At this stage in his gracefully ascending career, Daniel Brühl has emerged as that rare yet sometimes undervalued cinematic bird, the problem solver. He's clearly made a name among directors as a can-do performer; it's hardly coincidence that he can currently be seen in two highly visible roles portraying real-life characters with utilitarian traits of their own.
As the steely, efficient Formula 1 driving ace Niki Lauda in Ron Howard's "Rush," he's a foil to Chris Hemsworth's recklessly magnetic James Hunt. And opposite much-touted Benedict Cumberbatch's obsessive Julian Assange in "The Fifth Estate," he's the tech wonk who engages us by degrees with his measured avidity — until, against the odds, he becomes the film's centerpiece.
"It is a challenge," says Brühl in his German-accented but highly articulate phraseology, "especially in 'The Fifth Estate,' to not disappear and to not be constantly in the shadow of this charismatic and weird and ambivalent character of Julian Assange. And also to be slowly growing from being a kind of a disciple to being tougher, more mature, stronger."
It says something further about Brühl that in the case of both the activist Daniel Domscheit-Berg, author of the autobiographical memoir on which "The Fifth Estate" is partly based, and with the legendarily thorny Lauda, the character research turned into friendship and mutual admiration.
"I know there are actors who don't want to get in touch with real characters they play," he said. "But I have too many questions — and the good feeling for me was to realize that I liked and even envied both of these guys for what they did, or do — so I could feel the right passion."
At age 35 and with a history that includes well-regarded roles in the German indie "Good Bye, Lenin!" and Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Brühl is hardly new cinema news, but he's banked a fund of goodwill with filmmakers and the industry for all the things he's not: spoiled, showy, arrogant, demanding.
"Rush" screenwriter Peter Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon"), who himself made friends with Lauda as he set to work on the project, sees long-term benefits in Brühl's steadiness and his otherness: "If Daniel Brühl were a natural American or British talent, without a doubt he'd be a household name, based on the level of his acting ability but also on who he is, he's here for the long haul, he's highly intelligent, balanced, sensible. ... He's complex enough as a human being to be able to do justice to the most complex parts."
Born in Barcelona to a German documentarian father and a Spanish educator mother, Brühl is well poised to be Hollywood's — and Indiewood's — pan-European Everyman if he so chooses.
True to the actor's work ethic, when Howard asked Brühl if he had a problem wearing an overbite-simulating dental prosthetic and being made up to look like the crash-ravaged Lauda, the actor quickly said, "No, it's a fantastic part, and I will need that — need all these elements to believe myself playing this 'Rat,' as they called him."
Still, "when I did my first prosthetic test, I was really shocked when I woke up from a little nap. And then I made a picture and sent it to my girlfriend [model Felicitas Rombold], saying, 'Do you want to marry me?' And she didn't reply. Isn't that shocking?"
Brühl's openness is such that even his irony sounds straightforward. But he seems quite sincere in summarizing how far he's come: "I can still see myself at 16 years old, when I was watching 'Pulp Fiction,' or three years later 'Beautiful Mind,' movies like that, when my only dream was making just a little tiny movie in Germany. And then it was pretty absurd, and it still feels very strange sometimes, for me to have a premiere with Ron Howard on stage — and thinking, 'What the hell, I'm now working with the guys I always dreamed of.' "