How Grief Led Diane Kruger to the Bravest Performance of Her Career

“I felt like I was drowning,” Diane Kruger tells me, again and again. The German-born actress, who splits her time between New York and Paris, had the kind of year that would force most of us into a permanent fetal position: In the space of eight months, she lost her grandmother and her stepfather, plus ended her ten-year relationship with Joshua Jackson, all while going into deep immersion in the toughest role of her career — as a woman whose Turkish husband and son are killed in a neo-Nazi terrorist attack in the German-language thriller In the Fade. During the shoot, she’d spend her days trying to portray the intensely hard existence of murder victims’ family members, and then come home to manage her own sorrow, as well as her mother’s. That didn’t leave much room for breathing. (Or eating. Or sleeping.)

Out of that drowning, though, has come a performance that not even Kruger knew she had in her — a wrenching, and often wordless, journey through a mother’s unimaginable nightmare. This May, the Cannes Film Festival jury, led by Pedro Almodóvar, awarded her their Best Actress prize, which she dedicated, in a stunned and shaking speech, “to anyone who has ever been affected by an act of terrorism and who’s trying to pick up the pieces and go on living after having lost everything.” Soon she’ll be headed to the Golden Globes with her German-Turkish director, Fatih Akin, as In the Fade (German name, Aus dem Nichts, which means “from nothing”) competes in the foreign-language-film category. It’s also one of nine foreign films short-listed for the Academy Awards — and is, shockingly, Kruger’s first German film, after having left her native country 25 years ago, long before she’d ever dreamed of becoming an actor.

As Kruger strolls into breakfast at Manhattan’s Balthazar a few weeks before Christmas, almost exactly a year to the day from wrapping In the Fade, she bears no outward signs of her multiple heartbreaks of 2016, or even of Cannes, where she’d still seemed to be very much in a daze. Her face is flush from having walked here, in skintight leather pants and a gigantic, bright-orange H&M puffer, from her new apartment in Tribeca. She’s also right on time. “That’s the German in me!” she chirps, and gives me a big American hug.

Kruger, 41, loves walking everywhere (largely unnoticed) when she’s not going to Broadway shows with her theatergoing buddy Lucy Liu (they met through their mutual talent manager) or throwing dinner parties. (The secret, she insists, is Whole Foods delivery, and making guests show up early to do all your cooking for you.) She’s even mostly lived in walk-up buildings, from Paris to, most recently, the East Village. Until one day last year when she arrived home, said “Nein!” evermore to those stairs, and got herself a place with a doorman. “I just felt like every time I came back from a movie I was schlepping up my luggage,” she says, “and I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

The idea of someone as beautiful and famous as Kruger doing her own luggage-schlepping takes a moment to get used to. But it has a kind of poetry, when one thinks about all the metaphorical baggage she’s been dragging around for the past two decades, trying to get anyone to take her seriously enough to give her a role as challenging as what Akin asked of her in In the Fade.

For some time now in France, where she spends half her time, Kruger has been considered one of the country’s great actresses — a German transplant who’s had her pick of meaty roles and been treated as a boon to their cinematic culture. Word of her talents either never seemed to reach America (or Germany), or fell on deaf ears. She first met Akin in 2012 when she was a juror at the Cannes Film Festival and crashed a party for a documentary he had directed. Over a tipsy conversation, she told him how much she loved his work (which often deals with the culture clash of being a Turkish immigrant in a country that still has pockets of Aryan supremacy), and that she’d love to work with him sometime. Four years later, he was writing the treatment for In the Fade — which he’d based on the real-life resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany, and the tendency to assume the Turkish victims are the perpetrators. He remembered his conversation with Kruger, and sent it over to her. Though Akin’s name doesn’t carry a lot of weight in the States, he’s one of Germany’s most respected directors, and, Kruger explains, “on paper, it’s not an association people would make, because his films star unknowns, Turkish actors or nonactors he finds in the street in Germany. So it was a big risk for him to take me as well. He got a lot of shit when he first cast me.”

Such as? Says Kruger: “You know, ‘Why would he cast an international movie actress? Why Diane Kruger? She’s an ex-model! We have good actors here in Germany!’”

