Diane Kruger plays the ultimate heiress as she graces the cover of the January issue
In Tatler’s January issue, on sale 1 December, Ellie Austin meets a woman who’s as beautiful and complicated as her latest role.
It’s no surprise that Diane Kruger – the archetypal blonde beauty, the woman whose face launched a thousand ships as Hollywood’s Helen of Troy and who’s due to play Marlene Dietrich – should feel at home in her latest incarnation: as a seductive, self-centred 1930s Los Angeleno heiress.
‘I just love that whole world,’ she says, leaning forward intently on her desk. She’s at her townhouse in New York’s West Village, bright-eyed in a loose-fitting denim jumpsuit, her hair damp, her cheekbones high and sharp enough to cut glass. ‘Those femme fatale characters are always fun to play. For me, it’s kind of why I became an actor… I just think they are mysterious. They feel feel – I don’t know – dangerous at times.’
Her latest project is Marlowe, a moody film noir built around Philip Marlowe, the laconic private detective created by author Raymond Chandler. The film’s plot is adapted from The Black-Eyed Blonde, a sequel to Chandler’s books written by the Irish Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville in 2014. Kruger plays Clare Cavendish, the titular blonde: an Irish-American heiress who hires Marlowe (Liam Neeson) to investigate the disappearance of her lover. Clare’s mother, a notorious Hollywood film star, is played by Jessica Lange. It was the film’s setting of 1939 Los Angeles that initially appealed to Kruger. ‘I love that old-Hollywood feel,’ she enthuses. ‘[When] you’re on those movie sets, everything’s beautiful and those costumes and old cars… It just feels like you’re in a movie.’
Kruger, 46, is no stranger to moving in different worlds. When we speak, she’s recently landed in America with her four-year-old daughter, Nova, after four months in France and a quick pitstop in her native Germany. Two weeks later, she’s due to board a plane back to Paris to reunite with her fiancé, The Walking Dead star Norman Reedus, who is shooting a TV show in the city. Then it’s on to Morocco to serve as a judge at a film festival.
There’s no hint of exhaustion at all with this shuttling about. The embrace of an itinerant lifestyle is a core tenet of her family’s identity, she explains, her voice flecked with a slight German accent. ‘We teach [our daughter] that she is at home in the world, that we have friends all over the world [and] that we really don’t have to miss people because we’re just going to go for a little bit and then come back,’ she says. ‘We’re very lucky to have homes in different places.’ (The Kruger-Reedus property portfolio also includes a home in Paris, as well as a ‘little country house’ in upstate New York.)
After spending the first 15 years of her life in Algermissen, a small village in northern Germany, Kruger was picked to represent her country in a modelling competition that had previously launched the careers of Cindy Crawford and Gisele Bündchen. She promptly moved to Paris, where she booked the cover of Vogue Paris and appeared in campaigns for Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs and more. She grew close to Karl Lagerfeld, the then creative director of Chanel, who would later recruit Kruger as an ambassador for the house. When a professional restlessness set in during her early twenties, she moved into acting and beat 3,000 others to win the role of Helen in Troy, a 2004 blockbuster starring Orlando Bloom and Brad Pitt. ‘I mean, Helen of Troy obviously was based on the way I looked,’ Kruger says matter-of-factly. ‘But I don’t think they could have given it to any model, right? They wouldn’t have given it to me if I didn’t have at least a little bit of talent.’
When the film – though not her performance – was ravaged by critics, Kruger retreated to the world of European cinema. ‘I was able to continue making French movies and slowly the perception changed… people started seeing me in other things,’ she says. Since then, she has worked with Quentin Tarantino (Kruger played a film star turned undercover spy in Inglourious Basterds), dabbled in prestige TV (she starred in the US adaptation of hit Scandinavian detective series The Bridge) and karate-kicked her way into the action genre as a secret agent in all-female espionage thriller The 355.
It’s all grist for the acting mill. As for Marlowe, did the part teach Kruger anything about the world of inherited wealth? ‘Frivolous! Snobbish!’ she laughs, adding that Clare ‘grew up as a privileged white girl, who is used to having what she wants’. Inhabiting the role of Clare required perfecting the character’s contained mannerisms and clipped intonation. ‘Neil Jordan [the director] was very precise in what he wanted. He was very adamant about the rhythm of speech. There’s a different cadence. It’s not an easy dialogue to learn because it feels dated, right? I must say “Hello, Mr Marlowe” 5,000 times in a scene.’
How do you ensure that modern-day audiences connect with a depiction of such unabashed entitlement? ‘I don’t know,’ says Kruger, bristling slightly. ‘That’s a hard question. You know, it remains to be seen.’
Lively and thoughtful in her answers, Kruger responds crisply when she doesn’t want to pursue a topic. Yet she doesn’t come across as rude, rather as someone who relies on a no-nonsense efficiency to preserve her time and energy. She has guarded her personal life fiercely over the course of her career, but today, Kruger’s tone relaxes when discussing Nova. Her face lightens and she rattles off long, detailed replies, full off affectionate anecdotes and maternal declarations of pride. (‘I speak to her in German all the time. And she understands it all. She’s a very outgoing young girl.’)
Until recently, Kruger and Reedus, who met on the set of the romantic drama Sky in 2015, had refrained from sharing their daughter’s name publicly. Their stance has now changed, prompted by a children’s book Kruger wrote during lockdown. Published in October 2022, A Name from the Sky tells the story of Kruger’s complex relationship with her own name (Diane, where I’m from in Germany, is not very common and kids were making fun of me’) and how she decided on her daughter’s name. In Latin, Nova means new, which felt ‘very personal’ to Kruger and Reedus, who met when they were 39 and 46 respectively. Nova’s middle name is Tenessee, in tribute to Kruger’s discovery that she was pregnant while on a motorbike trip with Reedus in the state. While Nova is Kruger’s only child, Reedus also has a son, Mingus, 23, from a previous relationship with the supermodel Helena Christensen.
