Paris-born Emmanuelle Seigner, who started out as a model at 14, has already proven herself as a talented performer in films such as “La Vie en Rose” and “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.” Still, her lead turn in “Venus in Fur,” a tense two-hander adapted from David Ives Tony-nominated play by Seigner’s husband of 25 years, Roman Polanski, is a revelation.
In the role that won Nina Arianda a Tony award, Seinger is a complete force as Vanda, an actress who shows up late to an audition for Thomas (Mathieu
Almaric), a writer-director with some sadomasochist issues. What
transpires over the course of their meeting is a battle of the sexes,
where both weave in and out of playing Thomas’ characters, blurring the
line between what’s written in his play and what’s happening in reality.
It’s a career-best performance for the actress who has collaborated with her husband three times before, but never on a role this juicy. Indiewire caught up with the Seigner back when the film screened at the Tribeca Film Festival in April to discuss the project and what it was like working with Polanski. The film opens in select theaters on Friday, June 20.
Did you go to Roman begging him to adapt this? It’s the role of a lifetime for you.
No, not at all! It was on the contrary. He had read the play that his agent gave him. He fell madly in love with the play and everything — he was entranced and gave it to me to read. But at the beginning I felt — especially because I read it in English — I could never do it. It’s too difficult. I felt like it was too much. I wanted a good role but not like that. I felt I could never do that and then Roman said, “You will see you’re so right for it. It’s going to be great.” I then trusted him. When it was translated into French, it was really easy, so he was right. It didn’t feel like I was struggling or anything.
Did he ever articulate why you were right for the role?
He just said I was so right for the role.
How did you take it?
Well, I thought it was because I am manipulative. Maybe that’s why [laughs]. And you know, when I want something, I’m like her… when she comes in and she brainwashes him. I’m like that. When I want something, I could tell you anything to make you change your mind, so that’s why he thought I was so right.
Now that you’ve played Vanda, would it be difficult to watch someone else embody her?
No, I think now that I’ve seen it, that I’ve done it, I’d love to see it. But while I was doing it, I don’t think I wanted to see because I didn’t want to be influenced. Because it’s very different that the play is in American and I do it in French. So, it’s different.
The film version is remarkably cinematic, especially given it all takes place on a stage.
I agree with you. It’s such a movie.
In preparing for it, did Roman have you rehearse as if you preparing for a stage production?
We didn’t have enough rehearsals but we had quite a lot. Because the lines – there were so many lines, so many dialogues. We would need to know the dialogue so well so we could play.
Did you have all your lines memorized like you would for a play before coming to set?
Yeah. Before I started the movie, except for the last twenty pages, I knew the role by heart. Each morning, as I was doing makeup, I had someone that made me do my line. I was actually in another production at the same time. I was doing a play at night at L’Odèon.
Yes! I was performing “The Homecoming.” The play by Pinter. I was doing that at a theater in the night, so just before I would go to do the other play, I would do my lines from the film. I did that just for a week.
How did you juggle the two?
You know what, it was not difficult. It was nice. I didn’t mix it up at all.
Did you shoot the film chronologically?
Yeah. It would be stupid not to. It is one of those movies you can shoot in chronological and it’s great. Because we don’t have a problem with décor. I think it’s sometimes, in movies, a drag that you shoot the end before. Because how do you know how the character feels when you didn’t do it? You know what I mean? So, I think in this case it was great that we could shoot it in order.
Vanda undergoes a complete transformation over the course of the film. How did you work to calibrate her journey?
I don’t think too much. I just had fun with it. I just let myself find it. I didn’t prepare too much. I’m not that type of actress. I do more instinctively and I’m more in the “laissez faire.” Let yourself be and not prepare too much. Because I feel when you prepare too much and when you try too hard it become very kind of conventional and I don’t like that. I like it more organic.
I like more the work of Marlon Brando than Laurence Olivier. Even though I love Laurence Olivier, I like more the organic work. I don’t like when it’s too prepared. Like I like the American acting for that – this actor’s studio kind of thing you know and James Dean, and this type of work. I like it better than the English which is more prepared.
