French actress Sophie Marceau seems to perfectly embody the reserved but passionate Swiss governess in William Nicholson's oh-so-romantic period drama "Firelight." Like such screen legends as Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, Marceau can express her character's inner emotions and thoughts simply with her face and eyes.
But Nicholson, who wrote the acclaimed "Shadowlands," initially didn't think she was right for the role of Elisabeth, a young woman who agrees to have a married British landowner's (Stephen Dillane) child so she can earn money to pay off her father's debts.
"I realized I had seen her in 'Braveheart,' " says Nicholson who makes his directorial debut with "Firelight," which opened Friday.
Marceau first caught the attention of American audiences in Mel Gibson's 1995 Oscar-winning epic with her glowing performance as Princess Isabelle, the daughter of the French king who lusts after Gibson's William Wallace.
"She's was so dressed up, you could hardly see her," he recalls. "All these other films [of hers] were in French, which I do not speak. They seemed to consist of her with lots of wavy hair, looking awfully dolly, sort of being cute and sulky.
"I didn't really see that she could be right for the part at all. But I was going to be in Paris and her agent made it clear that she would be interested in auditioning."
Marceau, who starred last year in Bernard Rose's version of Tolstoy's tragedy "Anna Karenina," felt an immediate kinship to Elisabeth, who ends up rekindling her relationship with the landowner when she becomes their daughter's governess.
"It is a woman's point of view, and it's about a woman," Marceau says about the film, relaxing in the lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel. With her long, blond hair and deep tan, the lithe, 31-year-old actress is almost unrecognizable from her paler, darker-haired screen image.
At the audition, Nicholson recalls, Marceau "pulled her hair back and she just knew how to play the scene. The accent was fantastic. I could understand her English. She was playing it to me. I was the man. I said to the producer who was with me, 'End of search.' I always knew that that was the best decision I ever made. I mean, she carries the movie completely as she has to. Her part is the center of the movie."
"We talked [at the audition] like we had known each other for a long time because we were talking about the same script and the same character," Marceau recalls. "Then afterward, when you put things in perspective, you realize how deep the script is. When you read it again and again, it's always full of more information. There are a lot of messages."
She also found it a challenge to play Elisabeth on "two different levels, which was the appearance--the face and the stillness--and inside it is the passion, the fire and the love. Everything is emotional because you can't express anything. You have to keep everything to yourself so it makes everything much stronger."
Marceau had just given birth to her son, who is now 3, before filming began on "Firelight," so as Nicholson notes, "She felt the maternal side of the plot very directly."
The actress relishes working with child performers. In "Firelight," Elisabeth must contend with her uncontrollable 7-year-old daughter, who initially doesn't know that Elisabeth is her mother.
"The acting process is so true," she says about working with children. "It is so straightforward you don't have to think twice because the child believes what they are acting. They don't cheat. They don't have tricks. They look at you and they believe in what they have to say."
Perhaps Marceau has an affinity for child actors because she began her career when she was just 12. "I was hanging around in my suburb in Paris and it was the holiday time," Marceau recalls with a smile.
"My parents were always very busy working, working, so I was a lot by myself and my brother. Everything was fine, but I wanted to do something with my life. I wanted to be independent. I wanted to give meaning to my life. So I decided to look for a job."
But because she was too young, her employment search was fruitless. "But I was stubborn," she says. "I saw in a magazine advertising for an agency for models, but it was only for babies. I don't know how I got [at the agency], but they took pictures of me and they said when we need you we'll call you. That was it. I was a little bit frustrated, but I went back home thinking at least I did something."
The agency did call about an audition for a movie. "I didn't even know what casting meant," Marceau recalls. Nevertheless, she landed the starring role in the hit "La Boum," in which she played a 13-year-old girl whose parents were having marital problems.
"It became a big hit . . . and this film branched me out in the world," she says.
But her life didn't change. "I had to go back to school. I didn't have any more money. I didn't get rich all of a sudden, that just happens in America. I wasn't surrounded by agents, PR, managers and lawyers. Nobody. I was thinking about my boyfriend at school and my homework and my family."
Marceau hasn't worked in her native country for the last two years. Earlier this summer, she was in Italy filming Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer.
"I've always loved Shakespeare," Marceau enthuses. "The whole play is juicy. Kline is such an actor."
She also just completed the romantic comedy "Lost and Found," in which comic David Spade plays her love interest. "It's very funny and cute and charming," Marceau offers. "It is the story of two people who have nothing in common--obviously--who just kind of get along well together."