Many would fear starring opposite Day-Lewis in his last film – but Luxembourg-born actress Vicky Krieps steals the show
The undoubted star of Phantom Thread is Vicky Krieps. The Luxembourg-born actress, a specialist in playing oddballs, was mostly an unknown entity before co-leading Paul Thomas Anderson’s new, fashion-centric movie. Indeed, before Phantom Thread screened to audiences, most of the talk swirled around Anderson reuniting with Daniel Day-Lewis. Early rumours suggested a Mike Leigh twist on Fifty Shades of Grey (sort of!) and a biopic of Charles James (thankfully not!). Then headlines obsessed over Day-Lewis announcing his retirement due to a “sense of sadness” on set.
But when Phantom Thread unravelled into the world, the conversation rightly shifted to Krieps’ subtle, mischievous performance. As Alma, an immigrant waitress, she’s the first face we see, the first voice we hear, and the person whose actions we mull over long after the credits. Initially, Alma seems calm, passive, and worryingly proud that “no one can stand as long as I can”. Of course, Anderson would never do a straightforward 1950s period-drama. On one hand, we instantly gleam that Day-Lewis’ character, Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrated couturier, leads a life as ridiculous as his name. But Alma, a soft-spoken enigma, takes her sweet time to reveal the compelling troublemaker lurking underneath. The battle of the sexes evolves into a battle of the weirdoes.
Their meet-cute, like every major event in Anderson’s perverse anti-rom-com, involves food, not fashion. In a restaurant, Alma literally stumbles into Reynolds’ vision. She maintains her balance in time to jot down his breakfast order, and leaves him a handwritten note: “For the hungry boy! My name is Alma.” What follows is an unconventional love story. He’s the stereotypically tortured male genius, the designer who dresses up his muse like a doll, the grouch who barks at his younger girlfriend for buttering toast too loudly: “It’s as if you just rode a horse across the room!” But after a string of surprises, we know for certain who’s really in control.
Phantom Thread is Anderson’s eighth film, and arguably his joint best with The Master. Whereas the director’s past work like Boogie Nights and Inherent Vice couldn’t be more American in their theme and setting, his latest was shot in London. The House of Woodcock, as it’s called, is really a building in Fitzroy Square, a brief stroll from where I meet Krieps at Soho Hotel.
“I don’t live with a fashion designer like Alma does,” Krieps tells me. “But I do films, which is something very, very eccentric for someone from Luxembourg. We’re similar in that I, too, had this burning desire to get out of my country and into the world. People say Alma has a strength but you don’t know where it comes from. I have that too.”
Before Phantom Thread, I had only seen Krieps in The Chambermaid Lynn, a bizarre German comedy in which she hides under hotel beds, spies on guests, and enjoys a relationship with a female dominatrix. Anderson, too, chanced upon the movie during the writing stage. “It’s a subject I always find interesting,” she says on the thematic overlap. “It touches me a lot how people try to communicate but they can’t. They keep trying all their lives, and it’s the most difficult thing.”
To ensure art imitated life, Day-Lewis insisted upon no rehearsal periods. Krieps bumped into him briefly before the shoot, but their first real meeting was on set, in character, with the actress roped into his infamous work process. “I was nervous,” she recalls. “But I made that my strength. I thought: if it fits Alma to be nervous, I’ll be nervous.”
In the film’s most quotable scene, Alma lambasts Reynolds for all his “rules” and the distance he creates. It ripples with genuine frustration, as if Krieps is complaining to Day-Lewis about his acting methods and the camera just happens to be rolling. Funnily enough, the exchange was improvised. “It was definitely not easy for me,” the actress explains. “Most of my work was figuring out: how can I communicate with my partner? In this case, it was Reynolds, because Daniel wasn’t really present.”
For many, it’s thrilling that a relative newcomer can take on Day-Lewis, emerge victorious, and do so with style. Two weeks of There Will Be Blood was reshot when Kel O’Neill, the original actor playing Eli Sunday, couldn’t hold his own opposite Day-Lewis; his last-minute-replacement, Paul Dano, stepped in and received the honour of a bowling pin through the skull.
“I found out later that thing with There Will Be Blood,” Krieps laughs. “It made a lot of sense to me. On the first day, I thought I wasn’t going to make it. It was so intense. I was really scared.” What’s her secret? “Maybe my sense of humour. I think you need a lot of humour.” Did she experience the same sadness that Day-Lewis referenced? “I wouldn’t call it sadness. It was more like a weight. But I couldn’t place it, and it wasn’t in me.” So is it possible her performance was so real, so powerful, that she broke the world’s greatest actor? “Haha! My humoristic side would say yes, of course. But obviously not. I don’t think that’s possible.”
Though Day-Lewis claims he’ll never watch Phantom Thread, Krieps has entered double figures. “I’ve seen every scene many, many times,” she says. “You can watch it probably 50 times and still not have all the pieces. Even Paul didn’t realise how many layers he was putting in there. If you do something with your intuition, you don’t realise you’re laying out all these layers.”