How exhausting was Vanda to play? There’s never a dull moment with her.
No, because I have so much energy. Too much. It was not exhausting.
Where do you pull that from?
I was just like that. I’ve always been like that.
So there is a little Vanda is you?
Oh yeah, a lot — except the Venus part. I’m not a goddess unfortunately.
You can grow into that.
Maybe I will become a goddess [laughs].
The film is about the battle of the sexes between a female actress and a male director. You’re husband directed you in the film — you two must have drawn parallels.
Well, it’s a relationship like any, the actress and the director. It could be a journalist with his boss. I think it’s a relationship. You know, it’s interesting, at the beginning he has the power and then she gets the power. So I think it’s the same in every work. Of course I’m an actress and he’s a director, but I don’t think it’s more than that. I know a lot of people see that, especially that Mathieu [Almaric] looks like Roman.
Did his resemblance to Roman factor into the casting?
Well, he didn’t pick him up because of that. He picked him because of his talent. There are not so many people, like guys in France, that are right for that role with that talent, so there was really nobody else. So the fact that he looks like Roman is sort of an accident. It’s nice though. I like it, but it’s an accident, I promise. It’s not made for that.
Just earlier you were talking about the power struggle in the workplace. Was there any struggle between you and Roman on set?
On set, no. No, I work good with him because he’s such a great director. So I trust him. I trust that he’ll film me well. Especially in the role where you have to be a bit with not so many clothes. So I wouldn’t like to be betrayed. I felt like I trusted him and that he would put me in the best way. So, no, when we work we work and we don’t have this power thing.
It’s like when we work, we work. He treats me as an actress and I treat him as a director. I’m like another actor to Roman. I’m not different.
I can imagine it’s difficult to set those boundaries.
You have to do it. If not, it’s not possible. It’s not possible when it’s kind of obscene for the rest of the crew. You know, you can’t make people feel bad. And sometimes when he treats me like… sometimes he’s tough with actors. I know that story. I don’t know if you know it… about Faye Dunaway, when he took her hair. We all know he’s tough with actors. He can be difficult. When he was difficult to me, I would never answer because I didn’t want the crew to feel bad, to feel… you know he’s the director and you have to respect the director, even though sometimes it is tough.
Are you both prone to discuss work at home?
No. I think it’s two different things. I knew how lucky I was to have that role and to make it with him. And even though I’m his wife, I wanted to deserve the role and the part, and not to be just a spoiled wife. And so, I knew that I was lucky to get to act and to do it, so I just shut my mouth and I just did the best I could.
Because I’m his wife, people are going to judge me more strong, which is right because everybody knows how I got the role. So I have to be much better than another actress because I’m his wife. I had to do my best. If I was simply average they’d ll kill me and they’d all be right.
How validating does it feel then to be receiving the best reviews of your career for this project?
I’m very happy because at the beginning the press was tough with me. When I did “Frantic,” I didn’t have a lot of experience. My English was so bad and I did an OK job I think, but I was not amazing. And because I was Roman’s girlfriend the press was tough with me, but they were right because I was a pretty girl, I was a model. So for me, it was a challenge to be assigned a great role and to be very good, so I didn’t want to mess it up. So I was so concentrated and I really wanted to make something good. So I’m really happy that the press is happy, is ecstatic.
What kind of pressure do you feel in following “Venus” up?
Well, for me, it’s the beginning of something. It’s like for the first time I did something that I’m really proud of, even though there are things I did that I like, like “The Diving Bell” and “La Vie en Rose” – but those were small parts. Even “Frantic,” even though it’s full of mistakes, I like it, the movie. I had to wait a long time to do something like this, but it’s good because I wasn’t ready till now. So I feel like for me it is the beginning of something.
I haven’t accepted anything yet because I feel like after this role it’s hard to find a good role. So I’ll wait until someone’s offers me something really good.
I’m sure something will come along shortly.