Over the past few months, Vanessa Paradis has been in the press more for her personal life (for those living under a rock, she and her longtime partner, Johnny Depp, separated this summer) than her professional endeavors. But let’s not forget the accomplished actress and musician has a solid career, too, one that began at the age of fourteen with her breathy rendition of “Joe Le Taxi” and continues today with the New York release of her film Café de Flore, at the Angelika theater starting November 2nd. In the movie, Paradis is practically unrecognizable as Jacqueline, the poor, single mother of a son suffering from Down syndrome in Paris in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Sacrificing everything to raise him, her protective love reaches obsessive levels that have dire consequences. (A parallel storyline follows a French Canadian couple and the man’s ex-wife, whom it is suggested has a mystical connection to Jacqueline.) Dressed in non-descript jeans and boots, her face scrubbed clean, Paradis chatted about reincarnation, Marilyn Monroe and why the idea of soul mates can be a heavy weight to bear.
As Jacqueline you start out as such a sympathetic character and by the end, your obsessive love for your child is destroying his life. How did you handle those opposite poles? Because you have to look into this woman’s heart and brain, even though she doesn’t use her brain so much, she’s very animal. And I did have sympathy for her because this woman is raising on her own, in the Seventies, a Down syndrome child who at the time had a 25 year-old life span. And she’s afraid he’s not going to make it. So she’s like a bulldozer. Usually you get the bad guy and the good guy. She was both in one.
In the film’s modern day portion, there’s a mystical element to the plot. Do you believe in reincarnation? I’d like to believe in it. It’s better to think there’s something else after than nothing, you know? But I don’t believe it exists, I’d like to think it exists.
If you were to come back as something in another life, what would it be? I think I’d love to be a tree.
A specific kind of tree? A strong one, like the baobab. Is it the baobab that has the really strong roots? It seems indestructible.
You’d like to be indestructible? I’d like to not finish in a fireplace.
And the idea of soul mates is also a running theme. Do you believe in them? I’m a little skeptical of the idea. I believe in love. I believe in wanting to make it last. But as soon as you start to say, “Here’s my soul mate” it feels like you’re done. Love is a constant, evolving emotion. And the fact of putting a title on it, whether it’s your husband or your wife or your soul mate…then it seems like you know the end of the book. And I don’t like to know the end of the book or the movie. But I mean it’s beautiful when one day someone tells you you’re their soul mate—it makes you feel good.
Your son in the movie is obsessed with this one record, Café de Flore. When you were a kid, were you fixated on one song or record in the same way? Marilyn Monroe. When I was really young, I think I was six years old, I found this book in my parents’ book shelf and it was these pictures, I hadn’t seen movies of her, and I got really mesmerized by this beautiful deep soul. And then I started to see the movies and listen to the records and I listened to her singing. And we never speak of how great a singer she was. She had an amazing voice. Everyone always talked about her beauty, her dramatic life. She had an amazing jazz voice. She was the one for me and she still is.
You recorded your first album when you were 14 years-old and haven’t stopped working since. Do you ever regret starting so young? Anything that’s extreme like this, you have good and bad. The good was amazing. It’s rough to grow up in front of cameras and microphones. That’s not the best for the balance of a teenager. But I don’t regret it because first of all I was doing what I loved, I was singing and I traveled the world. And you know as rough as it was, it builds the character. So I don’t regret it for myself. I’d do it exactly the same way. But I wouldn’t recommend it.
Portrait: Getty Images