Vicky Krieps: The ‘Phantom Thread’ Scene Stealer Reveals Her Process

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Photo Source: Stephanie Diani

Vicky Krieps has one hell of an audition story to share.

“I made a movie in Germany called ‘The Chambermaid’—it was very, very small. I think it cost €70,000 to make. I even put some money in and raised some money for it. It was real German arthouse.... It goes, somehow, out there on the internet and it goes on iTunes. And Paul Thomas Anderson is on iTunes, sees this movie poster and he likes it. He clicks on it, he watches the movie, he likes it and watches it twice. And this is why his casting director sent me the request to put myself on tape.... And because of that tape, everything else happened.”

Anderson knew he was looking for someone of a certain age, someone who could hold her own against three-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis, back from a hiatus for his final onscreen performance in period piece “Phantom Thread.” The last time the director and Day-Lewis had collaborated, they won an Oscar for 2007’s “There Will Be Blood”; this time, they were building the world of a glamorous dressmaker in 1950s London.

Krieps, however, knew none of this. “I recorded [the tape] thinking it was for a student film! Because I didn’t read the email properly.” She procrastinated for four days before finally recording the tape and sending it off. She only realized her mistake when, after her manager called to say that Anderson had loved her audition and wanted a phone interview, she checked the email again.

“He saw my little movie that no one saw. He saw my work, and this is why he asked me. It was no producer, no industry, no nothing involved, just purely the work that got me the work. I, as an actor, always wished someone would tell me a story like this, so I could have gone on believing in what I do and not thinking, Maybe you also have to go to this premiere party and do this press work and take pictures, you know?”

If work begets work, this is just the beginning for Krieps, who stuns onscreen in her first major English-language role as Alma, the love interest of Day-Lewis’ character, Reynolds Woodcock. The confirmed bachelor at the heart of the House of Woodcock, he dresses the crème de la crème of high society, pulling women into his orbit, using them as his muses and disposing of them when they cease to inspire. All until Alma, strong-willed and self-contained, enters his life and upends his controlled (and controlling) existence.

Day-Lewis is predictably exquisite, zooming around the screen like an animate pair of dressmaker’s shears and delving deep into the character of a couturier who is used to a world ordered around his whims alone—from the twitch of a hem with his work-roughened fingers to the petulant chomp of an asparagus spear. But the real scene-stealer here is Krieps, mesmerizing in a role that combines ingenuousness with sinister depths. Gauche yet graceful, simultaneously ugly duckling and swan and, above all, absolutely riveting, her character’s descent into the structured, rule-bound world of her new lover leads to decisions that tread the line between obsessive and criminal. As she says, “Every good love story is actually completely insane, completely mad.”

Her body language speaks volumes for the character of Alma, who blossoms over the course of the film. “I tried to be influenced by the different fabrics, you know? Like, how do I feel if I have lace on my skin? How do I feel if I have wool on my skin?” Although her character is often draped in lush materials, it’s when she’s at her rawest that she’s truly alive.

“I think it’s really good if you look shit sometimes, and you can also look shit in a movie because that’s like real people. So me and Paul decided that [Alma] will not have makeup. I did have a makeup artist and a hair artist, but the poor things, they were so frustrated because they were not allowed to do anything.” She laughs. “[I wanted] her to be pure and raw and innocent without being too naïve, but coming from this place which is so natural; I really wanted to keep this natural face. And I blush in the beginning, no? I blush a few times and it would only work because you see my skin.”

The shoot, which lasted for three long months away from family and friends, was in some ways an endurance race—one that took its purest toll on the body.

“When I act, I act with my skin. And for this movie I had to turn my skin inside out. It was actually really painful. Because I couldn’t release, there was no point of releasing, so my body language was the only thing that was left for me where I could retreat. I had to be so quiet and restrained a lot of the time. I needed to speak, but I couldn’t speak, so my body started to speak.”

Of course, it helped that she was able to learn from one of the foremost actors of our time. “To me, [Day-Lewis] is more a shaman than a Method actor,” Krieps says. “Actors actually have a feeling, like a sixth sense. They are like mediums. But it only works, you can only become this medium or this vessel to transport emotions and images and feelings, if you are not too full of yourself. Otherwise there wouldn’t be space for a story to live inside of you or a world to evolve in you and around you. I think he’s the master of all of this.”

Being on set with figures as legendary as Anderson and Day-Lewis was a humbling experience—but it was also almost eerily easy. “From the moment that I met Daniel and Paul, I felt at home…. Like old friends you see again, which is creepy and weird, but that’s exactly how it was. And working with them was like this, too; it just felt more natural than any other thing I had done before. It was like I could finally work how I want to and I could finally be who I want.”

