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MOVIES : The New Face of Macho : She may be a beautiful French actress, but Julie Delpy says she can do tough. So, is she really ready to get behind the camera? <i> Mais oui.</i>

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Meeting French actress Julie Delpy at a Hollywood restaurant to discuss her new film, “Before Sunrise,” one opens the conversation with a question about the high premium Western culture places on physical beauty.

“Oh, but I’m not beautiful. No, I don’t think so--in fact, I can look really ugly. You wanna see?” she asks hopefully, then proceeds to contort her face into a gruesome expression. “That’s really ugly, isn’t it?” she says laughing. “I love to pull faces.”

A tomboy with an earthy manner decidedly at odds with her angelic face, Delpy draws no attention to herself in the organic restaurant she has selected for a session of smoking, coffee drinking and talking. Wearing no makeup, dressed in faded jeans and a sweater, her long blond hair pulled into a disheveled bun at the nape of her neck, Delpy doesn’t carry herself like a movie star. She’s boisterous, opinionated and remarkably free of pretense considering that at the age of 25 she’s already worked with several of the world’s great directors, among them Krzysztof Kieslowski, Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlondorff.

Her debut, in fact, came at the age of 14 when she starred in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 film “Detective.” Did it intimidate her, working with the legendary Godard? “Not at all,” she says. “Maybe I have a big head, but I’ve never been intimidated by anyone.

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“Some people think I’m really tough because I’m almost macho sometimes. If I’m playing a game and I lose, I go insane,” she adds. “I feel very much like a man in ways, and feel there’s no difference between a man and me, apart from ‘down there.’ Someday I’d like to have a big, big car, the kind that men drive who are worried about whether they’re sexually endowed enough.” She laughs.

“Everybody but me was intimidated by Kieslowski,” she continues, referring to the Polish director who cast her as the female lead in “White,” the second film in last year’s trilogy exploring the ideals of the French flag (fraternity, equality and liberty). “He likes to project this image of a dark, serious person, but he makes me laugh.

“I learned a lot from him, but he has a strange way of working,” adds Delpy, who plays an unfaithful wife in the film. “I had to push him to let me be more free with my character because he likes to direct his actresses movement by movement, and I didn’t think his method was right for my character--my performance had to be a bit over the top because it’s a comedy. I think this is one of the few times he let an actress do more of her own thing, and we had fun together.”

She claims she also had fun on “Before Sunrise,” a romantic comedy directed by Richard Linklater and starring Delpy and Ethan Hawke, which opened Friday. “When I read the script I thought this is great--talking all the time!” she says.

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“This character is closer to who I really am than any part I’ve ever played, and that was surprisingly difficult because it’s all about nuance, and nuance is the hardest thing for an actor,” she says. “It’s not screaming and crying--I can do that in a second. No, this is about sweet, romantic emotions and those things must be played with great subtlety.”

The third feature for Texas filmmaker Linklater, who made his debut in 1991 with the cult hit “Slacker,” “Before Sunrise” was shot on location in Vienna last summer. Linklater recalls that all it took was a single meeting with Delpy to know she was right for the part.

“Besides the technical skill Julie has as an actress, she has great spirit and she never fails to bring that to her work,” says Linklater. “Regardless of what might be going on in her life, when the camera rolls she’s there 100%--she has this interior luminosity she can just turn on, and it’s quite dazzling to watch. She’s pretty amazing off camera, too--she’s very funny and has a wonderfully dark edge,” he adds. “She’s writing and directing herself now, and I bet she’ll make some interesting films.”

That Delpy is an actress edging toward directing her own films is very much in keeping with her upbringing. An only child born in Paris in 1969, Delpy recalls “my father was born in Vietnam and raised in Africa, my mother was from the mountains of Switzerland, and both of them went to Paris to become actors. My parents were Socialists on the front lines in Paris in 1968, and they were very political. There’s nothing happening in France now though, it’s all bad--(President Francois) Mitterrand is an (expletive) like everybody else.

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“My parents were extremely cultured, and from the time I was a baby they took me to plays. They were liberal, though, so they gave me pop culture and Disney too--my father would’ve happily spent his entire life at the cinema. I remember being dazzled by Cocteau’s films when I was 7.

“My parents didn’t force me into acting--it was a choice I made,” she adds, “and by the time I was 14 I’d already done several plays. I can’t exactly say I felt talented as a child, but I certainly had a lot of imagination and had no fear whatsoever--the fear came later when the consciousness appeared, after I’d experienced criticism and learned the danger of doing things in public.”

Delpy followed her work with Godard with the lead in Tavernier’s 1987 film “Beatrice” and went from there to New York University Film School for a 1988 director’s workshop that crammed the work of two years into a single semester.

“I wanted to see what it was like to be on the other side of the camera--it helped me a lot as an actress, too,” says Delpy, who directed four short films at NYU. “Actors are always the center of attention, and directing made me realize I shouldn’t be so egotistical, so me-me-me all the time.

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“My dream is to own a good 16mm camera and shoot improvisatory films with my friends, along the lines of (John) Cassavetes,” adds Delpy, who moved to New York in 1990. “My films will be different from his, of course, because I’m a girl, I’m from Europe, and I’m too young to address the serious issues he dealt with in his films. Seriousness in film is in part a function of age, and I haven’t lived through enough yet.

