It can be hard to remember that Mélanie Laurent had actually been acting for a decade, albeit largely in French-language productions, before breaking out internationally by killing Hitler in “Inglourious Basterds.” Of course the one-two punch of the Quentin Tarantino movie and Mike Mills’ well-received “Beginners” is a relatively recent phenomenon for the actress, but in person, too, Laurent has an engaging freshness about her and a genuine excitement about where she is and what she’s is doing that makes her seem more like an ingenue than a seasoned pro. Or so we found when we got to meet her at the Berlin Film Festival where her latest film, Bille August’s “Night Train to Lisbon” (our review here and our interview with co-star Jeremy Irons here) premiered.
In it, Laurent takes on another role within a large ensemble as a political revolutionary in mid-20th century Europe, though in tone and execution it couldn’t be more different from ‘Basterds.’ We got to talk with Laurent about this superficial similarity, and well as about her abortive singing career, Gerard Depardieu’s bad influence, her bet with Luc Besson, politics, directing, and much more. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
Did the stellar cast (Jeremy Irons, Bruno Ganz, Martina Gedeck, Jack Huston, Christopher Lee, Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) play a part in informing your decision to take the part in “Night Train to Lisbon”?
Well, actually my agent called me saying Bille August wants to talk to you. And I said [gasps] “No! Why?” and he said, “Well, he’s a director… you’re an actress… duh.” I was like, “You think he wants to work with me?” So he asked me if I wanted to be young Estefania, and I felt honored, so I said yes before I read the script. And then I read the script and I said thanks! And then I heard about the cast, but I knew that would be frustrating too, because I would have no scene with Jeremy Irons. But that’s my life, because I had no scenes with Brad Pitt either. It’s always the same story.
Does your approach differ between English- and French-language films?
Working in English, it depends on the part. For example,when I did “Beginners,” that was my first movie in English, and because we were really free and that was kind of a big love story, it was easier for me to speak English. It’s really easier to say “I love you” – I don’t know why, but I love saying “I love you,” instead of “je t’aime” and especially with Ewan MacGregor! So that was easier, and that was strange because I was absolutely not comfortable with English. Four years ago I didn’t speak a word of English.
When I’m tired it’s a mess because it’s so much work for me to work in English. Because when I’m working with French, to be honest, I’m arriving on set and I’m like, “what is it today? Oh, that’s a big scene!” It’s so easy because it’s my language… and I started to make movies with Gerard Depardieu and he didn’t know his text in the morning either, so he taught me that great method of “the less is the new more.” Like in a fashion magazine – do nothing! It’s the best! And I was “OK, I kind of like that.”
But here you have to speak English with a Portuguese accent.
Yes, but then I was happy to be French because the [rolling r sounds] are easy. Jack Huston was dying with the 'rrrr's, he was almost crying every day with the dialect coach. It took me five days to know the accent. When learning the American accent could take a lifetime for me.
Did you see a lot of parallels between your “Inglourious Basterds” character and this one?
Of course, they are super-strong women who fight for ideas and fight for freedom and they are activists. I did other movies that are about that – a movie called “The Round Up,” the real story of a nurse who tried to save children from a camp during the Second World War… I do a lot of movies about the Second World War.
Why do you think that is – are you similar to these characters yourself?
I would love to be young Estefania, I would love to be a big hero. But I need to find the good way to fight, without being killed. I’m serious. Because I’m sure we killed Marilyn, I’m sure every time artists say something strong – because you can have that power of being on a TV show, in front of a politician saying “because of you we’re all gonna die!” then you die the next day. You kill yourself with a gun you didn’t have!
That’s why I feel great when I’m working with Greenpeace, because its exactly the good balance of being in a fight, but you feel protected… But I do want to organise something. Like a big revolution.
So you are politically active?
Hmmm, politics is complicated, but yeah, of course – I worked with Kofi Annan, about climate change. That was actually one of the best experiences I’ve had. A few artists did a picture for the Copenhagen meeting a few years ago and I was the only one who did a picture like I was smiling, like it was positive, like ‘we’re gonna change things!’ Everyone else was so depressed, like “We’re all gonna die soon.” Which, well I think we are all gonna die soon, but I didn’t want to look like that, so I made a happy picture. And someone told me [Annan] just saw all the pictures and was like hmmmm, okaaay, and then was like “Oh! She is better, she is nice, I want to work with her.” And so they called me saying Kofi Annan is in Paris, he wants you to be on his side to defend the project and I was like "Whhaa?"
