Bernardo Bertolucci’s 2003 movie The Dreamers is as much a ménage à trois between three young students — wide-eyed American Matthew (Michael Pitt) and incestuous French twins Théo (Louis Garrel) and Isabelle (Eva Green) — as it is between politics, sex, and film. Set on the precipice of Paris’s 1968 student uprisings, the story follows the lusty trio as they fall in and out of love with each other, argue about Charlie Chaplin, quiz one another about classic movie scenes, play manipulative sex games, and casually trash their parents’ massive Parisian apartment. Much like its central characters, The Dreamers is uneven and lively and a little bit unhinged, filled with sex and nudity and digressive bathtub rants about Mao. In certain scenes, it comes across like your overeager Film 101 classmate who won’t shut up about the French New Wave; in other moments, it’s lush and moody, an encapsulation of what it feels like to be young and horny and wildly passionate about nearly everything.
The Dreamers didn’t make much of an impact upon release (though Roger Ebert loved it), and it’s nearly impossible to find online now, save for some sketchy porn sites. But over the years, it’s become a sort of cult favorite, in large part because of its taboo nature, flagrant sexuality, and the controversy surrounding Bertolucci as a filmmaker. But I’ve always liked it because of its unabashed weirdness, and because it marks the impressive cinematic debut of Green. Green is incandescent as Isabelle, equal parts glittering and cruel, confident and deeply vulnerable. In several scenes, she’s called upon to imitate Old Hollywood legends like Jean Seberg and Greta Garbo, and she does so endearingly well but not flawlessly, grounding the otherwise elusive Isabelle. It’s a refreshing and incredibly youthful performance, capturing the overflowing spirit of a confused, love-addled, cinema-obsessed young woman on the verge of growing up and figuring herself out.
Green has spent the decades since playing a wide variety of fantastical, occasionally similarly sultry characters — witches and paranormal heroines and femmes fatales and women preyed upon by the underworld — but her new film, Proxima, is one of her most grounded performances yet. Green plays Sarah, an astronaut preparing to spend a year on the International Space Station but conflicted about leaving her young daughter (Zélie Boulant-Lemesle) behind. Ahead of Proxima’s U.S. release (it’s on VOD now), I called up Green to talk about her memories of filming The Dreamers, her relationship with Bertolucci, how her dynamics with Garrel and Pitt mirrored those they created onscreen, and the distinctly American fixation on the film’s nudity and sex.
This was your first movie, which is pretty wild. How did you end up getting the role?
I was not really believing I’d get the part. Bertolucci! As if he’s going to give me a role. I was skeptical, because I wasn’t happy with what I was doing onstage at the time. I thought I was rubbish as an actor. So I had a casual conversation in front of the camera with Louis Garrel, and I had to come back two weeks later to do a couple of scenes and then I got the part. It was kind of a miracle. I was a big, big fan of Bernardo — I had a big poster of Last Tango in Paris in my room. And even though there were lots of nude scenes, I was desperate to do it. I was like, “I don’t care!” I loved the story. I thought it was just a really beautiful love story between three people. It was very Bertolucci: inside a flat, three teenagers exploring.
Why had you become disillusioned with your work at that point?
I don’t know. I didn’t like the play I was doing; I didn’t like the way it was directed. It was quite painful. I really loved going to drama school, but the play was very harsh. You know when you feel like you can’t express yourself as an actor? Like you’re in a straitjacket? I didn’t know if I wanted to continue. And then this miracle happened and Bernardo gave me that part. It’s really thanks to him that I’m still doing this crazy job.
You’ve said before that your parents begged you not to take the role. How did you find the confidence to ignore that sort of advice?
My mom was worried about the reputation, about what happened with Maria Schneider in Last Tango, that she was completely destroyed after the experience. I think Bernardo was 30 years older when he made The Dreamers, so he might have been a different man. Of course, I don’t — Maria Schneider had a very harsh experience, and that was her experience. But my experience with Bernardo, I really loved his vibe straight away. He was very paternal. I used to call him my little Buddha. He was very wise and mischievous. I loved him. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, I have to say.
I read an old interview with Bernardo where he was asked if you were nervous about working with him because of Maria Schneider’s experience. And he said, “I don’t think Eva Green knows who Maria Schneider is.”
Oh, no. No, that’s not true. That’s lost in translation. Of course, I didn’t meet her, but we talked about her. It’s a tricky subject, and there was — I think he may have been a different man in those days. But I don’t want to speak in her name.
When you were reading the script and hearing these sorts of things from your parents, what made you the most nervous about the film?
It was the first time I was doing something onscreen. I was worried about not being good as an actor. I think it’s beyond the nudity. I was, and am still, extremely shy. And there’s this thing where you go beyond your shyness to do these kind of daring sex scenes or whatever. But it was more about the acting: Oh my God, they’re gonna find out I’m a fraud, I’m terrible. I was very lucky to rely on the other two male actors; we really supported each other and became best friends on that shoot. It was really a very strong bond. On the weekends, we’d go to Bernardo’s house, like his kids. And he’d talk to us about ’60s and ’70s music and cinema.
