THEO PANAYIDES meets an actress who revels in the detachment of being in front of a movie camera
A soft background roar dips and rises as I talk to Vicky Krieps in the foyer of the Zena Palace in Nicosia: it’s the sound of Vicky in the throes of an S&M relationship as depicted in The Chambermaid Lynn, a film which – in the oft-repeated words of Boyd van Hoeij in the Hollywood Reporter – “could be marketed as Germany’s answer to Fifty Shades of Grey”. The film is playing to a packed house just a few feet away (part of the excellent Cyprus Film Days festival) though thick velvet curtains ensure that the sound is muted, just an indistinct rumble punctuated with faint audience feedback. Still, it’s somehow uncanny that the slim, auburn-haired 31-year-old sitting in front of me is simultaneously leading a parallel life as a guilt-ridden chambermaid on the big screen behind us.
Fifty Shades of Grey is an obvious point of reference, though not wholly accurate (“I was expecting this comparison to be made,” she sighs resignedly): Lynn, an obsessive-compulsive chambermaid with a mania for cleanliness, actually gives herself to a (female) dominant not in search of romance but just in order to feel something, having been numbed by her dull, oppressive life. Lynn was raised to think that sex is dirty, explains the actress, so her submission is a way of denying responsibility; by being passive, she’s able to pretend that sex is ‘not her fault’, so “she can let herself go and experience sexuality, or just feeling generally”. Vicky shakes her head: “The character was a challenge, I must say. I’m really not the way she is.”
What’s she ‘really’ like, then, when not playing chambermaids? “First of all, I really don’t have OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder],” she laughs. “I’m the most chaotic person you can find. I believe in chaos, actually. I believe in the order of chaos!”. There’s something very fresh and unaffected in her personal style, almost a touch of Meryl Streep – mostly in the angular face and high cheekbones, but also a touch of Streep’s poised, airy manner. “I don’t clean,” says Vicky, warming to her theme. “I mean, if I have to, I clean – but it’s not like I enjoy it. I don’t like to … aufräumen? Arrange things?”
She nods. “I don’t like tidying up. I hate vacuum cleaners! I hate them – to me they are like dinosaurs, and every time I’m fighting with this f**king dinosaur that never does what I want to do!”. Feelings come easily to her, she adds, listing another difference between Lynn and herself. “And then sexually, it’s…”
Not your thing?
She nods again. “[S&M] is not my thing, obviously – well, why ‘obviously’, actually?”. But it wasn’t just the physical acts that felt slightly alien, it was also Lynn’s emotional needs. “I would never search for myself in someone else,” explains Vicky. “I would never use a sexual relationship to find out who I am.”
All true, no doubt; but her answers also hint at another aspect, possibly the reason why she got cast in the role in the first place (Lynn is her first leading role, and something of a breakthrough: the film has been highly successful, playing in festivals from Zurich to Montreal to Hong Kong). The Chambermaid Lynn is a very detached movie, deliberately so; director Ingo Haeb even had the actors re-record all the dialogue in the studio after the film was finished, to give it a slightly stilted feel (no matter how good you are, you can’t read a line with the same naturalness as when you’re actually playing it) – and he may have spotted that detachment in Vicky, not a numbness like Lynn has but a certain apart-ness, an ability to step back and cocoon herself in her own inner world.
She’s always been slightly apart. For a start, she was born and raised in Luxembourg, a small place where becoming an actor isn’t really done (she told friends she was going to study Law, to avoid disapproval); Luxembourgers used to be farmers, she explains without rancour, “now they have money but inside they’re still farmers”. Not that she was unhappy as a child – she had loving parents, and adored going on trips to the countryside – but “I never felt bound to the place … I never really matched with the people there”. She now lives in Berlin with her partner and two children, a four-year-old and a three-month-old baby. Does she ‘match’ with people there? “I think in Berlin you don’t have to match,” she replies. “Because it’s so big, and you can just live your life in your corner” – though she does find more soulmates, unconventional people like herself, “because they also go to Berlin!”.
Was she a loner as an adolescent? “A loner with lots of friends,” she smiles. “Everyone was kind of my friend” – though, implicitly, no-one was really a close friend. “I was very dreamy. I was in my dream world”. (Detachment, again.) She was introverted, lacking self-esteem – which may seem strange for an actor, but in fact “the more I read interviews with other actors, I can see that it’s a phenomenon that you find with actors. At heart, they are introverted – but then they become an actor, which seems weird. And I haven’t really understood how it works, but it works.”
So there’s something liberating in making a movie?
Definitely, she replies. She feels different in front of the camera, affirms Vicky, trying to find the words to describe it; she feels stronger, she feels she can breathe more easily. “Many theatre actors tell me: ‘How do you do this? I’m so stressed, as soon as I see the camera I’m stressed and I’m afraid’ – but for me, as soon as I see the camera I’m, like, relieved. I feel like ‘They’ll leave me alone now’, you know? I know that this time – even if it’s just a second – will be my second, and no-one will be there interfering with whatever I do.
“Sometimes I have the feeling that I can feel the camera,” she muses. “That it’s watching me, and I can feel if it likes what I do. Which is weird, because it’s a machine – but to me it feels like a living creature, in a way. Or a living eye.”
