Vicky Krieps on the feminist Western 'The Dead Don't Hurt' and how she leaves behind past roles

TORONTO (AP) — Vicky Krieps noticed that while there’s plenty of instruction for getting into a role, there's curiously little about getting out of one.

For Krieps, the disarmingly natural Luxembourgish actor of “Phantom Thread,”“Corsage” and “Bergman Island,” it’s not a small issue. It may even be the most important part of the process. If she's still stuck the headspace of a character, she can't keep moving forward.

After struggling in the aftermath of her breakthrough in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” in which she starred opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, Krieps found a solution. She could put a capstone on the character through music.

“I have to leave my characters in a peaceful way and say: Now she lives in song,” says Krieps.

Krieps, 39, has since followed every performance by writing a song for the character. She sings and plays acoustic guitar. She's currently recording an album of those songs but she took a break to travel to the Toronto International Film Festival for the premiere of her latest film, “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” directed by Viggo Mortensen.

The film, Mortensen’s second and most accomplished directing effort, is a Western from a different, more feminist perspective. Mortensen plays a Danish immigrant named Holger who meets the French-Canadian Vivienne (Krieps) in San Francisco. They soon settle down in a corrupt Nevada town, but Holger is compelled to join the Union Army. Vivienne is left in their remote cabin, and is brutally raped while Holger is away.

Vivienne’s song, Krieps says, is sad and dark.

“It starts as a lullaby of a woman singing her child to sleep,” Krieps says, sipping tea in a hotel restaurant. “And it always breaks off when she says, ‘I can’t sleep. I can’t close my eyes.’ There's the hope of him coming back. At the same time, this is something that’s been done to women over centuries.”

“The Dead Don’t Hurt,” one of the highlights among the films on sale in Toronto, received an interim agreement for promotion from the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Radio and Television Artists since it was an independent production and doesn’t yet have a distributor. Krieps is also to receive a tribute award at the festival.

The film is the latest in a naturally evolving project for Krieps of playing women throughout history who reject the social conventions of their times. In last year’s acclaimed “Corsage,” she played the much constricted, independently minded 19th century Austrian Empress Elisabeth. In the ’50s-set “Phantom Thread,” only her Alma is capable of countering a battle of wills with Day-Lewis’s fastidious couturier Reynolds Woodcock. In “The Dead Don’t Hurt,” Vivienne packs her bags to flee after the assault, then puts them down and resolves to stay.

“At one point you have to ask yourself: What are you living for? I do believe that something is changing for women and I’m part of this. I can tap into my grandmothers and great-grandmothers and also try to connect with who’s coming and who was before," says Krieps. "I don’t really know why. I just know that’s how it feels. I think the dialogue is broken between men and women because women learned to hide the wound.”

Since 2017's “Phantom Thread," Krieps has emerged as one the movies’ most authentic, instinctive and defiant screen presences. It's not an act, either. Krieps, who lives in Berlin with her partner and two children, is herself a force of stubborn independence.

She doesn’t like to rehearse. Every take she does differently. She’s willing, she says, to risk a scene being bad in order to make it real.

“And I believe inside: They can’t tell me what to do,” says Krieps, smiling. “I was working with Gabriel Garcia Bernal, and he was like, ‘I think this director really wants us to say the lines.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care. They cannot tell me what to do.’ And he looked at me rather impressed.

“For me, art is like a wild creature,” she adds. “To tame it, you pretend that you’re not seeing it. But, of course, I want it to come to me so badly.”

This rebellious streak in Krieps is clearly present in other parts of her life. She describes being resentful of a streaming service that, after she had played Hitchcock, would recommend only things like “Tomb Raider."

“You’re trying to (expletive) influence me!” she says. “And by chance, it’s made by you as well. What a coincidence! That’s why the system is (expletive). It’s hiding good cinema.”

Krieps, a deeply anti-algorithm actor, has sensed that her progress in the film industry, too, could become its own construct. She has, she says, tried to work frequently with first or second-time directors. She's turned down many more Hollywood offers than she's accepted.

“If I get too comfortable, then I might be led into superficial things as well,” Krieps says. “As an actor, you could be easily led into some life that’s not your life. You start thinking of who you are as an actor. ‘Oh, I’m this guy,’ or ‘I’m this woman. That’s what they like me for.’ All this stuff and the gifts and the parties, the ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too!’ It’s like foam. It goes up and up and then there’s nothing left that’s actually real.”


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