Inglourious Basterds burst onto theater screens around the world last year with heaping doses of gunpowder and star power, namely Brad Pitt, to set box offices on fire. But while familiar faces like Pitt, Mike Myers and others lit up the screen, two actors all but unknown to American audiences left an undeniable impression. Christoph Waltz’s Oscar-winning performance as the diabolically delicious Col. Hans Landa has been well documented. However, Mélanie Laurent’s portrayal of the main heroine Shosanna Dreyfus gave the film its conscience and heart.
Collider caught up with Laurent on the phone recently about her newest film, The Concert, which is in the midst of a national rollout. Hit the jump for the interview’s transcript and audio, along with news of her post-Basterds work, comparing careers with her good friend Marion Cotillard and Quentin Tarantino’s advice for going behind the camera.
Mélanie Laurent has never been shy about spotting and seizing major opportunities. As a 14-year-old, her curiosity about filmmaking led to a set visit with her best friend’s father who was working on the French film Asterix & Obelix vs. Caesar, starring Gérard Depardieu (Green Card, My Father The Hero). Upon meeting Laurent, Depardieu offered her a part in a film he was toplining and co-directing, The Bridge. Without any formal training, her acting career began that day. Seven years and about a dozen films later, Laurent won the 2007 Most Promising Actress César (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for Don’t Worry, I’m Fine. Two years later, Inglourious Basterds changed everything. The film’s success led to a wide variety of offers that the 27-year-old is taking full advantage of. This year, she acted in two new films, made her Parisian stage debut in the play Promenade De Santé, enlisted Irish singer/songwriter Damien Rice to help write and record her initial music CD and will direct her first feature-length effort (though she’s helmed several short films, including De Moins En Moins, or Easier And Easier, which debuted at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival), which is reportedly a dramedy about adoption.
Laurent’s latest picture, The Concert, was actually shot before Inglourious Basterds, but the latter film’s success clearly allowed The Weinstein Company (which also released Basterds) the ability to market and distribute the film in the US on the strength of Laurent’s newfound fame.
The Concert follows Andrei Filipov, who was demoted from Bolshoi Orchestra conductor to janitor three decades ago, for his refusal to rid the group of some Jewish musicians. Having faced 30 intervening years of frustration, Filipov intercepts a faxed invitation for the company to play in Paris that was intended for his boss, and decides to get his old ensemble together to impersonate and take the real Bolshoi orchestra’s place. He insists on hiring the world-class violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet (Laurent) for reasons that we won’t reveal here. While Laurent’s scenes are mostly dramatic, the majority of the film is focused on the pursuit of laughter.
Laurent’s career is obviously on the rise, but we started our interview by looking back at the year that her life underwent a major transition. Click here for audio.
Collider: Coming off the success of Inglourious Basterds to (The Concert), how has your career changed in terms of the notice and the visibility on your career to be able to support a film like (The Concert), especially over here in America?
Mélanie Laurent: First of all, I did The Concert before Inglourious Basterds so it’s strange for me to do all the tour with Inglourious Basterds and then come back to (laughs) do The Concert promotion because it’s been, like, two years ago now. Yeah, it changed a, a lot of things. Wh-, What I really love is because I’m really proud of Inglourious Basterds and, of course, all the success, but I’m also very proud of The Concert movie. So, it’s perfect because it’s French movies and big Hollywood movies too. So it’s, like, a big mix of two great movies I love.
You were talking about all the promotion and the publicity for Inglourious Basterds. What is that like, to come into that for the first time on such a huge scale, where normally you’re worried about just coming to set and doing (Mélanie laughs) a good job, in terms of the acting? But then having to come and face a worldwide press tour like that?
Laurent: The strange thing was we did the movie during like four months and then Quentin disappeared. He (edited) the movie and after like three months, everybody was together again at (The) Cannes (Film) Festival. So it was like, “Ok. The shooting was like three months ago and now we just promote it.“ It’s like, “Whoa.” And we started (off in) Cannes and we didn’t see the movie. (Mélanie laughs) It was like, “Wow it’s gonna be a big surprise, (seeing the film for the first time) at the same time as the audience which is really weird, because usually you just see the movie, like, in a private projection and now it was like in Cannes? And everybody was like so stressed out and it’s funny because I was sitting next to Quentin and he was like, “Ok, you can take my hand, if you’re just scared, or whatever. (Laughs) And I was like (screaming) “Oh my god!” (Laughs)
Talk about pressure.
Laurent: Yeah. Lots. But, of course, I always trusted him, but it was such a beautiful gift, to discover the movie like this. And after that, we’re just starting to be on (the press) tour, so it was kind of crazy because (from) the first time I just met Quentin until the end of the promotion, it’s like one year and a half now.