Jake Gyllenhaal was originally cast in Michael Pitt’s role but dropped out due to the nudity, right? Did you do any work with him before he left the project?
I auditioned with him in London, I remember, and then he pulled out. I was like, “Oh no! I really liked him!” And then Michael came onboard, and he was extremely interesting — and actually perfect. There is that kind of angel quality about him that’s very good for the character. We really connected. It might have been a completely different film with another actor.
You met Louis Garrel first so you could both work on your English together, and Michael Pitt came on later, which is sort of the relationship you have in the film as well. How did that influence the dynamics between you three?
I auditioned with Louis because Bernardo wanted to see if we could be twins, and Louis is terribly funny. I’ve never met somebody so funny, actually. It’s difficult to keep a straight face. He’s very naughty. So it was good to be able to relax. And Michael was — we didn’t audition with Michael. He came onboard and was picked already. He was a bit like the outsider when we met him, the American. And there’s something quite shy about him, actually. And he was like, “Oh, those two French people — I’m not sure about them.” So that was maybe actually working for the dynamic. We all entertained each other. And then it became very easy, and we let our guard down and were laughing all the time. I’ve always been very shy and was never really a teenager before. I became a teenager on [the set of] this movie, being naughty and free.
What do you mean by that — that you were never a teenager before?
I was never — I was a very good girl, kind of boring. Not boring on The Dreamers. [Stage-whispers dramatically] I became a woman on The Dreamers.
There are a lot of emotionally and sexually explicit scenes between your three characters, obviously, but there’s also a lot of innuendo as to the exact nature of the dynamics between your characters. How did Bernardo explain and direct the relationship dynamics to the three of you?
It was strange. We were very young. I can be a bit cerebral, like, “Let’s talk, Bernardo. Please, how do I do this?” And I could tell he wanted me to shut up, trust myself, trust the moment. He likes stolen moments, spontaneous stuff, not something too overdone. So, for me, it was like going there without a net, which was extremely scary. I was very worried about getting fired on the first day. Actually, that first day was the scene where we were running up the stairs and putting Michael Pitt in the lift, running, running. And the second scene was in the flat, and I remember saying, “Stop, stop stop!” Oh my God, Bernardo told me off: “You never say cut! Even if you think you’re shit, you continue, all right?” I was like, “Oh God, he’s going to fire me. I’m such a fool. What did I do?” Now I know you never say cut. But I didn’t know that.
I remember we had that scene the next day at the table, in the kitchen, and I brought a candle to the table and my hair caught on fire. I remembered Bernardo saying “Never say stop!,” so my hair got caught on fire and Michael kind of stopped the fire with his hands and it’s on-camera, if you really watch. You see Michael stopping the fire in my hair. It’s kind of a weird scene — it’s at the beginning. That was a bit like, I would die for Bernardo! It was a stolen moment.
What’s your favorite off-set memory between the three of you?
Hanging out on the streets of Paris, listening to Michael singing a lot. We drank a lot as well, like we do in the movie. We laughed a lot, which was really lovely. Even between takes, we used to hang out together and stay in this big building, and we had rooms, not trailers. So we’d all hang out in the same room between takes. I’ve never had something like this on other projects. Maybe because I was very naïve; it was my first film, which was very exciting. I would be exhausted to hang out all the time with other actors now [laughs]. But we were like little children. Pranks and laughing and ridiculousness.
You said in an interview at the time that art imitated life a bit — did you mean that you fell in love, in a way, with each other?
In love with them … I wouldn’t say love love. But we were extremely close and giggling. The three of us — there was a strong bond, and I think there still is because of this movie.
When was the last time you spoke?
I’d have to say it was when Bernardo passed away. I was in New Zealand, and we called each other.
What I find great about the movie is that it doesn’t cast any judgment on its characters; it just lets them be. At the time, did you feel like you understood Isabelle, or did you have to work to find an understanding of her?
For me, all interesting characters are torn, conflicted. And she was definitely torn. She was in love with her brother, and there’s this new guy coming in and disturbing her world. There was conflict, which was interesting. That was the main thing to portray, while bringing her as much humanity as possible. But also, on a light level, acting all of those scenes from other movies — there was something very playful about it. Something dark, too.
How did you prepare for those scenes, doing those impersonations?
I remember Queen Christina, Greta Garbo. I watched the scene a few times where she’s going around the room touching the furniture. That was fun; she’s this femme fatale. And Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest when she goes, “What a dump!” It was nice to watch all of these old movies. Joyous.
Which scene was the most joyous to film?
I loved running in the Louvre. It felt like something forbidden and naughty. That’s the scene that comes to mind first.
I watched an interview from a few years back with Jimmy Kimmel where he says something weird about empathizing with your father for having to watch this film, and you seem to sort of cringe. Do you know what I’m referring to?
That my dad was shocked when he saw The Dreamers? Like a father watching his daughter having sex, something like that? It must be weird. My dad buys DVDs of the movies I’ve done so I can sign and he can give it to friends or clients, but he never buys The Dreamers. I don’t know why [laughs].
Right, but the way that Jimmy sort of fixated on it, on this idea that your poor dad had to watch this movie, was frustrating for me as a conversation topic, especially so many years later. I wonder if it’s frustrating for you when male interviewers have sort of harped on the subject over the years.
