After elevating his profile with the 2010 best picture nominee Inglourious Basterds, in which he played a loathsome Nazi soldier, Daniel Bruhl is back in the spotlight for portraying two real-life mavericks this year: Racing legend Niki Lauda in Ron Howard’s Rush, and former Julian Assange ally Daniel Domscheit-Berg in Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate. Though he says “there’s always an awkward moment when you meet the characters for the first time,” Bruhl is pleased that both of his living subjects were happy with the way he interpreted their lives. Next up for the trilingual, Berlin-based actor? Tending to the tapas bar he owns and starring opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright in Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man.
AwardsLine: You were able to spend some time with Niki Lauda to research your role in Rush. What was the most valuable information you learned about him in those meetings?
Daniel Bruhl: I was blown away by his bluntness—something that I still envy, and I love playing characters that I partly envy. To be so 100% honest and direct with certain people, and to be fearless when it comes to solving problems or facing conflict with people face to face, is striking. I don’t know anyone who is like that. And the nice thing about him is that underneath it all is that charm, that sense of humor. The more time I spent with him, and the more times he had seen the movie, the more emotional he got. So that surprised me a bit. I’m half-Spanish, so I love hugging people. I do that all the time with friends. And he didn’t like that at first, the contact with men, and he always kept his distance from me. The first few times I stood there like an idiot. Later on, he saw me, and he said, “Daniel! Come here!” And he had that smile on his face. It’s such a relief to know that he is proud of the movie.
AwardsLine: He ultimately becomes a hero at the end of the film. Did you see him that way when you met him?
Bruhl: I did, but (screenwriter) Peter (Morgan) did a brilliant job in telling the complex journey of that character. He’s the not-very-likable, determined mathematician at first, and then toward the end it was very important to make him more transparent and fragile and sympathetic. It’s something that Peter added in a beautiful way. He used a couple of moments that were not necessarily based on true events, but the balance that Peter found in telling this change within this man was nice. And I always had the feedback from Niki. I always wanted to know if he liked the moments when I created something on my own and moved a bit further away from the truth. At the end of the day, the exciting process for an actor is to, if he has to play a real character, find just the right balance of being truthful, but also to have the freedom to find your very own approach and invent things.
AwardsLine: You also play Daniel Domscheit-Berg, another character based on a real person, in the WikiLeaks movie The Fifth Estate.
Bruhl: You always feel that strange responsibility and weight on your shoulders. In both cases, I just hoped to have a good relationship with them because I had a lot of questions. I know that some actors prefer not to get in touch with the real people (they portray), but in my case I needed to. Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being supported by them, and that made it so much easier. If you have a good relationship with the living source, it can be a very exciting adventure because you are forced to get to know someone by heart.
AwardsLine: Were you at all concerned about this being a film based on a story that’s still unfolding?
Bruhl: It was a fascinating shoot. (Laughs.) I met with Benedict (Cumberbatch, who plays Assange) every day, and we would always exchange information. I had my sources, Ben had his sources, so it was very weird for both of us. There was concern—and caution—and every day, there was something new happening. I’m happy with the result because it captures a couple of different points of view. Of course, it is a fictional movie, and a dramatic thriller, and it has to simplify certain things. It’s not a film that pretends to be the ultimate truth. But I think at the end of the day it is not an anti-Julian film, it is not anti-WikiLeaks, so the reactions of Julian and WikiLeaks are a bit extreme.
AwardsLine: You briefly flirted with the idea of starting a production company. What happened there?
Bruhl: I’m very sorry to say, but I changed my mind. That was a very short adventure, but I changed (the idea) to a tapas bar. I have a restaurant. It’s much more fun. I would consider a production company again, but probably in a different constellation. I think it’s important at this moment to defend European cinema. There was a very exciting moment of renaissance that we had with young German cinema 10 years ago, but that became a bit weaker. Don’t ask me why, but we’re insisting now on making German comedies—they’re very successful inside of Germany but not outside. I was very eager to make a movie about the roaring ’20s in Berlin. There are so many interesting chapters in our recent history, and so many great stories we should talk about, so I hope that it will happen.