The Fabulous Story of Audrey Tautou

Audrey Tautou rose to stardom in the span of one Parisian fairy-tale. Now Hollywood is putting her up against gigantic forces at play. Will her girl-next-door humility stand fresh in front of the media attention and international stakes involved?

Last summer in Paris; empty streets and dusty road works, iron shutters of vacated businesses, tourists strolling in a wide-eyed daze, a few remaining locals sun-tanning by the river Seine… This time the city has been abuzz not just with travel buses but with the D-Day sized operations of shooting The Da Vinci Code. Enormous trucks of equipment, tight security road blocks, jealously closed-off sets and a rare nocturnal access to the Louvre for the story’s opening scenes.

Everyone wanted in, no one actually could, and rumours of privileged passes fizzled in the heat. French actors are usually very accessible. There are seldom any bodyguards or limousines or satellite- linked agents scampering around – that’s for the television industry.

Who would have thought the cutesy star of Amélie from Montmartre could one day be caught up in a red-carpet shroud of Hollywood secrecy? After many rescheduling, as the crew wrapped up in Paris before transporting to England, we managed to set a 45-minute date in a Vietnamese bar in Pigalle, the infamous red light district at the foot of Montmartre.

Audrey Tautou will be remembered for a long time as Amélie Poulain, ever since Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s international hit in 2001. Its uplifting spirit triggered repeated viewings by addicted fans across the world, flocking to the screens to fight millennial stress with therapeutic doses of Parisian poetry. Japanese tour buses still crowd the old working-class neighbourhood where the picture’s café stands and Montmartre prices are sky-rocketing.

She was nominated for the “Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role” at the British BAFTA Film Awards and has garnered so far another six wins and nine nominations.

Her career started with a bang in Vénus Beauté, an endearing comedy role set in a beauty salon that earned her the “Best New Actress César” in 1999. After a surprising part as an illegal Turkish immigrant in Stephen Frears’ grim drama Dirty Pretty Things, she made another big budget success in 2004, the WWI fresco A Very Long Engagement, again with director Jeunet.

Let’s not forget her remarkable performance as the annoying girlfriend in Cedric Khan’s generational comedy Spanish Hostel and sequel Russian Dolls and a very retro singing part in Alain Resnais’ opérette Pas Sur La Bouche. Then just when we thought we were seeing a little too much of her, she was chosen to star opposite Tom Hanks in Ron Howard’s adaptation of the controversial bestseller.

France has given the world classic figures of powerful beauty: Deneuve, Bardot, Adjani, Marceau, Béart… However, a specifically French export is that of a few strong, enduring actresses that did not rise to fame as aesthetic blueprints but because of endearingly human performances, such as Jeanne Moreau or Juliette Binoche.

Audrey Tautou, of a similar slight frame, is a bougnate, as were affectionately called the people from the centre volcanoes of Auvergne who had moved to Paris. Her speech rings of the street, much like the gouaille, or swagger, of war-era star Arletty; she moves like a tomboy and looks like a cartoon character in a starry-eyed bedtime story. It is because of such traits, such identifiers that most agents usually exploit as “character actor” pigeon- holing, she is able to experiment in various genres, in which she displays more facets than anyone would expect. At this stage of her career, she is now a “French Pop” export.

You’re wearing a very pretty dress. It looks local vintage.
Thank you. It’s by Isabel Marant. I like to stick to very feminine French brands, mid-level designers like Claudie Pierlot, Vanessa Brunho, Zadig & Voltaire…

Are you aware of being a new face of France to the world?
I never think about that so I feel no pressure. Besides, I’m not exactly a workaholic.

Is it luck or hard work?

It’s really an inexplicable mix of both. I believe in hard work and always seek pleasure from it.

Do you take it very seriously?

It’s both a craftsmanship and a game. I don’t focus all on technique. It’s a real teamwork. It depends on the crew, the director, the script… I don’t delve into self-analysis. I’m more about mood than introspection so I never consider myself on a special mission. A nurse, or a teacher, is far more commendable and I’m not changing the world here.

You also play the piano and the oboe. Do you have any wishes outside cinema?

I’d really like to do more theatre. Performing on the stage is fabulous and the teamwork is a whole other experience.

You’re shooting a contemporary thriller after a few big selling “costume” movies. Is it a welcome change from what could have become typecasting?
I don’t think people see me just as Amélie and, besides, it was set in a timeless Paris. People did fall in love with Jeunet’s story because of its universal message of love and its supernatural poetry. But I do always look for different parts and it’s true I’d love to do another musical.

You looked like you had fun with your role as the anti-globalisation “bobo girlfriend” in Russian Dolls. You managed to make her quite touching although she was really grating.
It’s always exciting to give life to a character so different from you and to make it loveable, especially with such a good script. It’s a real pleasure to work with Cedric Khan and it’s with dialogues and direction like these that actors can really make progress.

You seem to retain good memories from your years at the Cours Florent, one of the famous theatre schools in Paris.
Oh yes, it was a truly unique experience, thanks in great part to my teacher Pierre Salvadori. My parents had offered me a summer workshop there and I caught the bug ever since. I was lucky to find great friends with the troupe and endless enthusiasm.

You’re a member of another actors’ community, Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. What does that entail?

I’ve no idea how I ended up with them. They send me lots of literature which I’ve no time to look at, and also invitations to screenings I can’t attend.

You’ve managed to take some time off your career on a road trip through Indonesia.
I spent six weeks travelling across Indonesia with my sister and that really opened my eyes. It is unforgettable. I’ve also been to Vietnam. Asia has changed my life. I am amazed by the refinement, the cultures and the hospitality. In spite of the persistent ills, there always remains an eternal beauty.

Do you think there is a French concept of “beauty”?

I’ve no idea. There might be but I’m unaware of it. Perhaps the one trait would be a certain pride, one might call it arrogance.

It seems you refuse to play the celebrity game.
Well, besides promotion tours I don’t take any part in the “showbiz” scene. This interview is an exception because your magazine comes highly recommended! I’ve no desire to promote myself or to cultivate my image. I guess ambition is necessary for achieving one’s dreams. It’s another side of the coin which I try to accept, up to very strict boundaries. I wish Icould be just seen as who I am, which is a very normal person.

So you don’t see any responsibility attached to your status?
Absolutely none outside of my work. I’m not a public persona. I only exist on screen. My duty is to keep my own enthusiasm fresh, so it translates well within the common effort and everyone’s tremendous work involved. By not choosing my parts according to image or money, I keep my freedom and pleasure on a high.

You seem to have done more for Paris’s image with one film than all the failed effort to host the Olympics. And The Da Vinci Code has already further boosted the tourist inflow.
I’m happy if Paris can improve with more tourism. But on the other hand the city is becoming more bourgeoise. The rents have risen like crazy. It’s too bad if the local people can’t afford to live here anymore. My neighbourhood has changed a lot. I preferred it when it was more chaotic. I like the bazaar, the mess.

Interview: Damien Brachet

Photography: Gilles Marie Zimmerman @ Angela De Bona
Styling: Gregor Doll

Make-up: Renée Garnes @ Olga

Hair: Madeleinecofano.Com
Set designer: Christian @ Pin Up
Fashion assistant: Sombat Sripim
Retouching: Thierry Leduc @ Clin-D’oeil

Published in Issue 16 MYSTERY, 2005

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