Actor Mélanie Laurent on John Galliano, Lars Von Trier, & Finding Love in ‘Beginners’

In her new film, Beginners, French actor, director, and musician Mélanie Laurent plays Anna, an aspiring starlet who reluctantly falls for Ewan McGregor’s Oliver. As the two lovebirds begin their courtship, Oliver is also plagued by his elderly father Hal’s (Christopher Plummer) inoperable cancer. Hal, an openly gay man who came out of the closet at the age of 75 following his wife’s (and Oliver’s mother’s) death, ignores his mortality and spends more and more time with his young lover, frequenting gay dance clubs and hosting Harvey Milk–themed movie nights.

Beginners is loosely based on director Mike Mills real-life relationship with his own father, but if McGregor embodies a version of Mills, Laurent is quick to dismiss the idea that she’s portraying his wife, auteur Miranda July.

“No, no, no,” she said over the phone last week. “He’s insisted that I’m absolutely not playing her. If anything, I think I represent one of his ex-girlfriends.” Laurent, who was inducted into the American mainstream in 2009 as the fiery projectionist in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, has had a busy few months, juggling her production schedule while also collaborating on tracks with singer-songwriter Damien Rice, landing a plum gig as the new face of Dior’s Hypnotic Poison fragrance, and acting as Master of Ceremonies at last month’s Cannes International Film Festival.

How was your experience as Master of Ceremonies at Cannes? What did that entail? I had to write a speech for the opening, and then after that I presented all of the movies and the prizes and everything—it’s a real job!

Did you see many of the films? No, because I wanted to do the job properly instead of going on the red carpet everyday. Plus, I love watching movies in Paris alone. That’s one of my great pleasures.

Ewan told me about how Mike sent you both to an amusement park because he thought roller coasters were apt metaphors for love. What was that experience like? We screamed a lot. I thought the idea was absolutely amazing. Mike said, “Are you afraid,” and we said, Yes! He said, “Are you excited?” Yes! “Well, that’s what love is all about.”

Are you somebody who falls in and out of love easily? Of course. I’m French. I’m in love with love.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done in the name of love? I don’t know if it’s crazy, but I once organized a birthday for a lover and I scheduled something for him every hour throughout the day. One hour, he’d have to meet someone who tells him a poem in a bus, and the next he was searching for an envelope somewhere else in Paris. It took a lot of organization for one birthday!

Did the movie force you to reconsider what love is? Not really, because I’m not at all like Anna, my character in the film. For me, it’s much easier to be in a relationship—I’m absolutely not that complicated, and when I’m in love I want to move together and I’m not afraid of commitment. This film actually reminded me of a relationship I had a long time ago where everything was so complicated and, ugh, I don’t like that.

Are you a fighter? The French are known for their passion. Oh, yeah. You have to fight for love, because after three months there’s no longer that same passion of discovering someone else. You have to fight everyday because it’s not easy to spend a really long time with someone.

Was it at all nerve-wracking to play a part in Mike’s story while he was there directing you? No, because he’s an amazing human being. It could have been super-complicated if it had been difficult for him to do everything, but it wasn’t. I was not there for Christopher Plummer’s part and I heard some days were super-moving, but I think Mike was ready for that. He’s a really amazing director and I think he was prepared.

How was Anna pitched to you when you first started discussing what the character would be like? She was supposed to be American, but obviously she’s now French, and I think it made a difference. When Mike chose me, we joked a lot about the movie and about the personal stuff he put in the script. When he started to talk about Anna he said, “She’s terrified of being in love, but she’s also very clever and very funny—she’s kind of a little cat but she’s strong like a dinosaur.” We did a lot of improvisation, and I was terrified of making a movie in English so I said that to Mike and he said, “If you really feel like speaking in French just do it, as would Anna.” There are moments where I use French words because it feels natural. For example, the scene where the waitress says we can’t bring our dog into the restaurant, and I’m super-angry, that was all French improvisation.

It’s so much more powerful because you realize how very angry Anna is in that moment. That sort of big reaction is very French, like, I’m a rebel and I don’t give a shit! We get so upset over everything.

Beginners is your first big American release since Inglourious Basterds. Is recognition from the American mainstream something you desire? After the success and craziness of Inglourious Basterds I was really afraid of it, to be honest.

Because it all happened so quickly? Yeah, and it was big! Suddenly everyone recognized me in the airport and usually it’s just in France. Suddenly it was everywhere in the world. Everybody was calling me Shosanna [her character’s name in the film]. I traveled with Quentin to Tokyo and Cannes and the United States, and after that I was like, Oh my god, what am I going to do now? It put a lot of pressure on me. After a Tarantino movie, I knew I had to choose something special because Basterds was such a special experience. So I went back to Paris and worked in French movies. I decided not to move to LA or New York, and I refused a lot of big projects about action characters with guns. I don’t know, I just didn’t feel it. I was hoping for something pure and something small, because I think American independent movies are absolutely amazing. When I received Mike’s script I was like, Ah, that’s so cool.

Did Quentin try to prepare you for the magnitude of his film’s success? A little bit, but you can’t predict how it’s going to be before.

You just signed on to be the face of Dior’s Hypnotic Poison fragrance. Is modeling something with which you’re comfortable? No, but it’s not really about modeling in this case. It really feels like they choose me based on my personality, for everything I’ve done as an actor or a singer. I don’t feel like a model.

But there’s bound to be some modeling involved! No, not really! I don’t feel like that. We shot a picture and it was of me—it was really my face and my vision of that perfume. I didn’t feel like I was a model.

In light of what’s been happening with John Galliano, were you at all reluctant about signing on to do this campaign? No, because he fucked up and Dior fired him, and they’re going to start another story now. It’s a very complex subject. I’m a Jew and I couldn’t watch the video for many days. Obviously you can’t defend a designer who says something like that, but I also met a lot of people who’ve worked with him for many years—because I didn’t want to just judge the guy—and it’s complicated because you can see he’s totally drunk and totally away from reality. It’s not like, yeah, he’s an asshole and I hate that guy. It’s more complicated than that. He’s committed career suicide, so the question is: Why? I was really shocked by what he said, and it’s similar to what happened with Lars von Trier at Cannes.

How did you react to what Lars said about Hitler? It was super-strange to be at Cannes and to watch someone suicide his career in one second.

Might it be a different situation with Lars, though, since he’s known for saying ridiculous, controversial things? His comments weren’t the result of drugs or alcohol—but rather a very twisted sense of humor. But he should know that he can’t say that. We all know you’re going to have a problem if you say that. Even if it’s meant to provoke, it’s a really sensitive subject. I have a great sense of humor and I can laugh about a lot of things, but I don’t like when Hitler is brought up to provoke someone. There are many ways to be provocative—don’t use that man as a provocation, because it’s really not funny. And you’ll be finished after that, so just don’t do it.

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