The buzz in Hollywood is that Michel Hazanavicius’s silent movie The Artist could easily be nominated for multiple Oscars.
Set in 1927, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is one of Hollywood’s reigning silent screen idols, but it’s almost the end of an era and George must confront the coming of talking pictures. Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) is a young dancer who meets George at a film premiere, and then becomes an extra on his latest film.
What did you think when you first looked at the script of The Artist?
Jean: [Michel] handed it to me, slightly feverish: ‘Read this, but don’t laugh, do you think it’s possible? What do you think of it? Would you be ready to do it?’ I read it in one sitting. My first thought was that it was really gutsy to have pursued his fantasy all the way. I thought it was really well written, with everything perfectly in place.
Up until then, we’d made comedies where we had a lot of fun with characters and situations. The Artist had comedy and action, yet it was full of emotion. I was touched by all it said about cinema, its history and actors. I loved the premise, the meeting between George Valentin and Peppy Miller, the story of crossed destinies.
Bérénice, you have been involved with this from the beginning. Did you see the character evolve as somebody that you were right for and was right for you?
Bérénice: Actually Michel spent three months not even writing a line, just watching movies trying to understand why a silent movie was good or bad. So he was watching bad movies thinking, ‘This is not working.’
After three months he started writing it and I think he brought the script, or the first 50 pages, and you’re right, it’s so great for an actor to see the different steps of making a movie. You never see that as a actress. But I didn’t say anything, I didn’t ask for anything, I was just waiting. I was very touched, and I’m still very touched by what he did for me.
Michel told me, ‘There will be a girl who will appear here and there. It will only be a small part but I’d really like you to do it.’ I would joke, ‘Even the dog has a bigger part than me!’ Later, Michel told me, ‘It’s strange when you write: you create characters, a story, but at a given point they become stronger than the hand that writes them.’
The story of this silent movie star became a love story between him and this young extra. From version to version, Peppy Miller gradually became more and more important.
What are your impressions of the characters you play?
Jean: At first George doesn’t ask himself a lot of questions. He’s not arrogant, but he’s sure of himself, confident in the charm that he assumes so easily. George is very showy, always acting. It’s as if he was only an image, a face on a poster.
Then, little by little, his confidence, this lightness starts to crack. He starts sliding towards the bottom. Luckily, there’s an angel watching over him. At the end he is not a photo, but a man – only a man. I liked this path.
Bérénice: I liked Peppy right away; she stimulated me. When you do improv you’re taught never to say no and take everything that is offered to you, accept it and play with it. Peppy applied this rule throughout her life; she has fun with everything. Stars often have that quality.
They’re not where they are by coincidence: they have enormous self-confidence, they grab what’s available to them, that’s how they climb the ladder and become stars. But Peppy’s not in any way calculating. She’s a good person, and doesn’t forget where she came from. And she doesn’t forget George.
I heard you did your dialogue in French in this.
Jean: French, English, jibberish.
Bérénice: I was doing everything in English.
Was there more body language in this movie, like the silent film actors had to do?
Jean: I think some moments I was a little bit over the top, and sometimes the story told itself. There were moments where I was going to shine and there were moments that I had to tone down, but it was important to always tell the story.
Bérénice: I think the approach of working on this character for me was the same as if I was working on a character in a talking movie. I had to find Peppy and for me the challenge was not that it was silent, because we were talking, we had lines, the challenge was for the director who had to tell a story without our help.
But for me it was just trying to find how she would move and laugh and talk, and I’m sure if you could hear us it would be exactly that same kind of way of acting.
Neither of you are professional dancers, how did you come to do that scene where you dance together?
Jean: We studied for five months –
Bérénice: almost every day. It’s just hard work. We worked three weeks on the choreography and we worked hard. We did eighteen takes, but I think the eleventh or the twelfth was the one you see.
There is buzz about this movie being nominated for several Academy Awards. What would that mean to you personally?
Jean: It’s something I couldn’t even hope for, I don’t even allow myself to think it. I hope the film is nominated.
Bérénice: The possibility of being nominated is already an honor, and already unbelievable. I’m crossing my fingers. I hope the movie will get something, because it’s been so hard and it’s doing so well, and people are so pleased that I think it could, and it deserves it.