Diane Kruger

Marie Claire, Jul 2013

Driving Ambition: Hiking in Chile, skinny-dipping in LA, bumping into Karl Lagerfeld in your Sunday sweats (as you do…) Diane Kruger has never really done ordinary.

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Photos by David Roemer

Sometimes when Diane Kruger’s staying at her Paris pied a terre – as opposed to her Hollywood pied a terre, or her actual home out in the deserts of LA – she’ll pop out to the shops.

“And I’ll be coming home from the local butcher, in my sweatpants, you know, just walking up the street,” she says, “when a gold Hummer comes round the corner. And the tinted window comes down slowly, and it’s Karl saying, ‘hello Diane! What’s for dinner?’ It’s so surreal, I love it!”

“Karl” is, of course, Lagerfeld, the iconic creative head of Chanel. But he’s also an old friend of Kruger’s, fifteen years and counting. And recently, he’s become her neighbor too. “He literally lives one door down,” she says.

So it was no surprise when Kruger recently became the new face of Chanel skincare. Some celebrity endorsements are pure business deals in which a brand tries to attach itself to the next hot commodity. But this was different. The way Kruger tells it, sitting on a sun lounger in the Hollywood Hills, watching the sun set over the city, Chanel isn’t this giant global fashion label to her – it’s family. And this campaign is like coming home.

“I started modeling for them when I was 15,” she says. “I know everyone there on a first name basis. They were the first ones to send me clothes when I started out as an actress. And loyalty is so rare in our business that it makes sense to be supportive. It’s not always about money.”

She has a brisk energy about her, a way of plain speaking and cutting to the quick. She knows what she thinks, and you get the sense that she doesn’t suffer fools. When I suggest that fashion, like Hollywood, might be a fickle business, known for its egos and occasional silliness, she is quick to counter.

“Those are clichés,” she says. “You can be as cynical as you want to be about filmmaking or fashion, but at the end of the day, it makes people dream, it makes women look beautiful, and it can be a wonderful creative outlet. Sure, LA can be a silly place if you’re a silly person, or you’re hanging out with silly people.”

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Kruger isn’t a silly person. She’s been hanging out with all kinds of fascinating people. Like Alex, a young man from Autism Speaks, who’s helping her play a cop with Asperger’s Syndrome for a new series on FX this July called The Bridge. It’s based on the hit Scandinavian show of the same name, and if it performs like other Scandinavian adaptations – The Killing for instance – it’ll be huge. She describes the experience as “superhumbling”.

Earlier this year, she was working with Terence Mallick, the maverick director, in his art-house black and white movie about Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. Kruger played Lincoln’s step-mom. “Everything with Terence is fluid and spontaneous, with lots of improvisation,” she says. “It’s very challenging!”

And before that, she was on a plane to Hong Kong with her legendary neighbor Karl. “He’s sitting there with this little pillow that he got in the 50s from his grandma – it says “Bon Voyage” in German. After dinner, I went to bed because it’s a 13 hour flight. But when I woke up, he was sitting in the exact same spot and he hadn’t stopped talking to his assistant who basically hadn’t slept in 24 hours – which Karl was completely oblivious to. We went straight to an event that he was hosting in Hong Kong…”

And we haven’t even mentioned her French films, which she makes in parallel with her Hollywood work. What’s remarkable about her recent gig with Chanel is that she even has the time.

She sips her Coke. “If you knew where I came from, this is just another of those things that’s just even impossible to dream about – whether it’s becoming an actor, moving to Paris, being friendly with all these fabulous people that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet… Or just sitting here today and speaking with you. Everything feels crazy.”

On the face of it, Kruger’s story has a fairytale quality – a young girl from the little village of Algermissen in Germany, population 2000, dreams of escape, and she not only leaves, the first member of her family to do so, but she makes it all the way to New York, Paris, Los Angeles, and onto billboards the world over.

“No, no,” says Kruger. “I didn’t dream of escape, it’s not so tragic. I just felt that I was different. And I know that sounds arrogant but a lot of teenagers feel that way – I don’t fit in, I’m different…”

Certainly, her childhood in Germany had its challenges. Her father was an alcoholic, and she has described home as “chaos”; it was just Diane, her younger brother and their mum. She dreamed of becoming a ballerina, and even went on an exchange program to the Royal Academy of Ballet in London. And even though a knee injury put an end to that, she learned an important lesson, “that you could express your emotions, whether good or bad, through art or music, and be rewarded for it,” she says. “And that’s something I craved my whole life.”

