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Simon Helberg Learned to Conduct, Operate a Puppet, and Became Legally French for Annette

Simon Helberg. Photo: Toni Anne Barson/FilmMagic

Among the many surprises of the movie musical Annette — including a puppet baby and experimental pop sung directly toward a labia — there’s a grounding, yet humorous supporting turn from Simon Helberg. The actor, late of The Big Bang Theory, shows up as Marion Cotillard’s opera singer’s accompanist, but then, as the movie progresses, becomes a full-on conductor, with a new dramatic sweeping hairdo, and reveals himself to be entwined in Cotillard and Adam Driver’s big messy love story. While Leos Carax’s movie goes to great experimental lengths in its filmmaking, as Helberg tells it, there’s a whole secondary epic about the lengths he went to in order to just get the part. Encouraged by his cinephile friends to work with the French director, Helberg ended up having to try to get French citizenship to meet with Carax, attempting to memorize the language in the process, all before having to learn how to believably conduct an orchestra — and also how to sing Sparks’s songs while operating a puppet.

First of all, I know that you played the piano in Florence Foster Jenkins, and so you did that in Annette again, but did you have to learn how to conduct for this?
After I found out I got cast, I actually went and studied with the assistant conductor of the L.A. Opera, Miah Im, and with someone working with the musical coordinators on the movie. First I focused on the technique, read books about conducting, watched Gustavo Dudamel — not just for his hair, which was an inspiration for me as well. Then I got the actual conductor’s chart for that piece, and I had to learn where everyone in the orchestra sits to cue everyone. The first day on set was the scene where Annette is singing in front of an audience, and I got to conduct that orchestra for real, for Leos and everyone. When I raised the baton, they did everything I told them to do. At one point, I was like, Why are they slowing down?, and then I realized my hand was barely moving. It was incredible to have that feeling for real.

Then your character also has that physical transformation, from being Marion’s accompanist where you’re clean-shaven and buttoned-up to being a conductor and having a beard and Dudamel hair.
Aesthetically, I wanted that hair! I feel like I would have done whatever Leos asked me to do, with the exception of scrap the curls [laughs]. I just came to Belgium with an enormous beard and curly hair and we shot things out of order, so we had the ability to play with the character’s look and journey. There is this time gap in the film where you see him as this pure guy at the beginning that is a romantic, though he’s tempted by fame and the attempt to get closer to the woman he loves. Then the next time we meet him, he has achieved that goal, but there’s obviously despair in him.

I read that you went to great lengths to meet with Leos and get cast in the movie in the first place. How did that play out?
I’d been hearing about Leos for years and years, because some of my friends are pure cinephiles. I had heard so much about Holy Motors and Lovers on the Bridge, but hadn’t seen them until I had heard something about this script and them making this movie years ago and would I be interested. So I immediately watched all his movies and took a deep dive into Sparks and became totally obsessed. Then the movie just sort of disappeared, or fell away for a bit.

Then when the movie came back around, they told me that they wouldn’t consider talking to me unless I was a European citizen [to meet E.U. funding quotas]. It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission, so then I just went, “Yeah, I’m becoming a European citizen!” My wife is French, but only through her mother, and I didn’t really think it was possible, but I thought, Well, I’ll send in a tape. But Leos responded immediately, and actually liked what I did, so I thought, Oh, shit I better become French. I got a lawyer. I got paperwork. I went to the consulate. I went to a fundraiser where I danced with the French consul, this man in a velvet jacket. I got very close to getting citizenship and then they told me they’d reinstated a fluency test. I thought my luck had run out, but I hired a tutor, and ultimately, somehow, got citizenship.

But I still didn’t have the part! Because Leos was like, “I don’t know if I want to hire Simon. I can’t picture anyone in these roles.” So then I met him in New York, and even for a Frenchman, that guy is super-disinterested. He was as sweet as can be, but wasn’t familiar with anything I’d done. I really thought I wasn’t going to get it after that meeting. He even told me later that he didn’t know if he should hire me, or how he would ever know until he got to the set.

Reading the press notes, apparently one of the reasons Leos eventually did hire you was because of just the very stark physical difference between you and Adam Driver, which really pays off when you have to fight each other later in the movie. What was it like filming with him?
Adam is one of my favorite actors of all time, and yes, without giving it away, he does have to handle me a bit. That was a scene that was looming, because we shot it late in the shoot, and I was eager to have that moment with him. There was something intimate and primitive about it, these two men circling each other. It always felt very safe, but when he picked me up, I did have a moment of thinking, “Is he just going to throw me onto the roof?” He is big!

What was it like having to learn your songs for the movie? Were you singing live on set?
Everything you see happened there on set as you see it, as far as I know. There was a tad of CGI with Annette in obvious moments, but conducting the orchestra and singing was all happening. The music is deceptively challenging. I really only sang a couple of the songs, but you were never just singing anyway — you were singing while swimming, or while playing the piano, or with no hands because you were operating a puppet. That scene with Adam, I’m singing underwater, and I assumed when we were doing it, that we’d have to go back and ADR it, and I don’t know how much of that happened, but I did not do any ADR.

You said you were singing while operating a puppet — so did you have to operate the Annette puppet in some of the scenes?
Because Leos likes to be very practical and doesn’t like CGI, there were scenes where they couldn’t have the puppeteers in it, so we were holding her. You couldn’t have your hand on the controls, so you’d hide your hand behind the back of your head and then turn to Adam to move her head, and the eyeline had to be correct. I was suddenly trying to learn to be a puppeteer in the course of 20 minutes from people who do not speak very good English. There was always some extra skill set asked of you at the last second, which was so exciting. You kind of go into a fugue state sometimes when all of that is happening, and we were all leaning on each other, because there was nothing else you could do.

You were in The Big Bang Theory for a long time — and even then, you worked with the Coens on A Serious Man — but it seems like you’ve now embraced looking for these directors on projects to really challenge yourself. Do you find yourself trying to pursue something different?
Yeah, that’s the goal, not just to turn the tables on people’s expectations, but really for myself. I can’t be too interested in repeating myself. Big Bang was an incredible run and an incredible experience. The other side of that was that I played one character for 12 years. Coming off that show, it’s clear that I would like to play other kinds of characters, and certainly working on films like this is a direction I’m excited to pursue. You can’t beat this caliber of people.

I guess you don’t have to worry about repeatedly playing characters who sing and operate a puppet and play the piano and conduct, because it’s way too small of a niche.
You can’t repeat yourself because it’s never been done, and I can’t imagine it will be!

Simon Helberg Learned to Conduct, Became French for Annette