How did you get involved in the new girlfriend?
François Ozon called me and said he wanted to talk to me about a role.“I think you’re going to like it because I’ve heard you want to play a woman.” And that was true. I’d wanted to play a woman ever since childhood, when my big sister would dress me up as a girl for dinner with the family or with friends of my parents. I was her doll and I loved it. Maybe the simple pleasure of being a girl back then was already a way for me to be an actor!
What appealed to you about the story?
I loved that the audacity of this transformation is triggered by grief, filtered through the eyes of Claire and made possible through feelings of friendship, then love.The subject of David crossdressing to become Virginia is treated profoundly and sensitively, it’s not just a gag or a showcase for an actor. I love how it sparks off, with David telling Claire very sincerely that dressing up as a woman is his way of filling the maternal void his daughter is suffering from. His desire to crossdress is beautiful and consistent with his entire being; his motives are very human, and generous.
And even when his motives become more personal, he enjoys the experience in a very pure, innocent way.
Yes, even when Claire accuses him of crossdressing solely for his own pleasure, I tried to make him as sincere as possible, to play it without irony. I wanted it honest, human. I didn’t want to box the character into a problem that was too specific. I wanted the film to speak to as many people as possible, to open doors, to raise questions about gender in the larger sense.Yes, we can be humanly attracted to another gender, and there is nothing wrong with that.
In the scene where David admits to having derived pleasure from dressing his dead wife, the morbid aspect could have taken on too much importance. But I had reached a point where I felt Virginia inside me with so much immediacy and coherence that I no longer even felt the need to rationalize her crossdressing as above all a place of freedom and pleasure.
And you completely succeed in communicating that pleasure to us.
I felt it so much myself that I think it shows through.When I came for the screen tests, I knew I would feel that pleasure. Whether François chose me or not didn’t matter, the bliss I felt was genuine, and I think that’s what he saw, before seeing whether the wigs suited me or not.
Transvestism is not so much the subject of the film as a way of representing difference, which is then overcome through love.
Yes, this film is also a great love story.There is no romantic love between Claire and David at the beginning, but Laura’s death, David’s desire to crossdress and the secret friendship that comes out of it all lead to feelings that are beyond friendship. David is not in love with Claire, butVirginia will fall in love with Claire. The film shows us that when we’re in love, the gender of the person doesn’t matter.
Would you call the ending of the film utopic or realistic?
I find it totally natural and credible. It’s a response to the claims of those who oppose marriage equality.They can think what they like and protest all they like, they can’t stop this progress. Life moves toward freedom and love.
Did you research transvestism to prepare the role?
François asked me to watch crossdresser by Chantal Poupaud and bambi by Sébastien Lifshitz. Bambi, a transsexual who is utterly comfortable in her skin, really moved me. Her femininity is not centered solely on the sexual, on seduction and desire. It is broader and more internal, maternal even. Its richness and sweetness greatly inspired me for my role.
I didn’t want to meet transvestites, but just before the shoot, I happened across one in the street and I was very happy. She had great legs, she really could have been a Virginia, she had such a liberated way of being a woman!
How did you prepare physically for the role?
I had a coach and choreographer, Chris Gandois. She and I worked on my walk, my attitudes, how to use my body. I didn’t speak about it much with François. I sensed it might worry him, because he wanted there to be some awkwardness about David turning into Virginia. But I needed to feel a certain ease. And we weren’t shooting the film in chronological order.What would I do if, five days in, we had to shoot a scene from the end of the film, where I’m supposed to be perfectly natural as a woman?!
So I learned to walk in heels, sit down at a table and cross my legs, etc. It was mostly about being comfortable. I knew that finding the right moves forVirginia, without exaggeration, would allow me to feel the character and her femininity, and to speak in her voice, whether low or high.
One thing was certain: I didn’t want to play the drag queen. That would be wrong, François and I agreed on that.We didn’t want people making fun of Virginia. The humor needed to come not from the gender switch but from situations, like for example when David conceals his lipstick by pretending he has to vomit.
