Luxembourger actress Vicky Krieps has been appearing in European films for the better part of a decade, but it’s safe to say that none brought her anywhere near the exposure of her role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread.” To discuss her role as Alma, the country waitress who becomes the very complicated muse to Daniel Day-Lewis’ London dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock, Krieps has done round after round of press, so much so that she can refer to the email from a casting director that first offered her the part – in which she managed to miss the name “Paul Thomas Anderson,” thinking the role was for a student film – as “this famous email.” Here, she discusses how her perspective on the film has already changed, her plans for the future, her take on #MeToo, and a chance meeting with one of her heroes.
What has it been like to discuss the film so much after the fact in the press? Do you find yourself reevaluating choices you made, or finding new elements?
Krieps: “Yes. What’s great is that I myself started to understand the movie more. It has so many layers and is in many ways so mysterious, so I like to see what other people see in it. Even just in an interview, by the questions I get, I start to think of things differently too. Even for me, the movie is still opening up different layers.
“This movie was created in many ways intuitively. By Paul, me, Daniel, [costume designer] Mark [Bridges], Lesley [Manville]. No matter how much you prepare – and Daniel is someone who prepares a lot – when you get on set you still have to be intuitive. Because it’s a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, where you want it to be so surreal that you sometimes feel ashamed, or uncomfortable, sitting and watching his movies. I’ll never forget a scene from his last movie, ‘Inherent Vice,’ the sex scene. It felt so real, I couldn’t understand what it was while I was watching it. It felt like it wasn’t a movie. There’s just a lot of intuition involved.”
Was there any scene here that you felt particular trepidation about?
“I would say the fashion show scene. With fashion as a whole, I had to learn my way around and into those dresses. That was my biggest fear. The way I grew up, I had hippie parents, and we would run around the garden with no shoes on, very close to nature. So I never wore little princess dresses. I still have this feeling whenever I wear a very formal dress, I always have this slight fear that people will point their fingers at me and laugh: ‘Vicky is trying to look like a lady.’ That scene was the hardest, because we only had one day to do it, so I couldn’t trip or fall. I was so happy when I finished, and the costume supervisor told me I did a really good job – because he knew what I was actually like.”
You did some of the dubbing for this film, for the French and German versions. Did that give you a different perspective?
“It really wasn’t easy. It’s one of the toughest things, because you have very little time – these guys are used to professionals, which I am not. And then I have my own opinions, which can get in the way. But it was also great because it gave the people doing the dubbing the opportunity to ask me things: ‘How do you think Paul means this?’ Which gives them a different approach to the movie. They dubbed me first, and then from this they got to direct the other voice actors on which tones to use. I speak very slowly in the film, I don’t really raise my voice, and [loud, radio announcer voice] ‘they’re more used to people talking like this!’ So they were trying to tune everyone else to my wavelength.
“It was also great because, seeing the scenes over and over, I’m a ‘Phantom Thread’ specialist now. Not only was I in the movie, and got to watch all the screenings, but then doing the dubbing where you see a scene over and over again, I suddenly could realize just how much Lesley and Daniel were doing, how the diamonds they shaped were so perfect. I could just study the way they said something, when, how fast, how slow. I could marvel at what Paul was doing, and the editing, and the music.”
As the film progresses, Alma gradually becomes the co-protagonist of the film, and yet there’s so little of her backstory. How much did you make up or discuss with Paul?
“Paul didn’t give me much, so I was pretty much left alone, which was two things. One, it was scary: If someone asks you to be in this Hollywood movie when you come from Luxembourg, then leaves you alone, it’s incredibly scary. But it also gave me the chance to be strong because I had to be strong. If Paul isn’t giving me anything, then I have to come up with it by myself, which means I have to learn to trust myself.
“All he gave me [about Alma] was this: She’s from somewhere in Europe, and her mother died. So I had to understand how someone from such a simple background could become so strong, and so responsible. I had to dig deeper, because I had no information, we did no rehearsals, and there was a big empty space. So I looked at people like my grandmother, my family, I dug up letters from the War. And then it occurred to me that this is someone who grew up during a war, who had people die all around her, and then had to leave her country and go to another one and start all over again, and since her mother died she had to work. There was the answer. Of course this person would have an incredible strength that she could use in any situation. That’s how a simple girl could stand up straight in front of all of these society ladies.
“This is something that wasn’t in the movie, but there was a scene where Alma decides herself to go see Reynolds. It’s after their first night, where he takes her out, takes her home and measures her, and brings her back the next morning. After that they don’t see each other, because there are no cell phones, so she herself decides to go to his house and ask, ‘where is he?’ And the housekeeper says he’s in his [London] townhouse, so she takes the train, all by herself with a little suitcase, and we see her standing in the atelier saying, ‘Here I am. You cannot just leave me like this.’ And he says, ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ whether he means it or not. And then everything else happens that you see in the movie. But she just does it. And that to me is the message that Alma has, that no one is going to tell you when you can do something, you have to do it.”
What was the first film role you did that made you feel you feel you had arrived as an actress?
“It was the movie that Paul first saw me in, ‘The Chambermaid.’ It was only then that I really allowed myself to think ‘I am an actress.’ Not only because I carried the movie, but also because I created a person, I created a life, and a lot of it was by myself. We had a lot of rehearsals, but they were more about the sex scenes. The whole question of how this person would walk and be, that I did myself. And that was the first time in a film that I had the feeling that I’d painted a painting, it came out, people could look at it, and I’m the painter who made it so I can sign my name underneath. Before, my contributions were maybe too small for me to allow myself to think like that.”
