French actress Melanie Laurent has proved her acting mettle to American audiences with her starring roles in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Mike Mills’ Beginners. But the 29 year-old isn’t content to limit her creative energies to performances on the silver screen. Last year, she released an album En t’attendant with Damien Rice and she has also directed two short films.
Now, she’s taken on an even larger endeavor, with her full-length feature directorial debut, Les Adoptés, which had its New York premiere at a recent Dior Beauty-sponsored Cinema Society screening. The movie, which Laurent also stars in and whose screenplay she wrote, circles around a female-centric family whose tight-knit existence is irrevocably split by a tragic accident. Laurent is Lisa a frustrated, fledgling musician with a young son, an alcoholic mother (Clementine Celarie) and an adopted younger sister, Marie (Marie Denarnaud). Marie falls for the persistent Alex (Denis Menochet), leaving Lisa jealous and then stoically heartbroken when Marie has an accident sending her into a coma.
The Paris-born actress chatted about creative freedom, taking over for Natalie Portman and avoiding stunts on her latest film Now You See Me.
Tell me how this story came together. Was there any specific jumping off point or inspiration?
I really wanted to do something not close to me. I just wanted to invent. I was very afraid of saying a lot of personal things in my first movie. So I think in the end when I watched the movie I was like, okay, I’m so that little boy, and of course I’m Lisa and I’m a little bit of everybody in movie. But I’m really close to my brother and father and my grandfather and it’s a movie about women. And my mother doesn’t drink at all, she’s not an alcoholic. And I don’t know anyone who’s just been in a coma and I’ve never been in a hospital to see a person I really loved. So I don’t know, I think I just wanted to take a distance with life and then that was kind of amazing to just create characters and I really liked that.
Was Lisa the first character you created?
No, I think the first thing was I had an image of someone sleeping and I was like, maybe someone in a coma and talking about people who just stay around someone who’s sleeping, to talk about when you miss someone so much and you’re just waiting for her to wake up and what happens when someone is sleeping and when life suddenly changes and you have to deal with that. And then I worked on a record I did with Damien Rice and suddenly I was like, Lisa, she has to be a musician. And she has to be not sure she’s going to be good and she’s full of doubts. So I used a few things I was feeling at that moment to put things in my characters.
Yeah, I was wondering since you have that album and you were a musician in The Concert how much you had in common with Lisa.
Honestly, I didn’t write that character for me. I really wanted Natalie Portman, that was my big dream. So I didn’t write that character like, okay, it’s going to be kind of me. At the last minute with my producers we decided I was going to act in my own movie, which I didn’t want to do at first.
So you were Natalie Portman’s understudy?
Well, she did a movie… like a dancer something… I don’t really remember. I think she had an Oscar for that. She made a good choice. Next time maybe. So yeah, I wanted to create a character lost in her artistic career. When you’re an artist, there’s always a moment in your life when you think you’re not inspired and instead of doing things and instead of travel and instead of falling in love, you’re just depressed, so you don’t move, so you don’t change. So you’re not inspired. And I have that feeling many times, why am I an actor? Why am I doing this? What should I do? Do I really want to do this and this? And I think I wanted to talk also about this in my movie, like you’re lost and you’re afraid, so you’re not free because you’re scared.
In the opening of the film, we hear your voiceover describing what each character wanted to be when they were little. And you say you wanted to be the “champion of everything.”
I remember when I wrote that text, I was not supposed to play in the movie and then when we decided it was going to be me, the first thing I said to my producer was, Oh my god, should I keep that line? Because everyone’s going to be like, So you want to be champion of everything, really? And my producer was like, You know what, it’s just like do everything you want. And of course I don’t want to be champion, but I want to try many things for sure. Making that record was amazing and directing my movie was the best experience ever. And I did 30 movies as an actress. And when I was a little girl my parents always told me do everything you want in an artistic way. If you want to draw, make a drawing. Just do it. And if you want to play piano, play piano. It was a very free childhood where everything was possible.
You got into acting in a very spontaneous way, with Gerard Depardieu discovering you on a film set at age 14.
It was totally a big luck, but also at that moment when I was 14 I already wanted to be a director. The thing is making movies as an actress, you learn so many things. Like when you’re making a movie with Quentin Tarantino you’re just at the best cinema school ever. I think I was like maybe frustrated for many years because I didn’t try to direct. And since I made my movie I’m just like it’s great. Because I just know I love directing movies but I’m taking more pleasure to be an actress now.
You have a big action-heist movie coming up, Now You See Me, with Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson.
I’m playing an FBI agent. She’s Interpol, so she’s supposed to be lost in the middle of this big case. She’s a desk agent and suddenly she has to run after the bad guys. So we’ve been shooting outside on a bridge and a car…
Did you do your own stunts?
No, not really. I had a double. Too dangerous. They asked me to try the first time and I was like, You know what? No. Because I don’t feel like it. I don’t want to die today.
Photo: Patrick McMullan