The young actress discusses her break-out role in Lars von Trier’s sex-filled epic Nymphomaniac Although it took some getting used to, Stacy Martin is now rather comfortable talking frankly, and in great detail, about sex. “I’m a pro,” said the 23-year-old model-turned-actress, who will make her on-screen debut as an orgasm-addicted nymphet in Lars von Trier’s four-hour erotic epic, Nymphomaniac, the first installment of which will be in theaters March 21. “It’s become a bit like talking about grocery shopping. But then you start talking this way with your friends, and you catch them looking at you like you’re mad.”
Martin was seated on a sofa in a Manhattan hotel room the day before Nymphomaniac: Vol. 1 had its New York premiere at MoMA (the second installment is out April 18). Her whip-like frame, which is bared for much of the film, was sheathed in black cigarette pants and a black shirt buttoned to the neck. She held her hands folded in her lap as she spoke. The whole effect might have come across as chic primness were it not for the impish way words seemed to fall haphazardly from her mouth. “I tend to babble, which is quite bad,” Martin said. “But my character in the film, Joe, is very quiet.”
Joe, an older version of whom is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, defines herself from a very early age by her bold pursuit of anonymous sex, and her allergy to romantic love. At one point, she has collected so many sexual partners—six, seven callers per night—that she can’t keep them all straight, so she invents a game to determine, with a roll of the dice, the amount of interest she’ll show each solicitor. “I became completely unpredictable,” Joe explains in the film. “Which of course drove the men even wilder.”
Two years ago, Martin was an unknown actress studying in London when she was discovered at a casting for a fashion campaign by Des Hamilton, who helped cast von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia. (Martin suspects it was because she could pass for a youthful version of Gainsbourg’s mother Jane Birkin.) “I thought it was a complete lie,” she said. “Like, ‘I’m here for a fashion campaign, and you’re talking about a Lars von Trier film? Plus, you’re crazy for thinking of me for the part.’” Yet she found herself on an early morning flight to Copenhagen to do a screen test with the provocative Danish auteur. She read a few of the film’s emotional moments, but none of the intensely graphic sex scenes. Afterwards, von Trier showed her the prosthetic penises that he had made. In addition, he explained, he planned to use footage of live sex performed by “porn doubles,” which he would then digitally impose over the actors’ bodies in postproduction. (Of encountering her “vagina double,” Martin noted, “She was brunette, about my height—but we didn’t, like, hang out.”)
When she saw the finished scenes, Martin was taken aback by how real the sex looked. “I was shocked,” she said. “I couldn’t find the seams at all. It was a little annoying, but also, well, thank god it wasn’t really me.
Even more impressive was Martin’s understated poise against the scenery-chewing of her co-stars, whether onscreen (Uma Thurman has a show-stealing cameo) or on the film’s European festival tour, during which the antics of Shia LaBoeuf (who plays her lover Jerome) became so surreal that he tried to salvage his public spiral by a belated plea of performance art.
There was one moment during the shoot when the kind of out-of-body experience that might befall any first-time actress going toe-to-toe with a raging Thurman suddenly visited Martin. “I hear, ‘Cut!’ and I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, I completely zoned out,’” she recalled. “I had to go to Lars and tell him, ‘I’m so sorry—I just realized how lucky I am to be here right now. I froze.’ And of course he said, ‘Stacy, that’s exactly what your character would be doing.’”