This is what it takes, perhaps, to be an actor – especially a film (not theatre) actor, and especially an actor in a low-key arthouse film like Chambermaid Lynn (though in fact Vicky’s done all kinds of films, playing alongside Cate Blanchett in Hanna and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man). It takes a strong inner core to be an actor, not a show-offy narcissism but a powerful sense of connection to an inner self, something set apart from the rest of your life – a secret accessible only to you, and only when the camera is looking.
Vicky talks of “controlling the energy”, something she saw very clearly in Hoffman – a troubled genius who died of drugs at 46, just a few months after making A Most Wanted Man. “He was the nicest person as a private man, he was so nice!” If he were standing here, in the foyer of the Zena Palace, no-one would guess he was a movie star – he always dressed so simply, and tended to look slightly lost – but she also recalls the last scene of the movie, and how when they shot it “you could hear a pin drop” simply because of the energy he brought to it. Not energy in the hyperactive sense (all he did was open a door and walk out), but “the whole movie just makes sense because of this last moment” – and Hoffman, it was clear, “had this in mind the whole way through”, having controlled his performance to bring out this particular moment.
Acting doesn’t lie in what you do, in other words – it’s about what you are, the strength of your inner connection, how completely you’re able to inhabit a role. “Most characters, you find when you don’t talk. I mean, [when] you don’t do anything. You accept to just be, and then suddenly stuff starts to happen with you. But most actors don’t let this moment happen, because they are so focused on doing stuff”. ‘Just being’ is a big part of Vicky’s sensibility: she thought it’d be hard to wait around for hours on film sets, for instance, but in fact it’s no problem: “As I said, I can just be”. I laugh, unsure if she’s joking. “Really – I can sit in a place by myself. I don’t know what I do. I just am!”
It’s that strong inner core again – the same thing, perhaps, that makes her so reluctant to ‘search for herself’ in a sexual relationship, or so relieved to be in front of a camera where ‘they’ can’t interfere with what she does. The more natural and unhindered her connection – her conduit to that inner Vicky – the happier she is. I note that her passions include rock climbing (a solitary hobby) and writing songs – but only for herself – which she then sings, accompanying herself on the accordion. I also note that the things she finds most stressful about her job are, firstly, shooting at night, because it disrupts her natural rhythm of sleeping when she’s tired and eating when she’s hungry – “You would say it’s nothing, but I can become sad when I feel I’m pushed around like this” – and, secondly, “being seen as an object of desire”, meaning the whole red-carpet, paparazzi side of movie acting.
It’s odd, she admits, because “people tell me they like to see me. Or they even tell me that they think I’m beautiful”; yet she hates being on display, being photographed, even going to parties. “I’m so un-confident when it comes to this”. The reason, I suspect, is because the connection isn’t natural in such situations; what’s being displayed isn’t Vicky herself but a persona, something she’s self-consciously ‘acting’. Fortunately, her celebrity hasn’t (yet) reached the point where it might become a hassle – and the thought of such celebrity doesn’t really scare her, though it’s not something she craves. “I feel like I’ve built my base very strongly,” she tells me. “I have my children. I have my boyfriend, my man. I made my experiences, I went to Africa. I’ve really filled my suitcase with my stuff. So I think I won’t be bullied, really.”
‘Africa’ was something she did in the year between school and university – a trip to Mozambique and South Africa that really opened her eyes, because “it helped me realise that you don’t have to be afraid of life”. There she was, a young girl from Luxembourg, travelling alone, meeting two guys and impulsively going on a road trip, negotiating pot-holed roads and bullet-scarred buildings – and the truth, she discovered, is that you can live through this scary, unfamiliar reality until “step by step it becomes your reality”. It’s a lesson she applied a few years later, when she found herself pregnant – without having planned it – at 26: “I thought ‘Well OK, this is another one of these challenges, like the acting and like everything. I will just try and do my best, I’ll see how it goes and roll with it’. And it worked.”
Roll with it, live in the moment, embrace the “order of chaos”: Vicky Krieps believes in all these things – and of course there’s also her detachment, her apart-ness, a Zen-like self-sufficiency that allows her both to act and ‘just be’. She’s not religious – but the process, she admits, can become almost spiritual: “When I sit and am, I feel that somehow all of this, in a way, is connected. All the people, and the things, and the Nature and the beauty of Nature”. She can see the bigger picture somehow, and “make peace with the fact that we are so small”.
Is that part of the attraction of movies? A kind of immortality? Vicky will grow old and eventually pass on – but Lynn the chambermaid will always be there, as long as human beings watch films. Is that part of the thrill, creating someone that she knows will outlive her?
“Outlive me?” Vicky looks startled, her angular face puzzled, then thoughtful, then amused. “I never thought of it,” she says. “I really never thought of it! But I like the idea I have now, of aliens sitting here and finding this theatre and being like, ‘OK, how does this work?’” – she mimes aliens fiddling around with the projector at the Zena Palace – “and then they watch the movie. I like this idea!”. Little green men looking bewildered by the sight of a timid chambermaid in an S&M relationship? There’s a movie there somewhere.