How Daniel Bruhl Became Hollywood's Every Countryman

7 Days in Entebbe Still 1 -Berlin International Film Festival - Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival

The multilingual actor's latest roles in '7 Days in Entebbe' and 'The Alienist' exemplify a career spent playing characters from multiple nationalities.

When the hijacking drama 7 Days in Entebbe arrives in theaters today, viewers who recognize actor Daniel Bruhl may not know for sure whether his German accent in the film is real or put on, like some of his British co-stars'. That's because unlike Rosamund Pike or Eddie Marsan, Bruhl is used to playing characters with backgrounds that are not his own.

Over the course of the last 15 years, Bruhl, who is a German national, has played at least nine different nationalities, including Polish (Ladies in Lavender), Spanish and Catalan (7 Days in Havana, Salvador), French (2 Days in Paris), Hungarian (The Countess), German (Inglourious BasterdsKing's Road), Austrian (Rush, Woman in Gold), British (Burnt), American (The Alienist) and Sokovian (a fictional Eastern European country in Captain America: Civil War).

In his films, Bruhl has spoken English, Spanish, German, French, Polish and Chinese and, in 2 Days in Paris, played a man who believes himself to be a fairy. Just this year, in addition to Entebbe, Bruhl is the lead in the TNT mystery series The Alienist, playing a Hungarian-German psychologist, and plays a German physicist who speaks fine Chinese in Netflix's February release The Cloverfield Paradox.

In short: If Hollywood executives have a global, and particularly European, male part to cast, there's a good chance Bruhl will make the shortlist. How did Bruhl become Hollywood's answer to a global everyman? The answer, collaborators say, lies not only in Bruhl's multilingualism, but also his choice of collaborators and Hollywood's welcoming of an influx of German talent in the last two decades.

Certainly, that Bruhl can speak comfortably in four languages has helped him craft an iconoclastic filmography. Born in Barcelona to a Spanish mother and German father and raised in Cologne, Germany, Bruhl spent his summers in France with his cousins and learned all three languages, as well as Catalan. José Padilha, his director on 7 Days in Entebbe, for one, hired the actor in part because he needed someone who could act well in both German and English.

“Daniel is an international person by definition because he's got two nationalities,” Padilha said. “So it's like his family and the way he grew up made him a citizen of the world even before he became an actor.”

But Bruhl was initially typecast in his native Germany: After his breakout role as a son caring for a frail mother in Good Bye, Lenin!, Bruhl said he was primarily tapped to play nice guys like his Lenin! character in German films until director Quentin Tarantino tapped him to play the Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller in Inglourious Basterds. "I always wanted to explore the dark side and play evil characters, and then actually the Americans were the first ones to see that in me and give me these [parts]," Bruhl told The Hollywood Reporter. "There's a very open-minded perception of me and my persona."

Inglourious Basterds helped introduce him and several other now-famous European, German-speaking actors to a larger U.S. audience, Jaimey Fisher, a professor of German and cinema and digital media at the University of California-Davis, says. "A lot of these actors who are now well known," Fisher says, citing Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz and Michael Fassbender, "appear in that film." Indeed, the film raised the profile of Bruhl's international films, and not long after he played Austrian race car driver Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's Rush, a foil to Bradley Cooper in the chef movie Burnt and appeared in a Marvel film as a villain from the fictional Eastern European country of Sokovia in Captain America: Civil War.

Those Hollywood roles in turn helped him get noticed by at least one American producer. Sarah Aubrey, evp of original programming at TNT, says she put Bruhl on her "shortest of short lists" for the role of Dr. Laszlo Kreisler in The Alienist after seeing him in Rush. "I felt that that was a breakthrough performance," Aubrey says. "And you file that away, when you see someone that singular who creates a real moment in a piece like that, you file that away like, 'I really want to work with that person.'"

But Bruhl's entry into American movies is also part of a longer trend of German-speaking, cosmopolitan actors including Kruger, Waltz and Nina Hoss (Homeland) getting recruited for Hollywood titles in the last two decades, Fisher said. "We forget how much the world changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of borders to a degree that hadn't been seen during the Cold War. A result of that period has been this influx of acting talent from Germany and Austria," he said, which has especially infiltrated "art" cinema.

For his part, Bruhl, who lives in Berlin and has opened a Spanish tapas bar in the city, does not ascribe to one nationality. "I still don't consider myself either German or Spanish or French or whatever, but very European," Bruhl said. "But I always enjoyed learning different languages and the strength and the qualities of different languages."

That's "typical," Fisher says, "of the new European vision, which is very much contemporary and important on the ground in Berlin, which in many ways sees itself as a crucial cultural capital of post-'89, '90 Europe — where the European Union is more integrated."

Bruhl adds he doesn't mind playing various nationalities in American movies, because 20 years ago he presumes the foreign roles he's playing would just be played by Americans. He says American film has opened up to European actors, and cites Waltz's career — since Basterds, the Austrian actor has acted in Hollywood-produced blockbusters and independent films, as leads and supporting actors — as proof.

"As long as the characters are different, and as an actor I feel that they are diverse and I'm doing very different things, then the challenge of this is interesting," he said.