Vicky Krieps: ‘I was completely lost after Phantom Thread – it was like surviving a shipwreck’

‘They meant well, they wanted to save me. But they said, “Vicky, you have to change your approach.”’  (Shutterstock)
‘They meant well, they wanted to save me. But they said, “Vicky, you have to change your approach.”’ (Shutterstock)

I was completely lost,” Vicky Krieps says, a bottle of Evian in her hand, her hair hidden beneath a pink baseball cap and a brown shawl wrapped theatrically around her neck. “It was like being dropped out of an airplane onto a different planet, or surviving a shipwreck.” The Luxembourg-born actor is describing her life in the aftermath of Phantom Thread, the 2017 Paul Thomas Anderson film that put her toe-to-toe with Daniel Day-Lewis, as the waitress who becomes muse and lover to his society dressmaker. It made her a star, but it took her two years to recover. “I slowly found my way,” she continues. “How I could live with this job being the person I am. Because I am not [a] public person. It’s a weird thing when you don’t want to be seen, yet you become an actor.” She cracks a sad smile.

Krieps speaks so softly that her voice is practically a whisper. Her accent – clipped, airy, very European – adds to the effect. But it’s a glacial pitter-patter at odds with her actual words. They’re sometimes spacey and self-doubting, but for the most part they’re fiery, rich in dramatic metaphors and comic disdain. She was in Cannes for the film festival; in photographs on the red carpet, she appears bright, cheery and receptive to the pantomime of it all. In fact, she found the whole thing ridiculous. “It was like a game to get attention,” she says. “Internally I was laughing, because I thought, ‘OK, these people are fighting to be seen.’ To me, it’s just hilarious how we take it all so seriously.”

Anderson was clearly onto something. Krieps is so thrilling in Phantom Thread because what she projects is often at odds with the truth of her. When we – and Day-Lewis’s clenched, tyrannical Reynolds Woodcock – first encounter her character Alma, we think we see someone fragile and ethereal. Clumsy, even. She is significantly younger than Reynolds, and a foreigner working for pennies at a restaurant on the Yorkshire coast. But the woman Reynolds assumes he can dress up and dominate, thinking she’ll be far too impressed by the glitz and glamour of his life to ever protest, is actually a powder keg. She refuses to bow to his every desire, demands agency and respect, and initiates an erotic back-and-forth with him. She makes him sick and submissive, and then she makes him better. Rinse and repeat. He – and us watching – never saw it coming.

It’s been nearly five years since that incendiary performance. Krieps is calling over Zoom from a hotel in Cologne, where she’s in the middle of filming and exhausted. She’s just arrived from Cannes, where she had two films in competition – including the already Oscar-tipped historical drama Corsage, in which she plays the 19th-century Empress Elisabeth of Austria – and before that she was in Vienna. We’re here to talk about Bergman Island, a movie that premiered at Cannes in 2021 but has only just arrived in UK cinemas. When Krieps refers to our conversation being a “time warp”, it’s also because Bergman Island began filming in 2018, stopped filming for nine months, and then started up again. Then a pandemic happened. “I get goosebumps,” she says, pinching at her arm. “There’s something about this movie. It’s always been out of time. Surreal, ghost-like.”

In Bergman Island, from French writer/director Mia Hansen-Love, Krieps is one half of a filmmaking power couple. Tim Roth is Tony, a revered director so enthralled by the legend of Ingmar Bergman that he has insisted he and his wife Chris (Krieps) spend a working holiday on Faro, an island off the coast of Sweden where Bergman worked and shot many of his films. Chris, meanwhile, is a blocked screenwriter, who finds herself whisked away on a strange creative odyssey while separated from her husband. The line between fact and fiction blurs, and we witness the protagonist of Chris’s script – Mia Wasikowska’s Amy – come to life. The film is a Russian doll: stories hidden within stories.

Krieps joined the film while in the middle of her own crisis. She didn’t know what she wanted to do after Phantom Thread but was so intrigued by the idea of drifting off to an island with Hansen-Love that she said yes without hesitation. There was no guarantee that the film would even be completed. Roth hadn’t been cast when Krieps began shooting, with his scenes filmed months later after a pause in production. Instinctively, though, Krieps knew that something would come out of it. She says she and Hansen-Love are both too stubborn for it to have languished unfinished.

At one point in Bergman Island, Chris complains to Tony that he doesn’t empathise with how hard she finds writing. “It’s self-inflicted agony,” she spits. Does Krieps identify? Does acting equal pain for her? “I actually have a lot of pleasure doing it,” she says. “I like to be positive, because we’re here for such a short time that I prefer to have fun.” It was the biggest difference between her and Day-Lewis. “I realised working with Daniel that he felt like the work was somehow painful. He had self-inflicted agony. I think that’s what made that movie [what it was], because we had two different energies. I could never enter that pain.”

Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth in ‘Bergman Island’ (Mubi)
Vicky Krieps and Tim Roth in ‘Bergman Island’ (Mubi)

Did she understand it? “I think I got closer to understanding. I think method acting is a way for people to become completely alive [in their work], to be pure and crystal clear. For Daniel, it was as if he would squeeze an orange but not spill one drop. It was about finding the essence of something, of a scene, of a sentence, of a feeling. I do it in a different way. It’s not like closing yourself down and creating on your own, which I think is more like method acting. I open myself up to everything. I open so much that I empty myself of myself.” She hovers her hands in front of the camera on her laptop screen. “I become like a white plane, where there is nothing and then I can be anything. So it’s the opposite of method acting, but it goes for the same goal.”

I suggest that method acting has always captured the public’s imagination. Nothing seems to create a stink quicker than, say, Jared Leto sending dead rats to his co-stars in the post. Or whenever Christian Bale starves himself. “It’s fascinating even to me!” Krieps says. “Every day I wonder what it is that I do. What is this work? Sometimes it feels very spiritual. I feel like maybe I’m a medium, or something is being transported through me. I try to not even capture it, because I know that I never could. It’s too free. But I know that I can create a space for it to come in.”

Before she studied drama at Zurich’s University of the Arts, Krieps had pondered becoming a social worker. Her grandfather was a Holocaust survivor and freedom fighter in Luxembourg, instrumental in socialist causes and the country’s abolition of the death penalty. Krieps would spend her earliest years at protests and sit-ins, often alongside him. “I thrive in chaos,” she says. “I grew up around it and I embrace it – I call it the order of chaos.” An artistic life wasn’t inevitable, but instead the result of curiosity and rebellion. “We don’t ask to be here, yet we try so hard and we do our best [in life], and mostly we fail. But there is such goodwill in it, you know? It’s fascinating to me.” She was signed by an agent while in a play in Berlin, and film work rolled in. It was the dark German comedy The Chambermaid Lynn – in which she plays a maid snooping around the rooms of her guests – that caught Anderson’s eye. Krieps never aimed to make a jump into English language film, yet threw herself into it all the same. Everything that followed, though, was done on her own terms. Is she still a rebel at heart?

It’s like they’re putting themselves out there in a way that is so embarrassing. Like selling yourself. Every second picture I see is not just a picture, but someone trying to say, ‘Look at me. I’m okay, am I not?’

“All the time,” she laughs. “I think that’s why people are sometimes so surprised when I say I have two kids”. She has an 11-year-old and a seven-year-old with the actor Jonas Laux. “People can feel that energy and they’re like… ‘But you have children! A punk has children?’” She scoffs. “I’m not nearly a punk any more, but I think rebellion is just in me.”

It’s partly why – apart from a turn in last year’s M Night Shyamalan thriller Old – Hollywood has never really worked its magic on her. In the wake of Phantom Thread, Krieps spent months in Los Angeles, attending fancy parties and meeting American agents. Many began mapping out the kind of career she could have. Krieps balked at it. “Earlier, you were asking about pain,” she tells me. “That was painful. I don’t know why. The whole small-talk thing. It’s like eating cardboard.”

Does she ever think about the person she would have been if she let Hollywood shape her? “Yes, when I go on Instagram,” she says. She only joined it to stop fake accounts from claiming to be her, and uses it quite conventionally – she promotes her work, posts pictures of her children’s drawings, an occasional candid photograph. “I am not joking, but within one minute on Instagram, I become sad. And why I become sad is because I see colleagues of mine, or people who do the same work [as me], making themselves…” She ponders the right word to use. “It’s like they’re putting themselves out there in a way that is so embarrassing. Like selling yourself. Every second picture I see is not just a picture, but someone trying to say, ‘Look at me. I’m OK, am I not? Please accept me.’”

She continues: “It shows me who I would have been if I let people guide me. You become someone who, without noticing, fulfils other people’s ideas and visions. You become a little puppet always trying to get approval, and [told] the right way to be. But we’re all approved the minute we get here. We’re perfect the way we are. There’s nothing you have to add or take away.”

Krieps alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Phantom Thread’ (Shutterstock)
Krieps alongside Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘Phantom Thread’ (Shutterstock)

It’s this kind of dialogue – candid, critical, mildly withering – that she was warned about by people in LA. The overriding message she got in Hollywood, she says, was to stop being so Vicky Krieps-ish. “They meant well, they wanted to save me,” she remembers. “But they said, ‘Vicky, you have to change your approach. In every interview, you give yourself – you give a different answer each time.’ Apparently, there is a way of doing interviews where you don’t give a different answer every time. You almost have a script, I guess?” She has tried it only twice. “It doesn’t work. I always find myself listening to the person talking to me, and then I answer them not in the way of the script, or about the movie. That’s why it doesn’t taste like cardboard, but that’s also why I sometimes get very tired in interviews.”

Her mind begins to wander. “I could try to fake it, but then what does it do to me? If I start creating a Vicky for interviews, what if it f***s with my idea of who I am? Let’s say I do a whole day of interviews where I’m this perfect person giving these perfect answers – what if I don’t find the real Vicky in the evening? Or in the airport on the way home? Then what? Maybe that’s even more dangerous than being tired…”

She stifles a yawn. For now, at least, she’s far happier being sleepy.

‘Bergman Island’ is in cinemas now, and can be streamed via MUBI from 22 July