Vive la Beginner
by Jay S. Jacobs
Even though she has made over 20 films in her native France, unless you are a regular at your local art-film house, in the US the only way you have likely heard of Mélanie Laurent is for her appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
In that film, Laurent played Shoshanna, a Jewish refugee in World War II who survived the violent murder of her family by the Nazis, only to end up a vital cog in the French Resistance in Paris, under the front of running a little movie theater. When a gala Nazi premiere is planned in her building, she attempts to assassinate many of the leading names of the party – including Hitler himself.
Inglourious Basterds was Laurent’s first major American role – despite the fact that her character spoke mostly in French – after starring in such French favorites as Paris, Jusqu’à toi, The Concert, Le tueur and The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
The wildly talented Laurent has also recently finished her first musical CD with Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice and is putting the finishing touches on her film directorial debut.
For her second American film – and the first one in which she acted in English – Laurent decided she wanted to do something a bit more intimate than Tarantino’s blockbuster. The project she chose was Mike Mills’ comedy-drama Beginners, the story about an emotionally cut-off man named Oliver (Ewan McGregor) learning to find love. Oliver is already having relationship difficulties when his father (Christopher Plummer) announces at 75 that he is gay and then gets cancer after a few brief happy years out of the closet.
Laurent plays Anna, a beautiful-but-neurotic French actress who recognizes the sadness in Oliver and falls into a tempestuous relationship with the man, eventually convincing him to open himself up to the possibility of love and happiness.
A week before the film was due to open, we were one of a few websites to get to speak with Laurent at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York about the film and her fascinating career.
[Writer-director] Michael [Mills] wants us to ask you about Magic Mountain. What happened?
Oh, my God. What happened? I was in LA for like two days and he said, “We’re going to Magic Mountain. You’re going to meet Ewan.” Okay, what is Magic Mountain?
Was that the first time you met him?
Yeah. And we arrived. I said, “Hi, I’m Mélanie. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but it’s going to be fun. Or not, I don’t know…” So, we took the rollercoaster and I was like, “I don’t want to do that.” Because I saw it, you know? (laughs) It was just a nightmare. Michael just put Ewan and I close to each other in the back and he said, “You know that feeling of being terrified and excited at the same moment?” We were like, yeah. “It’s exactly the movie!” And we started [going down] and we’re like “Aaaauggghhhh!” (laughs again) It was funny. I had my Flip camera, so I just did a movie of our faces. It was in my computer and someone just stole my computer. I lost all the little movies I had.
Were you making little movies throughout the making of the film?
I did a little making-of. Well, I’m stupid, I should just save something. But I didn’t.
Were you clutching onto him for dear life?
No, no, because I was proud. It was the first time I just met him. I was like, “No, I’m not afraid!” It’s funny, because I used to love doing this when I was a kid. When you grow up, you just have a fear. It’s stupid when you think about it, but you just fear more and more. It’s become like, “oh, please stop!” But I thought it was an amazing, crazy, great idea. To just make your actor your partner. (mimics the director) “Yeah, it’s exactly about this in the movie.”
Who screamed louder, you or Ewan?
Probably Mike. He made a bigger snort like “aaaughhhhh!” (laughs) Which is really funny, because you don’t know the guy.
How was it working with the cast?
Well, I worked almost just with Ewan. I had no scenes with Christopher. I started to shoot when they had just done all that part of [the film]. I remember everybody going off and they’d be released, because it used to be very big drama and a lot of sad scenes at the hospital. We did a break for one week for Magic Mountain, and then it was almost like a second movie. We started with funny scenes together. I have done 25 movies and I’ve never had a partner like Ewan. It was just like we had exactly the same vision of everything. We wanted to do exactly the same things for Anna and Oliver. We wanted to be real.
You act and you also do music. You have an album that just came out.
Yes, and I’m on stage. And I directed a movie.
How do you juggle all these things?
I’m tired, but it’s super. (laughs) I always want to do more things. More inspired. And when I’m working on a record, it’s inspired me for a movie. Inspired me for a character. Everything inspires me. And you meet people. You meet these amazing artists, amazing people. I’m working with Damien Rice [on her album En T’Attendant]. It was like pop-punk with French lyrics.
This was your first film that was mostly done in English. Even in Inglourious Basterds, most of your dialogue was in French. Was it different as an actress to work in another language?
Yeah, but it’s more easy. I don’t know, when you speak in English and it’s not your language, it’s more easy to say, “I love you,” than “Je t’aime,” because it’s your language and it’s [more meaningful somehow]. I don’t know, it’s easier in a way. I loved it. I mean, I was terrified, because sometimes we did a little touch of improvisation. I said to Michael, “What am I going to do if they say something to me and I can’t respond because I don’t know how to say it?” He was telling me all the time, “Say it in French. It’s going to be great.” It’s just French, so you can use that. So, I used it.
