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'The Artist' Star Bérénice Bejo On Returning to Cannes With 'The Past' and Working With Asghar Farhadi For Half a Year

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire May 23, 2013 at 10:9AM

Returning to Cannes following her international breakthrough performance in 2011's awards juggernaut "The Artist," directed by her husband Michel Hazanavicius, Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo returned the Croisette this year with another film to sure to bring her back at the forefront of awards talk, Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to his Oscar winning "A Separation," "The Past."
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Cannes "The Past"

Returning to Cannes following her international breakthrough performance in 2011's awards juggernaut "The Artist," directed by her husband Michel Hazanavicius, Oscar nominee Bérénice Bejo returned the Croisette this year with another film to sure to return her to the forefront of awards talk -- Asghar Farhadi's follow-up to his Oscar-winning "A Separation," "The Past."

Shot over a whopping four months in Paris following two months of intense rehearsals, "The Past," Farhadi's first film shot outside of his native Iran, centers on Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), who after returning to Paris from Tehran in order to finalize his divorce to Marie (Bejo), discovers all is not well at home with his soon to be ex and her rebellious daughter (Pauline Burlet). In trying to bring the two together, Ahmad uncovers a secret from the past that could threaten to keep the pair at odds for life.

READ MORE: Cannes: Asghar Farhadi On Why He Still Feels Censored as a Filmmaker Despite Making 'The Past' in France and Not in Iran

Virtually unrecognizable in the role -- this is a long way from the aspiring starlet she played to chipper perfection in "The Artist"-- Bejo here delivers a deeply felt performance full of pain and regret that registers as one of the highlights of the festival. We caught up with her the day after the film's well received premiere (Nicole Kidman was seen by a colleague wiping away tears on her way out of the Palais) to discuss working with a director as demanding as Farhadi, the surprising length of the shoot and the pressures associated with following up a film as popular as "The Artist."

Sony Pictures Classics Berenice Bejo in "The Past"

You seemed quite emotional at the press conference. It seemed like you were enjoying the moment.

Yeah, I was just really happy to be here, and I'm always happy to listen to Asghar [Farhadi], who is brilliant and smart in his answers. I'm very proud of the movie and what he managed to do with all of us. I felt I didn't have to fight for the movie, because people in the majority liked the movie so it was quite easy. You know what I mean? It's not like when you have a movie that people don't understand or don't like, and you have to explain why you did it and why you like it. With this movie, it's more easy.

"The Artist" is such a different film, but I'm sure the reaction must have been kind of similar.

Exactly, that's exactly what I feel like. "The Artist" was so huge, the response in Cannes was so beautiful. And I'm here again with a movie that the majority likes, so I'm going through something similar. This morning I was having tea in my room, and I was like, "Oh my god, I'm so lucky to have done this movie and worked so hard and I can see it onscreen." So yeah, I feel really lucky. 

Your performance is miles away from your breakout one in "The Artist." How did the two shooting experiences differ?

The work is obviously different, but there were some similarities. I really worked on my body language for Marie and I worked on the fact that she's tired and that she felt guilty and not loved in the way that she wants to be loved. I think the first thing to get into Marie was to get into the tiredness -- to feel the the tiredness of the life, the tiredness of the situation, the house, the train, the kids, the house is so messy and you can feel it in every shot. I really worked, like, shoulders down, knees bent, the clothes are all loose and not tight.

Altogether we really worked to give an image of Marie as obviously at the opposite of "The Artist," of the glamorousness of an actress. And that was great for me to work on, because she has such a low energy and I have such a huge energy in life. Asghar said to me when we did the audition, "I was looking in your face to see if you could doubt a little bit." The audition with Asghar lasted for one hour, he did some hair and makeup tests and took some pictures.

And didn't he put cotton balls in your mouth? I read that somewhere.

Yeah, to try to change my mouth. At the end, Ali played the whole movie with cotton in his mouth, but not me.

Why did he do that?

I think it was to give something that is annoying, so you focus on the cotton that's in your mouth. I don't know, but it changes something. It's also a way [for Asghar] to say, "I'm the boss. I'm the boss of your face too, and I decide what you look like." For me, I have an eyebrow that goes like a little hat and he changes so that I have a very raw eyebrow. He put contact lenses on Ali, he has brown eyes but every morning he has to put on the contacts that make them more dark. Little things so that he's changing things on you and doing something to you that hasn't been done before.

At the press conference the cast explained how he blocked every move like a theater director; you called him "bossy," but in a positive light...