‘You know, what you’re comfortable with changes with time,’ says Kruger of her shifting approach to her daughter’s privacy. ‘When she was first born, you really try to shield her from all public gaze. I felt very strongly about that, which I didn’t know I would. But as she grew older, it didn’t…’ She pauses. ‘We have never shown her face… all of our friends obviously know what her name is and it just tied in with the book. It seems natural to tell her and the world how special she is to us and how much we put into the meaning of her name.’
Kruger wasn’t sure motherhood would happen for her. In her mid-twenties, she married the French film director Guillaume Canet, but they divorced after five years. Next came a decade-long relationship with Dawson’s Creek star Joshua Jackson that resulted in Kruger being consistently tailed by the paparazzi. The relationship disintegrated around the time of her 40th birthday. ‘I didn’t want children for a long time,’ she says. ‘I really liked my life the way it was. In my late thirties, I was starting to think about it but I wasn’t in a place in my relationship at the time – or whatever – where that was going to be a possibility and so I had kind of given up hope and I thought it was just too late. And I was OK with that. While writing this book, it definitely felt like sometimes life gives you things when you least expect them but most need them. The arrival of Nova has changed my life – our lives – in the best possible way. It’s just amazing that you thought you were one thing but you’re meant to do something completely different.’
Kruger’s own childhood was disrupted by her father’s alcoholism. An introvert who devoured books and walked her pet rabbit, Benny, around the neighbourhood on a lead, she recalls feeling like ‘an outsider. I didn’t love playing catch or football… I did ballet, which was not cool,’ she says. Embarrassment about her father’s behaviour meant that she ‘couldn’t really bring kids home’. Her parents split up when she was 13 and Kruger is now estranged from him.
The isolation she felt as a girl means that Kruger wants her own daughter to ‘always feel like she has a place everywhere’. On a practical level, this has meant enrolling her in the international system of Montessori schools. ‘Wherever I go, I put her in school – I don’t want her to feel like her life is on hold when I’m working or Norman is working.’ At home, work talk with Reedus is kept to a minimum. ‘This is maybe the first time in my adult life that I’m in a relationship where I respect him to do his thing,’ Kruger says serenely. ‘I want him to feel he can do anything he’s interested in and I would support that. And I expect that the other way around [from him].’
Now, feeling established in Hollywood (‘I’ve had more interesting offers [of roles] in the last two years than I feel like I’ve ever had in my career’) has given Kruger the confidence to speak out about pay inequality in the industry. It’s been on her mind for a while; in 2017, she remarked that, in the United States at least, she had never been paid as much as a male co-star. Five years on, is the industry’s gender gap closing? ‘I don’t know,’ she replies carefully. ‘I think it’s getting better, for sure. There’s definitely a space that has been created. There’s always a danger of regressing but I trust that the fierce ladies of Hollywood will speak up. I think there’s more transparency.’
On average, Kruger reads 10 to 15 scripts a week, with the goal of finding meaty roles for herself (she hates horror films, she says, and avoids ‘playing victims’). She’s recently signed on to play the famously fierce Marlene Dietrich in a TV series about the German actress and singer’s life. She will also executive-produce the show. Given the recent backlash against Blonde, Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe biopic, which some have accused of exploiting Monroe’s trauma, how will Kruger approach the retelling of Dietrich’s story? ‘Obviously, the aim is to honour her legacy and be respectful of that, which is one of the reasons why we’re making a miniseries and not a movie because, those nuances, you have more time to tell that story [with a series]. You need to tell the full story or not do it at all. Otherwise, you just make a documentary about Marlene Dietrich and her accomplishments, right? It’s Fatih Akin directing [Akin and Kruger previously worked together on the 2017 German language film In The Fade]. He has a real knack for writing women. He’s sensitive to the idea of [Dietrich] being an immigrant to America. We’re not going to start filming until the end of next year, so we have a lot of time to figure it out.’
Away from acting, Kruger is ‘very political’ and has posted on Instagram about the need for tougher gun legislation in America. ‘It’s something I’m really concerned with in my everyday [life] living in New York,’ she says, her voice tightening. ‘The thought of having my kid go to school and not be safe is very concerning to me. That shouldn’t even be a political issue. That should just be common sense.’
Despite feeling less anonymous in Paris than she does in New York (‘Paris is a smaller city… I started out in France, so a lot of people know me there for French movies’), Kruger seems more at ease in Europe than America. Currently, in New York, ‘There’s a lot of crime, a lot of dirt everywhere. The news is Trump, Trump, climate change. It’s oppressive sometimes. Moving to Europe – it’s not like they don’t have their problems – but it just felt like we were getting out of our bubble. It’s a change of scenery that has been really good for us.’
France also has the added advantage of being a country where women are celebrated as they age. ‘When you see people out in restaurants, it seems that there are so many attractive women of all ages. I’m sure there is sexism and the same issues that Americans face, but I know a lot of women [in France] who are happy with their second, third marriage. They have boyfriends way into their fifties.’
As for Kruger’s future happiness? She doesn’t look ahead. ‘I can’t,’ she says, then reconsiders: ‘Usually, reality is better than what you think it’s going to be, you know?’ Kruger shrugs, that innate Parisian chic much in evidence. It’s the same élan that imbues her heiress, Clare Cavendish: sophisticated, self-possessed, an enigma.