When Michel Hazanavicius first mentioned his dream about making a silent film to Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, the stars of his OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, they thought it was wonderful madness and never imagined such a project could ever be achieved. But when he presented them with the screenplay for The Artist, they realized he had pursued his fantasy all the way. Not only did it have comedy and action, but it was full of emotion, and they were touched by all it said about cinema, its history and actors.
We sat down with Dujardin and Bejo at a roundtable interview to talk about The Artist and what it was like to be a part of the unique project. They told us how they researched their characters and prepared for their roles, which Hollywood icons from that era inspired their performances, why the tap dancing sequence was the biggest challenge, and how they are open to the possibility of an American movie career. Dujardin also described his special relationship with Uggie, his canine sidekick, and why he would enjoy seeing Jim Carrey act in a silent movie.
I’ve always been a big silent movie fan, but I wasn’t at all sure what to expect when I went to see The Artist. I’d heard good things about it, but I was genuinely surprised how much I liked it and how unexpectedly entertaining it was. Yes, it’s funny and charming, but more than that, it’s an affectionate, heartfelt tribute to Old Hollywood at its best when entertaining, thoughtful stories could be told elegantly without words. Instead of being out of place today, this unusual film shows that a great story conveyed through beautiful images, no dialogue and terrific performances is timeless no matter what era.
Dujardin plays George Valentin, one of Hollywood’s reigning silent screen idols and Bejo portrays newcomer Peppy Miller who’s hoping for her big break. As Hollywood transitions from the silent era to talking pictures, the matinee idol and the fledging actress trade places. Peppy becomes a rising star in talkies, while George slides into obscurity unable to adapt. But, as Peppy climbs the Hollywood ladder and becomes a star, she doesn’t forget where she came from and she doesn’t forget George.
Question: How did you first face the challenge of communicating without actual sound?
JEAN DUJARDIN: It’s not me. It was Michel (director Michel Hazanavicius).
BERENICE BEJO: Yes, it was not a big challenge for us.
DUJARDIN: It’s not really different than a [sound film]. For you, it’s a silent movie. For us, it’s a talking movie because we had lines on set. There’s a lot of noise on set and music. We spoke in English, in French, in gibberish, but it was very alive. The challenge was tap dancing.
BEJO: I think the approach of the character for us is the same in a silent movie as in a talking movie because we had balance, we had lines to learn. Actually the challenge is more for Michel who has to tell the story without any sounds or dialogue and just images. But, for me, I worked the same. I tried to find a character and how I would be an American actress in the 30s. But if this was a talking movie, I’m sure she would be exactly the same for me.
DUJARDIN: (laughs) I don’t think so. It’s finished.
BEJO: Me too. (joking) Right now I’m the most famous silent movie actress in the world and I want to keep that for me. So I hope there’s not going to be any other silent movies.
What other stars would you like to see try to work silently?
DUJARDIN: Oh, Jim Carrey. Ah yes, it’s Jim Carrey.
Can both of you talk about what you discovered about people in the 1920s. What’s the difference between people now and then?
BEJO: As people or as characters?
As people. For example, today people dress differently and we have cell phones and computers.
BEJO: We just followed the script.
DUJARDIN: It’s a film. It’s life. Life was slower.
Did you do any research for your characters? Did you watch any silent movies? Did you try to move differently on screen?
BEJO: Yes, definitely. You have to find a character, so yes. Obviously, for me, it was to find how the actresses were in the 30s. I never thought about how I didn’t have a cell phone or I’m in 2011. I was just so happy to be able to be a character in the 30s and there are these actresses that I really liked in the 40s, 50s and 60s in American movies that I’ve seen since I was a little girl. But you don’t really think like that when you prepare for a role. You just try to embody a character and have fun with it and try to find how she moves, how she smiles.
BEJO: Five months.
DUJARDIN: Five months. Yes, with Fabien Ruiz. He’s the fastest tap dancer in the world.
Did you take to it easily?