“I couldn’t make a film like (Cassavetes’) ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ because I haven’t had an experience that harrowing, and can’t pretend to talk about such things. As to what topics are appropriate to someone my age . . . violence, people caught in stupid things, immaturity--these are the issues for my age group.”

Completing work in Agnieszka Holland’s World War II drama “Europa Europa” in 1991, and Volker Schlondorff’s “Voyager” in 1992, Delpy moved to L.A. in 1992, and it was here she made “Bla-Bla-Bla,” a recently completed short film about women talking, that stars Emily Wagner. “I’m not sure what I’ll do with it when it’s done,” says Delpy, who wrote the film and appears in it briefly. “If it’s no good I’ll just send it to French TV, as they commissioned me to do it. If I like it I’ll enter it in some festivals.

“I don’t know if I’m talented enough to direct a feature--maybe 20 years from now I’ll do it,” she says. “I do, however, know that I’ll do more than act--I just don’t know yet what it will be. I’m not pretending I’m anything yet,” she earnestly confesses. “I’m nothing.”

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Visual art may shape up to be Delpy’s dominant mode of expression as she’s presently painting every day. Mentioning Jean-Michel Basquiat, Francis Bacon, Hieronymus Bosch and the Symbolists as artists she particularly admires, Delpy paints in her kitchen, but says “I have to find a studio because I’m using toxic materials and I can’t breathe at night.”

Delpy is also an avid reader, and mentions William Faulkner, Richard Brautigan and John Fante as favorites. “I like very American stuff,” she says. “When I left Paris for L.A., I thought it was going to be like a John Fante book here, but alas, it was not that way.

“I left Paris because I wanted to experience something new and thought it would be healthy to get away from my parents. They’re wonderful, but it’s because I love them so much that I had to leave--if we lived in the same city I’d spend my life with them, and I must find my own life.

“My parents have been together forever and are very happy,” she says. “Sometimes I go out with guys and when I tell them my parents never cheat they say, ‘That’s impossible!’ They say that because they’re so insecure and screwed up that they can’t imagine not cheating. I dump guys like that very quickly because the reality is that people can be faithful.

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“American men are more prone to philandering than European men,” she adds. “There’s this Henry Miller myth here that really messes men up--they think it’s impossible to be creative without treating women badly, and that belief is very much part of the empty movie world. Living a crazy life doesn’t make you creative, and all these Hollywood rebels who think a walk on the wild side will make them talented are simply wrong.”

When one comments that Delpy was recently seen in the company of a notoriously lecherous Hollywood rebel who must certainly be pursuing her, she waves her hand dismissively and says, “Oh no, nobody’s after me. If they are, I haven’t seen them. If you think I’m someone who plays with people and makes them crazy, no, it’s the opposite. People drive me crazy, but I’ve never driven anybody crazy. It’s kind of painful sometimes because unfortunately, some people expect game-playing from me, but I’m very honest and can’t hide how I feel.

“Just two weeks ago I finally recovered from five years of being in love with someone I couldn’t have,” she adds happily. “It was a fine way of going through those years, of having something to think and fantasize about, but that’s not what I want now. Love is about possibility because love is an exchange, and if there’s no possibilities and it’s one-way, it’s not love.”

At this point “My Funny Valentine” comes on the sound system in the restaurant and she gasps, “Oh, I love this song! I cry whenever I hear Ella Fitzgerald’s version. I can cry on cue,” she adds proudly.

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One wonders what shelf Delpy stored her sentimental side on when she agreed to star in Roger Avary’s “Killing Zoe,” an extravagantly bloody film released last year that was taken to task by critics for exactly that reason.

“I hate violence in real life but I don’t think violent films create more violence in life,” she says. “A film like ‘Killing Zoe’ has such distance and humor to it--you can’t take the characters seriously for a minute because they’re all a mess.

“As for where I do draw the line in regards to violence in film, I don’t know. Take ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer'--that was an extremely disturbing movie that was almost like a snuff film. I was shocked by it, yet I enjoyed it, so I don’t know where I draw the line, or even what the problem is.

“Is the problem that audiences aren’t educated and intelligent enough to handle what they see at the movies? Europe has much less violence than America, and I think that has to do with the fact that the education system there is so much better. I meet people here who are 17 and can’t write a letter. I left France because I hated the bureaucratic system there, but one thing I’ll give them--by the time you’re 17, you know how to write.

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“America has a very young, childish soul and there’s something real about what you’re doing here. In France everybody is so twisted--I’ve had to deal with actresses there that were so evil. I’ve never met an American actress like that.”

Lest one think Delpy’s ready to do a testimonial for Hollywood, she has a ready answer when asked which cliches about L.A. she’s found to be true.

“Well, the bimbos do exist--you see them running around with their boobs,” she says, laughing. “Musicians, sleazy people, violence, drugs--there are way more drugs here than in France. I’m not into drugs so I don’t even notice them, but I hear the stories. One day at lunch my friend told me the people at the next table were doing drugs, and I hadn’t even noticed. Naivete can be a good protection and I use it a lot. I also don’t see very well, and I think it helps me being in a constant blur.”


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