Laurence Anyways is Xavier Dolan's third film as a director, and by this point we shouldn't be surprised by the 23 year-old's confidence and stylistic verve. However, we might be surprised by the scale of his latest picture, which encompasses 10 years in its 168 minutes, and by the emotional resonance that he achieves in his storytelling. Much of the credit for that must go to his cast, particularly Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément in the lead roles. Poupaud plays Laurence, the schoolteacher who suddenly announces that he wants to live as a woman, and Clément is his lover Fred, who decides to stand by her man despite her own misgivings. They give two of the best performances you'll see in a film this year, and when they came to London for the Laurence Anyways' UK premiere I met them to talk about it.
Suzanne, you worked on Xavier's first film. Have you noticed how his style has changed or evolved when you worked with him again on this one?
Suzanne Clément Yeah, it was incredible. When I arrived for the first day of shooting I was amazed at the steps he had taken, which I now understand is normal for Xavier, he's always moving really, really fast. He was really bringing the crew together and the way he directed actors has changed a lot. First of all, in the first movie I did it was such a small part and he was playing with me, but still he is much more creative and really confident in the fact that he wants things to happen and is willing to try anything to get it. He is not shy with the actors, which even much older directors can be sometimes. During this movie he was actually talking to us during the takes, which was quite an experience. It was a lot of fun, sometimes disturbing, but it really brings you off-balance and makes you take the direction you wouldn't normally take as an actor, which I really liked. But it was really challenging and that was one specific thing that he didn't do in I Killed My Mother, which he couldn't do because he was in it. As he said himself, it was his way of playing a part in Laurence. You could always hear him in the dailies and I think he got tired of his own voice.
Melvil, you took on this role very late after Louis Garrel pulled out. How much time did you have to prepare for playing Laurence?
Melvil Poupaud I knew the script because I was supposed to play a small part in the movie, the part of a lady who turned into a man at one point. I was very happy to work with Xavier even though I had a small part, and I was kind of jealous of Louis because Laurence seemed to be a very appealing and interesting part to do. I also did the editing on a documentary that my mother made about cross-dressers, so I knew about those people who were dressing up as women on the side, secretly, since they were a child, and they have this kind of duality. Some of them go all the way to the operation and assume it in society, while others keep on doing it on the side, even though they have children. I discovered through this documentary that those people are hyper-heterosexual and not homosexual; it's like a crazy love for women that makes them feel they are more woman than man. So I could avoid all of these clichés about transvestites and drag queens, and they had already been avoided by Xavier in the script. I arrived two weeks before the start of the shoot and weirdly the costumes fit me, and I didn't feel uneasy with the high heels or those extravagant dresses. Xavier was in charge of the costumes so we had some fun playing with this, he was like a child dressing me up with earrings etc, and that was a way for us to connect. He had seen some of my films and I hadn't seen any of his, but he showed them to me when I arrived in Montreal for the shoot and I really loved them. I knew I would love them because I had heard of them and when I met Xavier I could see that he was talented, but I was happy to see how good he was.
SC He was very strong, to come into this project. On the first night he arrived he had to have his whole body shaved. That was some preparation.
MP Yes, it was hardcore. [laughs]
You have to be convincing as a couple who have had this long-term relationship. Is that something you have to work on together or did it just click between you?
SC We didn't have time for exercises! [laughs] When we saw each other for the first time we spoke for an hour, or an hour and a half, and we felt that we were both OK people, and even though I'm older than monsieur it's not so far that we can't understand each other. After that you just have to have confidence and trust in each other's intuition. He said afterwards that he was watching my relationship with Xavier, and it must have been hard for him because Xavier is very into his relationships with the women around him, so for another man to enter that must have been hard.
MP Yeah, I felt sometimes that it wasn't so easy. At the end we got along very well and we are closer now. We also had two shoots, three months in winter and then a break of five months. When we came back to the second part of the shoot, he had edited the first part so he knew what he was missing, so he could tell us where we had to go further in our relationship, or what we had to correct. He showed us the editing so we could all understand the movie and see where it was going, so it was very helpful having this break.
SC It's true that we have a tumultuous relationship, a very explosive relationship, Xavier and I. We're not fighting, we're just crazy together, and he has close relationships with a lot of women around him, especially Monia.
MP You know, I think the film came about because he wanted to work with Suzanne again and he wanted to make a love story, so I think for him it's maybe easier to make a love story between two women, even if it's heterosexual. Maybe he will change, but for the time being he is attracted to strong female characters, and maybe less attracted to heterosexual guys, so I think I was lucky to have this part and have the chance to work with him.
Both of these parts require you to play a wide range of extreme emotions. What was that like for you?
MP Weirdly, for me it's more difficult for me to look happy and light than it is to do those emotional things. Maybe that's my nature, but once you're involved in the project and you have a good director who you want to please, it's kind of easy to go there. Xavier is so demanding and so passionate about his work, you can't escape his will. You have to be good and you can never just be so-so, he's always pushing you further, and also the crew. Emotional scenes are more easy. Laughing scenes are very difficult.
SC It's demanding physically and emotionally. As an actor, your nerves are always on demand when you are performing, but throughout the years I have played many emotional parts, it's not just one part that does it to you. You get used to those extreme emotions.
MP That is the work of an actor, to have your emotions at the director's disposal.
Xavier is such a visual stylist. When you are shooting, do you have a sense of what the finished product will look like, or is it a surprise when you view the film?
SC They are very clearly written, so when you read the script you have this vision.
MP From the previous movies he has made you can see he is stylish and is approaching more and more to perfection. On set he plays a lot of music so you can participate in his viewing of the scene, and he shows you the editing and his very generous with his work. When you are making the scene, with the clothes, the slow-motion and the music, there is a sense of this mise-en-scène that is very playful and enthusiastic.