“The Artist” has been hailed as one of the most original films of 2011 — even though the movie’s look, feel and entire concept are throwbacks to the early days of moviemaking when films were silent. “The Artist” (which was written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius) tells the story of a silent-film star in Hollywood named George Valentin (played by Jean Dujardin), who finds his popularity taking a dramatic downturn with the arrival of “talkies” — movies with sound. Before George finds himself out of luck and eventually out of work, he mentors a perky aspiring actress named Peppy Miller (played by Bérénice Bejo, who happens to be married to Hazanavicius in real life), whose career stars to take off just as George’s career begins to decline.
“The Artist” has gotten rave reviews, and many industry insiders are predicting that the movie will receive several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. “The Artist” star Dujardin has already won the prestigious Best Actor award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. While Dujardin and Bejo (who are both natives of France) were in New York City to promote “The Artist,” I sat down for this interview in which they talked about how they tackled the challenge of doing a silent movie; what aspects of the movie industry are becoming outdated but should be appreciate more; and what influenced them the most from the silent-film era.
So how did you two work together? Were there lots of rehearsal? Was it a conversation? What was the process?
Bejo: We sat down maybe twice? We rehearsed a lot of the tap dancing, but we didn’t work too much at the table.
Dujardin: For five months, tap dancing.
Bejo: Yeah, tap dancing was five months. But the rest we read maybe twice, the script.
Dujardin: And we watched a lot of movies.
Were there lots of takes?
Bejo: Not a lot of takes because we didn’t have lots of time. We had just 35 days of shooting. We knew each other, we worked together already, so we were really so happy to be on set together and work again. And we knew Michel [Hazanavicius, the writer/director of “The Artist”].
Dujardin: Comfortable. It was comfortable.
Bejo: So maybe we do four takes, five takes.
What excited both of you about doing a silent film?
Dujardin: The challenge. The love story. The body language, maybe. And playing with the dog. And Bérénice.
Bejo: We’re never going to get the chance to do that ever again. I was happy to see myself in this movie. Sometimes actors say, “I don’t like to watch myself.” I was very pleased to see myself on screen in these images and this story. And of course my director directed it. I thought it was never going to happen to me again. As an actor, you never dream about doing this movie. For me, I never even dreamed to be here and talking with you, but that’s another story.
A lot of this movie is about the transition that the film industry is going through. And right now the film industry is going through a transition, in terms of technology, in terms of the business side of the industry. Putting aside the fact that people love this movie and they like seeing the silent-film aspect of it, what part of the film industry that you think is fading away that you wish more people would appreciate at this point in time? Anything to do with types of films or actors or anything that you think is under-appreciated because it’s considered old fashioned?
Bejo: What I think that I really like in “The Artist” is the way it’s edited, because you take the time to see a scene and it just doesn’t go so fast. And I think today everything goes so fast that you don’t have time to watch a beautiful shot. Some directors yes, but the thing that I think the movies are going is going too fast and lots of special effects. And the story is actually smaller than the effects sometimes.
But then it’s not a movie against 3-D or special effects, because I love them. I love animated movies, I love 3-D. It’s just like you go to see a movie and you have different kinds of movies and that’s another kind and that’s another experience.
Dujardin: It’s not at all the same transition today. From silent films to talking films was probably violent for actors at the time. It’s not at all the same category. Special effects improve and add things to movies.
Bejo: It doesn’t take something from us; it just adds a new thing. Special effects or 3-D doesn’t change our way of acting, our way of approaching a character. It’s just for the audience it’s something new.
Some people, some actors feel because of motion capture, what James Cameron did with “Avatar” and some other technology that there’s some debate over whether or not that will be the future.
Bejo: I don’t think so. I think we’ll have both. As an audience I love to see actors too. I love to see, as I said, animation and everything, but human beings they’re always going to be a human being. We always need it.
And even if you have lots of emotion with “Avatar” it doesn’t mean that you don’t have it when you see a normal movie with that motion picture. You have lots of different kinds of things. And sometimes you want to see “Avatar” and sometimes you want to see “The Artist,” and today is “The Artist.”
Or you want to see an animation movie with your kids. It’s like having kids: when you have one when you have another one it’s not less love; it’s more love, and again more. You don’t split, it’s just more and more, more things, I think.
George Valentin has an adorable Jack Russell terrier as his constant companion. Were you guys ever fearful of the dog upstaging you?
Bejo: Well, yeah! He had the best actor. I didn’t get anything.
Dujardin: Yes because we are the same role, the same character, Uggie and me. Siamese twins.
Bejo: It’s like a silhouette.
What was it like shooting in Hollywood and recreating that period of Hollywood?
Dujardin: Shooting in L.A. it’s very motivating. The set, the Paramount lot, the Warner lot, the Orpheum Theater.
Bejo: The house of Mary Pickford. He actually wakes up in Mary Pickford’s bed, so that’s not nothing. Every morning we had drivers or we drove, but going down the hills of Los Feliz, going to Hollywood. The studios: Warner, Paramount, it was like being the character. Arriving on set, speaking American with the crew, or gibberish.
