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Beginners’ Mélanie Laurent on Heeding Quentin Tarantino’s Advice and Loving Cats

This weekend, Mélanie Laurent, the 28-year-old French actress known to American audiences for playing the fierce Shoshana in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, co-stars in her second American film, Mike Mills's Beginners. Beginners, Mills's follow-up to Thumbsucker, is the very lovely, funny story of a man (Ewan McGregor) whose father (Christopher Plummer) comes out of the closet at 75 and dies five years later, intercut with the story of the same man falling in love with Laurent's character Anna, a French actress temporarily in L.A., shortly after his father's death. We spoke with the accented Laurent about the movie (which co-stars a dog), roller coasters, and looking out for the right post-Basterds project.

Hi, this is Mélanie Laurent. I’m an actress.

Hi, I’m Willa. I’m a journalist. When people ask you what you do, is that what you say, "I'm an actress"?
No, I’m trying to say I’m an artist, which is different but [laughing] in France it kind of sounds pretentious.

Ha! It’s kind of pretentious in English, too.
I’m singing and directing and I’m an actress, so I don’t feel like saying, “Oh, I’m an actress, I’m a singer, I’m a director.” I don’t feel like saying that.

Right, that’s too much. So how did you end up getting involved with Beginners?
Mike [Mills] had watched a video of me on YouTube. In the video, I'm talking and I smoke cigarettes. I have no makeup and my hair was dirty. He called me and said, “I want you in my movie.” It’s funny because another director called me like two months ago and said the same thing. “I watched you on YouTube and you’re smoking a cigarette and have no makeup, and I want you in my movie.” I don’t know what it is about that video, but it’s working really well in America.

To rehearse for the film, you all went to Magic Mountain. How was that?
Well, I met Ewan and one hour after I was on the top of a roller coaster, and I said to Mike, “Why are we here? It’s just unusual.” He said, “Are you scared? Are you excited?” And I said yes and he said, “well, it’s all about the movie.” So between two screams and two loops we understood what Mike wanted in his movie.

Do you like roller coasters in general?
Well, I used to love that, but I’ve discovered the more you grow up the more you’re scared of that. I used to love being in Magic Mountain, but I was super scared and don’t like the feeling of your heart and you’re about to die. I used to love the feeling. It’s interesting to analyze. It seems like the more you grow up the more you fear things.

Do you find that kind of rehearsal helpful?
Yeah, it was the best idea ever. We spent a week with all the actors and had lunch and dinner. We didn’t really rehearse with the script. It was all just spending time together. I felt that was crazy because I was supposed to be in L.A. for three weeks and I didn’t understand why it took so long to do nothing. I understood after the first day of the shooting because everybody was so comfortable.

Your character in the movie seems dissatisfied with the life of an actress, with moving around so much. Are you?
No, I’m less complicated than her. Well, I don’t really like those sorts of actresses who say, "I don’t want to make that movie," but they make the movie. They just spend their time not liking being on a set and I just think it’s absurd, because we are so lucky to do this job. When you accept to make a movie, just make the movie. And then it’s more easy for relationships. The character was very, very far away for me, but that’s why it’s so interesting.

A lot of this movie takes place in your hotel room. Do you like hotels?
It depends on my bedroom. If it’s a big, beautiful bedroom with room service, I can spend months there. But usually when it’s a long shoot, I ask for flats so I can cook.

You cook?
I’m French.

Was your character French in the script?
She was supposed to be American. Since he chose me, she became French. He asked me, “Do you think it’s possible for you to be totally fluent with an American accent in three weeks?” and I said, "Well, I’m not good, so no way."

Had you been looking for a project in English?
I was looking for an amazing script, because after Tarantino I took an agent and I had some propositions for action movies. But I didn’t feel ready to make a big box office Hollywood movie, six months shooting in a desert. For me, it was a lot of pressure to make another movie after Inglourious Basterds because I didn’t want to do something wrong. I wanted to have a beautiful project for another American movie. Quentin kind of said to me, “Be careful, I don’t want to see you in a crap movie.”

So you’ve avoided these movies not just because they're big productions, but because they’re not very good?
It’s just like the Tarantino movie was a big production, so it’s not about big production. It’s just about the script. I always choose my movies because of a story and never because of a part or because of money. I remember it happened a lot of times in my life where I had to choose between two movies. In my mind, I was like, Okay, I’m going to choose the small one because it’s a great story, but it’s not going to be a success. At the end, it was almost always that one that becomes big in France.

How was it working with a dog?
He hated me. He was jealous of my relationship with Ewan. When I was on set, he was like, don’t get too close to him. He was in love with Mike and Ewan and absolutely not me.

Do you like dogs?
I’m a cat person. Maybe that’s why he didn’t like me.

I feel like that’s brave to say. I think in America there is a real bias against cat people.
It’s so French to be a cat person.

Photo: ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images