Daniel Brühl on ‘Becoming Karl Lagerfeld’ & Finding the Designer’s Truth

When Daniel Brühl was first approached to star in Becoming Karl Lagerfeld, the Disney+ series that dramatizes Lagerfeld’s rise in the world of haute couture in 1970s Paris, the Spanish-German actor admits he was somewhat hesitant. Having grown up in Lagerfeld’s native Germany, Brühl knew his portrayal of the world-famous—and famously enigmatic—fashion designer would invite scrutiny. But as he has gotten older, the 46-year-old Brühl, best known for his work in Inglourious Basterds, Rush, and Captain America: Civil War, has realized that a healthy amount of fear is necessary for any creative undertaking.

Brühl recalls meeting, as he puts it, “the persona” of Lagerfeld for the first time 15-20 years ago when he was photographed by the designer for a magazine. In accepting this role, however, Brühl was most interested in “cracking that façade” by exploring the younger Lagerfeld, who had yet to establish himself professionally or form his now signature look. “It gave me a freedom to create something personal, to surprise people with a more human, approachable, vulnerable, insecure Karl Lagerfeld,” Brühl tells W.

You’ve spoken about how you read three separate Lagerfeld biographies, and that they all contradicted each other. How did you settle on what you felt was the “truth?”

I found it tricky to fill all the voids because he was such a discreet and distant character who did not really want to talk about his private life. I approached it with a lot of respect and dignity, to treat Karl Lagerfeld with empathy. After having done the research, it was easy to detect that, for example, “My father was a Swedish baron” was a lie because he was a German. So there were some easier bits, and then there were some trickier [details] where you really had to follow your feelings. I keep saying that I don’t pretend to be Karl Lagerfeld; I don’t even pretend to be the younger Karl Lagerfeld becoming Karl Lagerfeld. This is a fictional series, and it is my personal interpretation of what I saw in that material.

Brühl as a young Karl Lagerfeld

Courtesy of Caroline Dubois, Jour Premiere/Disney

You’ve referred to thinking of Lagerfeld as a matador as a way to get into character.

That was an epiphany I had when I visited an old friend of Karl’s in Paris. That matador image of being very masculine and macho, but also graceful, feminine, and elegant was always a perfect image that helped me. I pretty much did [the bullfighting motion] before every single scene. I did not care if the French were laughing at me because I’m half-Spanish. [Laughs.] It helped me to get into that right vibe.

He seems like someone who needed to be in control, and falling in love took that away from him.

It’s partly because of the complicated relationship with his mother—on the one hand, she’s very caring and protective; on the other hand, she’s judgmental and puts a lot of pressure on him. That explains why he had this pressure to succeed and this fear of losing control—that resonated with me.

How did you approach playing a character with so much interiority underneath his perpetually calm demeanor?

I was fighting for these intimate moments. There’s a scene where there’s a dance in front of a mirror. That was my idea. I wanted to see all the struggles and inner conflicts condensed into one dance of 30 or 45 seconds. I was actually dancing to classical music that I had suggested, but then it was ingenious by [director] Audrey Estrougo to use a version of that song “Take on Me,” although it’s not “period correct.” It was important to me to show the loneliness of a man. What do we do when we are on our own? And if something has troubled us, if there’s pain and suffering, where do you go?

Much of that internal conflict stems from Lagerfeld’s relationship with Yves Saint-Laurent, whom he considered both a friend and a bitter rival.

As an actor, I always loved that Mozart-Salieri [kind of relationship]. If you think of history, some of these great careers wouldn’t have been as great without a competitor. This love-hate relationship, that jealousy but respect, was something that I found deeply interesting.

Brühl as Lagerfeld and Théodore Pellerin as Jacques de Bascher

Courtesy of Caroline Dubois, Jour Premier/Disney

becoming karl lagerfeld daniel

How did you come to understand the importance of Lagerfeld’s partner, Jacques, in his life?

I wanted to show Karl Lagerfeld as a German romantic. Romanticism is deeply embedded in our culture. He had this passion for the 18th century. It stimulated him intellectually, and he then had the means to really create [these fairytales] for the love of his life. This was so anachronistic. In the ’70s, everybody was sleeping with each other and getting lost in the crazy nights with booze and drugs. Then there was Karl Lagerfeld, who wanted to live in a chateau like in Rococo days and was faithful to this one man who was out of a Proust novel.

It’s such a juxtaposition to the fast-moving fashion world where he constantly had to create for various different labels and reinvent himself. Then he had this very weird, toxic, sadomasochistic relationship with this one man [that] informed his life until the very end. Even in the last interviews he gave, he did not like to answer these questions about love, but if asked, he kept on saying, “This was the man.” This was the one and only true love story of his life.

Is there a particular moment from the arc of that relationship that stands out to you?

Every scene I shot with Théodore was an absolute pleasure because the chemistry and love story were incredibly believable for us both. There’s a very mad, super weird proposal that I do and there’s a reaction to it with so much pain and anger from Théodore, from Jacques, who’s screaming at me. The first time we shot it, I had goosebumps because I thought, “Wow, there’s so much intensity and so much pain in his eyes.” It’s sad to see the relationship of two men who truly loved each other, but it was just impossible. The impossibility of love is one of the motifs of the show.

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