Tell us about your first meetings with François Ozon.
The first few times we met, François was pretty skeptical. He was still wondering a lot about the character of Claire and how old she should be. I did some tests, with the casting director running lines. I was not very convincing! Luckily, I did some more tests later with Romain, and those went great. Paradoxically, it’s a film that hinges on the interplay between two people of the opposite sex. Our chemistry totally worked.
How did you approach your character?
The script revealed little about this young woman, who is mostly in observation mode. Actually, I believe several actresses turned down the role before me because they felt there was nothing to sink their acting chops into.Well, they were wrong! I discovered a gold mine of unspoken words, stillness, silence to inhabit. Loosely defined characters can be very rich. We hold many secrets that the audience, the other characters and the director aren’t aware of.
Your character is in the position of observer but gradually starts to enjoy herself as much as Virginia.
Yes, privately Claire is experiencing some powerful emotions, in a different way than Virginia, but at the same time, they’re in it together. Claire is a surprising character. At first she seems shy, ensconced in her normality, but actually she’s a very strong person with a keen appetite for life. Claire’s femininity is just under the surface, ready to bloom. She doesn’t have many opportunities to express it with her husband, but Virginia helps her unleash her sensuality. She plays the game with her, reveling in their complicity and the excitement and freedom associated with the crossdressing. In fact, quite quickly, Claire starts running the show. David sort of becomes her doll. She takes power over him, which is all the easier as she’s the only one who knows his secret.When she learns he’s seeing a shrink, it hurts her to have lost her exclusive position!
David and Claire are united in their sorrow over Laura’s death, but losing this role model in their lives also helps them bloom.
Claire loved and admired her best friend enormously, but she was living in her shadow. In losing her, she breaks free of the reflected image in which she was living despite herself, and moves forward toward something real and sincere. She’s excited by the danger, and the ruses she and David have to come up with. I love when she lies to her husband. Gilles is endearing, but he doesn’t have a clue what his wife is going through. They’re not at all on the same wavelength. I love how François Ozon manages to film the solitude women experience, the daily sadness of living with someone who doesn’t understand us. I felt that in young & beautiful too.
This film packs an emotional punch because Claire and David are both experiencing the same solitude.As audience members, we care about them. It’s a lovely feeling, we don’t judge them, we let ourselves be swept up in their joy and their desires.
The more Virginia reveals herself, the less androgynous Claire becomes.
During wardrobe fittings, François was adamant. He kept saying, “Claire mustn’t be too pretty at the beginning of the film!” Later on, I understood he was right.We had to downplay her femininity to start, then gradually liberate it and feel Claire becoming more and more comfortable in her female body. The fun she’s having with Virginia shines through. It helps her find her place, accept her femininity. But not necessarily through clothing. Her style doesn’t change radically, as opposed to Virginia, who has a far more clear and caricatured idea of femininity. For her, being a woman is all about wearing a pink dress with high heels!
Did you do research on transvestites?
No, I wanted the subject to remain a mystery, an unknown realm, as it is for Claire in the film.
Beyond transvestism, the new girlfriend is first and foremost a love story.
Yes, it is not so much the story of a man who dresses like a woman as it is the story of two human beings and their attempts to love each other, to open up to one another, to get past their differences and the burden of conformism and taboos. It’s not a militant film, it’s a film about people who dare to accept their deepest desires. I think it’s beautiful to make a film that asks the essential question,“Do we love each other or not? Do we have a right to love each other?”At first we think,“No way, how can those two possibly get together?” But after a while, we want them to fall in love. That’s the film’s great strength, especially in the context of the debate over marriage equality, the need certain people have to stigmatize others, to insist on “a father and a mother”, “a man and a woman”. The film starts with an unusual story and very singular characters, then takes on a universal dimension and speaks to all of us.
What was the shoot like?
François is like a kid on the set, his eyes are full of mischief and glee. He’s made so many films I thought he’d be on autopilot, but no, his enthusiasm about filmmaking is impressive, it’s like he’s addicted to it. He runs a tight ship, and he’s always shouting “Action, action!” even when nobody’s ready! You really have to be on your game. At first, I felt overwhelmed and a bit panicky about his speediness. I worried that shooting so quickly wouldn’t allow time for good acting. But you just have to plug in to his energy, and then it’s amazing, he carries you along with him at his giddy pace.
And I’d never worked with a director who choreographs his scenes with such precision and virtuosity. He could put everything I’d read in the script in just one shot.When you’re acting, it’s wonderful to feel that the camera is always in the right place to capture what you’re doing. The camera was always moving slightly,with François behind it,right there with us in the shot.
And working with Romain Duris?
Having Romain as a partner was pure joy! He was really involved, encouraging, complicit and considerate with me - a far less experienced actor than he is. I think he’d always dreamed of playing a role like this and his enthusiasm, like that of François, was infectious. This was not just another film for either of them.
At certain moments I really saw Romain, the actor, the handsome guy, then suddenly, I saw a woman, more or less pretty, more or less stylish! I felt like I was playing opposite neither a man nor a woman but a person who was impossible to categorize. It was very strange, I was experiencing the same fluctuations as Claire.
“You’re a man!” exclaims Claire to Virginia before fleeing the hotel room. What is the significance of this reaction in the context of their relationship?
It’s not obvious from the outset that they are going to fall in love. Claire likes to tell herself they’re just close friends who like to shop or do their hair together.At times their relationship takes a considerably more ambiguous turn and could veer into something more sensual and carnal, but Claire pulls the wool
over her own eyes. She’s troubled by this burgeoning desire.The situation culminates in that scene of panic at the hotel. Claire is truly in love with this creatureVirginia, but this blunt reminder that she is actually a man is more than she can handle.“You’re a man!” is also another way of saying,“You’re Laura’s husband!” Claire is far more complicated than she might appear. She takes two steps forward, three steps back.
When you sing in the hospital at the end, your voice is at once confident and shaky with emotion.
I was very apprehensive about shooting that scene in the hospital. François and I didn’t rehearse it at all. I prepared for it on my own, he trusted me. I had to find the right balance, stay in the emotion of the scene, not take on a singer’s voice. Singing is very intimidating. I told myself not to think about it. The song is a gift toVirginia and I just focused on the words, on hoping they would help her wake up.
We’ve often seen you in more realistic or naturalistic contexts. This is different.
In a statement of intent, François said he considered this film a melodrama. That opened up new acting perspectives for me. I feel like I’m more extraverted than usual here, more comfortable in the emotions. I’ve come to a place in my life where I’m less interested in playing realistic, everyday stuff. I feel like doing more stylized, lyrical, playful films. I was happy doing the new girlfriend. It felt like a little door was opening up to me, especially since the characters themselves are acting, lying, and lying to themselves.
We’re constantly going back and forth between laughter and tears.
We had a lot of fun on the set. François was always cracking up at the end of the scenes, so I thought we were actually making a comedy in the spirit of potiche. But at the end, when we did the hospital scenes, we realized the seriousness and sadness of the situation.
Actually, there’s a constant back-and-forth between scenes of real tenderness and scenes where we’re laughing along with the characters as they go shopping, take a weekend in the country or hit a nightclub.
Would you call the ending of the new girlfriend utopic or realistic?
The last image is very powerful, with the three characters walking away together hand in hand. It’s like a fairy tale:“They were married and lived happily ever after.”And yet I find the ending completely realistic! The richness of the film lies in its ability to make us believe in this reality, to make it obvious, to show us this love is not impossible, it is there, within reach.You just have to be willing to open up, listen to your desires and question your tolerance and who you really are. Claire does all of those things in the film.