The Bridge, which premieres tonight on FX, stars Diane Kruger as Sonya Cross, an El Paso Detective with Asperger’s Syndrome. When an American Judge is found dead along the border, her character teams up with her Mexican counterpart (Demian Bechir as Marco Ruiz) in the search of a possible serial killer.
Kruger, who starred in Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds and was most recently seen in The Host, was born in a small town in Germany and originally “dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer,” and that “being an actor never even seemed a possibility.” She eventually moved to Paris and went to drama school there and finally became known to audiences when she landed the part of Helen of Troy in Troy (opposite Brad Pitt). “My reality is, to be honest, it’s bigger than I would have ever dared to dream,” she said.
In this interview, she talks about playing a character with Asperger’s, the research she did for her character and how cable TV is has the best roles available to women.
The Bridge airs at 10pm on Wednesdays on FX
You’ve sort of got a double role to play here, and that’s both a person with Asperger’s and a cop. I wanted to know, what was the hardest thing for you in performing, about putting those two roles together?
Diane Kruger: Well, it’s just that how can someone who has a condition such as Asperger’s really excel at being such a good cop. And that’s really what drew me initially also to the project, because, yes, she has this condition, there are so many shortcomings in her personal life that appear because of that condition, yet she is so different in her job because she has this ability to focus and to really look at things from a different point of view, and that was really interesting to me. I had never really had a desire to play a cop, I’m not really the gun toting kind of person, so that’s what really was interesting to me. And in the original Scandinavian show that … adapting, that was really the thing that drew me to it, ‘Sonya’s’ character is just so different and cool and a real challenge, because Asperger’s is much more subtle than a more severe version or case of autism.
What was the hardest thing to master about playing a person with Asperger’s? You mentioned that it’s a very subtle thing, what was the most difficult aspect of that?
Diane Kruger: Everything about Asperger’s was very new to me. I’ve heard of autism, but I wasn’t familiar with Asperger’s. As soon as I started reading up on it, I realized that this is a really daunting undertaking and continues to be so, because it’s not something that you can just put on. It’s a mind frame that I have to put myself into every day. There’s not one single line in the dialogue that’s ever been a straight up line.
And so the key for me really happened when FX decided to reach out to Autism Speaks, which is the biggest association for, not just for Asperger’s but for autism obviously in the U.S., and they introduced me to a young man called Alex …, who has Asperger’s himself and FX decided to bring him on as an advisor to the show. So he’s on the set every day when I work, and I’ve spent, I’m not kidding, more time with him in the past four months than I have with my partner … because I have so many questions and I’m just observing him, but I’m also asking him some pretty uncomfortable questions. And his willingness to be my partner in this has made a big difference. I sleep easier at night knowing that he watches over everything I do.
With this kind of script, is there room for any kind of improvising or changing around the lines, or is it pretty set in stone?
Diane Kruger: No, we change, not a lot, but there are definitely gaps to be filled in, and FX being FX and being a very actor friendly network and being very character driven, we always do table reads, the writers invite all of us actors to give comments on the script. And it doesn’t always make a huge difference, but they have been very open to our suggestions, and a lot of the scenes are being changed …, and that’s really important because sometimes you can write a great scene but when you’re actually in a situation and it doesn’t work, you have to be flexible enough to make it work for you.
Your character and Demian Bichir’s character, you all make quite an interesting and unique detective team, you’re so brittle and socially awkward and he’s so warm, a people person, and that was all laid out for you in the script, right? Did you all have to fine-tune it, or work at it, and how do you all get along when the camera stops?
Diane Kruger: Well, following the adapting and … the relationship between those two detectives was laid out for us, which is also what to me was interesting about it is that we have two opposite cultures and in a way I think Demian represents very much how we imagine Mexican men to be, very Latin and charming and he has a great accent. And then ‘Sonya’s’ very much, in a way, America because she’s very … the rules and is very much all about business and enforcing the law, so that was in the show. What we are trying to convey, as the show unfolds over the 13 episodes we’re trying to show two such different cultures, two such different countries, and how they can put their differences aside for the greater good and try to make their relationship work and how they can take away things from one another, so that’s what we’re working on every day, in every episode we’re trying to adapt the characters to that.
When the cameras are not rolling Demian and I have actually become really friendly and really good friends. We were supposed to make a movie together before the show came along, so it felt like we were meant to work together, and I admire him very much as not just a colleague but also as a person, I think he’s wonderful, and so his significant other and mine have sort of formed a real friendship.
How do you pull away the emotion, because for an actress emotion is the calling card that you bring to any kind of a production, but how do you take that away?
Diane Kruger: It has not been easy, and it continues to be – it’s not like she doesn’t have any emotion, like I mentioned before, it’s just that it’s in the oddest places. It goes against my instincts every single day. So doing this back story has been my saving grace because there’s that one place that you come to learn when you watch the show where she puts all those bottled up emotions. And then also Ted Levine’s character, ‘Hank,’ he’s sort of her … I’d say, he’s the only one that gets to see the more emotional side. But it’s a daunting character to take on, and you have to accept that people might be put off at first when they first meet her.
