Kruger was filming “In the Fade” — Fatih Akin's German thriller about a woman who seeks revenge on the neo-Nazis who killed her husband and son — when she was told her stepfather had died.
Wolfgang Bieneck — her mother's longtime partner since Kruger's parents divorced when she was a teenager — had been a crucial part of her life, often pictured with her on the red carpet. She channeled her grief into the role.
“I felt like I was drowning in sorrow and grief. It just felt like there was no way out, ever,” the German-born 41-year-old, best known for blockbusters such as “Troy” and “Inglourious Basterds,” told AFP.
“In the Fade” was filmed chronologically, allowing Kruger to tap into her character's fluctuating state of mind, and her own fraught emotions were heightened by visiting grieving relatives of real-life murder victims.
“I never felt like that tension, those feelings, like I could push them aside at night, or on weekends,” Kruger told said in an interview at the plush Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills.
Kruger's work as the tattooed, drug-taking Katja has earned her critical acclaim and the best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
On Monday, the movie was nominated for best foreign language film at the Golden Globes, and three days later it was named among nine overseas films advancing to the next round of voting in the Oscars.
Kruger was on the Cannes jury in 2012 when she met Akin, an acclaimed German-Turkish auteur known for hits such as “Head On” and “Edge of Heaven,” at a beach party.
“He was definitely my dream director, I'd seen all of his movies. I went up to him and said, 'If you ever have anything, please remember me.' It took five years but he did,” she said.
Kruger moved to Hamburg a few months before shooting, contributing to the casting process and meeting two dozen people who had lost a loved one, mostly families of murder victims, in special workshops.
“It was an experience that I didn't quite understand when I first started going there — how much it would affect me and my personal life,” she recalled.
“As the months went by — I think I went for about six months leading up to shooting — it's even hard to describe the horror, desperation, loss, anger, the rage that people feel.”
Kruger says she would feel intrusive at first probing grieving relatives for details about their experiences, but soon learned she needed simply to “sit there and listen and just observe, and allow myself to feel.”
Kruger, born Diane Heidkrueger in what was then West Germany, left home as a teenager for Paris, quickly landing catwalk jobs for Marc Jacobs and Dolce and Gabbana and print ad campaigns for Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel.
Hollywood beckoned, and she got her break as Helen in Wolfgang Petersen's 2004 swords-and-sandals epic “Troy” co-starring with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom.
Kruger went on to star as a German actress turned Allied spy in Quentin Tarantino's “Inglourious Basterds,” winning plaudits for her channeling of Marlene Dietrich for the role.
Her diverse resume includes roles in time-travel adventure “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” and as the wife of a South African prison guard who befriends Nelson Mandela in “Goodbye Bafana”.
She played a US homicide cop in the FX series “The Bridge” and has demonstrated her French language skills in films such as Benoit Jacquot's erotically-charged historical epic “Farewell, My Queen.”
Kruger saw “In the Fade” — her first role in her native German — alone in a screening room and again 10 days later at the Cannes world premiere, an experience she describes as “overwhelming.”
“I was really, really stressed out and it's my first really big starring role. I'm in every frame of the film, so if people didn't like it that was definitely on me,” Kruger said.
The actress says she felt “a real sense of connection” with the audience, however.
“There are plenty of movies about bombs and terrorists, but it was the intimacy of this film, the small details that grief and death bring into one's life, that I found so moving and emotional,” she said.
“I believe it's what connects this film to a global audience, because we can all identify with that.”
Magnolia Pictures is giving “In the Fade” an awards-qualifying run at select US theaters this month and a nationwide rollout next year.
By Frankie Taggart