Back in March, Vicky Krieps returned to her hometown to serve as jury president at the 14th edition of the Luxembourg City Film Festival. “I did one in Deauville and one in Munich,” Krieps explained to me one recent morning around the festival’s halfway point, “so all these small festivals, and I love film festivals. To me, film festivals are the whole point of everything right now. It’s all going away, and if we don’t have the festivals, we don’t have all the dishes on the table. Like, there’s no colors. Right now, festivals are the only place you get all the colors, you know?”

The most famous Luxembourger of her generation rose to prominence after being cast in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread and has gone on to appear in Bergman Island for Mia Hansen-Løve and, in perhaps her greatest role so far, as the Empress Sisi in Maria Kreutzer’s Corsage. Krieps’ latest role trades the gilded surrounds of the Austro-Hungarian empire for the barren frontier of the American West. Directed by and co-starring Viggo Mortensen, The Dead Don’t Hurt tells the story of Krieps’ character Vivienne, beginning at her untimely death before cutting back: first to San Francisco, where she meets a Danish man (Mortensen) and falls in love; and then to a small town on the frontier where he will soon abandon her to go fight in the Civil War. By the time he returns, she has built a garden, joined the community, and had a child.

In the Hotel Le Place d’Armes in the city’s center square, we sat down to chat about the isolated characters she has played, the challenges of making Western movies, and how it is to be directed by Mortensen.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Film Stage: You spent some time in Dublin recently, right? 

Vicky Krieps: Yes, exactly! I was shooting there. 

I read it was in Stoneybatter, for the new Jim Jarmusch movie. I have some friends who live in this area.

Yeah, we were right across the street from where [Grace Gifford] lived, the wife of one of the famous fighters who died in prison. They actually married one day before his execution. A very romantic, tragic story. Very moving.

I know it’s early, but are you able to talk about Father Mother Sister Brother at all?

I have no idea. I think people know that it’s in three parts, which he has done before. And I loved working with Cate Blanchett and Charlotte Rampling.

You‘ve already done a few period films. What were the challenges this time around, making a Western and working in this kind of landscape?

I mean, it’s much harder but it’s much cooler. I used to watch these Western movies and there were two things that would strike me. One, of course, the women. You always wonder: why are they so happy and fine with everything, like when he leaves and someone is left behind and they don’t fight back––they’re just like, “Go and have a nice life.” The other thing was: I always wondered how they always look kind of neat and happy. They have the little houses, but it’s in the desert.

So it’s super-hard to make because you’re always out in the open. Even if you’re in a house––I‘m talking, like, a shack––it’s all just built of wood. We were shooting in an old Western town that was built for John Wayne for his movies, called the John Wayne Ranch, but it’s really just wooden shacks, and so exposed to extreme heat and extreme cold and dust all the time and wind all the time, and either you’re on a horse or you’re running away or you’re fighting something or someone. 

How were the fight scenes?

I was present and observing, but I wasn’t part of all the real action scenes, but it was pretty cool. I don’t know if you can imagine, but it’s pretty cool to be told by Viggo Mortensen how to hold a gun.

Was he fully involved in that way during the shoot, even with everything else he was doing for the film? 

Yes. I don’t know how he did it because he was acting, directing, and producing. And he composed the score.

Were you watching many Westerns for research, to prepare in some way for the role?  

Yes, I did, a lot! There were many John Wayne ones, all the classics.

I was thinking of Johnny Guitar a little bit. 

Yes, exactly. I think Viggo probably must have seen pretty much everything that exists.

In another way, I was also thinking a bit of your Sisi character in Corsage, and some of the other roles that you’ve played––this sense of isolation. Do you see some similarities there?

This isolation, or what you describe as isolation, I think is a common feeling or experience women have, about being a woman in the world––that it sometimes ends up isolating you because it’s a pain you feel, but you cannot always describe it. It doesn’t always have a name or a reason. And women tend to retreat inside. All of us know the image of the mother retreating to the kitchen, or at least the grandmother retreating to the kitchen, because they were not allowed to share it or it wasn’t welcome at the table, a woman talking about her feelings and fear. So I think that’s what all these women share: this female struggle that is slowly going away, but also not really. It’s kind of remaining and it’s mostly done in silence.

How do you find being directed by another actor? Is it a different experience in some ways? 

Well, I’d done it with Mathieu Amalric, the French actor. Somehow they are very similar, like Mathieu and Viggo are almost like the same, but at the same time not. I think it’s because Mathieu is French, European and Viggo spent a lot of time in the U.S. and did these big American films, so you can tell they come from different backgrounds. But other than that, they have the same sensibilities. So if you work with an actor, it’s great because they understand about little things not having to be shouted at or they will trust you. I love being directed by actors, and so far I haven’t had actors telling me how to act, like you would think.

I can imagine there being a lot of generosity and trust when it’s another actor. Did you have a lot of input with the character?

Oh, yeah. Viggo was very open in that sense. What was clear was that Vivienne has to be very stubborn and independent to get up to that age and not be married. I mean, that alone tells you everything. For a woman to not be married to live loosely with a man who she lets pay the bills––but not really lives with him––for that time, that’s beyond progressive. So that’s the only thing, the only premise I had, but you can count everything down from there. If someone has the strength to do this, well, she will have the strength to stay alone without him. If someone has the strength to swallow what she was swallowing in San Francisco––being alone as a woman, treated like that by men––she can swallow the rape and go on. And when I work, I usually do that. Like mathematics: you take the first, most-simple formula and then you try and calculate everything, every move from there. 

The moment when Holger returns is played so beautifully. You can really get so much about the whole movie just from this scene.

And it’s the opposite of what you would expect. That’s what’s so great with the whole movie; I think that Viggo had the sensibility to show things just for the way they are. If Holger was coming back from war in the times of John Wayne, for sure, she would have been waving and then he would have seen the child and she would have been guilty, which is completely reversed. But that’s what they used to do in the ’50s, and then she would explain and then he would try to understand, and it would be very hard for him but finally he would probably do it. And here it’s like: he comes back and she’s just not at all happy because, where the fuck were you? Leaving me alone like that. 

And Holger is kind of played this way as well. His army jacket’s just a bit too big; there’s something unheroic and quite sad about him.

Yeah. And also that Viggo has the honesty, as a man, to tell a story about a woman. Is it about a woman? I wouldn’t even say it’s about a woman. I think that the woman happens to have the bigger role and she becomes maybe the heart of the movie, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s about the woman. It’s about society in the Western. It’s what we all are still kind of based on, these primitive societal arrangements. But it’s also about him. And that’s why I think it’s so fucking cool that he had the honesty to say, “I’m not going to pretend that I’m a woman. I’m not, because it’s in fashion, going to make a feminist Western where the woman shoots all the guys,” you know. But to refrain from that and make it like an honest film from his point of view.

So the man, when he comes back from swimming and then she tells him everything, he’s not going to say, “Oh, so sorry.” No, he gets angry. Not at her, at the guy, but still––that’s exactly how it goes. You know, that’s usually how men react. And that’s not because they’re mean people. It’s just because they’re emotional people and first comes a primitive emotion, and then comes the more reflective part. That was beautiful, working with him like that, because it makes it possible for me to be honest as well. I think we were both very honest.

The Dead Don’t Hurt is now in limited release.

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