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The doors opened when her then boyfriend sent her pictures to Elite, the modeling agency. Diane was called in. And remarkably, it was a surprise, not only to her, but to her family.

“I’m not very tall,” she says. “I’m not one of those girls you look at and think, ‘oh she must have definitely been a model’. I mean, I know I’m photogenic, but people didn’t think, ‘oh she should be a model.’ In fact, my mom thought I was crazy. We don’t come from an artistic family. My mom wanted me to be an accountant.”

It’s a tragic loss to the world of accounting.

She laughs. “Actually no, I was terrible at math!”

The excitement of that time – Diane was only 15, and everything was new. First Elite sent her to Hamburg – “I was like, ‘Hamburg! Superexciting!’”. Then they put her on a plane to Paris to do a test screening. “I knew the minute I landed, that this is where I wanted to be.”

She booked her first job on that trip – a perfume campaign, a flying start for a novice model. And as the jobs kept coming, she kept flying out to Paris to shoot them, until soon enough, her teachers forced her to decide – school or Paris. “I pleaded with my mom,” she says, “and in the end she said, ‘OK, one year. But if I hear anything, you have to come home.’”

Diane was a good kid – far too thrilled with Paris to ever risk getting in trouble. Given her father’s alcoholism, she didn’t even drink until she was 21. “It wasn’t about getting fucked up, it was about being free. We would go dancing till two or three in the morning, and because I didn’t drink, I could easily show up for work the next day.”

There were the boys too. “Just imagine a whole house full of young, pretty much underage models,” she says, laughing. “The cars of boys that would come up at night was just insanity. It was so much fun.”

It all happened very quickly. While still a teenager, she found herself keeping apartments in both New York and Paris and flying between them most every week. It was the high life, in the early 90s, and the money was flowing. But Kruger tired of it quickly, too. “It’s something to do with growing up and becoming a woman, you want to have your own say,” she says. “And no one asks a model, they just tell them. Wear that! You’re the coat hanger. And I found it limiting.”

By the time fashion had had its second 60s revival in four years, Kruger was done. It was 1998, and she decided to try acting back in her beloved Paris, studying at the Cours Florent academy, where she was the only non-native speaker. Those years, in her early twenties in Paris, remain some of her happiest memories.

Then suddenly, Troy made her world famous. And this part of the story really is a fairytale – because the chance of a novice like Kruger landing the role of Helen in a $175 million epic written by Homer is slimmer than a model’s wrist. And yet overnight, she went from Diane, the former model, to the face that launched a thousand ships

“I didn’t even have an agent in LA,” she says. “I just had this girl in England who liked this French movie I did and said she wanted to represent me. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to work in English – to me the dream was always to make French films. And she said, ‘look, you should put yourself on tape.’ So I did. And she sent that tape in for me. She’s still my agent today.”

She remembers the phone call well. She was in Montreal at the time, shooting her first ever movie – in French, naturally. “I don’t think I even told anyone until they announced it, because I thought they were going to call back and say ‘it’s not going to happen’,” she says. “I barely knew a thing about acting at the time.”

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That was 2003, a decade ago. She was married then, to the actor/director Guillaume Canet (they’d tied the knot in 2001), and in career terms she says, she was “very very green.” Now, however, she’s a seasoned actress, with that rare and balanced career that’s both transatlantic and bilingual – along with the Hollywood blockbusters, like National Treasure and Inglourious Basterds, there has been a steady trickle of smaller French movies in between. And ever since she and Canet divorced in 2006 (he’s now married to Marion Cotillard), she’s been in what would appear to be one of the strongest celebrity relationships  in Hollywood. To see her and Joshua Jackson, two years her junior, the star of Fringe and before that Dawson’s Creek, all loved up at Coachella this year, you’d think there were really no challenges associated with being an “it” couple, in the public eye as they are.

“All relationships are hard,” says Kruger, firmly. “It’s just about two people who are trying to be with each other or not. It doesn’t matter what job you have, or how famous or miserable or poor you are! It’s about commitment – the want to make something work. The hard part is the timing. When you meet someone, are you ready to make it your number one priority?”

