Vicky Krieps came out of nowhere with her devilish role in The Phantom Thread as the shrewd companion to Daniel Day-Lewis’s imperious designer. Now, the Luxembourgian actress flips the script: she’s royalty in Corsage, playing the 19th-century Empress Elisabeth of Austria, who marched to the beat of her own drum. Krieps spearheaded the project, which was directed by Marie Kreutzer. The actress’s disarming, open-hearted candor finds a human core to the regal mystique—with melancholy, mischievous humor, and pure lust for life.
Recently seen in the beguiling French dramas Bergman Island and Hold Me Tight, Krieps was a bit under the weather when we spoke, having just shot another film: a western in the desert with Viggo Mortensen. Krieps talked about getting into the Empress’s mindset, her hippie upbringing, and what the royal story has in common with an M. Night Shyamalan thriller.
Did you grow up watching the Empress Sissi movies with Romy Schneider, which were big in Europe?
I grew up in a house that was not a Sissi house. I think maybe this is why the movie is the way it is. My mother was emancipated, so she would not show me the princess. My parents were more hippies—they watched all sorts of movies, but not these conservative, prince-and-princess films. We were the crazy hippies with the Rolling Stones always blasting, so if I wanted some quiet, I would go to my neighbor, who was part of this Catholic family. She had a tradition of watching the Sissi film every Christmas. I discovered the movies first as a younger girl: “Ohhh, that’s a beautiful princess.” Then as I grew older, I remember reading the biography, and I felt some kind of sadness, like a mystery: who was this woman? That feeling stayed with me.
One of her ladies-in-waiting describes the queen in her journal at one point: “Her soul is like a chaotic museum.” Were those writings helpful to you in seeing her from the outside?
Yeah, one of the ladies in waiting, Maria Festetics—she had a beautiful diary. The way she writes, you get the feeling she’s writing it down so people one day [would know]. She had a feeling already that people would be intrigued by her and would want to read more about her.
We know to expect a different kind of movie, when you walk up a grand staircase in a palace and look right into the camera!
Yes, yes! That is exactly why we did that. It’s meant like a warning. I, Sissi, am not going to do what you want me to do. I’m going to do my thing. You’re invited, but without a smile. I’m just watching. And this is something we seldom allow characters to do: to just be. And risk becoming unsympathetic.
What was the hardest scene for you to do?
The hard part was to not be emotional, because I was emotional all the time—but I could never release it by crying. Corsage was very hard for me because I could never release anything—my breath, my crying, my sadness. Also, the rage! I could feel a huge rage being her, all the fucking time.
And she gets so isolated despite being surrounded by all these people.
It’s the only character I’ve done where I installed a few rules, because [usually] I like to work completely freely, from my intuition. I decided I wouldn’t be too close with my fellow actors and the people on set, which I usually am. I knew I would have to isolate myself. I had to completely pretend, because I’m not this cold person! On my breaks, I was always on my own, never talking to anyone. But I did go for walks, and even if I was wearing a corset, I would put a jumpsuit over it. [Chuckles] So I could climb a tree! I was still doing Vicky things, but I was doing it alone.
Do you get any inspiration from being in those grand halls and palatial spaces?
I don’t know how to explain it, but when I am entering a set, I get into this intuitive energy space where I almost connect with the furniture. In this case, it was overwhelming. On my first day, I cried out of fear. But I knew I had to stand with my fear and look the monster in the eye. I decided that all I can do is be honest with myself and say, I am afraid, but I am not running away. And then this became the character.
You’ve made some fearless movie choices, like the M. Night Shyamalan film, Old. How does that sort of experience differ from Corsage?
It’s the world of big American movies. I loved doing it. The comparison is interesting because both films talk about our time, but they use a completely different vehicle. People don’t even realize Old is actually talking about how time has become this weird thing that we monetize, and we try to have the illusion that we’re not getting older. They’re both stylistically free—Old is almost like a freak show! [M. Night Shyamalan] just completely does what he wants to do. It’s the same as in Corsage—we do what we want to do!
I read more about the Empress’s life, and learned that she was eventually killed by an anarchist.
That’s so ironic: she took a different stance toward the monarchy, and then she gets killed by an anarchist. The sentence that her son says in the movie—that the monarchy is ending, things are not working—we actually took that from her own diaries.
I won’t give away the movie’s journey—what did you think about the ending?
The whole movie is about someone who can’t get away; she’s so completely trapped and prisoned in her life, or in her corset, and the only place that she can go is inside. The end is almost symbolic: how can you get away from yourself? I don’t see the end as the end. To me, it’s the beginning of something new.