Akin elaborates: “In Germany, the image she had was that she was the former model who appears in blockbuster movies. This gorgeous, good-looking girl, but she’s not an actress. I was hearing this from actors I know in the theater, and they’re very sophisticated, but they can be a pain in the ass.”

The stigma Kruger carries around — of being a model turned actress and the assumption of shallowness, lack of intellectual curiosity, and privilege that comes with it — has little to nothing to do with Kruger’s actual story. The luggage-schlepping, her unassuming kindness to waitstaff, the fact that she got her parka from H&M (and is also wearing a black sweatshirt with the white skull-and-bones logo of a Hamburg soccer team) — they all seem to stem from having grown up lower-middle class in a rural village in West Germany, 15 miles from the nearest city. No one else in her family is artistic (her mother was a banker; her father, an alcoholic, worked in computers, and Kruger doesn’t speak to him anymore), but Kruger nonetheless got to spend her summers studying at London’s Royal Academy of Dance. At 15, she entered and won Germany’s Elite Model Look contest, even while being a puny five-foot-seven. Test shoots in Paris followed, and as soon as she arrived, she says, “I was like, ‘I’m not leaving.’”

Runways for Marc Jacobs and Dries Van Noten and perfume ads for Giorgio Armani and Chanel — plus a lifelong friendship with Karl Lagerfeld — followed, but Kruger found herself getting bored. A French actor boyfriend introduced her to art-house cinema and encouraged her to go to a Parisian drama school, despite barely being able to read French. It was the first time she’d gotten a taste of being part of the creative process, rather than just being asked to pose in clothes. She was hooked. “I didn’t go to college,” she says, “so for me, all these kids my age talking about Molière and smoking lots of cigarettes, working on scenes, it was just so much fun.”

Auditions got her into movies, and then, as a 27 year-old nobody, she beat out 3,000 contenders to play the most beautiful woman in the world opposite Brad Pitt’s Achilles in 2004’s Troy, known then for being one of the most expensive movies ever made. “It was a little scary!” she says. “It put me on the map and I always felt it put me there way too soon. It was only my second film, I was so green, and where do you go from playing Helen of Troy?”

The answer: getting romanced by Nicolas Cage in National Treasure — standing around being pretty in Troy hadn’t made for a very impressive acting reel. (Also, keep in mind who was in charge of Hollywood at the time and making decisions about the complexity of women’s roles.) “This industry, they pluck out these complete unknown novices,” says Kruger, “and if you’re really lucky, you get to be in a movie that makes a gazillion dollars and go on to make other movies. But if it doesn’t do so well they just move on to the next person. Actors don’t really get the chance, in my opinion, to fail, to learn, to move on. You have to learn your craft, you know?” When every American indie film she tried to act in fell apart, she turned to European art-house cinema, where she was able to play an opera singer in 2005’s Joyeux Noël (the French submission to the Oscars that year), and Marie Antoinette in 2012’s Farewell, My Queen. “I just felt that in France, I was never typecast,” she says. “But in the U.S., they just wanted to hire me for big franchises where you’re ‘the female lead,’ but you’re really servicing the male story line.”

(By extension, because only her American blockbusters, and not her French art-house movies, were distributed in Germany, her reputation as a lightweight stuck there, too. Except it was also tinged with a sense of her being a turncoat, since she’d lived abroad since she was 15 and had never come back except to visit her mother twice a year. “I felt for a long time that they felt I had abandoned or given up my Germanness,” she says. “Also, I changed my name, which was originally Heidkrüger, so even though I’m really well known in Germany, I’ve always felt they were a little upset with me.”)

It wasn’t until 2009, and her electric turn as ruthless double agent Bridget von Hammersmark in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, that American audiences got to see what France already knew: that Kruger can really act. “It took a long time until something like Basterds came along, and that was really hard to get,” she says. “They didn’t want to hire me in the beginning.” Tarantino, she says, didn’t believe she was German, for some reason. Plus, he’d written the part for someone else and only agreed to audition Kruger after that fell apart. “And before he agreed to see me,” she says, “he saw everybody else in Germany!”