How did you feel about your character’s changing styles?
At first I didn’t really understand the choice of dresses. I thought they were odd, they were tight on me. But I trusted Pascaline Chavanne. I was familiar with her work on François’ other films and knew she had good taste, so I didn’t interfere too much.
We had to find the right dose of femininity for Virginia. By the end of the film she’s wearing jeans and her hair is darker. She’s like a female Mick Jagger, while the script made her seem more like Lauren Bacall! But her inner femininity is no doubt stronger.
Make-up artist Gill Robillard was every bit as subtle as Pascaline. This is the first film I’ve ever worked on where I adored being made-up and had no qualms about getting up two hours before everyone else. I took my role as actress very seriously!
You even lost weight.
In the beginning, François was inspired by “Casa Susanna”, a book of photos featuring rather plump American transvestites. In the script, it was made clear that Laura’s clothes would be tight on me. But when I started working with Chris, I couldn’t see any correlation between a little fat and the woman in me! That sensation wasn’t helping. On the contrary, I needed to have a small waist. I know I’ve got a tiny waist, all the ladies tell me so! I wasn’t about to play a woman without using that! So I went on a diet to feel more in touch with the character. Losing weight also made my facial features more delicate.
We’re talking a lot about Virginia, but what about David?
The tricky thing was actually playing David, that’s when the real questions arose.The easy answer would have been to play him as the opposite of Virginia: sad, dark, a broken man. Then he becomes Virginia and the light returns. But I didn’t want that. Nor did I want to accentuate his virility. David does not turn into Virginia to run away from pain or frustration but rather to find himself.And for pleasure.
How would you describe working with François Ozon?
The first thing that springs to mind is his impatience! I think his sense of urgency is well-suited to filmmaking. It makes it dynamic, prevents you from getting stuck on the many questions you may have, keeps things moving along, stops you from getting bogged down. I think his impatience also stems from the fact that he frames his own shots.As soon as he finishes a scene he’s already on the next one! It’s great for the actors because we don’t have much downtime, but it’s a challenge for the technicians.This was the first time I’ve worked with a director who frames his own shots. I really liked that level of involvement.
I was equally astonished by how much François delegates certain things - and reassured to see him intervene on some very specific points. He is extremely lucid. He can easily tell whether something is working or not, whether emotion, truth, spontaneity or life is coming through in a scene. He is very vigilant about that. And he knows what shots he needs. He doesn’t shoot from every angle to make the editing cushy, to avail himself of every option. He makes real choices on the set, and that’s also really nice for the actors.
And working with Anaïs Demoustier?
I’d met her during screen tests for a different film and really wanted her to get that role, but she didn’t. I knew she was a knockout and I was not disappointed! It’s crazy how right she gets it, there’s so much going on in her face.
Did playing a woman allow you to explore a side of yourself you didn’t know?
When François asked me what my best profile was I had no idea, but I loved pondering such questions, finding out that one of my profiles is more masculine than my three-quarter profile, where my nose disappears a little. I was confronting questions that are no doubt more familiar to actresses, but these questions are an integral part of our profession, even for men. We’re constantly drawing on feminine forces when we act, giving ourselves over to a character, surrendering to a gaze, expressing emotions. In the twenty years I’ve been acting, I’ve been trying to push back my masculine side, and now, suddenly, I’ve burst through the door!
Playing Virginia also allowed me to give more weight to silence, to feel it, nourish it. Virginia takes her time when speaking. Her silence is never empty, it exists, it’s feminine. I wasn’t afraid of it. In the past I’ve had a tendency to want to fill silence up with physical action, which is a handicap.The actors who blow me away are usually those who know how to shut up.When Niels Arestrup speaks a line, it comes from far away, it’s been chewed, digested.There is silence before, after, during.
Has this experience given you a new approach to your profession?
An actor gets few opportunities to embody such a radical transformation and this has given me wings. Today, thanks to Virginia, I’m less afraid to take my time, to fully experience my characters.Virginia is one of the roles that has had the biggest impact on me. I’ll miss her!