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-ass 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-life prince: 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: [laughs] It’s interesting that you’ve always made a very clear distinction between what a model does and what an actress does. By the time you left modeling, you were kind of disenchanted with it. But at the same time, it surely gave you a sense of what you were projecting in a very still moment. I would think that would be quite valuable for an actress.
Watch the trailer for Inglourious Basterds
KRUGER: Yes and no. I’ve got to tell you, the reason I stopped modeling was because I wasn’t pleased with trying to portray something that is impossible to reach. Even when I do photo shoots now for films, I’m just not interested in trying to look my best all the time anymore. That pursuit of an impossible perfection seems ridiculous to me now. I’d rather show my vulnerabilities or my doubts than try to be something that no one is.
BLANKS: Do you feel that beauty stands in the way of people’s taking you seriously?
KRUGER: No, and that’s a silly thing to say anyway. Because, first of all, you sound like an ass if you say that. Brad Pitt seems to have no problem getting parts that he wants, nor does Angelina Jolie. Not that I’m saying I look like either of them, but I just don’t think that it has anything to do with that. It’s the emotions or characters you are able to take on that will get you work, not necessarily the way you look. Obviously, beauty can open doors—it is Hollywood, after all—but that’s not enough.
BLANKS: But being beautiful also gives an actress something to play against. Some of the most inspiring women’s performances have been from actresses like Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts, who play very much against their outer aspect . . .
KRUGER: [interrupts] No. I’m sorry, but I think that’s nuts. I think Charlize Theron is just as good when she is looking really pretty in a movie as when she gains 10 pounds and puts on a nose. I applaud her—good for her that she doesn’t care. But she’s just as good, whether she’s pretty or not.
BLANKS: Yeah, but I think that in the eyes of the world—and the same thing happens with guys—when somebody does something which radically plays against their physical type, people are a lot more easily seduced, probably because it looks effortful. And the world kind of rewards effort, doesn’t it?
KRUGER: I absolutely agree with that, but I honestly believe that if you would ask any of these people, it’s just the part they take on. Just as I would gain 20 pounds without any hesitation for a great part, or shave my head, or I don’t know what—it’s just about the part. I don’t think any of these people takes a part thinking, “Oh, I get to wear a prosthetic nose on this one film and now everybody is going to take me seriously”—unless I’m in the wrong business. But I highly doubt that.
BLANKS: Have you ever looked at pictures or movies of yourself and thought, Oh god, is that really me? How do I have that inside me?
KRUGER: No. I feel vulnerable sometimes—when I see an emotional scene, for example—and I remember what it took to get to that place, and I fear sometimes that everybody else can see that. You bare a part of you that makes you uncomfortable. I freely give it, I know, but I feel like people know something about me that I wouldn’t otherwise give freely to a stranger.
BLANKS: That’s acting. You become public property in a rather strange way, don’t you? Do you feel like you and Josh are under the microscope a little bit, as a couple?
KRUGER: No, not at all. I say that because I refuse to be living in a bubble. I’m sorry, I cannot live my life sipping cocktails at the Chateau Marmont. Neither he nor I were raised that way. We come from really lower-middle-class families. I don’t know how I could portray those people in movies if I didn’t know what reality is anymore. I refuse that.
BLANKS: I’m always intrigued by the notion that acting is a license to be something that you’re not really. Even if you’re not a bad person, it lets you be bad.
KRUGER: I feel very much like that. Sometimes it takes courage and experience to allow yourself to actually go there, and it’s the most liberating thing to let go. I do think that’s why I love acting—you’re right, it’s being someone that you’re not. And sometimes you’re really scared of it, and then once you let yourself go there, it’s the best thing ever.
BLANKS: Are you a naturally brave person? Could you do what Bridget did, for instance?
KRUGER: I would like to believe so. But I find period pieces really difficult to get my head around. How can we know what it must have been like to be in Nazi Germany in 1944? The reality weighs on me because I feel like you want to try and honor what happened, but how can you truly know? I have never lived in a war or lost anyone.
BLANKS: What did Ed Harris teach you while you were working on Copying Beethoven?
KRUGER: I think the main thing that he taught me was how to turn the fear I would have for a scene into a positive strength. Does that make sense?
BLANKS: It’s sort of therapeutic in a way.
KRUGER: Yeah, to me, acting is very therapeutic. I get out a lot of anger and frustration [laughs]. It’s maybe hard to believe, but as a kid I really had a lot of self-doubts. My father was very ill—he was an alcoholic—so there were a lot of things that built up for me. And because I was going to a Catholic school in a small German town, a lot of it was suppressed. I was angry and didn’t know how to get it out. 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.