Daniel Bruhl Charts His Journey From Marvel to a Satire About Franchises

Like many an auteur darling, German-Spanish star Daniel Bruhl rode waves of festival acclaim to a lofty perch as a Hollywood heavy. He brought a certain European aplomb to his turn in baddie roles that included Marvel Cinematic Universe mastermind Baron Zemo in the 2016 film “Captain America: Civil War” and the 2021 Disney+ series “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

Now, for his next step – a phase the 46-year-old jokingly labels his “midlife crisis” – Bruhl wants to change gears. That begins with a role as a fashion icon in Disney’s French-language bio-series “Becoming Karl Lagerfeld” and continues with an even more improbable put-on once the actor portrays what he says is the “alter ego” of director Sam Mendes for HBO’s “The Franchise.”

Of course, Bruhl isn’t playing the exact Oscar-winning director of “American Beauty” and “1917,” who detoured into franchise territory when he shepherded 007 James Bond through “Skyfall” and “Spectre.” He’s playing a satirical version of the director concocted by Mendes himself, alongside modern masters of the form — Armando Iannucci (“In the Loop,” “Veep”) and Jon Brown (“Succession”) — for a series that fittingly ties together the twin strands of a familiar showbiz career. 

“[I’m playing] a European guy who wants to do something decent, who wants to make some art, and is then swallowed by this franchise machine and is just eating s–t,” Bruhl said with a grin during a roundtable interview at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where the star was honored with the KVIFF President’s Award. “There’s so much truth in it; so much wonderful and heartbreaking comedy, because it’s about a crew that just wants to survive and make something decent. I think it’s very timely.”

“[For all the Hollywood] satires and comedies about the world, few have been as specific as this,” Bruhl continued, bringing up “Entourage” and France’s “Call My Agent.” “But even my friends at the MCU will take it with a lot of humor — because they a have sense of humor.”

So does Bruhl – a fact made clear to the Karlovy Vary roundtable once the actor rolled out a spot-on imitation of his “Rush” and “Eden” director Ron Howard. The humor could perhaps be unexpected for a German-born leading man, and Bruhl knows it.

“I’m not coming from a country famous for its jokes,” he said with a laugh. “So I said to Sam, ‘Are you sure you want to invite a German to this dance?’ And he replied, ‘No, don’t worry, you’re a funny German.’” 

Armando Iannucci, Sam Mendes (Getty Images)

Bruhl resides in his mother’s native Spain, living in the mountains with his wife, kids, sheep and goats in a rural idyll that makes the star all the more selective when weighing future plans. 

“You ask yourself [whether any given project] is worth being away from home for such a long time,” he explained. “If it’s not new and refreshing, if it doesn’t give you that kick – a kick because you could very well fail — then I’m not interested anymore… Now I need that stronger hunger, a hunger driven sometimes by fear.”

Bruhl will funnel those ambitions into his sophomore directorial effort, “Break,” a World War II-era drama about Nazi-defying tennis great Gottfried von Cramm. Unlike his directorial debut, 2021’s “Next Door” — in which he also starred — the filmmaker will remain off-screen as he attempts to evoke the period with modern touches beyond the typical iconography associated with the genre.

“[My aim is to explore this story] in an intimate and truthful way,” he said. “To avoid the typical, waving swastika flags and those symbols of normal or formulaic storytelling. That would be the challenge; I don’t know if I will be able to achieve it, but again, I like to aim outside my comfort zone.”

More than ever, Bruhl thrives in that particular register. 

“I love that feeling, that potential for failure and struggle,” he said. “I’m too old to always play a safe hand, to fear criticism and judgment. Now I think, well, f–k it — if it goes wrong, then life goes on. I have my family, my donkeys and my sheep. And it’s no fun to always drive in second gear.” 

Viggo Mortensen

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