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Glorious women

In Quentin Tarantino's new WWII film, 'Inglourious Basterds,' actresses get to play women who are intelligent, committed, and bloody tough

By Lynda Gorov
Globe Correspondent / August 16, 2009

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LOS ANGELES - Don’t be deceived by the delicate bones and honey blond hair. Sure their shoes are great, and both of their faces glow with the naturalness only professional makeup artists can achieve. But writer-director Quentin Tarantino doesn’t cast powder puffs, and this pair is no exception.

Onscreen in “Inglourious Basterds,’’ Tarantino’s maddeningly misspelled remake of WWII history, costars Diane Kruger and Mélanie Laurent cross paths only briefly, during a party scene that binds the various chapters of Tarantino’s tale together. But their characters share the same fierce intelligence, commitment to cause, and ability to hold their own in a male-dominated action flick whose director embraces over-the-top bloodshed.

It is a break neither of the actresses takes for granted. After all, they now join the list of actresses Tarantino has allowed to be unexpectedly tough-minded if not out-and-out rough.

“I feel like, whether this movie is going to be a big box office hit or not, I won the lottery,’’ Kruger said. “I walk away from this feeling a sense that I accomplished something. Of course I hope the movie does well, but at the end of the day, this is the movie where I turned a corner internally as an actress.’’

Said Laurent, who’s a star at home in France but had to fake her English during the audition - and who now speaks it rapidly if sometimes awkwardly - “The future is so big . . . Usually it’s just my little country that sees my movies. Now it’s going to be very huge everywhere so it will help me meet more amazing directors all around the world.’’

It’s never easy to deliver a quick synopsis of films by Tarantino, who mixes violence with comedy, and plays with history while paying painstaking attention to detail. (Kruger’s 1940s period shoes were handmade from casts of her feet, for instance). But here’s a recap of “Inglourious Basterds’’:

The movie, in theaters Friday, opens with Laurent’s Shosanna Dreyfus witnessing her family’s execution under the orders of a Nazi colonel (Christoph Waltz) in newly occupied France. She flees to Paris, where she runs a movie theater she inherits and finds herself with an opportunity for revenge that she doesn’t hesitate to grab.

Next up in the story line is Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who leads a band of American-Jewish soldiers on a mission to terrorize the Nazis in occupied France. Suffice it to say, they don’t take prisoners and there is a lot of head-on scalping, so to speak. But their most important mission is to ruin the Third Reich - with an all-important assist from Kruger’s German movie star-undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark.

In separate interviews - Laurent stretched out on a couch in a hotel suite, Kruger at a poolside table - both women called their casting process for the film classical, if a bit peculiar.

Tarantino wanted what Kruger (Helen in “Troy’’ to Pitt’s Achilles, and star in the “National Treasure’’ movies and a variety of French films, including “Joyeux Noel’’) termed “an authentic or multinational’’ cast, which meant convincing him she was German, which she is. The former ballerina, now 33, spent almost half her life in small-town Germany. But she’s been gone so long - London, Paris, New York, LA - that she had to lay on the German over her normally clear English for “Inglourious Basterds.’’

Tarantino finally bought it, and Kruger started worrying what her grandfather, a WWII soldier who was injured after a week in action, would think. (He thought it was funny, “like a fairy tale,’’ Kruger said. Her grandmother, on the other hand, didn’t recognize Kruger - with her heavy period makeup and authoritative air - until 20 minutes into her scenes.)

Laurent, 26, had an equally odd time of it. In the movie, her character speaks both French and English. In real life at the time, her English was almost nonexistent. She’d learned it in school and then left it mostly behind. During two auditions and the ensuing dinner with Tarantino, she pretty much had to wing it.

“I had to learn fast, because I had to survive on the set,’’ she said. “It was really hard for me. I couldn’t communicate with the other actors. It’s why I’ve made such progress.’’

Laurent, an aspiring director who was nominated for the Golden Palm for best short film at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, says it helped that she had instant rapport with Tarantino. Kruger, too. Neither was overwhelmed by all the testosterone involved in “Inglorious Basterds,’’ or felt that there was any boys’ club on the sets.

“There is a beautiful woman in Quentin, so he’s very close to women,’’ Laurent said. “It’s like he just writes so great characters for us. It wasn’t this guy who made a movie about men. He’s a very sensitive director.’’

Added Kruger, smiling at her costar’s description, “As much as his sets can be male driven and rowdy and loud, I found him to be very sensitive. . . . He knows what to say to different people. He’s a good judge of character, I guess, is what I’m trying to say.’’

Kruger also says that during the publicity tour for “Inglourious Basterds’’ - inspired by, but not a remake of, the 1978 film “Inglorious Bastards,’’ she has spent more time talking about the movie than about herself for the first time. (For the record, yes the former model is still with actor Joshua Jackson from TV’s “Dawson Creek’’ and now “Fringe.’’ Yes, the three Tiffany bands on her ring finger are from him, but no, she’s not married for the second time - her hands are just swollen and they won’t fit on the middle finger where she normally wears them.)

“This is the first time I’ve ever talked about my work in a movie and that feels really good,’’ she said. “There are so many roles where you’re making a popcorn movie, and how are you going to talk about your character then?’’

Bridget von Hammersmark is not a character that just came to her. It was a challenge, so much so that Kruger went home at night completely spent. At a dainty (her word) 5 feet 7 inches, she had to use every inch to seem like someone with the sheer force of personality to pull off what she does, or doesn’t (no giveaways here).

“I never in America have been cast as the strong, fierce, tough woman,’’ she said. “If you don’t believe for a second that she’s that smart, or if you wonder how she managed to be an undercover agent for two years and didn’t get discovered . . . then the whole second half of the movie falls flat. It was an energy I had to bring. I was the engine, the driving force, the one who’s pulling the strings.’’

For Laurent’s part, as a French Jew she says she understood both the desire of her character for revenge against the Nazis and the historical and ongoing need for bringing down dictators. Her cinema owner-operator is willing to die for her convictions, if necessary, once the opportunity to avenge her family, save her country, and perhaps change the direction of history arises.

“I think everyone has that sort of dream, to kill that sort of man,’’ she said, referring to Adolf Hitler and his top henchmen and supporters. “I think it’s kind of universal.’’

But despite that widespread sentiment - and the worldwide scope of Tarantino’s movie - making “Inglourious Basterds’’ was a more intimate experience for Laurent than for Kruger. While Bridget von Hammersmark gets to carouse with the guys, Shosanna Dreyfus spends much of her time meeting characters in her cinema’s projection booth. It’s a small space - “really, really small, so I didn’t realize sometimes how really, really huge a movie it was,’’ as Laurent put it.

Now both women - a dozen hotel stories apart, passing actors in a major summer release - say being cast in a Tarantino film changes everything, most certainly professionally but in many ways personally, too. On one final point they also agree: In parts, their beloved director’s movie was too bloody for them to watch.

CORRECTION: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the character Brad Pitt played in the film "Troy." He played Achilles.

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