Anglo-French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg ("The Science of Sleep," "The Tree") is no stranger to working with Denmark's most famous provocateur, Lars von Trier, having starred in his "Antichrist" and "Melancholia" before playing the adult protagonist in the Danish filmmaker's latest, "Nymphomaniac." The actress appears mainly in the film's "Volume II," which is now available on VOD and will be in theaters April 4th.
Though apparently entirely fearless as an actress, the first thing that's striking about meeting Gainsbourg is how timid and almost bashful she is. That said, quite a few actors seem to have chosen their profession as a way to overcome their shyness and Gainsbourg, the daughter of U.K. actress Jane Birkin and the late French singer, Serge Gainsbourg, seems to belong to that group too. For the interview in Copenhagen, during the "Nymphomaniac" press junket, she shows up with a huge pot of tea for herself and immediately curls up on an armchair, almost as if she were a cat, retreating into the safety and comfort of an upholstered cocoon.
Soft-spoken and pensive, Gainsbourg seems to think her job and her quiet demeanor are certainly related: "It's not necessarily shyness but more being reserved and being more comfortable being quiet rather than being an extrovert but that's just my nature. So being able, through films, to have these outbursts, is just great," she explains, before quickly adding: "But that doesn't mean it has fundamentally changed me."
Part of her quietness also seems connected to a type of uncertainty about her capacities as an actress, though she's been getting some of the best reviews of her career for the work she has done with the Great Dane. Says the 42-year-old Gainsbourg: "I take every film with Lars as a different experience and the way it happens is always a surprise. I can't say I expected him to ask me the second time or the third time. We do have a relationship but it's still very mysterious and he's still very mysterious to me." She's not even sure if she's part of his "film family" or not: "Sometimes I have the impression I'm a little bit a part of his family and sometimes... not. He's very unpredictable so I'm just very happy I was able to do those three films and for him to take me to really different places each time."
She does admit that it has become easier to open up when working with von Trier specifically: "Yes, I have no shyness. Though there's still this idea that he'll judge me even if he has empathy for me and is very loving. There's still a lot of fear that I won't be able to do what he wants."
The London-born, Paris-based actress agreed to play Joe soon after giving birth to her third child with French actor-director Yvan Attal, incidentally also called Joe, in the summer of 2011. Joe is the titular nymphomaniac, who recounts her entire sinful sexual history to Seligman, played by Stellan Skarsgard, an intellectual, asexual and atheist Jew, which is then shown in flashbacks, with Franco-British newcomer Stacy Martin playing Joe as a teenager and young woman before Gainsbourg takes over.
"I think I would agree to do any film with him," she says of von Trier. "But I didn't go into this shoot fearless. I was very scared of a lot of things that I'd have to go through. I'd never read a script like that before, it was very unusual but that's what I love about it, the way this crazy story is being told in a very scholarly way, thanks to Seligman, who has that teacher-like manner. With all those digressions, the material was so rich that it was very exciting. And very scary at the same time because I didn't know about half the references, so I needed to look everything up, start researching."
Interestingly, both von Trier and the actress's father, Serge, built up a reputation based not only on talent but also on a taste for controversy, and Gainsbourg can see similarities between the two men: "Yes, with those provocations and the two being very shy, very uncomfortable with who, well, with the way they are. I don't know Lars enough but I'd like to think that they're similar in that way, and these outbursts of provocation are quite similar. But I think my father was a bit more prude, anyway, with women. I know this seems weird with everything he's done but I think that he was, not old-fashioned but... I don't know how he would have taken this film."
Though the current, shorter edit (the two volumes come in at about 4 hours, though the director's cut reportedly runs 5.5 hours) contains only a few explicit sex scenes, these were all performed by porn doubles. "They've done a lot of post-production," the actress explains. "In the 5.5 hours version, anyway, everything is mixed, with the porn actors having actual sex but with our faces, it's very well done. But we didn't do any of it. SPOILER -- In the S&M scenes with Jamie Bell it's not a fake bum, it's a real woman who was willing to be hit, not with a real whip but still… END SPOILER."
There was never even any discussion of whether Gainsbourg should do any of the more risqué material: "It was obvious I wasn't going to do it. That was part of the deal and there was no trying to be manipulated in any way, not at all. It was the only way possible. He was very respectful of all the actors and all the porn actors, too. It was all happening in good spirit."