kruger as “too beautiful to play a role of any substance.” Cast your eye over her career as, first, a successful model in Paris, and—since her film debut in 2002—an up-and-coming actress, and the beauty part is irrefutable. As for the second half of that critical appraisal? Well, Kruger, now 33, is fortunate that her latest director is Quentin Tarantino, who likes nothing more than a kick-*** glamourpuss with acting chops. As the enigmatic Bridget von Hammersmark in Tarantino’s World War II epic Inglourious Basterds, she gets to challenge preconceptions about glacially gorgeous blondes. If the movie is a twisted once-upon-a-time fairy tale (crammed with more sadistic gore than even the Brothers Grimm could muster), the German-born Kruger makes a suitably steely princess—with a sense of humor. She even has her own real-lifeprince: Fringe actor Joshua Jackson.
TIM BLANKS: So who is Bridget von Hammersmark?
DIANE KRUGER: [laughs] Well, she’s a German movie star of the time, and she’s also a double agent for the British. But she’s not 007—not the supersleek killing machine. Bridget is sort of like Mata Hari. Because of her status, she knows Hitler and Goebbels and really high-placed people, so she relays information.
BLANKS: Did you have anyone in mind when you were conceiving her?
KRUGER: Yes. I immediately thought about a German actress who was very famous around that time called Hildegard Knef, who not a lot of people are really, truly familiar with. And, obviously, there’s Marlene Dietrich, but I didn’t want it to be too obvious. Quentin could cite you 58,000 people he was influenced by, especially a Hungarian actress called Ilona Massey, who played a femme fatale in a couple of movies. I must have seen at least 20 or 25 movies that he was influenced by and that he wanted me to watch.
BLANKS: Filming in the Babelsberg studio where Hildegard Knef and Marlene Dietrich made movies must have been a rather remarkable experience.
KRUGER: Yes, I have to say those studios are very, very cool. You do feel the spirit. We worked on the Marlene Dietrich soundstage a couple times. And the costumes were great. Also, I have to say that what Quentin does best is write for women. All the female characters in his movies are very powerful, very smart. He really wants women to come through as these fierce creatures.
BLANKS: What do you think it is about him that responds to women in that way?
KRUGER: I don’t know. A lot of directors idealize their leading ladies or turn them into these objects of sexuality and beauty. But for Quentin, it’s not about that. He really elevates you, but not in the sense of how well you’re lit or how well you’re dressed—it seems sometimes like he doesn’t really care about that stuff; he’s someone who looks at women much more as part of his creation. I feel like I’ve never been looked at by a director in quite the way Quentin looks at me. He and I really clicked. He loved Bridget. For example, one thing that is very little known is that I get strangled in the movie and he insisted on doing it himself. So in the actual close-up of my death scene, those are his hands. It’s like, “Okay, are you trying to tell me something?” [laughs] Quentin gets really obsessed with these female characters! My death scene was scheduled for one day, and we ended up shooting it for three. He didn’t want to let go of Bridget.
BLANKS: I think that’s what Alfred Hitchcock used to do with Tippi Hedren. If she ever was under attack in one of his movies, he would be the one who showed the actor exactly how to do something weird to her. I bet Tarantino knows that.
KRUGER: I don’t know about that, but while we were shooting he was definitely reading up a lot on Josef von Sternberg [the Austrian-born filmmaker who worked with Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin]and his direction. There’s actually one shot that was sort of his von Sternberg moment, which is in the tavern scene.
BLANKS: How is it for you going back to your home country, particularly a country that is so completely saturated with that period of its history—World War II—when you’re playing in a movie that’s bringing back a lot of the issues that existed around that time?
KRUGER: It’s a very different time . . . I don’t think my generation carries that weight anymore. But I’ve got to tell you, even if we don’t really talk about it, we get reminded constantly by other people or other countries. I get offered a World War II movie at least once a week just because I speak German and was born there. I have always stayed away from it because I didn’t want to be put into that box. What brought me to this one is that it’s not historically correct, it’s a very different take on World War II. And I love the idea that I personally, through Bridget von Hammersmark, could have helped bring down the Third Reich.
BLANKS: I guess it’s a variant on Helen of Troy in a way. She brought down an empire as well. You’re the destroyer of worlds . . . But a common theme in everything I’ve read about you is that your star has been steadily rising, and now you’re on the brink of something big. Do you have that feeling yourself?
