Despite proving his multilingual talents as a vintage Tarantino baddie, Daniel Brühl was daunted by Marvel’s Mittel-European supervillain, he tells Alistair Harkness
‘I was shit-scared when I met Kevin Feige,” Daniel Brühl confesses. On the phone from London a few hours before the premiere of Captain America: Civil War, the Spanish-born, German-raised actor, who plays the villainous Baron Zemo in the new film, is recalling his first meeting with the head of Marvel Studios.
“I only had 24 hours to prepare for this meeting and, as I’m not a comic book expert, I was extremely nervous.” Brühl laughs. “If he’d asked me any professional comic book questions I would have been lost.”
He needn’t have worried. “At the very beginning we talked about the film Se7en and about Kevin Spacey, which was an intriguing reference for me.”
Best remembered for putting Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in a box, Spacey’s character in the serial killer thriller certainly seems like a left-field reference point for a Marvel movie (Paltrow’s recurring role as Iron Man’s girlfriend Pepper Potts notwithstanding). Given that Brühl’s character is a bit of a shadowy puppet master intent on cultivating chaos and engineering a rift between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), it’s not actually all that fanciful, though.
“I liked the idea in general that superheroes are questioning themselves about the damage they’re causing,” says Brühl. “And then having this guy in the background pulling the strings – that was an idea I liked very much.”
But his character is also quite ambiguous. Brühl hesitates to use the word “likeable”, but he was attracted to the way Zemo is a villain with a certain humanity he could empathise with. “What he does is extreme, and I wouldn’t do it myself,” he adds with a laugh, “but I could understand him and understand his reasons.”
Given that Zemo operates in the murky world of espionage, data mining and terrorism, Brühl must have been fairly comfortable with the real world parallels drawn by the film. This, after all, is cinematic territory he’s traversed before: in the WikiLeaks drama The Fifth Estate and in the John le Carré adaptation A Most Wanted Man (in which he took a small role so he could work with his favourite actor, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman).
“I think they’d seen those,” says Brühl, “but I think Kevin [Feige] also liked my portrayal in Rush.”
In that film the actor played Austrian Formula One champion Niki Lauda. Feige told him he liked the fact he was playing someone who is “very calculating and professional” and “not likeable at first, but over the course of the film the audience come round to him.” It perhaps didn’t hurt that his co-star was Thor’s Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth remains a friend and was one of the first people Brühl got in touch with after being offered Civil War. “He was very sweet and told me I should definitely do it. I felt a little resistant at first: like I was going to be the new kid at school. But Chris said: ‘You’re going to have a great time.’ I missed him on set,” he adds. “It would have been great to have Thor there as well.”
It’s hard to see how that could have happened. With 12 superheroes in the mix already and plenty of big-name actors jostling for space in key civilian roles, the film is already chockablock. Brühl, though, has the advantage of being easily distinguishable as the guy driving the action. Plus, he got to bring plenty of his own ideas to the table.
“I wanted him to be a bit skinny and to change accents here and there so you never really understand where this guy is from,” he says of Zemo. “And they liked this idea, so I had moments in French, German and so on.”
That’s also the advantage of being multilingual. In an age when film is global, Brühl – who is fluent in Spanish, Catalan, German, French, English and Portuguese – has had the freedom to work around the world without language being a barrier. “That was just the way I was brought up. It’s not that I was a super-smart man.”
Born in Barcelona to a Spanish mother and a German/Brazilian father, he moved to Cologne aged six, where his dad was a television director. “A lot of my family work in the industry,” he says. “I’m the only actor, but I wouldn’t have done it if my dad was a banker.” He was raised speaking Spanish and German and grew up with cousins who were half-French, so he always considered himself European and always wanted to work in different languages.
Indeed, having broken through in his early 20s with the German hit Goodbye Lenin!, it was this facility with languages that led to his international breakthrough role as Nazi poster-boy Frederick Zoller in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. At the audition, Brühl impressed Tarantino by translating dialogue into French before the French translation of the script was done. “But I was lying,” he says. “I’m Spanish, and while my French is good, it’s not 100 per cent, so I did a fake French translation and everyone thought I did it in French rather than some of it in Spanish. But it worked perfectly.”
Did he ’fess up afterwards? “Yeah, yeah, I told him. And of course he knew. When we shot the film, he has such a good ear that even though he doesn’t speak French, if ever we dared to change his words he would know and come over to us after a take.”
Brühl, 37, is returning to the Second World War with his next film, an adaptation of Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, based on a real life story of a Polish couple’s subversive efforts to save Jewish lives in Warsaw. Starring alongside Jessica Chastain, Brühl, who plays a zoologist who becomes absorbed in Nazi ideology, says it’s another interesting and dark role. “I wanted to play it, but I think now it’s enough with this era. It would be nice to do something very light after all those dark films.”
• Captain America: Civil War (3D) (12A) is out now