Sometimes it takes a grande dame to play a grande dame.
For months Marie-Christine Barrault has traveled France playing the noted writer and intellectual Marguerite Yourcenar, the author of the acclaimed 1951 novel "Memoirs of Hadrian" and the first woman to be elected to the Académie française, the centuries-old council that governs and protects the French language.
It's a role that the Oscar-nominated French actress seems to have been working toward for much of her career.
"I once did a four-hour reading of 'Hadrian,' " she recalled in a recent interview. "I was on stage by myself. Every so often, we paused so the audience could grab a coffee or use the bathroom."
In 1988, she appeared in a film adaptation of Yourcenar's novel "L'Oeuvre au Noir" ("The Abyss").
"So I was in the Yourcenar universe without knowing that one day I would play her on stage," the actress said.
Barrault was in Pacific Palisades, where she is staying at a friend's home while preparing to once again play the late author in the drama "Les Yeux Ouverts" ("Open Eyes") at the Theatre Raymond Kabbaz in West L.A.
The production marks a rare American stage appearance for the Paris-based Barrault, who received a 1976 Academy Award nomination for "Cousin, Cousine," in which she brought a fresh-faced luminosity to the role of a married woman who enters into an affair with a married, distant cousin.
She remains revered in France for her stage and screen performances, including films by Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen.
"Les Yeux Ouverts" is adapted from a book of interviews with Yourcenar conducted by the French journalist Matthieu Galey at a time when the literary lioness was living on an island off the coast of Maine.
"She's someone I adore," said Barrault, speaking in French. "I'm in agreement with almost 100% of what she says. There's hardly a phrase where I would ask, well, why did she say that? I'm happy to put my skills to her service."
Which doesn't necessarily mean that playing Yourcenar is easy: "She had a way of speaking that makes it difficult to learn. She never said 'um,' or 'you know' — never. In her sentences, she used the imperfect subjunctive," a literary, somewhat formal verb construction in French.
But, the actress added, "I'm used to dealing with big texts that are very dense or philosophic."
"Les Yeux Ouverts" was adapted for the stage and directed by Ludovic Kerfendal, who first read the book nearly 20 years ago. He met Barrault at one of his productions and later wrote her a letter about playing Yourcenar.
He said that American audiences don't have to be familiar with Yourcenar's books to appreciate the story. (The play will be performed in French, with English titles.)
"It's more the woman [than] the writer that the audience discovers in the show," he said via email.
For Barrault, the woman behind all of the books remains a complex and fascinating presence. Yourcenar lived for years with a female lover, Grace Frick, an American who translated some of her works into English.
"Grace was possessive. When they lived together, Marguerite didn't travel as much, and she didn't have the opportunity to speak French," Barrault said. "Her English remained rudimentary. She was really happy when French people came to visit."
Working in L.A. brings back certain memories for the actress, especially that of being nominated for an Oscar.
"It didn't change my life. But I was very happy that the movie was such a success," she recalled. "It was fun to go through that one time, from the inside of it all."
Barrault remembered doing Oscar publicity and being asked by journalists if she wanted a Hollywood career. At the time she said no, but she added that she would like to work with John Cassavetes.
"They were like, really?" she said. "For someone from Europe, it was a dream. But I wouldn't have been able to do it. So much of his work was based on improvisation, and you had to be fluent in English, which I wasn't."
A few years later, Allen offered her a major role in "Stardust Memories," playing one of his love interests. Barrault remembered inviting him to meet her on an island in the south of France, where she was staying.
"He said, 'An island? It's not dangerous, is it?'" she recalled.
Today, Barrault is a mother of two grown children from her first marriage to producer Daniel Toscan du Plantier, and she's a grandmother of six. She was married to the famed French director Roger Vadim for 10 years until his death in 2000.
"He was the opposite of what people imagined him to be," she said of Vadim, whose public image in his youth was that of a Lothario.
"When I met him, he loved home life, cooking, He was very attentive to the women he loved. ... He believed in freedom for women. I think that's what he liked in me — I was a free woman."
These days, Barrault lives to act on the stage. The day she returns to France, she is scheduled to perform in another show about composer Frédéric Chopin.
"I've been an actress for 50 years," she said. "And each day, I say to myself that I don't have a choice, I could do nothing else — and how fortunate I am to be doing it."
'Les Yeux Ouverts' ('Open Eyes')
Where: Theatre Raymond Kabbaz, 10361 W. Pico Blvd., L.A.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday