DIANE KRUGER: ‘WE ALL KNOW THOSE HORRIBLE PEOPLE IN MY INDUSTRY. . .’
Hollywood is famous for power games but in the new TV show Swimming with Sharks the tables are turned — and the Weinstein-esque boss is a woman, played by Diane Kruger. She talks about her grittiest role yet, surviving the sharks of Hollywood and saving motherhood until her forties
Playing a film studio bigwig in her new TV show, Diane Kruger throws a stiletto at an assistant after he has it resoled in the wrong colour. To be fair, any fool knows Christian Louboutin soles must be blood red. “It’s always fun to play — I don’t want to use the word ‘bitchy’ — but that horrible boss we all fear,” she says of her role in Swimming with Sharks. “That felt familiar in terms of having met my fair share of executives or horrible bosses in my life.”
She’s a convincingly hellish boss but Kruger doesn’t go in for Method acting: “With age and experience I’ve learnt what I need to understand a character, but I don’t have the luxury of coming home to my daughter and being an arsehole. I don’t want to be that person.”
The six-episode series is inspired by the 1994 film of the same name, in which Kevin Spacey plays a monstrous studio executive who torments his assistant. In 2017 Spacey’s career imploded after allegations were made of sexual harassment and predatory behaviour while he was the artistic director of the Old Vic theatre; the post-#MeToo remake has women in the two lead roles, with 22-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who was a child star in Mad Men, as the ruthless newbie.
“When I first started out there were very few women in these positions of power,” Kruger says over Zoom from her Manhattan home. “And oftentimes they were incredibly harsh, also towards other women, because they felt like they had the sense of, ‘Oh my God, I have to be double as tough to justify where I’m at.’ I think that’s changed over the years.”
The show dives into Hollywood’s murky underbelly with its power games and cut-throat competition — a world the German-born actress is familiar with after two decades in the business. Now 45, Kruger recently revealed how before she won her breakthrough role of Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships, in the 2004 blockbuster Troy, she had to appear in a studio boss’s office dressed in full costume. “I felt like meat,” she has previously said. She has also dealt with the notoriously exacting Quentin Tarantino, playing an actress-turned-spy in his 2009 film Inglourious Basterds, which was produced by Harvey Weinstein. Filming one scene, Tarantino strangled Kruger himself, pitching it as: “If it’s just a guy with his hands on your neck, not putting any kind of pressure and you’re just doing this wiggling death rattle, it looks like a normal movie strangulation.” It sounds extreme but she has described working with the director as “pure joy”.
In Swimming with Sharks, Kruger’s character, Joyce Holt, has been raped by Redmond, the head of the film studio, who she is now, years later, desperate to supersede. In one memorable scene, Redmond (a reptilian Donald Sutherland) demands that Joyce perform a sex act on his young girlfriend in front of him. “I was shocked when I read it,” she says. “It is what it’s supposed to be, right? It’s to irk the viewer. And we all now know those horrible people in my industry that are thankfully now in jail.”
In a black poloneck and with her blonde hair scraped back, Kruger is glowing through the screen having just returned home from sunny Costa Rica with her fiancé, the actor Norman Reedus, and their three-year-old daughter. One knee clutched to her chest, she is reluctant to project her experiences onto the fictional show. “This is not me working out old demons or trying to create clickbait for calling people out,” she says firmly. “I’ve certainly come across the Weinsteins of this world. I’ve never been raped. I’m not a victim. I’m here and thriving, but there have been horrible stories exposed.”
Thriving sounds about right. She recently appeared opposite her friend Jessica Chastain — “one of those women in Hollywood who really likes other women” — in The 355, a female-led spy film, and has a fistful of films in the pipeline, including Joika, in which she plays a Bolshoi ballet tutor, and a hunt-’em-down thriller with Liam Neeson.
Casting her mind back to the beginning though, Kruger remembers her terror that her career was kaput when Troy, which also starred Brad Pitt, was critically savaged. “I felt incredibly green and like an impostor,” she says. “A film doesn’t do what studios think it’s going to do and they move on to the next victim.” Cue typecasting as a pretty ingenue and more ho-hum blockbusters (the two National Treasure films, for example) alongside French films. “I would get scripts and they were kind of the same ‘girl in a movie’ type of roles. Thankfully I had a whole other career happening in France to get me out of that.”
Off screen, meanwhile, we swooned over Kruger’s seemingly perfect, decade-long relationship with Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, aka Joshua Jackson, and her faultless style (Chanel, Prabal Gurung and Prada). Kruger rarely works with a stylist and shrugs off nailing red-carpet glamour: “I don’t really care so much about what people are going to think. A lot of the people in that [fashion] world are friends so it’s easy to just call your friends. It’s not like I have to think about it for days.”
Having grown up in Algermissen, a small village in north Germany, Kruger describes her early childhood with her alcoholic father, Hans-Heinrich, her mother, Maria-Theresa, and younger brother, Stefan, as “chaotic” and “tense all the time”. Ballet classes offered comfort: “It was a great escape from my whole life because it taught me that I could express my emotions through dance and be rewarded for that.” Maria-Theresa, who worked as a bank clerk, scooped up her children and left her husband when Kruger was 13. “I’ve made peace with the situation. I’m not angry with it any more,” the actress says. “As a child you don’t understand a lot of things. You don’t understand why your father never got help, or like, ‘How come he chose alcohol over you?’ All the anger you feel is far away today.” The pair have been long estranged: “He made choices and he had to live with the consequences.”
Aged 15, Kruger, all high cheekbones and high hopes, left home to pursue a modelling career in Paris, where she was soon appearing in campaigns and on the catwalk for Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs and the like, and appearing on magazine covers. Although grateful to her mother for that freedom (“the greatest gift”), she admits that she might not be so lenient with her own daughter. In Paris, the Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld became a close friend. “He was so big then and just gregarious and funny,” she remembers of their first meeting. “Then over the years, seeing him lose all that weight. I just learnt a lot. He was very cultured, sarcastic, but very disciplined.” Presumably sharky men lurked too? “There were definitely moments that even though I thought I was in control because obviously I was smart … ” she says, raising an arch eyebrow and trailing off. “Looking back, there were very inappropriate moments.”
Bored by modelling she pivoted to film and in her twenties married the French actor Guillaume Canet before Hollywood came calling. After they divorced in 2006 she swore off walking down the aisle again but, last summer, she got engaged to Reedus, 53, who is best known for the zombie TV show The Walking Dead. The couple first met in 2015, on the film set of Sky, a gritty romance. “I was kind of in awe when I met him,” she says. “He just projects masculinity in a very, to me, intimidating way. I wasn’t used to that.”
They fell in love travelling around the US on Reedus’s motorbike: “He is really the worst driver in a car, but on a motorcycle he’s super-Zen and it’s really fun.” On the home front she seems blissfully happy; what’s the secret to their relationship? “I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. You know, it’s just like, it’s fun,” Kruger says stiltedly. “I take one day at a time. If I’ve learnt anything from my past relationships, it’s nothing is ever a given.” (She has always kept shtoom on the reasons for her break-up with Jackson, who now shares a daughter with his actress wife, Jodie Turner-Smith.) She appears in no rush to actually get married: “We’ve not even started thinking about that. I mean if I’m going to do it, I guess I’m going to do it.”
Though she is unfailingly polite, I sense Kruger doesn’t relish interviews. She describes herself as an introvert and finds Hollywood schmoozing “very exhausting”. “I feel like sometimes it’s held me back in my career,” she says. “I have fun with people I know and who are my friends but the industry shaking hands [and] meeting people, I’m not very good at it at all.”
Her demeanour lightens instantly when talking about her daughter. “Oh my gosh, she’s so sweet. I got really lucky. She’s obsessed with [the Disney film] Mulan. She’s taking martial arts to be like Mulan. All she wants to do is go to China,” she says, laughing. Reedus, who has a 22-year-old son, Mingus, with the supermodel Helena Christensen, is “obsessed” with their daughter, she says. She grins describing their daddy-daughter date to a local nail salon: “They got mani-pedis together. She was in heaven, he was in heaven. It was so cute.”
The couple are fiercely protective of their daughter’s privacy and refuse to publicise her name; what does she think of New York’s paparazzi? “I f***ing hate it and it’s driving me nuts. When I’m with my kid and they take pictures of her I’ve almost hit a few of them,” she says. “If I see them and they’re brave enough to not walk away, 100 per cent I’m that crazy lady who yells across the street.”
More happily, having a child has shifted Kruger’s relationship with her mother: “I can see how she tried and did her best, you know. All the things that you reproach your parents for when you grow up, they fall away because you understand finally what it takes.” Maria-Theresa is a hands-on granny who accompanies them to film sets around the world, something the actress acknowledges as “the number one factor for me to feel like I can do this [job]”. As a working mother the star typically takes off a few months between jobs and is pickier about projects. “If someone doesn’t want to pay a certain amount, or it feels like they’re being disrespectful about that, I just won’t do it,” says Kruger, who has repeatedly criticised Hollywood’s gender pay gap. “I don’t have the will to fight about those things.”
In Swimming with Sharks, Kruger’s character prioritised her career in early adulthood and is painfully struggling to conceive in her forties. “I was drawn to that because, in a way, it has run true for me as well. I definitely pushed all that back or didn’t even think about starting a family until it was almost too late,” says Kruger, who had her daughter aged 42. “I saw a lot of realness in that character, a lot of vulnerability.” These days it is weight training in the gym about four times a week that provides some welcome time alone: “It’s lovely to turn off my phone and just have this time for myself. Self-care, I guess.”
Kruger looks incredible, but the new show provides more evidence that, in 2022, it is the handsome young men, all rippling abs and rock-solid glutes, who are now expected to strip off more than the women. What does she make of the swing towards male nudity on screen? “I mean, I don’t need it in a movie, but I’m not opposed to it either, I guess,” she says, laughing. The series also has unbridled friskiness in loos, in cars, in a pool … “I’m definitely not the first one to go, ‘Oh, yeah, let me just take my top off,’” she says. “But I’m also not a prude. It’s another day of work.” In her Swimming with Sharks sex scenes her top is very much kept on. Years after she was made to feel like meat by that nameless movie executive, Kruger now not only knows the game but sets the rules.