In the opening scene of Neil Jordan’s new hardboiled throwback film Marlowe, a sumptuously costumed Diane Kruger saunters into the office of private investigator Philip Marlowe (a haggard, chain-smoking Liam Neeson) with a request to find a Hollywood paramour who may or may not have disappeared. “When you say ‘disappeared,’ do you mean out of your life or out of the world?” Marlowe inquires, with more than a hint of ominous foreshadowing. “I don’t know,” she says, cradling a cigarette in her porcelain fingers. “That’s why I’m here.” The cynical detective pumps her for more information about her lover, which she parries with cagey insouciance. “Did he have things to hide?” he asks. She answers with a classic noir staple—a question for a question: “Haven’t we all?” Against his better judgement, Marlowe agrees to the assignment from his secretive new client, Clare Cavendish. (“Do call me Cavendish, without the missus.”) But it quickly becomes evident that it is the woman, and not the detective, who will pull all of the narrative strings. “You’re very perceptive and sensitive, Mr. Marlowe,” Cavendish says with a half-smile as she exits down a birdcage elevator. “I imagine it gives you trouble.”

Kruger exudes a similar aura of mystery and sophistication on the (very) small screen, as I discover when we chat via Zoom a few weeks before Marlowe’s theatrical release. At first glance, the German ballerina-turned-model-turned-global actress bears the kind of self-possessed poise and athletic elegance that is indicative of a life spent in extensive physical and creative training. Yet it’s an interest in what lies beneath the glossy facade that has most characterized Kruger’s career.

“I tend to gravitate towards women who have a certain mystery to them,” she says of her femme fatale role in Marlowe. “Those who keep their cards close to their chests and who aren’t what you think they are at a first sight.” Examples of such characters in her filmography are extensive and varied: from Helen of Sparta and Marie Antoinette to Marlene Dietrich, in an upcoming project. While Kruger insists on the essential link between modern womanhood and speaking out (she has, herself, been vocal on issues like motherhood, gun-control, and the global refugee crisis), she admits that she’s intrigued by female protagonists—or antagonists—who maintain a certain taciturn ambiguity, or “an air of mystery.” “They are kind of a little bit dangerous, because you don’t exactly know who they are or what they pretend to be,” she explains.

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She says that at the heart of Dietrich’s life lay a compelling conundrum: “How do you defend your country even when you decide to leave it, and you’re being treated as this traitor?” Even at her furthest remove from her homeland, Dietrich was still deeply German, Kruger explains, relaying a story that she had recently heard from Dietrich’s grandson to illustrate her point. According to him, the Hollywood star would always leave the house with the parting words, “I’ve got to go to work. Das ist meine pflicht.” It is my duty to be Marlene. “It’s very, very German, and it really resonated with me,” Kruger says, invoking a sense of shared heritage with Dietrich that she still feels deeply, even from afar.

Like the elusive Clare Cavendish, Dietrich bore many secrets beneath a glamorious face. Ultimately, they compelled her to pursue the life of an outsider, but one committed to a personal truth about all that she had left behind. In the same way, Kruger has continued to find her most compelling roles from the outside, and doing so has allowed her to see more clearly the mysteries and secrets residing at the center.

Marlowe is in theaters now.

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