DUJARDIN: The first week it’s fun. The fifth week it’s a little boring. And, at the end, it’s thrilling.
It came out really great.
BEJO: It’s hard work. That was the challenge for us.
DUJARDIN: Seventeen takes for the last scene.
BEJO: And the one that’s in the movie is the eleventh or the twelfth.
DUJARDIN: Eleven or twelve?
BEJO: We don’t know. Michel doesn’t want to tell us because we liked the eleventh and he liked the twelfth. We were planning on saying ‘No, no, the eleventh is better!’ and he’d say ‘No, the twelfth!’
DUJARDIN: It was crazy!
Did you look at any Hollywood icons specifically to inspire your performances?
DUJARDIN: Yes, the first era, it was Douglas Fairbanks. I watched a lot of Douglas Fairbanks movies. He always played the same role with a mustache. Zorro had a mustache. The Musketeer had a mustache. Tarzan had a mustache. And I watched Gene Kelly for his smile, for his energy. Vittorio Gassman for his movement. Clark Gable for his mustache. (laughs) And I watched Lassie who was happy as a dog.
BEJO: I connected very much with all the work of Joan Crawford because she started as a flapper. She used to dance and sing and she was very cute. She had something that was so different from what she is at the end of her life and she started in the silent movies and then went into the talkies. I thought the energy she had in the movies was something that Peppy should have. I loved her in Grand Hotel with John Barrymore and the way she would move her body, how she smiled and moved the eyes. She was very much someone I really looked for. And then, Marlene Dietrich for the way there was something so unique about her – the way she entered into a frame and everybody looks at her and the way she winks and looks up. I Googled her and looked at all the ways she winks in movies, the way she poses and takes her time talking. That was something very important to me, I think, in order to find and portray the character accurately. And then, I read Gloria Swanson’s autobiography just because I wanted to know what it was like in the time. I think she’s an amazing woman and I think Peppy is an amazing woman too. She’s very modern and Gloria Swanson had that. I think those three women were very important to my work.
Jean, you have one line at the end of the movie?
DUJARDIN: (laughs) Yes, ‘with pleasure.’
How carefully did you prepare that line?
DUJARDIN: (laughs) Five months. (says his line with different intonations) ‘With pleasure, with pleasure, with pleasure!’ But it was very difficult for me.
DUJARDIN: The energy is important. It’s the rebirth of the character. Even more than the sentence itself, it’s the energy that has to come through. It’s really ‘Thank you! I’m alive again! Thank you to Peppy, thank you to all of you.’ It’s like saying thank you to the audience.
How many takes was that?
Some of the most charming scenes come with the dog. How was it working with Uggie and what kind of relationship did you establish with him?
DUJARDIN: (laughs) I can’t speak American dog very well. There was a lot of improvisation with Uggie — like when I put the dog on the table or sometimes I follow him, sometimes he follows me. I had a lot of treats in my pocket. We worked with Omar (Von Muller), the dog trainer. It was very easy because it was a big movie.
Who needed more takes for their scenes, you or the dog?
DUJARDIN: (laughs) Me! Not the dog.
DUJARDIN: (teasing) Really?!
BEJO: We met six years ago.
And how is it working with the husband?
DUJARDIN: Oh my God!
BEJO: (teasing Jean) That’s his wife. I’m the girlfriend and he’s his wife. (laughs) No, it’s easy. I mean, Jean, Michel and I met on a movie and he was not my husband at that time and we get along very well. So, for me, it was just working with a director that I really trust and believe in. I was very happy on set. There were no problems.
Do you think you’ll collaborate on another film?
BEJO: Yes, I hope so.
DUJARDIN: She trusts her director.
BEJO: It was noisy, but it was mostly not. They were quiet. We could hear the crew working sometimes or Michel talking during the take. He put music on set. He would surprise us and just play music that isn’t in the movie.
DUJARDIN: He put on music from Vertigo and Sunset Blvd., from those movies.
Was that a new distraction for you because most of the time when you act it’s quiet on set?
