Vicky Krieps has been acting for the last decade–one might have seen her brief supporting turns in Hanna and A Most Wanted Man–but her tremendous breakthrough performance comes with Phantom Thread. In the 1950s-set relationship drama set in the world of fashion, the Luxemburg-born actress plays Alma, a new muse of designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis).
While a new film from Paul Thomas Anderson doesn’t need a selling point, there’s been no shortage of discussion about it featuring the final performance from his There Will Be Blood star. However, as the film cunningly shapeshifts, it becomes clear that Alma may have the upper hand in this union, yet saying much more will take away from the film’s many luscious pleasures.
Speaking with Krieps following the film’s New York City premiere, we discussed the shapeshifting nature of the main relationship, what she’s learned by seeing the film “millions” of times, her character’s undisclosed backstory, the subtle touches in Paul Thomas Anderson’s script, her favorite scene, and much more. Be warned that we dive into specific aspects of the film better left unknown until after you see it.
I had the pleasure of watching this two days in a row and I feel like you learn so much more the second time.
Absolutely. I’ve seen it like–oh, God–a million times because I did the dubbing in France and then I did the dubbing in German. So not only did I see it a million times, but I saw it scene by scene. Every time I learned something new.
Speaking of that, the opening and closing of the film is your conversation with the doctor, which has an entirely new context the second time you see it. Was there more to that scene and did you know it was going to be the first thing we see?
I kind of knew that that was going to be some kind of voice-over in the beginning, but Paul always said if or if not. I didn’t always know if it was Alma always talking to the doctor. That was really when we were doing it that I realized that. We had talked about when is it taking place? It’s actually taking place as he’s lying in bed, the second time he’s ill. Which is kind of interesting, because they are talking while he’s lying upstairs. You see it differently when you know that, but shooting it he kind of kept it open. He said, “Well this is where it takes place, but maybe not…” I remember doing this scene and having this feeling–almost airy–before, there was something ghosty about it. I don’t know how you explain it. When I was saying it, I didn’t know, am I now speaking to a person? Am I referring to things that really happened? Am I lying? Am I telling the truth? It was weird. It was like somewhere in between everything. Am I myself alive?
Yeah, that’s an interesting perspective. So much of the power of the film is in your reactions. I feel like the first date/fitting scene, where it starts romantic and then becomes unsettling as Cyril comes in. Can you talk about playing that and if you shot a variation of different reactions?
I think I was just very intuitive in all of this. I couldn’t really prepare. We didn’t rehearse. So I tried to be open and responding to whatever he was doing and to whatever was happening as Alma tried to be. Just to be completely in the moment and responding to it. That’s how I did it. I can’t remember Paul saying so much about my reactions. I think they just changed naturally, maybe if we did it again and again. I didn’t have a plan how to do it and he didn’t seem to have a plan about wanting to have it. So I just did it. The scene when we are doing the fitting, that’s one we did twice. That’s where I realized–and everyone said–something’s not right and Paul said it’s not right. Then everyone found a little bit of something that they wanted to change. Lesley changed the whole look of her character. I don’t remember for Reynolds, there were a few things. But then especially me, I said, “Yes, you know what’s wrong with her? I think it’s really not right for Alma to just come in and get undressed, because it’s the 50s.” So I said if I could maybe have a screen. This is why now she undresses, although she’s still in her underwear, which already [a lot] for the time. The act of undressing she at least keeps to herself.
One of the things I found fascinating the second time, there’s all these touches in the script that tease bigger things. One example is when you are playing backgammon on your honeymoon, after you leave, and the woman sits down, she says something like, “I don’t mean to be racist” towards your character. I know you’re from Luxembourg and you mentioned so is your character.
Yeah, so the backstory we had for Alma–which was in there much more, and they cut it out–was that she would be from Luxembourg, just because I am, and fled Germany during or after the war with her dad and brother and sister and the mother having died before. So that was the situation we had for her, but this how I tried to create Alma, was knowing about the war and learning how it was to live in the war and then after the war and then fleeing from a country to another country, being new in this country, and then trying to integrate because she was living in a little fisher village where she also had a boyfriend. It’s not in the movie anymore, but she had a little life there having become this British immigrant which to me was important because it made her this person so ready to accept rules from someone else, because that’s what she had learned coming to England, having to become part of the culture, which is not part of her culture.
As Paul Thomas Anderson matures as a filmmaker, one thing I appreciate is that even though there are 100 different scenes you can pick out, the experience of seeing the film feels like you are flowing through one scene, with the transitions and Jonny Greenwood’s score. Did you have that reaction at all as well?
Yeah, completely. Shooting it, what I can say, especially related to PTA and his work: the way he had written the scenes, some of them they felt like slides. It felt like if you could say the lines, there was almost not much more to be done. It felt like getting on a slide and [makes whooshing sound] sliding down and ending up wherever it would lead you. In the dinner scene, it led to this improvisation. Then seeing it as a finished work, I had the same experience as you. It really felt like one thing, like one breath, with the music. He wrote the music when we were shooting and that was really, for me, one of the most surprising things to realize that the music felt, in parts, like it was inside Alma’s diary almost. It seemed to be so perfect for the film. So, I felt the same and it has a good effect on me. Because of this seamlessness, I can actually watch myself for the first time, really without a problem. Before I could see myself more knowing I want to and have to be professional about this. I thought I have to learn and see it’s my work, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Here, for the first time, I can completely blend out all my thoughts. I’m just in it, like the audience.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is in The House of Woodcock, when he brings people in to do the auction of the dresses. The part where you’re doing this dance for him, even though you can’t exactly tell if he’s looking at you.