What Basterds changed for Kruger, more than people’s perceptions of her, was her self-confidence. “It was a film that was made by a very well-known director, who had the same prejudice, or wasn’t sure I could do something like this, and then saw that I could do it,” she says. She hasn’t landed another American role that substantial since, but her performance did sear into the mind of one crucial audience member: Akin, who says it was Basterds that convinced him he’d be safe in offering Kruger her first marquee role in In the Fade. He’d thought she’d been amazing, but moreover, he trusted Tarantino’s instincts about her. “I consider Tarantino always as an acting director,” Akin told me. “He’s known to surprise people with his casts and his actors get awarded, so I think he knows what he’s doing. And he would never miscast somebody. And she was very well-casted in that film.” (Indeed, Kruger won Germany’s equivalent of an Oscar, the Goldene Kamera, which Lagerfeld presented to her.) To Akin, her very presence in Basterds was like a letter of recommendation.

Kruger believes that, had the role of Katja in In the Fade come to her five years ago, when she first met Akin, she might not have been able to play it. “I wasn’t mature enough,” she says. “I hadn’t dealt enough with loss, or just life.” But when he handed her the script in April 2016, she dove right into what would become six months of harrowing and emotionally exhausting prep work, chiefly meeting with 30 families of murder victims — and not upon Akin’s request. “Diane did that on her own,” says Akin. “That’s what I admire about American actors. You people, you’re so prepared! I tell you, I work with very gifted German actors, but it’s very rare that they’re that prepared or do their homework. That was fascinating.”

She began by attending support groups in New York City, “and that’s something that I will never forget,” she says. “Even talking about it sometimes — it’s crazy what those people go through. The stories you hear are just overwhelming.” She met a father who’d lost a son to murder, and couldn’t get beyond his guilt of having dropped his kid off at the sporting event where it happened, and showing up late to pick him up. And a woman who’d lost her son to murder, and then her husband to suicide in his distress over their son’s death. “As time went on, I realized what it does to a human who has to stay behind, the guilt that they feel asking, ‘How can I live on and is that even possible?’” she says. “Stuff like that really affected me. It was a lot. For six months, that was a lot.”

Over those six months, too, Kruger’s personal life had fallen into chaos. First there was the death of her 93-year-old maternal grandmother, and then the final demise of her decadelong relationship with Jackson. Her grandmother was the first immediate family member she’d ever lost, and moreover, the woman who she says essentially raised her and taught her how to cook. She’d lived through WWII and been with Kruger’s grandfather for 70 years, and to see him turn into a shadow of himself without his wife, and to see her own mother’s pain in losing her mom — those were difficult blows.

Kruger isn’t specific about when she and Jackson called it off, but indicates that it was almost simultaneous with her grandmother’s death, and on Kruger’s behest. “That was something that was a long time coming,” she says. “Also we broke up many months before we said we were broken up, so by the time I made that decision, it didn’t feel like it was so urgent anymore. You don’t break up overnight after ten years, you know what I mean?”

She describes the experience as sad and inevitable rather than angry or anxiety-inducing. (“It wasn’t like an urgent, ‘Oh my god, I can’t sleep at night’ thing.”) In many ways, she sounds like it was a relief to go into the shoot without being tied to a failing relationship. “Actually, it felt liberating,” she says, “because I didn’t have to worry about that anymore, so I could immerse myself 100 percent into something else. I felt like I did nothing else but that. Nobody came to visit me, I didn’t have to worry about anything else but this.” Didn’t she miss the support system, though? “I didn’t want one,” she says. “It’s a distraction.”

She kept meeting with murder victims’ family members throughout — although eventually she had to stop because, she says, “I couldn’t take it anymore at the end.” Then a month and a half before shooting started, she moved to Hamburg, the setting of the film, specifically to the Turkish neighborhood where her character, Katja, lives with her adorable son and her Turkish husband (Numan Acar), a former drug dealer who’s now running a legitimate travel agency. While in Hamburg, Kruger worked on little things about Katja’s look, a little edgier than her own: cutting her hair, trying out tattoos. She also became a de facto assistant casting director, showing up to all the sessions with Akin and reading with everyone in a secondary role. “I had some doubts, to be honest, of, ‘Oh, she doesn’t have kids and she has the part of the [bereaved] mother. Will this work?’” says Akin. Then as soon as he put her in the casting room with the kids who would play her son and saw how good she was with them, he says, “I knew in that moment, ‘This will work.’”