There’s a lot of Anderson in Phantom Thread. He’s the director, writer, cinematographer… and the main character? The parallel with Reynolds, an obsessive artist, is obvious. Reynolds can’t even eat dinner without strangers approaching his table and praising his work. By coincidence, I spotted Anderson later that evening around town; he was unable to go up some stairs because fans had questions about Magnolia. The film, every inch of it, feels deliberate, delicate, and as fussed over as one of Reynolds’ dresses. The score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood is the ribbon on top. Yet the movie’s also driven by an undercurrent of chaos. At any moment, it could all fall apart.
Last week, the film was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Original Score. Greenwood, the composer of Anderson’s past four films, finally received his first ever nomination. “I haven’t met (Jonny),” she admits. “Even today. But I think we had a lot to do with each other, without knowing it. Because when I hear the music, it’s like he’s been in my head. The music is so close to what I did.”
“The only things he (Anderson) gave me were Rebecca by Hitchcock and, funnily enough, a documentary on Ingrid Bergman” – Vicky Krieps
In 1999, Tom Cruise introduced Anderson to Stanley Kubrick on the London set of Eyes Wide Shut. This got me thinking: is Phantom Thread Anderson’s own UK-set tale of sexual jealousy? One evocative scene is simply Reynolds, perched on a balcony, scanning a crowded ballroom of costumed revellers in search of Alma; his sad, wandering eyes remind me of Cruise’s character, a man whose idea of love is ownership.
“Oh!” Krieps responds. “That’s interesting. You’re the first person to ask about (Eyes Wide Shut). I’d seen it before, but I watched it just before filming. It stayed with me and made such a strong impression. I’ll have to ask Paul. The only things he gave me were Rebecca by Hitchcock and, funnily enough, a documentary on Ingrid Bergman.”
Mark Bridges, the costume designer, earned another of the film’s Oscar nominations. The clothes, as you’d imagine, tell a story themselves. For instance, a red outfit Reynolds creates for Alma is a callback to the waitress uniform from their first meeting. One notable inspiration was Cristóbal Balenciaga. Day-Lewis spent a year learning how to make a Balenciaga dress on his own, and Anderson took interest in the Spanish designer’s reclusive workaholic lifestyle. It’s the whole premise: Reynolds, a “committed bachelor”, tries to prioritise his career over romance, but he flounders when Alma disrupts his routines.
With regards to fashion, Krieps learned to stitch and sew (“I thought embroidery was the best way to learn how to handle a needle”) but otherwise prepared by not preparing at all. “I wanted Alma to be as real as possible,” she explains, “If she doesn’t know about fashion in the beginning, then I shouldn’t either. I wanted Alma’s experience of finding out about fashion to be real. I didn’t know much about fashion before, and I definitely wasn’t a model. A few days before, only, I allowed myself to look at videos of the 50s, like how to walk. So that’s what I did in my apartment. But I wanted her to be not perfect. That was really hard, because I was afraid of ruining everything.”
For Alma, the reward is a guy with serious oedipal issues. Reynolds not only keeps his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville, an Oscar nominee for her Mrs Danvers role), glued to his side, but there’s a lock of his deceased mother’s hair stitched into his jacket. Upon falling ill, he dreams and weeps about his maternal idol. So much so, the film could easily be called mother! or The Boss Baby. Still, if it works for them, who are we to judge? Reynolds’ attraction to Alma is obviously more than just wanting to drink her milkshake, and she, in return, makes a willing sparring partner.
“If she doesn’t know about fashion in the beginning, then I shouldn’t either. I wanted Alma’s experience of finding out about fashion to be real” – Vicky Krieps
“I wouldn’t call it healthy,” Krieps says about the relationship. “But in the end, it’s honest. What’s right or wrong? What’s good or bad? You always have both. Every person is good and bad. Alma and Reynolds elevate it to a different level, maybe. But it’s representing people trying to be honest with what they are, and not trying to be someone who they’re not.”
Throughout the interview, I can’t help but hear Krieps’ answers as something her character would articulate herself. I ask if Alma is a replacement for Reynolds’ mother. “A little bit,” she replies. “But in every relationship, you find that. Because what you seek in love is to be taken into the womb again. I think there’ll never be a place you’ll feel as comfortable as your mother’s womb.”
As I leave, we agree that the film is a wonderful gamble that paid off. It could easily have failed. Anderson essentially picked two actors and hoped they’d hit it off on day one. “It’s his intuition that chose us,” Krieps says, “and it was right.” But I have to ask: why does she have a knack for depicting weirdoes?
“Well, maybe I am a weirdo,” she laughs. “I think that would be very honest to say. I like weirdoes. I’ve always liked weirdoes. I think I’ve always felt closer to Forrest Gump than to Cinderella.”
Phantom Thread comes out in UK cinemas on 2nd February