Kruger was ready. It’s a stage of life thing. She credits the strength of their relationship to the fact that they both came to the same realization. “That there’s never going to be a role that’s going to be more interesting than my own life,” she says. “I’m grateful that I met a person that feels the same not just about me, but also our relationship.”

She laughs. “But therapy helps too!”

Kruger is open about being in therapy. Ever since she moved to Los Angeles four years ago, it’s been something she’s become more and more open about. “It’s funny, in Paris people don’t talk about it. My friends are like, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ But here, everyone talks about it, and I really like that about America. Therapy’s not about getting help, it’s facilitating yourself to deal better with life in general.”

Given her somewhat dramatic life, there’s a lot to talk about with her therapist.  Her relationship with her father, for instance – or lack thereof. She hasn’t seen him since she was 16, and there’s not much hope of reconciliation. The last attempt to connect ended at the time of Troy’s release, when he sold baby pictures to the German press. She told Psychologies magazine earlier this year: “Since then he has spiraled down and isn’t really in his right mind. It’s too late for us to rebuild our relationship.”

At the risk of sounding like a therapist, I have to ask: Did her broken relationship with her father impact her relationship with men in general?

She smiles. “Oh, I’m sure I punished many boys for lack of a father figure,” she says. “And I’m sure I dated many men who were much older than I should have been dating! But at the end of the day I’m not bitter. I love men. I want a family for myself, I’m not angry anymore with him.”

Another change in the last ten years: Kruger no longer thinks she knows it all. Because she used to. “Honestly, for a long time I felt that I was so accomplished,” she says. “Oh, I speak three languages, I travel the world, I’ve seen so many things. But when I turned 30 I realized I was an idiot. I didn’t know nothing about shit!”

It struck her when she was shooting a movie in Tajikistan called Special Forces that required her to interview war journalists as research. She realized that the world view she was seeing on her TV was tainted by the agenda of the network. “It’s not like you see on CNN,” she says. “They’re just telling you the stories they want you to hear.”

So this is the goal now: To be smarter, or more “accomplished”, a word she uses often. The way she explains it, it’s less about sifting through the spin on CNN and more to do with her personal relationships, her eventual motherhood and living an honorable life.

“I know I’m not going to cure cancer or anything, but I don’t want to be just some floozy girl who got by in life through luck or, I don’t know, circumstances,” she says. “I love my job, but I want to be defined by the life I’ve lived, not the roles I’ve played. I want to become an accomplished woman, not just some actress, whether that’s being a stay at home mom, or even if I decide one day, fuck it all, I’m going to go and live in Chile!”

She gets all excited at the mention of Chile. She went on a trip there with “Josh” last year, and to Argentina too. It was a hiking holiday – serious hikes too, none of your casual weekend jaunts.

“Oh my God, you have to see the desert of Atacama,” she says, looking through her iPhone for photos. “It’s never happened to me before. But I got out of the car, and I started crying, I couldn’t stop crying. It looks like Mars. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Here, look.”

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She shows me the deserts. And then the 18,600 ft volcano they climbed in Patagonia. “Look there’s Josh there, tiny, on top. Isn’t that cool? And here, look at this glacier. This was after our 25K hike, on New Years Day.” Next year, it’s all about Machu Piccu.

It’s a fun life. Kruger isn’t a slave to a health regime or to Pilates at 5am. She still likes to get out for a night of dancing every now and again. “Oh I love dance clubs,” she says. “Especially in New York. Just not the oontz oontz stuff – I don’t do ecstasy so you know, glow sticks and water bottle – God no. You have to be on drugs I think.”

She’s known to have a drink from time to time. In fact, the one time she tried to quit, it was quite a challenge. “I gave up for six weeks last year before Cannes, but that first week was tough! It’s scary how hard it was.”

And wine isn’t her only vice. She grins . “Oh I have many vices, none that I want to share with the world though. I wish I didn’t but I do…”

But it’s the simple joys that she looks forward to most. The great outdoors. The house she lives in with Jackson is way out in the desert, far enough – but also close enough – from the action of Los Angeles. “It’s the middle of nowhere, it’s so cool. We live at the top of a mountain basically, and there’s nobody around. Nobody.”

When she recently revealed that she and Josh would swim naked in the pool at nights, he was apparently embarrassed to have that out in public. But it’s true.

“Look, it gets so hot in the summer, it’s like 80 degrees at night, and you’re in the middle of nature…” She laughs. “Wouldn’t you swim naked?”