In the quietly heartrending French drama I’ve Loved You So Long, Kristin Scott Thomas stars as recent parolee Juliette, who after fifteen years in prison on a murder charge, goes to live with her younger sister (Elsa Zylberstein), and a brother-in-law and nieces she’s never met. The slow revelation of the full reason behind Juliette’s incarceration gives writer-director Philippe Claudel’s spare, slow waltz of a film some extra emotional heft, but it’s first and foremost an Oscar-level showcase for Thomas, as a woman who learns to purge herself of the swallowed self-loathing that has soured her soul. Taking a brief respite from her Broadway debut in The Seagull, Thomas spoke with Vulture recently about Claudel’s directorial note-passing, balancing English- and French-language films, and the hazards of onscreen chain-smoking.
You look wonderful. As Juliette, the only makeup you wear is to accentuate her gauntness and drabness. In real life, do you prefer a lack of makeup or being glammed-out like today?
Well, first of all, thank you. But if it was quite as severe and lacking as it was in the film, I think I would be a bit uncomfortable sitting here and talking to you today.
There’s an enormous backstory to the character of Juliette that we’re not privy to … an entire film not made, in essence. What was your reaction to the script?
When I read it, I thought this is great, because all the subjects that this character deals with — which are isolation, rejection, abandonment, fear of guilt, agony, interior pain — this film deals with, subjects that you don’t even want to think about, that are kind of taboo, that you push to the back of your head. Playing this part, I knew that I would really have to look at them and deal with them every day. And I said to Philippe during one of our first meetings, “Look, this is going to be really tough for me, because it will get very emotional. I have children, and I’m afraid, as everyone else in the world, of one day doing some hideous crime and ending up in prison. And I’m terrified of being forgotten about and not being loved.”
In the film, there’s a movement toward a reconciliation between Juliette and her sister, but a lot exists in the interstices. Was there a sense, before you started, of just how much was going to have to be conveyed in your eyes?
The backstory required information that I was very scared of learning. I was very scared of going to prisons and meeting women — not because of meeting them, but because of my emotions. I was scared of pity, of sentimentality. I was scared of dislike. Because I just wanted to pretend, and be guided by my imagination and gut, and not through some judgmental, intellectual process. And Philippe said he didn’t think I should go, which was a huge relief. But he gave me one of the books he’d written, which was about the time he spent teaching in prison, and it was very helpful. And I also looked at some documentaries that my mother-in-law made about women in prisons growing flowers. And that was enough. It was so moving to see these women trying to get back on track, with their lives just in shreds.
What was it like having to chain-smoke for the film?
Oh God, I was so miserable, let me tell you. I couldn’t even look at a cigarette for months after that. Awful, awful, awful!
What was Philippe’s directorial style like?
In the beginning, to sort of set the ball rolling, every morning he would give me one of those little Japanese poems, a haiku, like two sentences or lines, like “There’s a leaf on the ground in a puddle.” I can’t remember any of them; they were obviously of far better quality than that!
You’re fluent in French and have lived in Paris for many years. Does your bilingual ability factor heavily into the manner in which you select roles?
Having a career is a bit like navigating an Atlantic crossing — you have to make sure everything is keeping and is balanced. I try and keep the English-language and French-language films in fairly even numbers. And now, of course, I have this beast of a theater commitment, which I just love. I love it, love it, love it, but it’s slightly inconvenient in that it takes up a lot of time and doesn’t earn you any money, really.