What is the project that you directed?
I did, what do you call…
(She turns to a man behind her and asks him a question in French, he responds, and they have a brief back and forth en français. Then he says in English, “She made a 60-minute feature.”)
Ahh, feature. That’s it.
No, no, no. Like Beginners.
(The man says, “If it’s over an hour it is considered a feature.”)
What is the name of the film?
What’s it about?
I don’t know. I can’t even tell you in French what it’s about, much less English. I just finished it to mix and do everything one week ago. It’s kind of difficult for me to talk about it. It’s still my baby. But it’s talking about family and, ugh, it’s complicated.
Is it about adoption?
Kind of, but more symbolic. Like someone has an accident and she’s in a coma and it’s about the waiting for someone who is asleep. And you have to adopt each other around her because you’re waiting, and you just discover people. The lover and the sister. I used to hate you, but now she’s asleep, let’s meet. I’m playing on it. I have a little daughter and I don’t know the father, so the lover is going to adopt the little child, because he never had any father. That guy is going to be a father and he doesn’t know how to manage. So, it’s a little bit complex to explain (laughs).
When does your film come out?
November in France.
Will it be called The Adopted here?
I think it’s cool. I was thinking about the English title. I hope so.
Do you have a distributor here?
I don’t have any [American] distributors for now. It’s a French movie. It’s almost done.
What speaks to you most about Beginners?
I think it’s homosexuality as a subject. It’s not a big deal anymore. [However] it’s still a taboo everywhere, unfortunately. A friend of my parents was homosexual. Where I grew up, I realized that a lot of people think it’s not normal. I’ve always been like in that situation [people are] like, “You don’t understand why people think it’s not normal?” Because you always grew up with homosexuals. When I read the script, I thought that was a beautiful subject, because it’s pure and delicate and it’s real. It’s still a problem in lots of countries. When you think about it, it’s absurd. I remember I did a movie in Singapore (Rice Rhapsody in 2004) and when you are a six-year-old in Singapore, you can go to jail. In France you can see homosexuals everywhere. There is a big problem with that word. But it’s kind of the subject of the people’s life. It’s crazy. It’s terrifying because in France, in politics right now, it’s a big mess.
Look at Dominique Strauss-Kahn (a French ambassador who just the week before had caused an international scandal when he was accused of raping a hotel maid).
Yeah. There is no taboo in France, but we are assholes.
What was it like working with the dog Cosmo? He was quite a scene-stealer.
Two things about that dog. (chuckles) First, the trainer was French, so she was my best friend. Second, the dog was a little bit jealous of me. Can you imagine that?
He was so in love with Ewan. And every time I was arriving, he was like (growls) when he would look at me. I’m not going stone your master. Don’t go like this (growls). Every time I was like this with Ewan he’d go. (laughs) But it’s funny.
Did he try to nip at you if he got a little bit close?
No. But… (growls). He loved Mike. He’d lick his face, but just Mike’s face. No other face. He was crazy about Mike’s skin.
He was kissing up to the director.
He loved the director. Loved the actor. The actress… (growls). Not normal.
Did Mike give you a lot of leeway about creating your character?
He talked to me more about the relationship between Oliver and the father, because he wanted me to give me all the [info on] why he did that movie and why it was personal and why he just wanted to write that script. More than “Anna, she’d like this…” And I don’t like this. I do a lot of improv. I’m not that sort of actress who needs a lot of information. I don’t need that. So, he just wanted it to be “it’s a story with my father.” I was like, no, I don’t need that. I’m super instinctive. I never take notes. I don’t need to know all the shades of my character. I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do before actually doing it. Really, I have no idea.
Do you work that way as a director as well?
No. I really don’t want to work with me as a director. (laughs heartily) I love actors who are big workers.
Did you pick up any tips from Quentin Tarantino when you worked with him?
Yeah. The dance. He puts on music between two scenes and everybody dances. It’s lovely. It’s nine o’clock in the morning and everybody is like, “Whooooo!” So, I stole this. And I stole from Mike when you finish a scene, you’re like: “And cut. (then screams) Oh my God, you’re so beautiful!” I just keep that from Mike. On my set it was like music and “Cut! Oh my God, it’s so beautiful!” It’s like Mike and Quentin. Hey, guys. (laughs again) On my set, my actors call me the American director. (laughs more) When you’re French, it’s like, “Cut. Thank you.”
What kind of music does Quentin play?
Oh, lots of super different things. It’s a creative thing. It really depends on the scene of the day. Sometimes it’s jazzy and sometimes it’s rock and roll. It’s not like we put some music on. He worked on the playlist for months. It’s not just like “Turn on the radio.” Oh, it was super great. Mike and Quentin are very different, but the common point is they are Captain on the boat – in a really different way. But it’s really nice. Okay, guys, let’s do that movie.
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Copyright ©2011 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: June 1, 2011.