Most Americans discovered her in 1995's "Braveheart"--but by then, Paris-born actress Sophie Marceau had already packed several careers into her 29 years.
Famous at age 14 in France, thanks to her film debut in 1980's "La Boum," Marceau won a Cesar Award in 1983, a Moliere for her stage work in 1991, and published a novel, "Menteuse," in 1995. Between her nearly two dozen movie roles, she's also modeled, written and directed a short film (1995's "L'Aube a l'envers") that was screened at Cannes, championed animal rights and served as France's ambassador of charm in East Asia.
But her most ambitious project may be her latest: the title role in "Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina," her third English-language film. Her casting was the idea of co-producer Mel Gibson, who earlier had chosen Marceau over 40 rivals for "Braveheart."
"Sophie has a regal beauty," he said in 1995. "She's an instinctively good actress, and the camera just loves her."
Marceau doesn't need a camera to enhance her unblemished complexion and quick smile. In person, she seems both contemporary and timeless--a mix particularly suited to any actress playing Tolstoy's vivid, yet mysterious, adulteress.
Question: Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh are just two of the stars who've played Anna Karenina on screen. Was it intimidating following their work?
Answer: I saw the Garbo film several times, and she was phenomenal. Even when she didn't do anything, she was amazing. But it's not a question of competition. She was unique, but she didn't make this part unique.
So that didn't scare me; I think I knew Anna Karenina. It's so wonderfully written, you feel very close to it. I would have a lot of enemies if I say this, but there are no origins, no nationality [to Anna]. When I read it, I thought, that could have happened to me.
This book talks about love, what are the human choices in life. And we're still at the same point; we haven't figured it out yet. It's very difficult to draw the right profile of what is a hero, today in a modern, feminine era. We don't know. That is why we are looking into the past to find some.
When you do Anna Karenina, you cannot be less than the story itself, because it's so powerful that you have to be at the same level, which is hard work. It pulls you out of your normal little life and asks you to be . . . like two fingers in a plug. I felt I was much more intelligent while I was [shooting]!
Q: I'm told this was the first Western film made entirely in post-Soviet Russia. It's incredibly opulent looking [it was shot in St. Petersburg and Moscow]. . . . How much of the struggling side of Russia did you see?
A: At the beginning, I really hated it. I thought, how can we let humanity go this way? Children, grandmas asking for 10 cents to buy half a loaf of bread, all they'll have the whole day.
On the other hand, it's very difficult to be indifferent to the greatness of Russia, the beauty of St. Petersburg. . . . They have the most beautiful things I've seen in my whole life, like the Hermitage Museum. So I felt always torn between those two feelings.
Q: And one day in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin made an unscheduled visit?
A: Yes, I wasn't there, but I heard about that. They did some shots facing the Kremlin. It was noisy, and he came out and said go away, I want to rest--or I want to drink! [laughs]
Q: Like Anna, you're a mother [in 1995, Marceau had a son with her companion, Polish director Andrzej Zulawski]. Since Anna's relationship with her son is key to her story, how did that affect your performance?
A: The experience of motherhood is so huge that it's helpful, not only as an actress but as a woman. As a woman I felt more open, stronger, more enthusiastic. As an actress, it's like my mind is quicker, and I can [have] more feelings at the same time.
For example, I can play a very dramatic Anna Karenina and also be very happy and have fun in the scenes with my child. I'm not sure I would've known that if I hadn't been a mother; I would've thought, [the story] is so intense, my relationship with my son must be terrible. For Anna, having a child has given her--not lightness--but more happiness in a very dramatic situation.
I brought my son with me to Russia because there was no doubt we couldn't be separated that long. My son belonged to reality and to life, nothing to do with cinema.
Q: All three of your English-language films are period stories [the third, "Firelight," has not yet been released in the U.S.]. But in France, you're known for contemporary roles as well.
A: I've been asked if I'm a period actress. I say no--but in fact, I am, especially here in America. For us, European actors, that's almost the only way to get introduced to American cinema. We cannot play modern American girls--so we do costume films.
Q: It's been 17 years since your filmmaking debut . . .
A: I've been working for a long time, but I'm still--maybe more--nervous, because I know how important it is. Film is going to last forever. There's something a bit scary about that, and it's frightening to see yourself on a huge screen.
But for me, Anna Karenina was so clear in the darkness, because she is tragic. And I like tragedy! [laughs]