Kruger had so deeply internalized the stories she’d heard that, she says, by the time the nine-week shoot began that October, “Sometimes I felt I wasn’t acting. I was just reacting to what we did that day.” What she wanted to honor more than anything is the rage that comes with having a loved one senselessly killed. “That’s something I really witnessed. The injustice these people face,” she says. “Each of them had had their life changed in an instant by forces out of their control.”

Akin quickly learned to follow her instincts, he says, because they were usually right. A particular moment stands out as one that will likely redefine Kruger as an actress: Katja is in a makeshift triage center in a gymnasium right after the bombing, when an officer tells her that there appear to have been two fatalities, a man and a boy, and that her husband and son are still missing. In in that moment, during filming, Kruger fell to the floor, red-faced, screaming, writhing in pain. In the script, Katja’s breakdown came later, when she got confirmation. But it didn’t make sense to Kruger to wait. “She definitely knows,” she says. “As a mother, you know.”

Watching it back, though, is like watching someone else. “There are scenes I don’t remember shooting,” Kruger says. “I remember seeing the movie and going, ‘Huh?’ It was kind of a surreal experience. That doesn’t happen very often.”

In the film, Katja progresses from rage to a kind of numbness, as the legal system fails her, as pain seems to pile on top of more pain. Kruger could relate, when, in the middle of filming, still recovering from her grandmother’s death, and still haunted by the stories of the families she’d met, her stepfather — her mother’s partner of 25 years (“he was really like my dad”) — suddenly took ill and died. Kruger was distraught, but even more concerned about “my poor mom,” she says, who had lost both her mother and partner in the space of six months. The one upside was that, in doing her first German film, she was just half an hour from home. That meant Kruger was able to be at the funeral, and to visit mom regularly on weekends or have her come stay with her in Hamburg.

The constant care took its toll, though. Whereas normally Kruger could come down from an emotional scene by unwinding at home with a glass of wine, or a bath, or some TV, this time around, she was spending her precious recovery time on the phone with her mom every night. She stopped sleeping. She dropped two jeans sizes because she kept forgetting to eat. And the occasional cigarette she’d picked up to play her character turned into rampant chain-smoking. “In the beginning, it was a character thing,” she says. “But during the movie I was smoking heavily! Honestly, this movie nearly killed me!”

Once they wrapped, she says, “I didn’t work for five months after. I didn’t read one fucking script.”

Instead, she worked on quitting smoking, gaining back weight, seeing friends, sleeping in, and ditching that walk-up apartment. She also brought her mother along on a New Year’s trip to Mexico she’d started planning with friends a year prior. “It was the first time in 25 years we went on vacation together! We shared a bed for two weeks!” she says. “But it was great, because she was so fragile and vulnerable, and I didn’t want to leave her alone, so it forced us to be together.” The months leading up to, during, and after this film have been the most time Kruger and her mother have spent in the same place since Kruger was a teenager, and she’s grateful for the deepening of their relationship that has come out of all that sadness. “We grew so much closer,” says Kruger. “I love my mom, but I left home so long ago that we never really had a mother-child relationship that grew into two women. And now I feel like I’ve gained a family member.”

She’s also gained a new beau, The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus, with whom the paparazzi have photographed her swimming in Costa Rica, snapping selfies at the U.S. Open, and stealing a kiss on the streets of New York City. (When we met at Balthazar, she told me she’d just come back from another trip to Costa Rica — which the paparazzi seem to have missed.) She and Reedus met when Kruger was starring in 2015’s Sky, a micro-budget French indie movie about a French woman who leaves her lout of a husband and strikes out on her own in the American West, only to fall in with a handsome stranger. Kruger, one of the producers, reached out to Reedus through a friend of a friend to see if he’d star as her love interest.

