Actor Daniel Brühl Talks ‘Becoming Karl Lagerfeld’ in Hulu’s Six-part Series

PARIS — When Daniel Brühl first met Karl Lagerfeld on a photo shoot some 20 years ago, he encountered the public persona made famous by a worldwide H&M campaign.

“It was a very charming persona, but it was exactly what people would have in mind if they’re asked about Karl Lagerfeld,” recalls Brühl, sitting on a sofa in a suite at the Bristol hotel in Paris. “A thin man with a white ponytail, the shades and then — in his manners, in his attitude — sharp, eloquent but distant.”

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By taking on the role of the iconic German-born designer in “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld,” the six-part TV series hitting Hulu on June 7, Brühl hoped to dig a little deeper. “We wanted to find out who was the person before he became the persona and before he became famous,” he explains.

A coproduction between streaming service Disney+ and French production and distribution company Gaumont, the show is based on “Kaiser Karl,” the biography by French journalist Raphaëlle Bacqué published in 2019, shortly after Lagerfeld’s death.

Set in the 1970s at the height of the designer’s rivalry with Yves Saint Laurent, it paints a very different picture of Lagerfeld, who purposely muddied many details of his early life, including his real birth date, in order to foster his legend.

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld and Arnaud Valois as Yves Saint Laurent in "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld."
Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld and Arnaud Valois as Yves Saint Laurent in “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.”

Lagerfeld, who at the start of the decade was a designer for hire working with houses including Chloé, is portrayed as envious of Saint Laurent’s reputation as the king of haute couture; stifled by his domineering mother, and struggling to achieve emotional and physical intimacy with Jacques de Bascher, the love of his life.

That might feel like a tall order, but Brühl jumped at the chance to portray such a complex character.

“I felt like, I don’t know how the hell I will get there, and it might be a total crash and a failure and humiliating and whatnot, so the danger is definitely there to make a fool of myself. But something in me told me this is such a fascinating, iconic, mysterious figure that I just want to play, and that’s going to be a very exhilarating journey,” he says.

“After I was really offered the part, I was hanging up the phone, and then I thought, ‘Oh, Scheisse! Now I have to do it.’ And then you have that Mount Everest, but it’s a wonderful feeling. It’s like an enormous jigsaw puzzle of a thousand pieces that you slowly put together,” he adds.

The multilingual actor, who has starred in international productions including “Inglourious Basterds,” “Woman in Gold” and “Captain America: Civil War,” was especially drawn to the idea of shooting the series in Paris in French.

“I wouldn’t have done it in English or German, for some reason. I thought, this was his preferred culture, this was his home. It just felt right to do it in French,” he says.

The poster for "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld."
The poster for “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.”

Canadian actor Théodore Pellerin plays de Bascher, the decadent dandy who was Lagerfeld’s partner for close to two decades and ignited his feud with Saint Laurent through his involvement with both men.

French actor Arnaud Valois is Saint Laurent, while French actor, comedian and director Alex Lutz takes on the role of Pierre Bergé. French actress, screenwriter, director and singer Agnès Jaoui plays Gaby Aghion, who helped Lagerfeld’s career by hiring him as creative director of Chloé.

“This is the first time that I’m doing an intense emotional love story with a man,” Brühl notes. Fortunately, he felt instant chemistry with Pellerin, who eats up the screen as the hedonistic, childish, captivating and needy de Bascher, while Brühl portrays Lagerfeld as a powder keg about to explode.

“What he does in the show is so incredibly amazing and so touching that he made it very easy for me,” Brühl says of his costar and love interest.

“Some of these scenes are among the best that I ever did and it was thanks to what I got also from Théo, because what we gave each other was emotionally absolutely truthful. So we went all in, there were no restraints and no holding back, so to say. And I see that in a couple of moments, and it’s kind of beautiful when that happens,” he enthuses.

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld"
Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.”

Brühl read a bunch of Lagerfeld biographies, but faced with a mass of contradictory information, he realized there was no roadmap to figuring out the more intimate aspects of the character.

“I ultimately had to find my own truth and followed my own instinct and created something that I thought was right, with all the respect and responsibility and dignity in defending Karl Lagerfeld, because this is another crucial aspect that I found out pretty early on: I want to defend this character, even with all his flaws that he might have,” Brühl says.

He met with Patrick Hourcade, former artistic director of Vogue Paris and author of “Karl: No Regrets,” who surprised him by inspecting his nails — too short, Hourcade decided, because Lagerfeld was prone to clawing people — and asking him to walk. That’s when they landed on the idea that his Lagerfeld should carry himself like a bullfighter.

