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#PASSION: “I APPRECIATE INTENSITY” – IN CONVERSATION WITH DANIEL BRÜHL

Daniel Brühl has grown from a youngster in the German cult comedy “Sonnenallee” to becoming a global personality, shapeshifting from actor to director, from the Marvel Universe to the streets of Berlin and London, where we shot the 44-year-old in striking poses. The prolific actor, who just played Karl Lagerfeld in an upcoming series on Disney+, enjoys stepping outside of his comfort zone, the ambivalences and contradictions that make each character unique and, finally, letting go a little and having more fun with fashion.

Hendrik Lakeberg: Daniel, the theme of this issue is passion. You’ve played some extremely passionate characters – for example, Niki Lauda, whose passion sometimes turned into obsession. What does passion mean to you, in the portrayal of characters like Niki Lauda and for yourself?

Daniel Brühl: I feel passion for my job every day. Starting the engine can be difficult at times, but I have tools to help me. For example, music, which I am still totally infatuated with and passionately obsessed with. My work of telling these stories doesn’t stop being exciting for me, either. Exploring this big canvas for myself again and again, having the chance to immerse myself in different worlds. I think David Bowie once said that the best feeling is when you move slightly outside your comfort zone. Exploring new things, learning new things, that’s what I still find incredibly enjoyable about my job. “Leidenschaft” (German for passion) is a particularly beautiful word because it literally means “creating suffering.”

Because burning for something can also be incredibly exhausting.

Colleagues often reprimand or ridicule me because they think I get too involved. And sometimes they’re right; but I can’t change and somehow I want to keep it that way. Sometimes, it becomes counterproductive, because sometimes it’s important to just get on with it and not keep tinkering with a scene forever. And, of course, I really enjoy playing characters who are passionate about something. That’s what really inspired me in this book – the relationship between Niki Lauda and James Hunt. There’s also a parallel to Karl Lagerfeld, whom I’ve just played. The love-hate relationship, jealousy, but also sympathy and respect in the friendship and competition between Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent. This Mozart-Salieri dynamic is great fun. And Niki himself often said that he wouldn’t have been as good without the competition with Hunt. You need others to measure yourself against, to inspire you.

You’re passionate about your job and you have to constantly put yourself in the shoes of other extremely passionate characters. Does this tension ever overheat?
I have the urge to create something great and unique. There are usually no shortcuts to that.

This means that if the passion is sometimes accompanied by “suffering,” frustration, tiredness, then I’m all the happier when the result is extraordinary. To achieve this, you have to be totally immersed into something, but also be able to take criticism. You’re constantly being judged and I’m very hard on myself as well. I think that in the end, it’s a balance for me. I can also enjoy myself passionately beyond my work as an actor. Without problems and without talking. And I’m still passionately enthusiastic about people. Not per se. I can despair of some of them, especially these days and when you read the news. But, at the rehearsals I just came from, I’m already in love with my gang of colleagues again…

What are you shooting?

The comedy series “The Franchise” for HBO, which is about the production of a Marvel blockbuster. It’s Champions League television and I’m the only European invited. The others are English and American, some of them perform on Broadway, some of them are stand-up comedians. I’ve always been a fan of Anglo-Saxon humor and American humor, and now I get to be in the ring with these incredibly funny people. I was totally nervous at the beginning that I would fall flat. I didn’t see a place or a chance for me in Germany in terms of comedy. It makes me happy to be part of this. Of course, it’s also about fighting for every gag. But it works; we push each other on and whip each other up. I’m experiencing that strongly again right now: How great it is that in my job, you can allow yourself to be childlike again and remember how enthusiastic and passionate you were as a child.

You have to develop empathy for very different passions. Were there ever characters whose passion you didn’t understand, or that you were even uncomfortable with? Because even dictators can act out of passion. Misguided passion, of course, but still…

That does exist. There were often facets of my roles for which I felt no empathy. But that’s my job: You either go into your own abysses to develop the roles, or try to fathom a character with distance, a system and thorough analysis in cases in which I myself have absolutely no connection to a topic, a characteristic or a passion. Of course it’s the ambivalent characters that are the most interesting. I can also feel them in myself. Character traits that I am not enthusiastic about, mistakes that I have made… There are personality traits of Niki Lauda or Karl Lagerfeld that I would not share, but it is precisely these ambivalences, these contradictions that make up life and that make us unique.

Was Karl Lagerfeld easy for you to relate to?

He is a dazzling figure. Lagerfeld often contradicts himself. I’ve read several biographies and each one says something different. Lagerfeld has always changed the truth. In a way, I like that because I was a bit of a fantasist myself as a child. My parents were regularly ashamed when they heard the nonsense I was spewing. Which famous artists I knew. That was total nonsense, lies. [laughs] But there’s also the ability to dream. Until you end up believing it yourself, as I suspect Lagerfeld did. As an actor, you have to find the truth of a character for yourself. At some point, I stopped reading and watching interviews on YouTube; I decided that this is now my interpretation of Karl Lagerfeld. You have to do that as an actor.