And for the first time I did a political speech, which was one of my best experiences ever. I was with Kofi Annan, working on these documents. I was like “What do you think about that line, because it’s talking about my President, which I don’t like, and I want to find a way to not be too aggressive” and he was like, “yeah, maybe change that word, and that word.” And then I was so stressed out, but I just did this big speech in front of so many people, and I was proud. My grandparents were there and all my family were there, and they raised me in that way, to change things a little bit, to do your part. And that was amazing. And then I did a TV show and usually with these shows you don’t know what they are gonna say, but because that was politics, they gave me the questions before! So that’s how I discovered that politicians always know the questions before.
Aside from acting, you also released an album. Are you going to continue with the singing?
I’m taking a pause with that. The experience was not good. I loved making the album with Damien Rice, I produced it, I composed it, I wrote the lyrics, I did everything and then suddenly it was released and everybody was so mean. And it was so hard and I was like “I want to die right now.”
But in 2011 you also made your feature directorial debut with “The Adopted.” Tell us a little about that.
I really have more American influences: when the movie was released in France everybody said it is not a French movie, and I was like “oh, thank you!” I worked with Mike Mills and all that generation of great independent filmmakers and I feel close to them, I’m not saying I have his talent, but I feel close to the way he shot things, strange angles, out of focus all the time. I think the first day of the shooting of my movie three years ago, for the first time in my life I felt like “I’m in the right place.”
Did you get any advice from anyone in particular on directing?
Yeah. Luc Besson. I never worked with the guy, I met him once and I don’t know why, I just went to him “Hi Luc, it’s Melanie, do you have any advice, because I’m gonna start shooting in six months, I don’t know why I’m asking you, but hi…” And he said, “yeah, I have just one [piece of] advice. You’re gonna be surrounded by so many people who are gonna give advice all day long – ‘if that was me, I would film this angle, and I prefer that colour’ – just say no to everybody, just focus on your idea, trust your idea. Even your producer, they’re all gonna torture your trust but you’re the only one who knows what you really want."
And I had so many precise things, scenes and shots, and when my producer received the rushes he called me and he said, “ok there is no text, no dialogue, it’s out of focus, what the fuck?” And I said “wait for it, the third week the dialogue’s gonna be filmed” and at the end he loved the movie and he had to trust me.
Actually I’m supposed to have dinner with Luc for months now, because my movie had been released the same day as his movie, “The Lady,” so we were on TV shows together all the time and we bet something. He said “Your movie is not going to work” and I said “What?” he said, “You’ll get beautiful criticism and you only need that, but it’s not going to get any interest. It’s gonna do like, 300,000 maximum. And if it’s more I owe you a dinner, and if it’s less you owe me a dinner. “ And I did 200,000, so I owe him a dinner.
Speaking of famous directors, are you still in touch with Tarantino?
Do we keep in touch? I know in this job everybody’s like “yeah we’re so close, he’s my best friend forever!” No. But I went to the big premiere of ‘Django’ and he was there, and I loved the movie so much – I was so proud and I cried so much. I loved it, really really, so I wrote him a really long email.
You have a busy upcoming slate.
First is “Now You See Me” – it’s an action movie. Crazy cast, I can’t believe I have my name after Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg and then mine. Michael Caine too. Huge movie, French director Louis Leterrier, very, very fun to do. Not a big revolutionary movie about the resistance or something, it’s more like FBI against magicians. Which is fun sometimes to do … it’s gonna be released in June, I guess.
Then “An Enemy” – absolutely the opposite. Something very intellectual, a very complicated story from the book [by Jose Saramago] with a Canadian amazing director [“Incendies” director Denis Villeneuve], but really intense. Not really fun to do but intense and I’m sure it is gonna be something amazing.
And “Cry/Fly” for an amazing director [Peruvian Claudia Llosa] She’s so beautiful, I mean she looks so beautiful! So I’m gonna spend one month in Canada – I’m already cold – in the middle of the snow with falcons and with Cillian Murphy, and we go to have to meet, in the movie, Jennifer Connelly. So there is worse in life, and we’re shooting in three weeks.
Do you see yourself following in the tradition of legendary French actresses like Catherine Deneuve?
Whew, take it easy! I’m gonna have dinner with her tonight, and I’ll be like, “Hi, legend, I’m a legend too!” No, I’m not sure about that and no French journalist has ever said anything like that to me, but thanks.