Who the hell is Vicky Krieps, and where did she find the nerve to be so damn good? These are the questions you might be asking yourself while watching the new Paul Thomas Anderson film Phantom Thread, where Krieps holds her own and then some against the most formidable scene partner imaginable, three-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis. In the sly period drama, 34-year-old Krieps plays Alma, a waitress who is swept up in the life of meticulous couturier Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis). He expects her to assent to his domestic demands, as the lovers before her have done, but Alma is formidable in her own right and Krieps brings an implacability to their confrontations that’s truly astonishing. When the two go head-to-head, you truly can’t guess who will triumph, and last month in Los Angeles, the Luxembourg-born Krieps told us how she managed to find that inner strength.
I’ve heard that when you taped an audition for the film, you didn’t know what the project was, or even that the director was Paul Thomas Anderson.
They sent me an extract from the text, just some lines of Alma put together, but it didn’t say anything on it about what kind of movie it was. I did have a very strong connection to the words and to the way she was speaking: It was a woman talking to a man, like as if Alma was talking to Reynolds, and you could tell that there was something not so easy in the relationship. You could tell that there was adulation for him, but at the same time, an insecurity. It said in the lines, “Is he going to throw me off the cliff at any moment?” It was a woman in love with a man who she cannot place, and she cannot hold him, she cannot own him.
So you sent in this audition tape, expecting nothing in particular. What happened next?
It was my agent who called me and said, “The director’s very happy with the tape,” and she was very excited — I could tell in her voice, because she’s usually not. And she said, “He’s asking to have your phone number,” and I said, “Yeah, whatever, you can give him my phone number.” And she goes silent for a long while, and then she said, “Vicky, sorry, but do you know what we’re talking about?” And then I said, “No, no, it’s true. I forgot the name of the director. What’s the name of him again?” Because I thought it was some student film or something, and she said, “Paul Thomas Anderson,” and then she said the names of the movies and of course I realized it then and I was very surprised and overwhelmed.
Maybe that took the pressure off your first audition! I presume that Paul called you next?
I was walking on the side of a lake out of Berlin — we have beautiful lakes out of Berlin — and suddenly this number with a plus-one appears on my phone, which I think is the first time ever a plus-one called me. I always remember that was the moment where I realized something is different now, you know? Then we talked on the phone and it was a very nice conversation. He said he was trying to get to Berlin, because he was going there anyway for some music stuff, so we met in Berlin, we read the script, and then he said, “Come to London.” I went to London and I read the script once with Daniel and Paul, and that’s when they decided they would ask me to play Alma.
When you were going to London to read with Paul and Daniel, how did you feel?
I was very nervous. It felt like that was the real audition, and I guess it was, in a way. I was with my aunt who lives in London, and I said, “I have this audition. It’s very important.” And she said, “Vicky, I will buy you a shirt. You need a nice shirt.” The way she was talking about it was like if you were going for a job interview, you know what I mean?
It’s funny to hear this from your perspective because when I asked Paul whether you were ever nervous, he said he was never able to detect that from you.
The whole situation is not unlike what your character goes through: You’re thrown into this unfamiliar, intimidating environment and somehow you need to find the strength to hold your own. How did you do it?
That’s a very good question. I think one thing I did was to follow my intuition, which I always do, and Alma does too. I knew I would be working with Daniel Day-Lewis, and you just have to say the name and everyone goes ,“Oh my God!” I knew I would meet someone who would be so out of the ordinary that I couldn’t prepare for it, so I tried to take my weakness and make it my strength. I tried to know even even less than what I know, I tried to be even less than who I was, and I think this is where Alma gets her strength. I went into this space where I could be completely empty, because if you manage to be present in the moment, all you have to do is listen and answer and then you become very strong, because nothing scares you anymore. What makes us afraid or weak, I think, is when we have these expectations and we go, “I will have to be good because I am the actress in this movie and he is this Hollywood director, oh my God!” I just emptied my head of all of this thinking and tried to be very focused and empty, actually, and then there was no fear.
Do you remember what you shot on your first day?
Yes, very much. It’s not in the movie anymore, but the movie used to begin with a church where Reynolds would discover Alma by chance, and it was so weird and so scary. Because we didn’t have trailers, I was sitting in this little pub somewhere in the English countryside knowing, “Okay, this is my first day, my first scene.” Then I got a letter from [Day-Lewis as] Reynolds, and flowers, and it was just too much. I did exactly what I just told you now: I just went very quiet and very small. I became this creature that doesn’t need much and doesn’t have much. She just is, and tries to just be.
What was it like once you were finally seated opposite Daniel in a scene and had that back and forth?
It’s a very intense energy, yet very kind, warm, and loving. It’s almost like meeting someone from an ancient tribe from somewhere far away, you know? You can feel his huge heart inside, which is so warm and loving, but still, it has the glow of something outerworldly.
On There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson actually replaced the original actor he’d cast opposite Daniel Day-Lewis. Were you aware of that?
I wasn’t. This is so interesting!
It’s probably better that you found out after you finished filming!
There was a point when I realized that if I was too scared or wouldn’t have been up to the job, they would have probably just pulled me out. Which, in the end, is a good thing to know.
How did Paul make space for you to find the character?
I think he gives you a lot of confidence and freedom. He trusts you. He’s like, “You are my Alma now, so you tell me.” He really gives you the freedom to speak for the character, and this gives you the ability to then go further, because whatever you will say will be right. And then also, there was the set. The set was the most quiet set I’ve ever, ever been in. You could hear a needle drop, and it was like this every day. For three months, every day the set was like a sacred place, like a church almost. And I think by doing this, Paul invites all the magical things that can happen when you pay attention, you know?
That strength that you found in Alma, that ability to be present and to let all of the other voices go … is that something that now you can bring into your real life?
Yeah, I think so. I watch the movie now and I go, “I cannot really believe that I was taking this for three months, every day.” I was taking it with my head up high, and I wouldn’t fall, so after the movie, I had to find some way to get back to my life. I wouldn’t say I was lost, but I made a big, big journey with a big boat far out on the ocean.
So how did you reconnect with yourself?
I found meditation. It was more out of pure desperation, I just started to wake up at 5 and sit for one hour and suddenly, day after day, piece by piece, I could really feel I was coming back into me.
After all that time spent on the film, now you’re out there promoting it, often alongside Daniel, who was in character the entire time you were shooting. What is it like to get to know him outside of that experience?
It’s very interesting. It’s nice, and it’s a relief.
Does it feel like you almost have to become acquainted with this new person?
No, because every actor is in his character. You find them in the character and ultimately it’s the person himself speaking through the character, so it doesn’t feel like I have to make a new acquaintance. But it was a very positive surprise. It was almost like a relief to see this so much younger person in there. He’s so much younger and so much more alive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.