But for me it gave me an authenticity and I really felt I was part of the movie. I read Gloria Swanson’s autobiography so I could have a feeling of the atmosphere back in the time. So when I arrive in L.A. and I actually drove passed Charlie Chaplin’s studios. And Hollywood, even if it’s not the same, Sunset Boulevard and everything, you just feel like you’re really into the story. It was great. I love it.
Dujardin: And the American faces.
Bejo: Yeah, the extras. We were so amazed about the extras. Everybody worked. Everybody had a little story in the head, even if he’s in the background, he cut his hair and he’s really into it. In French people read books, “Action!” “What is it about? Yeah, whatever.” Here we were like so pushed up. We love it.
Can you tell us about your experience winning Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival? And how did you prepare your speech, if you prepared your speech, since they tell people in advance if they won.
Dujardin: They tell you before around 2 p.m. In the plane he thought a little bit about his speech. It was very fast; it all went very fast. There’s a plane waiting for you, you get there, you get your tuxedo, go to the party, and your hear [Robert] De Niro saying …
It was magical. It was surreal. You’re very conscious of the event. It’s like an out-of-body experience too. You’re floating above it all. Even now it’s not concrete yet.
Who was the first person you called when you found out you won this prestigious award?
Dujardin: My wife. [We] were angry at each other. [We] had gotten in a fight. “Get a dress and get ready, because we’re going. Just get a dress.” “Why?”
And working with Michel Hazanavicius, was it easier or harder for the both of you?
Bejo: I met both of them on set, and I remember Jean and I going back to the hotel speaking about Michel and the fact that we were so amazed at how calm he was on set. It was a big movie and it was kind of his first big movie, and I loved the way he directed everything and everything had a purpose, every object was in the frame for a reason.
For me, I was very excited to do another movie with him. He was the director. I was the actress, so there was no husband/wife thing on set. And he was his wife too, so I had to share my husband with him. It’s like a little joke we had, the three of us.
Dujardin: No, no joke.
Bejo: It’s not a joke. I had to share.
So you had a certain degree of intimacy then?
Bejo: Oh yeah. You didn’t share the bed. But he’s very calm on set and he’s very focused on the work and he loves actors. That sounds silly to say but some directors don’t really enjoy working with actors, and he really enjoyed working with us and helping us to find new directions. He loves watching actors act. He’s always saying “I’m the director, you’re the actor. You do your job and I watch you and I help you if you need some help.” But he’s not a manipulator director.
Dujardin: Michel? Together we had a good relationship. He’s very calm, he thinks a lot, he prepares beforehand so that he can take his time on set, and they have the same method. He tries to really prepare everything ahead of time and then he can have fun on set.
Bejo: He storyboarded the whole movie. And it’s mine, it’s my book.
Dujardin: He’s not like a directive director. He trusts his actors. They propose things and then he’ll give nuanced direction.
Were there any particular silent actors that you saw in a U.S. film that inspired you?
Dujardin: Yes, a lot. For me and for you it’s a medley between Douglas Fairbanks, I watched a lot of Douglas Fairbanks movies. Gene Kelly for his smile, his energy. Clark Gable. And me! I had fun pretending to be a movie star in the 1920s.
Bejo: At one point you have to forget everything, all of your references because we’ve been watching so many movies. I didn’t know [F.W.] Murnau movies. So what I really liked the first time I saw all those movies was that the actors were very modern, the way they acted. They were not pantomime or anything like that, and I realized that you didn’t have to do so much to express things. Because your head is really, it’s all about your face, and because you can’t hear any noise, people really focus on everything on your face.
I watched a lot of Joan Crawford when she was like 20, 25 years old because she started exactly like Peppy — she started as a flapper and then she did silent movies and then talking movies. So I really thought that her energy was close to Peppy and because I needed to find how to be an American actress. I’m not an American actress, especially not an American actress in the ’30s, so I had to really look at her. So I looked at her in “Grand Hotel” with John Barrymore, and I thought she was so beautiful and adorable.
Since “The Artist” has raised the bar for you two with challenges, how will it affect how you look at different roles from now on?
Dujardin: First, it’s a story. It won’t change anything. It’s just a passage. [I don’t] want it to change. [I want] it to stay intact, to keep the fun and the pleasure [I have], to keep his doubts. It’s healthier to have doubts.
Bejo: For me, there will definitely be a “before” and “after” [for] “The Artist,” because I think for the French audience, it’s a character that really put me somewhere else. And I just enjoy so much the body language and I trust myself more than I used to before maybe “The Artist.”
And for the choice it’s very hard, because when you have the chance of doing such a beautiful movie, everything looks like of faded after that. But then I think I’m like, “OK, I’m not going to do that every again.” That doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything that really challenges me. So I just keep that in mind and just go on.
For more info: “The Artist” website
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Interview with Bérénice Bejo at the 2012 Oscar Nominees Luncheon
Interview with Jean Dujardin at the 2012 Academy Awards
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