The stunning Diane Kruger journeys to hell and back for her most transformative role yet.
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After 15 years as an actress, Diane Kruger thought she understood her craft. “I’ve been very good up until this point to separate my work from my everyday life,” she says, calling from her home in New York City. “This was the first time it wasn’t possible.”
Kruger is, of course, referring to her role in the German drama, In the Fade, the film that has been lauded by critics as the actress’ best work to date. It has been almost a year since production wrapped, yet the memory still lingers. “I didn’t expect [the film] to affect me this amount. ... It’s changed me forever.” Kruger will have to accept the fact that the project, which impacted her on such a personal level—and could possibly alter the course of her career—will be at the forefront of her mind for a while longer. The film from director Fatih Akin, about a woman who has to contend with life after the death of her husband and son in a brutal terrorist attack, not only garnered Kruger the award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival last May, but is now getting serious Oscar buzz for her heart-wrenching performance.
Taking on this role was never something she took lightly. To step into the shoes of Katja Sekerci—the wife of a Kurdish man and mother of a 5-year-old—who, in the blink of an eye, loses everything, Kruger spent six months meeting with survivors of murdered family members to get an understanding of what her character was going through. “I definitely started to feel like I was drowning in their grief after witness[ing] that much pain,” she recalls. There were even times during production, she says, when she didn’t feel like she was acting. “I felt like I was in it. I was Katja reacting to what was happening in front of me,” she says. “I was done at the end. I couldn’t have gone on another day—I was a mess; I really was.”
Kruger took months off from work to recover before heading to Cannes to promote the film. “I was really stressed out,” admits the actress. “Cannes can be intense and harsh. This was the first real starring role in my life, where, if people didn’t like the movie, it was on my shoulders.” Then, two days before the premiere, the film became unfortunately relevant due to a terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. “It was an awful time because I was so excited to see the movie, and, yet, at the same time, I was conscious of how many hundreds of Katjas were just created.”
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While the intense experience temporarily reduced the actress to rubble, Kruger has risen from the dust more certain than ever about what matters in her life. “I got this acute sense of how, in one second, out of your control, your entire life can change,” she says. “I want to make sure that while I’m here, I make it count, whatever that means—love harder; live harder; stay up longer.”
Kruger has seemingly nailed the ability to seize the day since adolescence. At 15, the daughter of a computer specialist and bank employee was offered a chance to model in Paris after representing Germany in the Elite Model Look competition, a contest that also launched the careers of Cindy Crawford and Gisele Bu?ndchen. Kruger, who grew up in a small German village near Hanover, still can’t quite believe her mother allowed her to move to the French capital by herself. “I owe it all to my mom,” she says. “Really, at 15 ½, she said, ‘You can take a sabbatical, but if I hear anything, you’re back in school.’ Now that I’m older, I don’t think I would let my almost-16-year-old daughter be in Paris under no supervision. I’m pretty amazed by my mom.”
It’s an opportunity she knew she couldn’t afford to squander, even at her young age. “I was not happy in my school system. I didn’t want to go to university. I felt lost,” says Kruger. “This was an opportunity to see the world and do something different and earn money. My mom couldn’t financially support me, so it was a great life for those five years. Frankly, I’m grateful I did it because it also paid for my drama school.”
While Kruger had a wildly successful run as a model, appearing in campaigns for Chanel, Dior and more, she knew early on it wasn’t her calling. “Modeling was fun for the few years I did it, but I just got bored with it,” she says. “When you’re young, the attention is nice. People tell you, ‘You’re so pretty,’ and you’re like, ‘This is great!’ Then as you grow older, you think, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not just that.’”
A Parisian boyfriend introduced her to French cinema and the idea she could be an actress. But it was at her audition for one of France’s most prestigious drama schools, Cours Florent, that the pieces fell into place. “To be accepted, I had to do improv, and, of course, I was terrified to go up and speak in French,” she says. “I remember going up onstage, and I felt completely at ease. I didn’t even see the audience. I just did my thing, and I remember people applauding and my teacher saying, ‘Wow, well done. You’re definitely accepted.’ I thought, ‘This is going to be my life.’”
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Asked if she considers herself courageous, Kruger counters that she’s curious. “Being too comfortable freaks me out, so I like the idea of doing new things,” she says. As of late, this includes learning how to ride a motorcycle, moving to New York City from Los Angeles and living a more independent life after last year splitting from Joshua Jackson, her partner of 10 years. “I think life’s better with somebody holding your hand, but I’ve also learned that I need to take care of myself first,” she says. “In the past, I’ve been incredibly disappointed in people. You think you’re moving toward the same goal, and then you’re not.”
After back-to-back relationships, she has learned to set boundaries for herself. “There are certain things I won’t accept anymore,” she states. “I think when you’re in a long-term relationship, you start making excuses, and you’re making a lot of compromises—which obviously you need to make to make things work—but I think there are certain things that I’ve learned I don’t want to accept anymore.” Without confirming her relationship to Walking Dead actor Norman Reedus one way or the other—“I don’t want to talk about that part of my life. That’s one thing I learned”—Kruger simply says that the past year has put into perspective what really matters. “The older I get, it’s about focusing on the people that I have left: my mom, my brother, my grandfather and my boyfriend,” she lists. “I just want to be present in my life and not try to project so much into the future.”
This means continuing to divide her time between Manhattan and Paris, a cultural split that applies to her career as well. In Europe, she tends to tackle more emotional parts in smaller films, and in the U.S., she gravitates to bigger spectacles. Stateside, Kruger is best known for her Hollywood debut as Helen of Sparta in Troy; Dr. Abigail Chase in National Treasure; detective Sonya Cross on the FX series The Bridge; and, of course, the German-actress-turned-allied-spy Bridget von Hammersmark in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, for which she picked up two Screen Actors Guild nominations. Next up, she has Robert Zemeckis’ fantasy flick, The Women of Marwen, opposite Steve Carell and Leslie Mann.
Despite her success, a movie like In the Fade would not have been offered to her in the U.S., Kruger speculates. But how the performance that is now on everybody’s lips will propel her career forward is anyone’s guess. Rather than worry about accolades, the actress thinks about how grateful she is to have opened the door to meaningful conversation through a project she will never forget. “I feel like when people have connected with this film, it’s a real connection, and whether you like the movie or not, it’s going to stay with you,” says Kruger. “Without a doubt, the movie ignites a conversation about life.”
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