BEJO: I loved it. I felt like we had more freedom. There wasn’t that moment where someone went ‘Silence, please!’ And you’re like ‘Okay, it’s gonna be me. I have to say that and do that and remember everything.’ And then, it doesn’t come out of your mouth. Instead, it was like ‘Okay, action…oh yeah, we’re actually shooting.’ And the music, it’s very special. It gives you emotions very quickly. If Michel suddenly had the right song at the right moment, you just let the music talk.
Did Michel always have you in mind for the part of Peppy? Or did you have to fight for the part?
BEJO: No, I didn’t have to fight for it. He told me he wrote the part for me.
DUJARDIN: I don’t really know Hollywood, but living and shooting in L.A. was very motivating, inspiring. The lights, the extras, their American faces, the energy, the Orpheum Theatre. It was all very inspiring.
BEJO: For us, as actors, and even for the director, it gave us a sense of authenticity to what we were doing because we were talking about Hollywood and we were in Hollywood. Having a chauffeur waiting for you and driving down the Hollywood Hills and going to the studios…
DUJARDIN: A chauffeur!?
BEJO: Yes, I had a chauffeur.
DUJARDIN: What about me?
BEJO: I was the big star and you were the extra.
DUJARDIN: I just had GPS.
BEJO: Oh no, I had an actual chauffeur.
BEJO: Yes! Uggie drove me and he’s a good driver. Going into the studio through the gates, I had a feeling that I was living what Peppy had to live and I liked it very much. It was very helpful and the crew was American and we got to talk American all the time and the actors and the extras were unbelievable. The difference between the extras here and in France is the French extras read books. Actually, they hide the book and pretend that they’re acting. Here (in Hollywood), you can see everybody wants his break. It’s like ‘Okay, let’s go!’ and everybody has a little story. So yeah, there’s an intensity.
DUJARDIN: Their spirit is in it.
BEJO: It’s a real job, huh?
DUJARDIN: Yes. ‘It’s a movie in the 1920’s?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Oh, then cut the hair, cut the hair!’
BEJO: Some guys had long hair and they cut their hair.
DUJARDIN: They really go all the way, the extras here. They don’t like hiding under a hat, that’s for sure, like they do in France sometimes. (laughs)
Jean, how was the experience at the Cannes Film Festival?
DUJARDIN: It was unbelievable. It was thrilling and scary. It was fun because the jury wasn’t French and they didn’t have any judgment (opinion) about me. It was a great honor and especially to get it from DeNiro. It was a good year. (imitating DeNiro) ‘You’re good, you’re good.’
DUJARDIN: (laughs) Everything!
BEJO: OSS 117, I think, is a good movie.
DUJARDIN: For me, OSS 117 and maybe Un Balcon Sur La Mer directed by Nicole Garcia. It’s a typical French movie with typical French themes with French actors, a French director …
BEJO: …and action!
Is this the start of an American movie career for both of you?
BEJO: We’ll see. We don’t know.
Would you like to work here more?
DUJARDIN: Why not?
BEJO: Yeah, why not? If the door is open and if something happens that’s nice and interesting, why not?
DUJARDIN: Another silent movie with Jim Carrey!
What do you do to be more environmentally aware?
BEJO: In France, we recycle but it’s very new. It’s not like here. We’re not so clean. It’s only starting. We buy and sell fruit in the street. You don’t do that.
We have Farmers’ Markets.
BEJO: Yes, but not right next to the road and the cars. It was very funny when we got back to Paris because it’s so crowded and so noisy and so many people. Here, you go to the supermarket and you have wipes to clean your hands before [shopping]. No, we don’t have that in France, but we recycle.
DUJARDIN: I recycle. I have a house in the south of France and I have a small garden. (laughs) My name is Dujardin [which means] ‘from the garden.’ I grow carrots, peppers, strawberries, green beans, and things for salads, but there are lots of wild boars all around and they steal the food.
The Artist opens in limited release November 25.