Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Art can change values, open minds and just help people live" - An interview with Monia Chokri

Much of the discussion around Heartbeats has centred on its director Xavier Dolan, which is perfectly understandable. After all, the precocious writer/director/actor already has two feature films to his name by the tender age of 21, displaying an unerring confidence and ability both in front of and behind the camera, but the talent that stood out when I watched the film at the London Film Festival was that of his leading lady. Monia Chokri plays Marie, a seemingly confident but secretly insecure young woman who finds herself falling for the same man as her gay best friend. Chokri's skilful and witty performance expresses her character's complicated desires through subtle gestures and glances, and she's certainly an actress I'm hoping to see more from in the future. I met Monia Chokri in London this week to discuss her breakthrough role.

Have you been doing interviews all day?

Yeah. I mean, it's normal and it's part of my job, but it's a movie that I like and I'm happy to talk about it. It's a movie I haven't talked about in a while, actually. It was released in June in Montreal and September in France, so it has been a few months and now I need to dive in again.

When you made this movie did you imagine you'd still be talking about it more than a year later?

No! [laughs] It's funny because I was speaking with the distributor in France, you know another one is taking care of international distribution, and I told him I was going to London to promote the movie, and he was like, "What?" It's the longest promotion for a movie ever! But it's cool, I like to travel and see what reception the movie is getting.

Do you find it's the kind of film that speaks to people from different countries and cultures?

Yeah, there's something universal, at least in the western world. Younger generations have really been able to relate to it.

It's the first time I've seen you in a film and I know you were a stage actress before you started working in cinema. How have you found that transition from stage to screen acting?

Well, I was always a cinema fan and I did a few shorts and smaller roles, but this was my first lead role. The difference is minor, it's really about technique, but the way I create my role is the same. It's the same process.

So what was your process for creating the character of Marie?

It was really an instinct thing. There wasn't that much about her in the script but Xavier wanted Marie to be dressed in a certain way, and from these clothes, these dresses, I found that there's a natural way to stand and a way to relate to people. I decided that this character is someone who plays a role in life, so what was interesting as an actress is that I had to create the personality of Marie, and then she is not really herself in front of people so I had to capture the person she's playing in life as well. It's like playing two characters. There's a fragility also that I wanted to show in her eyes at certain points, like she's a kind of a sad clown, you know? I think I always put something comical in my characters too. I always like to do that. It wouldn't be interesting for me to play someone really confident or either too fragile. It's interesting to hide it, and I hope when people get to see the movie they see the subtlety of that character. That's what I'm trying to do.

You mentioned the costumes and Marie has a deliberately old-fashioned style that makes her stand out from the people around her, and even the people Marie and Francis reference are classic stars like Audrey Hepburn or James Dean. Where did the idea of those anachronistic attitudes for the characters come from?

Xavier wanted to have this mix-up of generations in the movie. Even in the music you have Dalida, which is from the 60's, and you have The Knife who are a Swedish band from 2010. I think Xavier wanted to show that this kind of love story could happen in any time. Actually, people who were 25 in the 60's were really touched by the movie because they felt they were young again and they recognised themselves in the movie, and the same goes for people who are 18 or in their early 20's. They recognise themselves in this postmodern life because our generation is like that. We are not really in our time; we are always looking back with nostalgia.

Can you tell me how you first met Xavier?

We met because we had a friend in common. He was 17 and I was 23 or 24, I can't remember. He was brilliant, I mean, he was exactly who he still is, but all of his energy was less focused and I think he has grown a lot with what has happened in his career. This guy came to me when he was 17 with a screenplay called I killed My Mother. He asked me to read it because he knew we had the same taste in cinema and art in general, and when he showed me this screenplay I was just amazed by his writing. He knew what he was doing already. He's a really inspiring guy because he knows exactly what he wants and he's just doing it, and each moment I spend with Xavier I feel that life is short and I really need to be doing stuff, you know?

How does he compare to other directors you've worked with? I'm guessing he's the youngest person who has ever directed you.

Yes, but I never felt his age because he's really mature. He knows exactly what he wants on a set, how he's going to film it, artistic direction. He's probably the most precise director I've ever worked with. Each night after the day of shooting we had the rushes of the day before so we were constructing the movie while we were doing it and that was exciting. It's rare to be involved that much in the movie.

Now that this film has been such a success, have you noticed a big impact on your career? Are you being sent a lot of scripts right now?

Yeah, of course. I mean, I was a happy stage actress before but when you do cinema I guess more people get to see you. I have an agent in France now, and of course it's easier to meet people when you want to meet them, but the important thing in our job is doing it for the right reason and not being absorbed by the vanity of this industry. I was in France last month and my friends were saying, "You should come to Cannes," but I didn't have the instinct to go. I could have gone but for what? I don't have a movie there. There's a funny thing on TV in France where this guy films the people in Cannes who do the red carpet and don't go to see the movie. They just go out a little door at the back and he's filming them asking, "Was the movie good?" It's ridiculous and I hate that. I hate all of those magazines that are all about who wears the best dress, it's just vanity and there are so many parasites in this industry. What I like is art. The moment I was most happy was when I was on set, it wasn't the premiere or the Cannes Film Festival, even though I was very proud to be there. I want to die and say that I did something for people, because some movies changed my life, and art can change values, open minds and just help people live. So I decided to stay in Paris and write rather than go to Cannes to drink champagne and try to be loved by people who don't really care about me [laughs].

I understand you're working with Xavier again. How far along is that process?

We shot in March and April and right now he's editing the first half of the movie. We're going to shoot the rest of the movie in September and October because of the seasons, he wanted the winter and fall and a little bit of spring. That's why it's taking so long, five months between shooting.

I guess we'll have to wait a while to see that one then?

No, he's fast. I think he edited an hour and a half of it in two weeks. He's crazy [laughs]. It will be released in 2012.

So you might end up going back to Cannes after all.

Maybe, who knows? I think there is something between Cannes and Xavier, they love him and they love the way he sees cinema, but as I was saying the important thing is the movie and just sharing the movie with people.