I saw that you’ve already filmed Beginners with Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor (whose character discovers that his 71-year-old father is gay and is in a relationship with a much younger man), and professionally, it just must be a completely different experience now.
Laurent: Yes and no, because at the same time, Mike Mills’ (the director who made the Sundance favorite Thumbsucker) movie was really another way to work; no big pressure, no big money pressure, we did the movie in three weeks. And working with Ewan McGregor was just a dream and I didn’t feel like I’m doing an American movie.
In which sense?
Laurent: Because Ewan is Scottish and it was my first English experience because I am speaking in English only in that movie (she mainly spoke French in Inglourious Basterds).
Laurent: And I just felt so free because it’s not my language and it was just three weeks of shooting. It’s like going so fast, so you don’t have time to wait for another take (because it was) so fast. And I came back to Paris and I was on stage (starring in a production of Promenade De Santé) during 3 months. I did a play and it was great because it was a big success in France and after that, I made another French movie (The Round-Up about France’s deportation of Jewish children to concentration camps during The Holocaust). Of course, things change. For example, when I go to the U.S., people recognize me at the airport, which is really big for me (Laughter). But for now, I just wanted to take my time and just choose amazing directors and I don’t care if they are American or Spanish or Italian or English. I always choose my movie because of a director and a story and a, a character.
Now, there are several similarities between Anne-Marie in The Concert and Shosanna from Inglourious Basterds. Both characters are left parentless as a result of anti-Semitism. You’ve found a new family for yourself in another country in a professional sense, in both cases. How much did The Concert help you in mining that emotional ground for Inglourious Basterds, as well?
Laurent: I never took any theater lessons. So when I started to do movies, I was 14. And I always said every shooting, it’s a new experience for the next (film) and I think The Concert with all that violin challenge (learning Tchaikovsky in 3 months) helped me to just get Inglourious Basterds (and fully understand what it means to work on a) big production and big pressure. So it was like, “Oh, ok. I did something hard learning the Tchaikovsky in 3 months.” So, I was like maybe stronger, in a way.
And you’re also playing violin as a lefty, which is difficult because it’s a right-handed instrument. How difficult was that for you to work on an instrument that is not a natural fit for you?
Laurent: Well, I had an amazing teacher (Sarah Nemtanu, who is First Violin in the National French Orchestra). That’s all. And my teacher was the sound of my violin in the movie. She’s the one who played (Nemtanu’s work was dubbed over Laurent’s concert scenes). And we spent 3 months together and she became (a) good friend of mine. And she just teach me, step by step. Little things, but very important things and I just followed her because she was on tour. So I could be like, involved with an orchestra backstage and just observe musicians’ lives because it was not like, just the challenge of being a violinist at the end. You cannot always find tricks. (For example) just play maybe 20 seconds and just stop (only to be edited together with other such stretches and dubbed over by a professional musician). But I just really wanted to feel like I’m a musician so I just observed her during her rehearsal, how she can be focused on something and how she just became the violinist. We spent 2 weeks in the theater and every day, I was like “Oh no, let’s take (laughs) another take” because I was like, playing with the orchestra on stage and just pretending I’m a violinist. Just that sort of experience when you are an actor. It’s really amazing.
I saw that you’re good friends with Marion Cotillard. As her career has taken off since La Vie En Rose (in a 2008 Best Actress Oscar-winning performance), she’s doing a lot of mainstream American films now. Have you had conversations about the direction that your career will take and, and if so, what’s the best advice that she’s given you?
Laurent: She came to my house like 3 months ago and we just spent like five hours together, but like two friends. So, we just wanted to talk about life. And I’m really super-proud of her, but I’m making my own career and there is no jealousy and maybe it’s why we’re still friends. There’s two different ways to work and maybe I’m not ready to do all this. Maybe I’m not strong enough, in a way. And I’m recording a CD with Damien Rice and I’m gonna direct my own movie in five months. So, I think I’m really proud of what she’s doing, but I think she’s proud of me, in another way.
I know we have to wrap up but I just wanted to ask you about the film that you’re directing. What is it about and who’s in it?
Laurent: Oh (pause for effect), too complicated. (She laughs) It’s going to be French actors but we don’t have time to just talk about the story because (she laughs again) I’m still writing the script now.
(Has Quentin) Tarantino given any advice at all or–
Laurent: Yeah. “Do the movie you want. Make your own movie.” That’s the only advice.
Congratulations on The Concert—
— and good luck.
Laurent: Thank you.