LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was looking for a German actress to play a 1940s German screen siren-turned-spy in his movie "Inglourious Basterds," Diane Kruger knew she was perfect for the part.
After all, she thought, who better to play a German movie star working in France than a German actress like herself who was living in France?
"Basterds," which debuts in the United States on Friday, follows a group of Jewish American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt's Lt. Aldo Raine, on a mission to take down the Third Reich.
Kruger's Bridget von Hammersmark is loved by her German countrymen, but is secretly working as an undercover agent with the "the basterds," as Raine's soldiers are known.
"This is the first time someone gave me a part where I'm strong, where I'm the engine, the motor of the scene," Kruger told Reuters. "Many times actresses are an accessory to a story line. To be handed intelligent dialogue was nice. It was a very new experience for me."
It was also an unimaginable experience for someone who once considered modeling and movies "completely out of my reach."
"I come from a lower middle-class village in Germany," said the 33-year-old. "It is impossible to imagine that any of this was ever going to be in the cards for me."
With dreams of becoming a ballerina, Kruger studied with the Royal Ballet School in London. As a teenager she was a finalist in the Elite modeling agency's Look of the Year contest and turned her attention to fashion and the catwalk.
"All of a sudden I moved to Paris and was learning French and traveling the world," Kruger said. "Then I met my ex-husband (French actor and director Guillaume Canet) who was so influential in giving me confidence to pursue acting."
Her first major acting role was in Canet's directorial debut, 2002's "Mon Idole." The two divorced in 2006, but worked together once more in "Joyeux Noel."
Though 2004's romantic thriller "Wicker Park," in which Kruger starred opposite Josh Hartnett, was technically her first U.S.-made movie, it was her second feature to be released in the United States.
"Troy," in which she co-starred alongside Pitt and Eric Bana was released first in theaters, and the hype over Hollywood newcomer Kruger playing the beautiful Helen of Troy helped her land box office hit "National Treasure."
That movie's success spawned the sequel "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and together the big-budget movies made Kruger a household name -- after a little adjustment, that is, because her real last name is Heidkruger.
"Nobody in America or France could ever pronounce or spell it correctly," she said. "I was sick of saying, 'H-E-I-D...' When you say 'It's like Freddy,' everybody gets it."
Today, Kruger is grateful that at least one person in the entertainment industry "gets" her: Tarantino.
"He took a leap of faith on an actress who has so far only played Helen of Troy and did 'National Treasure,'" she said. "He sees me completely different."
Kruger next stars with Jared Leto in French filmmaker Jaco van Dormael's "Mr. Nobody." The film debuts at the upcoming Venice Film Festival, weeks after the release of "Basterds."
"I feel Quentin gave me a great gift," Kruger said. "No matter what impact this movie has on my career, or if it turns into a box office hit or not, I feel like I won the lottery."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Stacey Joyce