When I say he's bossy... maybe that's not the right world in English. He just directs everything, he's in control of everything. If he controls everything so he has control in the image, then you can do your job. That's why I'm saying he's the boss -- he's making sure your look is the right look for Marie, so he's very controlling of the costume designer, your hair and makeup to help you to look tired. So the only thing you have to do as an actor is say your lines and feel them, that's it. When I say he's the boss, he's just doing his job, which makes you feel more secure, because you don't have to take charge of the telling of the story, he's in charge of that and doing his job as a director.

Let's say, the scene in the car at the beginning of the movie. The camera is always at the back of the seat; he never goes in front of us. You never see both of our eyes, and that's his choice. It's not because he couldn't put it over our face, it's because he thought Marie and Ahmad have a past, and they don't want to look at each other. As a spectator, you want to move and see them. He's putting the audience in that situation of, "Why is he not doing a close-up? Why isn't he putting the camera over there? Something is wrong." So that's telling the story, and I just have to say the lines. I don't have to show that I have secrets, I don't have to hide anything because it's done by the camera. That's why I say he's the boss, because he's doing his job.

How long did you shoot "The Artist" for?

35 days.

That's a remarkably short period for such an ambitious project. I was dumbfounded to learn you shot "The Past" for a whopping four months, not including the two months of rehearsals.

I know, Michel [Hazanavicius] was like, "You're so lucky, you have so much time. We would have shot that in eight weeks." I guess because of the language, to be sure of what we say, and that's the way [Asghar works]. He needs to watch every take before going to the next one. He needs to see the editing. He needs to go slowly, and I guess then you're tired. Sometimes he would say, "Berenice, you don't look tired enough. Berenice you're smiling too much. Berenice you're laughing, come on!" [laughs] I don't know, he just needs to put this energy on the set. It's great.

I remember some technician on the set having a coffee, saying, "This is slow. We're going to get so bored over 15 weeks. But you know what? We're always in a hurry. Let's enjoy this ride and taking the time to make the movie." So after two weeks everybody was happy with going slowly, and everything was very precise.

Did there ever come a point where it was too much, especially given the heavy nature of the material?

Yeah, at the end I remember saying to Asghar, "I'm too tired, I cannot go on. Let's do it tomorrow." [laughs] And he would say, "No, you're tired. I like when you're tired, so let's go on!" I knew I was doing something special as an actress, so I would say, "Okay, let's go on." And the crew was the same. At the end we were all very moved and said goodbye, because it was six months. For France, that's very unusual.

How long does a normal French production usually take?

I would say, three months.

That's a lot. Independent American films on average take 30 days to shoot.

Yeah, us too, I would say with the preparation, three months.

You were asked yesterday about the fact that you stayed in France and worked with Asghar following your success in the States. What was it like to live down the nomination and the pressure that follows, on such a worldwide scale?

After the Oscars, I was very tired, and oppressed by people, and my little baby was just born, my second one, and I felt I needed to be home. I had an offer for a movie in the south of France and I declined, luckily because Asghar arrived. When Asghar arrived with this movie that was going to be shot in Paris, it was perfect. I didn't have to move away from my house and my family, I was working with this guy who just won the Oscar. For me it was like working internationally at home, and it was perfect.

Then I'm starting Michel's movie in August. I said yes to a French movie two years ago that I couldn't decline because I said yes, so I was really not free. My American agent would send me things, but I would say, "Listen, I'm not free until next year." So I was not free and maybe I was not ready to go away. But maybe, you know, if Ang Lee would call me and say he had a role for me, then I would find some time and come with my kids and everything. But I didn't have those kinds of propositions, and I have to be honest, nothing really came along, but I'm fine. 

Well I'd start gearing up for an another awards blitz. I mean, it's obviously going to be up for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I'd be shocked if it wasn't.

You think so?

Oh yeah.

Sony Classics "A Separation"

Oh cool. [laughs] I hope you're right. 

I think it's just as strong as "A Separation" and I think "A Separation" is one of the strongest films I've seen in the past five years. Are you ready for that?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. If it really goes so far, I will definitely go with Asghar. I definitely will, because this project is as special to me as "The Artist" was, and I definitely totally fell in love with Asghar Farhadi and what he has done with me. So I will follow him, that's for sure. 

Unlike with "The Artist," you didn't get to share the Cannes spotlight with your husband this time around. What was the experience like of sharing something like this with him?

It was amazing, and I think it kept us together and very strong. I'm happy we lived that together, I don't that happens very often for a husband and wife to get a nomination together. For my personal life, it will always be a moment that I cherish very strongly.

This article is related to: Cannes Film Festival, The Past , Asghar Farhadi, Academy Awards, Interviews, Bérénice Bejo