Film: Charlotte Gainsbourg on her role in Wim Wenders’ new feature Every Thing Will Be Fine
Despite claiming to have no acting know-how, the Anglo-French film star has carved a niche playing soul-baring characters
Charlotte Gainsbourg speaks in a soft voice and has a habit of pausing mid-sentence, staying silent for half a second, before reiterating herself in a slightly different manner. In person, the actress-singer is at once casual and enigmatic.
For the art-house crowd, these moments of tentative and cryptic reflection may feel uncannily similar to her sometimes neurotic, often pensive, film characters. With her delicate appearance and girlish voice, Gainsbourg has proven herself an actress of great emotional reserve, impressing time and again in outwardly fragile roles that, nevertheless, stay defiant amid psychological turmoil.
"I had another belief," says the former child star. "I thought the only thing that counted was spontaneity. You couldn't prepare, and you didn't have to rehearse. Everything had to be just for the first time: you did one take, and then it was done."
It's unclear which movie shoot her sensitive mind has just wandered upon, but Gainsbourg's belief in the moment is pervasive. The award-winning actress will be following her instincts once more as she stars in Every Thing Will Be Fine, a Wim Wenders-directed 3D drama that details the long and painful healing process of a single mother who lost one of her two sons in a car accident.
Also starring James Franco as the man who killed the boy, the German director's first fiction feature in seven years will open locally on Thursday in a 2D version.
"Wim [Wenders] felt very much in love with the character, and that made me look at her in a different way," says the 44-year-old actress. "I tried to have this approach of understanding her grief and forgiveness. What I thought was the only way of coping was to go a little on the mad side."
Gainsbourg - who can project a melancholic air even when she's still - is no stranger to soul-baring roles. In Lars von Trier's Antichrist (2009), Melancholia (2011) and Nymphomaniac (2013) - unofficially known as the Danish auteur's "Depression Trilogy" - her characters have to deal with extremities such as genital mutilation, violent S&M and the end of the world. One wonders if it was easier for her to handle the emotional struggle in Every Thing Will Be Fine?
"No, I love working with Lars," says the actress. "And I don't want to put him on one side and all the others on the other side. There's a process with Lars that I love, that I enjoy, and it's always a surprise. So yeah, it is intense and particular, but that's who he is."
Daughter of iconic French musician Serge Gainsbourg and British singer-actress Jane Birkin, Gainsbourg was pushing artistic boundaries before she was aware of it. She sang a controversial duet with her father, titled Lemon Incest, in 1984, and its accompanying music video notoriously saw the two cuddle, semi-clad and rather ambiguously, on a bed.
Six years after that, Gainsbourg followed her agent's suggestion to quit school and become a full-time actress. Today, she is quick to insist that any decision she made then would not have mattered in the grand scheme of things.
"That's when I decided, 'OK, I'm going to be an actress for real.' But then nothing changed," she recalls. "It was just a decision that meant nothing. So yeah, the decision was not a good thing. I prefer when it just happened."
Intended or not, her career took off. Gainsbourg won the most promising actress César for her adolescent role in L'Effrontée (1985) before making occasional forays in English-language films, such as her uncle Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden (1994), Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep (2006) and Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan biopic, I'm Not There (2007).
Every Thing Will Be Fine takes the London-born, Paris-raised actress back to the familiar territory of the grieving matriarch: she suffered the death of a child in the artful shocker Antichrist (which won her a best actress award at Cannes) and then of a husband in 2010's Australian-set drama The Tree. But this time it was no less difficult for her, says Gainsbourg.
"I do have a certain superstition. I don't want to think about my own children," she says, referring to the three she has, aged four, 12 and 18, with actor-director Yvan Attal.
"I felt the same with Antichrist, where it was the first time I had to go through that emotional thing. I had to really disassociate my own story from the character's. And I go through this character's emotions - as a mother, you can't remove yourself - but there is some separation."
Gainsbourg concedes that she didn't try to identify with her character in Every Thing Will Be Fine. "I can't refer to what she goes through, so I don't know. The only thing I could say is that I don't think I would react like she does," she says.
"She decides to live; she has this little boy to take care of. I don't feel that I have this same kindness and the same trust in life. So, no, I don't feel close to that character. She's not a stranger, of course, but I was looking up to her quite a lot."
It's tough playing a string of characters who struggle with some mental ordeal, but she does so with grace. "You have to go to those places," she says. "It can be overwhelming. Of course, I think it's nicer to laugh than to cry - you get more pleasure - but there's a pleasure inside the tears [too]. The suffering has an intensity that I get a kick out of."
Then the actress lets out a laugh, adding: "But it's because I do believe in the moment."
Next year she will be having quite a different type of moment, making the leap into the mainstream with her part in Roland Emmerich's alien-invasion sequel Independence Day: Resurgence.
"I know it seems weird when you think I started when I was 12," Gainsbourg says of her time-honoured approach to acting. "It was a long time and a lot of films ago, but I still don't feel I'm in control with what I do. So it's always: Will it happen or not? It was a little hard to rely on emotions. I don't have a technique.
"And I do have the impression that I'm a fraud. You know, I didn't go to school to learn how to play [characters]."
Every Thing Will Be Fine opens on September 3