Yes, I love that scene. If people ask me for a favorite scene, I always come up with this one. I mean, I love all the scenes, but this one is so nice because even though there’s no dialogue, everything is in this scene, so you have all the layers. You have the dresses, which were like characters in the movies. You have the seamstresses which were always there, every day, every scene we did. They were always around. They were like little fairies, helping me a lot as Alma too, a lot. I didn’t feel so alone because of them in some situations where I could have felt alone or that were heavy. They were there. Then you had all the extras of the people coming to buy the clothes. Then for me it was a big challenge because I’m not like this. I didn’t grow up as a girl wearing dresses. My mother was in her 70s, emancipated and she taught me more like to be a boy.
So all of this was new to me and so I had to really learn how to wear those dresses and how to be comfortable because I don’t like to be looked at, especially, which some actors have this paradox. Here I would have to be looked at without text, without acting, so without my usual work environment–just walking and showing a dress, so I was so nervous and the day before I watched a lot of Pathe films of the old 50s Dior fashion shows and I tried to walk like them and imitate then. But then I would have to make it: walk in the dress, in the 50s, but then how would Alma walk in the dress in the 50s? How is Alma going to try and be as good as she can for what she has to do with the work but then also keep her own little story with Reynolds, because he’s watching. Then Cyril is watching too in the audience, so I have to do a good job. How is Alma going to react to a different dress? The two dresses are very different, so she reacts differently to the two dresses. The one dress, which is like the waitress uniform, I wanted her to have fun with it, knowing that he’s watching, walk for him and make fun of the whole situation, but without too much breaking the rules.
This is really Alma. She can make fun of it. She can do her whole thing, but she’s never leaving the boundaries so much that it’s about her. She would never make it about her. She would always stay in the thing of what it is, because she’s respectful, something that we have lost, to know how to be respectful. Back then, they still knew how to be respectful, just as a starting point. Then you can have different things, situations, opinions, reactions, but on the base of it, there’s respect. Respect for the work, respect for the other one, respect for age, respect for standards–and all of this was in this scene.
You mentioned going back and watching fashion tapes from the 50s. I know Paul Thomas Anderson was influenced by Rebecca and Gaslight and a few other films. Did he also show you guys those or was that more for him?
For me, he didn’t show anything. He said the name Rebecca to me, so I watched it again. The only one of those kinds of movies that he told me. Then all he sent me, funny enough, was a documentary on Ingrid Bergman.
Ah, In Her Own Words?
Yeah. It was the only thing he sent to me.
When it comes to Reynolds and your power dynamic, there’s already a conversation brewing online about who is the real main character of the film. I think it shifts, you actually become the main character by the end. You really go toe-to-toe with him from the start. Can you talk about that dynamic?
I didn’t realize that Alma was such a main character when I got the role. I think it was while I was shooting I realized, “Oh, I’m shooting every day and I’m in almost every scene.” So I got the idea, but still didn’t get how much the power dynamic would shift. This, I never really got until I saw the film, but then I find, personally, that there is no shift. I mean, there is a shift, but it’s the kind of shift that puts into question the whole idea of a “shift.” So the kind of shift that is happening with Alma questions the whole power thing because it’s not about who is stronger. It’s not about who is the winner. There’s no winner. There’s never a winner.
I find it so funny because now people are talking about the wars and stuff and so on. And it’s funny, because we have this movie where the message of the movie is really there is no definition for something like love. There is no definition for winner or loser. You see? Everything plays in between the lines. Everything plays in between the fights. In between man and woman. In between old and young. And that’s where it’s actually all happening. We just all look at the place where it has a name on it, but that’s not where it’s happening. We just don’t realize.
Another thing I love in the film is the way the different breakfast or food scenes play out. After acting in this film, does it change the way you eat? [Laughs] After seeing the film I had to question my own behavior.
Yeah, it made me realize how annoying you can be in relationships, in general. No matter what. There are just little things. Yeah, I did take some of that with me, just thinking about it sometimes.
My last question is that I saw A Most Wanted Man back at Sundance and I found it fascinating that it would go on to be one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last film. Here, this is supposedly Daniel Day-Lewis’ last films. Obviously, you had no say in the matter for either of those, but it’s a peculiar connection, considering you are in both films and they are/were two of our greatest actors.
Yeah, it’s weird. I thought of it too. I was like, “Oh my God, this is weird.” I hope it’s not something that means anything, but I think it’s just a coincidence, but it’s a funny coincidence.
Can you tell me a little bit about your experience on A Most Wanted Man, working with Philip Seymour Hoffman?
That was amazing because that was the first time I met someone of his caliber. I remember working with him, thinking he’s actually just very nice and doing his job. But then when they shot the last scene of the movie I remember suddenly everyone on set being so quiet. You could hear a pin drop and it hasn’t been like this before, because everyone somehow suddenly felt something was going. I could see as he was playing his last scene and the way he was playing it, he had planned the whole movie. So this what I understood, that he had projected the whole character, leading up to his last scene. That was very special.
Phantom Thread opens on December 25 in New York and Los Angeles and expands nationwide on January 19.