Yeah. Yeah, when the movie came out, it was all about that. It was like, But there’s a story as well! The sex is an important part, but I was worried. It was my first film, like, “Here she is, the sexy French girl who only does sex!” I was worried I’d be put into a box. You want to be [mocks herself] “appreciated as an actor.” Blah blah [laughs].
Has America gotten more or less puritanical about sex in film over the years, in your opinion?
Now there’s a lot of sex on TV, not in movies. Maybe in indie, indie movies. But people are more brave on TV. You can’t smoke — that’s weird. I don’t know why. You can kill a child, but you can’t smoke. I think it depends. It can be quite strange.
Let’s talk about a few specific scenes. The first sex scene in the kitchen is very intense and intimate. You lose your virginity on the kitchen floor to Matthew, and you start bleeding; it’s incredibly raw. What was that like for you to film as a new actor?
I know. I don’t know if I’d be capable to do this again [laughs]. It’s very strange. I think when you’re so scared of something — of such a key scene — and also it’s very exposed, you forget everything around you. It’s like you’re on a special drug or something. I’ve sort of deleted this in my memory, you see? It was so scary and surreal. I’m somebody who doesn’t even dare to — I’m not very confident in my body. I don’t like hanging out in a swimsuit around people without a towel around me, even at that age. So it’s like, Here you go! I’ll show my body! I don’t understand myself. I don’t get it.
So you had to leave your body a bit to film it?
Yes. Otherwise, you kill yourself. A lot of actors do this, not consciously, but you have to intensely concentrate. And leave your body. Here’s my body!
How do you read the ending? Both her suicide attempt, which is thwarted, and then her leaving Matthew behind so quickly?
Oh God. I was not sure about the ending, I remember. I was like, Is that it? It’s kind of an open ending. It’s a story about growing up and leaving it open, I guess. Dot, dot, dot.
It’s definitely that. What was your reaction when you first saw it? Did you like it?
No, no. It was terrible. I was in London. I went with my best friend at the time, and we watched it. It’s a very narcissistic experience. You watch yourself, and you’re like, Oh God, I can hear myself reciting. It’s weird. And the nudity — to see myself onscreen was very shocking. It’s much easier to live it. It was too much for me, and I felt nauseous. Since then, I’ve decided, if I can avoid it, not to watch my work. I feel too self-conscious. I really don’t like it.
So you haven’t watched it since?
No! Oh God, no. I prefer to keep the memories. In every movie, actually, I prefer the experience rather than watching it. If it’s a really bad movie and you had a great experience, you can keep the experience; it’s a great movie in your head.
You’ve said in the past that people think of you as “otherworldly” or a bit weird. Do you lean into that public perception as an actor, or do you prefer not to?
No. In fact, I hope people see other things. People say so often that I’m weird that I end up believing I’m weird. Maybe I am — I don’t know! I must be [laughs]. It is sometimes like, “Oh, she’s dark, or gothic.” I hope I’m other things. But lots of people are put in boxes. It’s reassuring, I guess. But I really hope people — I don’t want to play witches and fairies all my life.
Proxima is really grounded, I think.
Yeah, yeah. She’s an astronaut, so there is a bit of a superhero thing going on, but there is something very human and modern. Like I said about The Dreamers, [Proxima’s Sarah is] a torn character. She’s torn between her passion of being an astronaut and her love for her daughter. When I read the script the first time, I really loved that.
How did you develop that really intimate, believable relationship with your onscreen daughter? It’s really almost painfully real.
Alice Winocour, the director, organized a few rehearsals. There is something very intimidating about children. You can’t lie to them. There’s no bullshit. But [Boulant-Lemesle] was really lovely and very mature, actually, for her age. There was something very raw about her.
There’s not a direct line to be drawn between these performances, exactly, but I am curious how you feel The Dreamers got you from there to here. How did it affect your career generally? Do you think you got out from under that fear of being typecast as the “sexy French” person?
You know, it’s funny. The Dreamers, when it came out, was not a big thing at all. We didn’t get good reviews in France. It was an average movie. It’s with the years that people really like it. For me, it was one of the best experiences of my life. I love the people, love the movie. I did a few other sex scenes, not in movies, but I think now I’ve decided to become a nun in movies. The littler [nudity] the better. I think people thought, Oh, [nudity is] easy for her. But it became much more difficult over the years. Maybe I was paranoid after that.
I did read a recent interview with you where you talked about how you could see yourself moving on from acting at some point. What would you do instead?
With the COVID situation … I feel like I’m half retired. I was thinking of posting an ad like Bette Davis: “Please hire me! I’ve done this, blah blah blah.”
Where have you been during COVID?
London and Normandy, and we’re in our second lockdown. It’s never-ending. It’s a hard one. It’s surreal. The first lockdown, I feel, might have been easier. Starting the second lockdown, it’s winter … it’s becoming more like we want to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s not tomorrow. We have to live with it. There’s a lot of introspection, which may be dangerous sometimes. But good, other times — to find the light inside you. Though I don’t want to sound too weird [laughs].
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