What are you looking to do now? How strategic are you in thinking about where you take your career from here?
“I don’t have any program, and I never had one. The more I do this, the more I’m sure about my initial principles. The more I’m here in LA talking to people the more I believe that what I’ve been doing is right, and that’s the belief that you have to judge a role from the character, by the script. Which is why I misread this famous email from the casting director. Because I always choose by the book.
“But what’s also interesting is I’ve been here for a week, and people keep asking me that question, you asked me, and finally I feel like I can answer. Before I was so overwhelmed by the question. But now, I can say that I find it such a great opportunity to meet people I would like to work with. It doesn’t mean people who are famous or people who can pay me a certain amount of money, but people who think how I think and want to do the art I want to do. This starts to sink into my mind, where I realize, ‘Vicky, you are in a place now where you can meet all these guys who are like you.’ There’s this wonderful English term ‘kindred spirits’ – that’s what I’m looking for.”
This is obviously an unusual time in American film, with the #MeToo movement really confronting harassment and inequality in the industry. In your opinion, do you see German film and European film as being further along?
“I think so. That’s my honest answer. It’s not to say that here people have been behind, but here the industry has been so powerful, money-wise. Whenever money is in the game, it can suffocate anything and anyone else, and I think people have been misled by money, or the dream of money, or selling the dream that if you’ve made it money-wise, you’ve made a life. Which is a lie. You don’t get happiness by money. And that’s the discussion which is lying beneath the one which is going on now. Whenever you make someone dependent on your money… It’s this capitalist idea that I think has made America into a place where it’s hard to breathe as an individual sometimes.
“Here, if you have a date – these are things I’m finding out now – after three dates, at least you have to kiss. If not, you will not meet again, right? For me, I had my first boyfriend when I was 21. And I will always remember sitting in the cinema at 20, watching a movie [‘Never Been Kissed’] with Drew Barrymore, going, ‘That’s so much of a problem that you can make a whole movie about this? Oh my God, I’m 20 and I haven’t kissed a man…’ I think this says a lot about our societies, because I could grow up until 21 not having a boyfriend, and then my first boyfriend, I slept with him after one year, and it wasn’t a thing, because that wasn’t why we were together. And I think that explains so much – when things aren’t all about ‘what do I get out of this?’ and ‘what’s the agenda?’
“What I would wish for America is that the discussion could go a little deeper. Because it’s really important that people talk about it, but there’s this other layer that goes even deeper, and it even goes to your politics, everything. Maybe it’s very European, but I always see both sides. I feel very sorry for the people who have been harassed, but I also feel very sorry for the people who have lived a life where they have been harassing people. You cannot tell me any of these people are really happy, it’s more like a disease. So I really think it’s important for everyone to wake up. That would be my hashtag: #WakeUp.”
How did growing up in Luxembourg affect the way you approach your career?
“We’ve been occupied by so many people, and our language is spoken by so few people, that it wouldn’t make any sense to go around very proud, like, ‘I’m from Luxembourg, get out of my way…’ It also wouldn’t make any sense to think, ‘Look at me, I’m an actress now.’ Because there it means nothing – we all basically live the same way, we don’t have celebrities there.
“My dad is following everything I do so closely, which I think is very sweet, and also reassuring, in the sense that, ‘Okay, home is watching.’ He reads all the articles; I don’t. He just said to me that he went out on New Year’s Eve to see a bunch of friends and family members, and they all know me, they all know what is going on, and he said that not one person approached him about it. And I think that says a lot. They just leave him in peace. Even once I got a prize in Luxembourg, and it never felt so impressive, it just felt a postcard from home.
Who did you first look to that made you want to pursue acting?
“It’s been quoted already, that I saw ‘Beauty and the Beast’ by [Jean] Cocteau, which is where it clicked for me that I wanted to be part of this dream factory. I was so impressed by the mask of the beast, and all of these special effects which were so simple, really. I just found it so wonderful that you could offer someone a look at a different world – but I didn’t relate to it so much that I thought one day I could be the actress.
“The first time I saw a performance where, even though I couldn’t quite understand what I saw, it just moved me and stayed with me for days, almost like a physical experience, was Emily Watson in ‘Breaking the Waves.’ It’s funny, because Emily is also in one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, ‘Punch-Drunk Love,’ which is also one of my favorite movies. But ‘Breaking the Waves,’ I don’t know what it did to me, and I couldn’t say it was a good feeling, but it was just so strong. I wondered, ‘Who is this woman? How could someone act like this?’ It was so real that it was spooky.”
Have you ever spoken to her about it?
“It’s funny, people ask me all the time if I’ve ever been star-struck, and there was a moment at a screening in London. I was at the toilet washing my hands, and I turned around and there she was. I didn’t recognize her at first because I wasn’t expecting to see her. And not only was she there, but she came to tell me how much she liked the movie and how much she liked what I did. That was the only moment where I had to kind of stand in a corner for two minutes and go [hyperventilating], ‘okay, okay, okay…’ Because the girl who saw [Watson] in that movie would never have dreamed of becoming an actress in movies, and certainly wouldn’t have dreamed of becoming an actress in a Hollywood movie wearing dresses.”