With their ramrod-straight shoulders, the outfits created by costume designer Pascaline Chavanne helped Brühl to inhabit the character.

“Of course, your first thought is, like, ‘Jesus Christ,’” he says of trying on the suits, printed shirts and knee-high boots he dons in the series. In the end, his compensated heels held the key. “I knew that this is something which changes the whole posture, obviously, and the way you walk. I wanted this torero, this matador kind of movement, which the [heels] gave me.”

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in a Chloé fashion show scene from "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld"
Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in a Chloé fashion show scene from “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.”

Brühl spent two days at Chloé, exploring the archives and watching the teams put the finishing touches to the fashion house’s red carpet outfits for the Met Gala, whose theme last year was inspired by its “Karl Lagerfeld: A Line of Beauty” exhibition.

“That was surreal,” he recalls. “I have to say that there were some outfits that I would have liked to steal for my wife.”

Beyond the historical facts, the actor was fascinated by Lagerfeld’s contradictions: simultaneously craving fame and recognition, and spending hours alone reading, sketching and crafting fictional worlds via the elaborate interiors of his many homes.

“He created an aesthetic perfection and this is very interesting, also so anachronistic, especially when you think of that series at the beginning of the ’70s, when there was a sexual and a youth revolution,” Brühl remarks.

“I also saw him like a German Romantic, with the poems that he loved, and listening to Strauss and to have this tender side of him, the loving side,” he says. “I asked myself very often, what is Karl doing when he’s on his own?”

It was Brühl’s idea to improvise a scene where Lagerfeld dances by himself, seemingly on the brink of a breakdown, while de Bascher drowns his existential dread in a drug-fueled outing at a nightclub. Though he was listening to classical music when he shot it, the final sequence that jumps between the two characters is set to Aha’s 1985 hit “Take on Me.”

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld"
Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.”

“It’s great, and I love seeing the despair on both sides,” Brühl says of the end result. “I wanted in this little intimate dance moment to tell the whole journey, all the frustration, all the anger, all the humiliation, all the sadness and tenderness that he cannot.”

It was the actor’s method of conveying Lagerfeld’s complicated, platonic relationship with de Bascher.

“I didn’t want to be too explicit because I want to keep it open. I found it too cheap and too cheesy to then give a simple explanation,” he says. “To me it was just playing with the idea that he just cannot commit, and it’s very sad when you think about it. This is life with a lot of solitude, no?”

One surprising facet of the series is its focus on Lagerfeld’s relationship with food. Often criticized for making fatphobic comments, the designer struggled with his weight, famously losing more than 90 pounds in 2001.

In “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld,” he is shown squeezing into a corset, and wolfing down desserts with abandon. Brühl believes that Lagerfeld, stifled by his harsh education, his hangups about being a German, gay man in France in the aftermath of World War II, and his obsessive quest for perfection, used food as a release.

“Trying to contain all these fevers, and all the failures and all these humiliations, in one way or the other, as humans, we need to find our ways to cope with that. And in that case, it’s very interesting, no, that he started with almost like these bulimic attacks of eating so much,” he says.

Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in "Becoming Karl Lagerfeld"
Daniel Brühl as Karl Lagerfeld in “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld.”

The shoot involved a fair amount of food, and Brühl ended up eating two large chocolate bars in a single take. “After, I was dead. But it was very important to me. Because also, I mean, you never know if this journey will continue,” he reasons, noting that the series was left open-ended.

In the last scene, Lagerfeld receives an offer of employment from Chanel, where he would go on to serve as creative director for more than three decades.

“My feelings wouldn’t be too hurt if it doesn’t continue. And if it continues, well, then it will be a new adventure. And my plan then, the first season so to say, is to have a more accessible, fragile, vulnerable Karl Lagerfeld, who is young and still finding his place, and I would then try to gradually become the persona and shielding himself more and more from the outer world, from being punished, from being humiliated,” he explains.

Whether there is a season two or not, Brühl has not been tempted so far to save any souvenirs of his Lagerfeld wardrobe.

“At the end, Pascaline was so sweet and said, ‘What do you want to keep?’ And I said, ‘Ma chère, it’s all over the top.’ I mean, unless I go back to the carnival in Cologne where I’m from, this is all too much,” he says, sounding just for a moment like the Kaiser himself.

Daniel Brühl
Daniel Brühl

Launch Gallery: Daniel Brühl Becomes Karl Lagerfeld in Hulu's Six-Part Series

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