It’s a refrain that crops up repeatedly with Krieps—the importance of the work itself, letting it dictate every decision that she makes as an actor, whether it’s how to choose a role or how to behave while filming. “With Paul and Daniel, the work atmosphere on set is very, very concentrated, very quiet. You can hear a pin drop, it’s really quiet and it’s all about the work. No one is on the phone while you are playing your scene.”

Krieps’ intensive theater background certainly stands her in good stead. Born and raised in Luxembourg, she trained in Zurich and Berlin before moving into directing and acting for film. “I really think everyone should stand on the stage at some point in life,” she says. “You just get to understand your work in a very different light, because it’s much purer and much more direct. You have to perform so the people look at you. If you lose your intensity or your energy, you’re lost.”

Acting, for her, is a way to channel experience, to re-transmit emotion to a waiting audience. “I went to Africa and I saw this beautiful landscape. [I needed] to stand there and to make a copy inside of my head or inside of my soul or inside of my feeling and then go home to Luxembourg, where people cannot go to Africa. And get on stage—back then I didn’t think that I would ever be a movie actor—and pour it out again. So they can have this feeling, this impression of an African landscape, where they could never go. That was really my very naïve idea about acting.”

Using her own body as a way to capture space and time is probably what led her to acting, she admits—though it all started long before she ever dreamt of performing. “I always was very, very, very dreamy. I like to dream a lot. I was always dreaming myself into other centuries or other worlds, or I would sit at a train station sometimes and just watch people come and go. And I was so fascinated that they all had a start and endpoint. They were all going somewhere. If I could have wished [it], I would have become a little mouse sitting in their pocket and just followed them to go wherever they go and see how they go home and make themselves food. I was fascinated by this.”

Perhaps the need for different worlds, for being the shamanistic messenger-vessel that transmits possibility, stems from a childhood in a thoroughly landlocked nation. “[Luxembourg] is so small the president might be your neighbor or the cousin of your cousin; the good thing about small countries is that we don’t have this culture of celebrity, of being authorities. Everyone knows everyone, so it’s really laid-back. It’s something I really like.”

That element of practicality is what grounds Krieps’ work—a common-sense approach to dreamland. “You have to work a lot to earn enough money. I have two children; I am the breadwinner of the family. You need the next project, and always there’s stress between projects. Even now, you know, I have this great film. I still go, ‘Oh, my God; I don’t know when I will work next!’ And of course I hope and I kind of know that probably I will get work. I [still] have to tell myself, ‘No, Vicky, don’t be stressed. It will all be fine, don’t worry. The next project will come.’ But as an actor, you always have to deal with this fear of what’s next. Will I get the next project? Will it be enough money so I can send my kids to school? And it’s something not many people talk about. It’s actually a big part of an actor’s life.”

That’s why, she says, the opportunity to go to acting school is so valuable—it gives you breathing room. “The best thing an acting school can ever provide is room and space and silence for you to thrive in the shade, not in the light straight away. Imagine you’re a little plant, a little flower, and you have to grow. And everyone is looking at you while you’re growing. This is what I always feel for actors who start so young. I imagine myself as I was growing, becoming a grownup. Imagine you have to become a grownup with all eyes on you. It cannot work. It cannot work.”

Age before beauty is her motto. Or rather, age is beauty—all lived experience is beauty. She only started earning a living as an actor at 29, rather than at a more impressionable age. “You cannot believe how happy I am that this is what is happening now, I mean—this is mind-blowing. New York City, L.A., bam, bam, bam. Get on this plane, get on that plane, meet this person, meet that person, take pictures here, take pictures there. If I was 19, I would die. I would be dead after three days.... I realize now that you only have the strength after having had a life to say ‘No.’ To say, ‘You know what, I want to sleep. That’s what I want to do now. And that’s what I’m going to do now.’ ”

Asked if there’s one thing she wishes she could tell other actors, she pauses for a moment.

“You always wonder as an actor, is anyone actually seeing these tapes,” she says, circling back to her surprise self-tape audition for Anderson. “But yes, people are seeing these tapes.... As an actor, I was always trying to do what I believed, to follow my heart and my instinct, and to not work only for the money and not work for the fame. People make you believe that you need to know certain people to get into movies. They make you believe you need the right agent. They make you believe you have to go to parties and meet producers—all this blah, blah, blah nonsense. And you want to believe that it’s not true. So, I never went to the parties and I never believed it.... And when you do an audition, you should always relate to the work and not think, Who is it for, who is it with, how much do I earn? If you can make it as much as possible about the work, I think that’s the best you can do. And believe that someone will see it. Many people think no one is going to look at it anyway. That’s not true. With these tapes, they get seen. Take it seriously, believe that someone will see it, and make it about the work.”

Looking to get cast? Apply to casting calls on Backstage.

Makeup by Quinn Murphy; Hair by Jillian Halouska