Did you do a lot of research for that aspect of it, or did you find that the scripts pretty much covered everything you needed to know?
Diane Kruger: Yes, I did a lot of research. We actually shot a couple of days in El Paso for the pilot, so I did get to walk the bridge of the Americas and spent the day in Juarez, because I just needed to see for myself. And I don’t have the pretension to know everything about the conflicts that are going on, but certainly I’ve been in the U.S. on and off for the past 20 years and I read the New York Times every morning, so you feel like you practically have to be blind and deaf to not hear about those issues and hear about immigration and so forth. I’m intrigued by that aspect of the show, for sure. I want to know more. I want to understand more. And I find it fascinating, and quite risky, actually, on FX’s part to try and shine a light on that situation.
You have a very long, extensive movie career and I was curious as to what led you to television?
Diane Kruger: I thought I really …, the networks on cable television right now is in its Golden era and I find myself watching the shows like House of Cards and Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and feeling like they’re better than most movies that I watch these days, and they’re real great dramas and the quality of the writing surpasses so many movies, and I just am very excited to be part of the show. The writing is superb. A character like this has never been offered to me in the movies, and the opportunity to get 13 episodes to explore that person is exciting, and I feel like it is a really exciting time for directors and actors to come to cable television, so that’s really what led me to it.
Roles for women on cable television have frequently been limited to the wives of the men who are the main characters. Do you see opportunities for women broadening in cable television with roles like this one, and do you think that cable does better with women than the movies does?
Diane Kruger: Oh yes, I absolutely agree with that. There will continue to be movies that have great female roles, but I definitely think that on cable television, from Mad Men to Homeland or Robin Wright in House of Cards, those female parts are so well written and unafraid of characters, and that’s really what it comes down to, I think. It seems to me that they thrive and the audience is looking for characters like that, and it’s very exciting for women, I think in general, definitely. Like I said, I’ve never been offered an in-depth character like this in a movie.
Did you always want to work in this industry while you were growing up, or did you have other professions in mind?
Diane Kruger: No, I didn’t dare dream of anything like this. I come from a very small rural village in northern Germany, and being an actor never even seemed a possibility. I thought you would have to live in a big city or been discovered somewhere or being born into an artistic family, which I certainly wasn’t. I dreamt of becoming a ballet dancer. I studied with the Royal Academy of London for 11 years and that did not pan out, my love for being on stage was born there, and then I actually went to drama school in Paris, France. So that’s where it first started. I never thought I would have an opportunity in the United States to act and continue to expand my career outside of Europe. So my reality is, to be honest, it’s bigger than I would have ever dared to dream.
But if a person reacts differently than she expects, she very often can get overwhelmed, and there are calming mechanisms that people with Asperger’s do, like certain materials that they would rub over and over, certain pics, heavy breathing, trying to stay in check. But you will see her in the show get overwhelmed by a situation and you will see her come undone.
What stands out in a pilot script to attract you? You talked about transitioning from film to TV, so what specifically jumps out at you, what does it need to have for you to feel like this script is A-list material?
Diane Kruger: For me it was a little bit of mystery. I didn’t immediately understand ‘Sonya’s’ character. It wasn’t quite on the page. So I was intrigued enough to take the meeting with the writer to get a sense of who she was and what her story was going to be. I personally find that, my partner is an actor and he was on network television and a lot of the things that I learned from him is that coming from movies I really like to know, at least in broad terms, where my character is going throughout the season, what the broad aspects of her character are so I can prepare. Because in movies you know the beginning, middle, and end, and so you can tune your performance to what will happen next, or what is to come and how it might end, and you know the whole picture. And I would not like not knowing at all, to be sort of totally surprised every week, “Oh, and this is what this character’s doing now.” I need to define my character from the beginning so that I can stick through that throughout the season. That’s something that I looked for and that I got from my writers. And the willingness from my writers, feeling like they will help me create this character, I can fall back on them, because in television you have a different director every week and they aren’t necessarily as invested or know my character as well as those writers, so I want to feel that teamwork.
You said you did a lot of research for the role to perfect your character’s condition, since the show started do you find that your own instincts and ideas ever intrude on the project and what’s written in the script?
Diane Kruger: Yes, I mean, all the time. Like I said, when I first started reading the books about Asperger’s or autism in general it kind of … dawning on me that this was going to be a much bigger undertaking than what I thought it would be. It continues to be, like I said, a huge challenge because my instincts tell me to say things with intention sometimes, which is totally wrong for this character because she doesn’t mean to be rude, she doesn’t mean to be blunt. It’s really trying to put my mind to see things from a totally different perspective that a person with Asperger’s would do, and that is obviously difficult. They’re very rational and logical and they take shortcuts. The social niceties or the social cues that we all have to learn to read just don’t exist for them.
So sometimes, to be honest, it’s a great relief because you just say it how it is. And then other times, especially when you’re in a scene where a person is really hurt or is emotionally distraught and you just can’t show any empathy, that goes against any person’s instincts, and so it definitely keeps me on my toes.