KRUGER: To be honest, I’m not sure what that means exactly. I think that I’ve followed my little path slowly and steadily, and it’s not been an easy journey. When you think of Troy , my third or fourth film, and how overexposed I was for the little experience that I had, it was kind of an exciting place but also uncomfortable because I felt like I was just starting out. I didn’t even know what I was doing. So over the years I’ve made a point to take smaller films and work a lot in Europe and just focus on my craft. I’ve worked with actors who were very helpful and a lot better than I was. For example, I made a film that nobody saw called Copying Beethoven , with Ed Harris. That was a revelation to me because he really took me under his wing. But I definitely feel very good about Inglourious Basterds. I play a very powerful character. She’s definitely the leader of the pack. And that’s not easy to convey on-screen. I don’t think I tend to look that way. I feel it’s a side of me that nobody would have expected to see.
BLANKS: Bridget is also very glamorous, though.
KRUGER: That’s just her outer aspect. That’s not what this character’s all about.
BLANKS: Presumably, as a famous actress who is also a spy, she’s using her natural assets to get what she wants. She uses her glamour to further her cause. One thing I’ve always noticed about you, at the Met Ball or wherever, is how comfortable you are with being glamorous. It’s a lot more complex than being pretty or even beautiful.
KRUGER: I grew up loving actresses or actors who were very classy but who seemed a little bit mysterious because you couldn’t grasp what they’re really thinking. I mean, Grace Kelly always looked impossibly glamorous, yet you could always see there was something behind her eyes. And I’m not saying I’m trying to emulate that, but I want to be seen as, if not glamorous, then definitely as someone who has a certain . . . class, I guess. You would never see a picture of me coming out of a club without my panties on.
BLANKS: Also, the fact that you wanted to be a ballet dancer and an injury stopped that. I imagine that must have been pretty traumatic for a young girl.
KRUGER: Yes and no. I think what was more traumatic was I had realized that I didn’t have the talent to be a prima ballerina. It was getting harder and harder for me to keep up with the other girls, no matter how hard I worked. That’s a pretty sucky thing to find out after 11 years. [laughs] But it was also a blessing in disguise because that was the first time I felt like I stepped into adulthood. I realized, Okay, this is not going to work out. It was frustrating for about a year because I didn’t know what to do with the creativity and the discipline that dancing had instilled in me from a very young age. But then I moved to Paris to model, and that was my cultural awakening. Now, I think dancing has been the biggest thing in my life, much more so than modeling, and it still helps me enormously in my work.
BLANKS: Are you happy with the way things worked out?
KRUGER: Um, I have no choice. Yes, of course! I think I’ve been lucky! Of course, it’s always a fight to get better parts. I’m intrigued more and more by complex female characters because I’m more in touch with myself. I realize how screwed up or complex I am. And I’m flattered that, little by little, more and more directors want to meet me.
BLANKS: I always feel like an interview situation is a perfect opportunity for you to tell the world what it is you want to do. What kind of part would you ideally gravitate toward?
KRUGER: Toward either really screwball comedy, which I haven’t gotten to do a lot—though I get to do quite a bit in this movie—or toward really dramatic and complex roles. I would love to work with Darren Aronofsky.
BLANKS: The fact that you can dub yourself in three languages must make you a real director’s darling, surely.
KRUGER: They like that, yes—and I love it, too. It’s very gratifying because I know it’s my performance. I’ve been away from Germany for over half of my life yet I obviously have very deep German roots and speak fluent German. I’ve also lived in London and in Paris, so I feel very much at ease with those cultures. But I truly feel like I’m half American. I’ve lived in New York for years and years. So I think it helps certain characters to be more complex and deep because there is an international understanding of things.
BLANKS: So that’s how multilingualism builds character. What about clothing? You have a very interesting relationship with fashion.
KRUGER: Especially in period films, I think it helps you completely change the way you hold yourself, or even approach a character, for sure.
BLANKS: And then in real life, wearing Louis Vuitton or Chanel?
KRUGER: I feel the same way. Because I worked in fashion, I know that I like fashion. Haute couture is a form of art that I can appreciate. I’m definitely not someone who wakes up every day and thinks about what I’m going to wear, but on the red carpet, it’s reflective of the mood I’m in, or the movie I’m going to represent. I wouldn’t dress the same for the premiere of National Treasure  as for the premiere of Inglourious Basterds.
BLANKS: And when you’re being fitted for your couture gown in a Parisian atelier, do you think about the little girl from Catholic school in a small town in Germany?
KRUGER: [laughs] Oh, trust me, I certainly do. Don’t think for one second that I don’t go through life thinking that.
(Tim Blanks is a veteran fashion journalist and contributing editor at Style.com)
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