Kruger, who was once married young to French director Guillaume Canet (now with Marion Cotillard), has spoken out about believing that marriage is something one should only do when very old, after having spent a lifetime with someone. And the jury is out on kids. (“Yeah, sure. I don’t know. We’ll see,” she says, laughing.) Kruger is less open than she once was to dishing about her private life, but when I asked if she relied on Reedus in her recovery from In the Fade and her long, hard 2016, she did confirm, over email, that he’s been her rock. “Coming out of it was a long process that mostly involved my family because we were healing and grieving the loss of my stepdad together,” she wrote. “And I was lucky to have my friends and my partner there to just be present and walk that walk with me to the light.”

Of course, fully walking into that light, as someone who’d spent six months hearing stories about the toll of terrorism and murder, would require never turning on the news again. In the Fade had premiered at Cannes just three days after a suicide bomber walked into an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and killed 22 people, injuring 116 others. Kruger says anytime she hears similar news, her mind will start flashing through the faces of victims she’s met. “To this day, when I watch TV and I hear about another attack,” she says, “I just start sobbing because I know that hundreds of Katjas were created that very day.”

Still, she has started picking up scripts again. The first film she shot after In the Fade has opened in France: Tout nous Separé (All That Divides Us), a thriller in which she plays Catherine Deneuve’s drug-addicted daughter. Kruger signed up just to be around Deneuve. “To me, it felt like that was a check mark in my career in France — working with the biggest icon,” she says. And as icons go, Deneuve lived up to the hype. “She’s warm, but she’s definitely Catherine Deneuve for sure,” says Kruger. “She goes out to dinners every single night. I can’t follow her! For real!” She even cooked for everyone on set a few times: cookies, mushroom risotto.

After that, she’s got a small but pivotal part JT Leroy, about the infamous literary hoax, and is playing a witch in a hallucination in Robert Zemeckis’s The Women of Marwen. Meanwhile, there’s all the adulation from In the Fade to bask in. It’s already opened in Germany and seems to have completely redefined her in the eyes of her native country. “It’s incredible! Like a homecoming! Open arms!” Kruger says, laughing. “In the interviews I’ve been doing, people have been like, ‘Finally! We didn’t believe you wanted to come home!’”

Her monstrous 2016 has led her to reevaluate priorities. She wants to spend time with the loved ones she has left. (Akin says that in one of their conversations, “she told me she hadn’t really taken time for herself in ten years, that she was just shooting and shooting and shooting, that her life was really from set to set.”) She’s also reevaluated her career, and realized she has only starred in one movie with another woman as her co-lead, and wants to forge ahead with producing her own content about and by women. There’s the mini-series she’s producing and starring in about Hedy Lamarr, the famously beautiful 1940s actress and inventor who, during WWII, basically developed the technology behind Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. And her next team-up with Akin (who tells me he hopes they become an inseparable pair, like John Huston and Humphrey Bogart) will be another mini-series she’s going to star in and produce about Marlene Dietrich, the German silent-film star who later gave up her career to fight Nazis as a humanitarian on the front during WWII.

Maybe it’s the times of “women bringing down men who needed to be brought down,” as she puts it, or maybe it’s the strength that comes from having survived more trauma than it seems one human being should be able to take. But her next deep dive will be into, she says,“this collective sense of sisterhood, that ‘we can do this’” that she’s never felt before. As if to demonstrate, she ends our time together by asking me all about myself — texting Lucy Liu with my theater recommendations (“she’s such a badass”), sympathizing with my writing process (“My friend who I made Sky with, when she’s working on a novel, she’s the biggest bitch ever! She’s like, ‘Agh, it’s torture!’”), and relating when I tell her how writing a profile is a little like acting prep work, in that I’ll basically be living with her in my head for the next couple weeks (“‘Oh man, I’m so over that girl!’ ” Kruger says, laughing. “No, I totally get it.”). She throws on her orange H&M parka; she’s got a French Vogue photo shoot to get to and some feminist filmmaking to get started on. I ask her one last question: Did she get recognized on the way over here?

“Oh god, no,” she says. “Not at all. Oh man, I’m, like, a mess!” It’s not true at all, but she’s good enough that she almost sells it.

How Grief Led Diane Kruger to Her Bravest Performance Yet