I can already hear the voices, especially from Germany, saying that Lagerfeld has become a caricature, that the role is too over the top, or that he actually spoke differently, all that noise. So you just have to go for it and let yourself be driven by the character. I spent a lot of time in Paris. In the cafés he went to. I immersed myself in his time. The series is set in the 70s, when the Lagerfeld we know today was just emerging. I soaked up everything, not just fashion, but also a lot of theater, cinema, architecture, fine art. Lagerfeld was interested in everything. I listened to the music that moved him and read the books. The role gave me the opportunity to read certain classics that I had always wanted to read. I share certain of Lagerfeld’s passions without reservation. Eating and drinking is an absolute passion for me. The ability to enjoy is always part of any passionate human.

Lagerfeld also shows that passion may have something to do with imposture. Passionate people initially claim a truth that might still be a long way from reality. But through the person’s will and drive, it becomes more and more so.

Absolutely. In my youth, I was influenced by an uncle. He produced radio plays and was also a bit of a storyteller who embellished the truth. I admired him back then. Was some of it imposturous? As a teenager, I told my first girlfriend I didn’t know how much experience I already had. That wasn’t true, of course, but it gave me a certain security. In truth, of course, I was totally green behind the ears. That also applies to acting: I was always quick to say: Sure, I can do it. And then, when the shoot got closer and the first day of filming was coming up, for example with a horse, I sometimes thought: Oh, shit, now you have to deliver. [laughs]

Fashion generally has a lot to do with imposture. For example, you often dress how you want to be perceived, not necessarily how you are and how you really feel. Fashion is aspirational.

At the very least, you steer people with your appearance – that’s true. I’ve noticed that I’m becoming more and more confident and courageous when it comes to fashion as I get older. I really appreciate the exchange with Alessandro Sartori, the creative director of Ermenegildo Zegna. Fortunately, we met a long time ago. I think it was on the fringes of a fashion show in New York. Then he visited me in Berlin for my 30th birthday. He then went briefly from Zegna to Berluti. Since he’s been back, we’ve been in constant contact. Also because Zegna and I have had a close relationship for a long time. I remember a shoot for which I had to pose with several models. One of them was Toni Garn. At some point, I noticed how people kept whispering more and more, until someone came and brought me a wooden box to stand on so that I was as tall as everyone else. That was literal imposturing. [laughs]

I loved your mini-campaign for the collaboration between Ermenegildo Zegna and the cashmere hippie label, The Elder Statesman.

I managed to visit the Zegna headquarters for the first time ever. I found out what makes the brand special, took a look at the production. And realized how proud the people there are of their work. The Zegnas treat their employees very well, they give back by promoting nature reserves – I really appreciate all that. But I also and above all appreciate the work with Alessandro.

Do you also appreciate fashion more today because you simply know more about it?

Yes, I like to observe how people dress, especially in cities like London. Even men who are much older than me dress really well here. And it doesn’t look strained. I think that’s very important when it comes to fashion: not worrying about a thousand things in front of the mirror at home, but cultivating a kind of naturalness and understatement with a stylish eye for detail and what goes together. When I look at photos of my beginnings as an actor today, I’ve definitely learned something new. [laughs] Of course, my job inevitably puts me in situations where how I’m dressed plays an important role. Recently, there was another premiere in France for which I received suggestions from Alessandro and I had the feeling that he could read my mind: I thought everything was fantastic.

I used to be much more skeptical about fashion. I was afraid that associating myself too much with fashion would make me look frivolous.

That I wouldn’t be a serious actor. Now, at the age of 44, I tell myself:

Screw it, it’s a great feeling to let go a little.
You have dealt with the passions of a wide variety of people. What do you think is the goal of passion in general? What do people want to achieve through it?

For me, it’s a passion to get to the bottom of things. To penetrate a topic, a story or character, only to find that they are impenetrable again and again, and to realize that there is another turn that you hadn’t expected. I am passionately curious. I appreciate the intensity, the thrill. Recognizing that there are highs, but that you will also fall again. To feel the amplitudes, the spurts of fever. I need that. It can be dangerous and unhealthy, but I’m predisposed to it. Sometimes I envy people who are more levelheaded. And I don’t assume they live less intensely than me, but I’m sometimes totally enthusiastic, then totally down. Sometimes annoyed and frustrated too quickly. Angry and aggressive, but then again full of joy or sentimental and weepy. I can listen to my favorite music and completely immerse myself in it. Music is my elixir of life. And although I have been making films for decades and know how they are made, cinema still enchants me – again and again. Passionately telling stories is what drives me.

Because a story told without passion is not a story. Just as life would not be worth living, for me, without passion.

That’s also what I try to pass on to my children: Enthusiasm and passion.

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