There’s not a whole lot of dialogue in “The Artist” that isn’t delivered via intertitle, but it’s all in English, effectively deceiving audiences about the fact that it’s a mostly French production. But when asked about the challenges of making what amounts to a silent film in an era of audiovisual spectacle, co-star Berenice Bejo revealed a technique that some might consider almost stereotypically European. “I think it’s all about pleasure,” Bejo explained during recent press rounds in Los Angeles for “The Artist.”
Despite her relative obscurity to many audiences, Bejo has previously held her own against some of Tinseltown’s more established starlets, most notably as a confidante of Shannyn Sossamon’s in Brian Helgeland’s pop confection “A Knight’s Tale.” But after “The Artist” is released this week via The Weinstein Company, expect to see a lot more of her, thanks to her unforgettable performance as a young ingénue named Peppy who’s plucked from obscurity and transformed into a Hollywood star. Bejo, meanwhile, credits her success in the film as being due to a combination of great writing and personal qualities that transcend physicality or even acting ability.
“I think the first scene where you see her was very important,” Bejo explained. “It’s well-written, and I think if Michel wanted me to do this character, I think it’s because men and women can like me. Some women, like Marilyn Monroe, they might be scared of her, and I don’t have that, I have something very easy. So when Peppy meets George when she’s on the red carpet doing pictures, there’s something very loveable about her. She’s having fun, she’s funny, she’s cute, she’s not thinking, not calculating like, ‘Okay, I’m going to get into pictures and maybe I’ll get a role’ – never.”
It’s in that opening scene that Peppy quite literally collides with screen legend George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) – a brush with fame that soon becomes infectious to the young woman. Bejo suggested there’s something universal about the thrill of a surprising experience where you inadvertently end up in a spotlight you didn’t necessarily seek. “When you have that in the very beginning, you love her right away,” she said. “You understand her just having fun – you’re like, ‘Oh my God, she’s so funny.’ She’s having her moment, she doesn’t realize that she’s over the top, and you excuse her. Because some time, something special happened to you, and you’re so happy that you’re just suddenly not on earth any more.”
Despite being at the foundations of cinema history, silent film acting seems incredibly alien today where there are often more channels of sound than there are actors on screen. But Bejo indicated that the adjustment was not only easy, but fun. “It was just having fun making faces and giving expressions and not being afraid to accentuate things a little more,” she said. “Like in the blackmail scene, I love it when she’s doing all of her little faces. But you have to trust that you don’t have to speak to make yourself understood. It’s like at a party and you see someone and you make eye contact – you can talk without the words. You don’t need them. And in France, in French movies we talk so much that it was a relief to do a movie where it was not about words but about bodies and eyes and expressions.”
Bejo admitted that she found a lot of inspiration in the starlets of yesteryear, albeit perhaps subliminally. “I think Hollywood movies helped me a lot, movies like the Clark Gable one, ‘It Happened One Night’ or ‘Philadelphia Story’ with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I watched a lot of silent movies by [Frank] Borzage and [F.W.] Murnau that I didn’t know before,” she revealed. Ultimately, however, she decided that it was more important to internalize our collective memory of these actresses rather than directly impersonate one or more of them. “I realized that what I needed for this movie was not to understand silent movies; that was [director] Michel [Hazanavicius‘] work. I just needed to find the American way of being a movie star. So that’s why I focused on ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood movies. But I’d seen them all before because my dad is a big cinephile, so it was something that was in my mind, and came in a very intuitive way. I didn’t really do any research; my own consciousness was pretty full of these images.”
Watching the film, Peppy feels like a role that Bejo was born to play. But the actress shares credit for its success with the many craftsman and collaborators who gave her shape and refinement beyond her own performance. “It’s not just about the actors, it’s all together,” she said. “The costume, the hair, the make-up, everything makes it believable and helps you to not think, hmm, this is not real. You’re just into the story and you let it go.”
Nevertheless, there was considerable pressure on her to get the details right, if only in order to accurately reflect our collective memory of that period. Bejo demurred when asked how she tapped into that image of ‘30s stardom: “I think I don’t think about it,” she said plainly. “I just try to focus on my character and how I would love to move and laugh and behave, and I think if I’ve got it right, then the audience will like it. If I do my work, you’re not going to think, ‘Oh, she’s not very much like this.’ When it works, the audience just follows you; it doesn’t think about it, it’s just following the story and the character, and that’s thanks to Michel and the story and how the characters are built and how it’s directed.”
The dynamic range of the performance might seem exaggerated to contemporary viewers, but that’s only because that era demanded a different kind of theatricality, and of course the fact that actors weren’t yet using their voice to express themselves. Bejo said that she had to sort of throw herself into that style of performance, even if it didn’t necessarily come naturally to her. “I just thought, okay, I have to go for it, because if I start thinking or judging myself, I’m not going to be good,” she said. Although it didn’t show up in then film, Bejo did actually recite dialogue while she was on set, and she admitted that the exaggerated style that she sometimes had to employ in order to communicate the same information nonverbally gave her doubts about her performance.
“I think the most challenging moment was the interview,” she revealed. “Because I had to trust my body, and the fact that I was speaking so loud, so high, like ‘That’s life!’ and going so over the top. And we did it maybe ten times and I couldn’t bear myself any more, and I watched the crew cringing, and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry – I’m so bad!’ Michel was like, ‘No, you’re very good – come and look at the monitor! Don’t judge yourself, just go!’ So that was something where I really had to trust my body, and not think about my voice. But in other scenes, there was no dialogue and no need to be over the top, but just to be right.”
In “The Artist,” her character represents the advent of sound filmmaking in Hollywood as it overshadows great silent stars like the film’s fictional leading man, George Valentin. But Bejo suggested that in real life, in modern Hollywood, it’s actually her male costar who would probably have a better shot at finding more interesting roles going forward. “I think it’s easier for a man,” she observed. “There’s more roles and less actors; young actresses appear like, uh, mushrooms, like every week there’s a new actress (laughs). So when you’re 20 it’s good, and then when you get older, there’s a lot of young actresses.” She however puts more faith in American cinema, where there’s a greater variety of films to choose from, leading to a wider variety of characters to play.
“I think in France it’s very hard and it’s always the same,” she said. “Here, you have so many different kinds of movies – action movies, science fiction, dramas, westerns and we don’t do that in France. ‘The Artist’ was very special – we’re doing a period movie about Hollywood, which we never do, so it was a lot of good things in one movie. And it’s the same in Spain – they’re doing lots of different kinds of movies. But that’s my job and I deal with what I have – and I’m pretty content.”
“The Artist” opens on November 23rd.