Charlotte Gainsbourg Talks Playing A Nymphomaniac

We sit down with Charlotte Gainsbourg, star of both volumes of Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac, to discuss working in the movie's darkness.

Sex. If you don’t want to dig any deeper, it’s easy to claim that’s all Danish director Lars von Trier wanted to put on screen with his latest endeavor, Nymphomaniac. With more beneath it’s skin than some may be willing to admit, Nymphomaniac does still put some its high powered stars in some risqué positions they once thought they may not be a part of when their careers kicked off. We sat down with Charlotte Gainsbourg—who plays both volumes of Nymphomaniac’s narrator, as an older but not necessarily calmer Joe—and picked her brain on what it’s like working with a director like von Trier and how easy it is to put herself out there for him.

What did it feel like, knowing that your family was going to see this movie?

Charlotte Gainsbourg: They haven’t.

They haven’t?

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Did you ask them not to?

Oh my mother did. I didn’t ask anything. I think it might be a bit embarrassing for people who know me well. I won’t push anyone to see a film I’m in.

What was the most challenging aspect of taking on this role?

It’s easy to say yes to a film that Lars directs, because I admire him so much. Of course it’s challenging, because you put yourself into sort of extreme situations. Not even the sexual… Some of it, I was a bit nervous about, but it wasn’t just that. It was also suffering. It’s always quite overwhelming and just extreme. But I want to go there, there’s no question. I want to explore things with him, and he has such a wonderful method of working and exploring with you, never judging. When I had the impression that I was going to quite dark places, he was there with me and really had a lot of empathy for the character. In the end, I really love his films. Usually I’m always embarrassed, watching myself in films I’ve done. With him, there’s so much surprise, and the story telling is so rich that I’m so proud to be in his films.

Did you find yourself surprised while on set?

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Surprised by what?

Surprised by anything that you came up with, because I heard that everyone was pretty much creative with the material.

I was never surprised by myself, no. I remember that the big surprise to me, before we started the film, was the fact that he asked Jamie Bell to play that [BDSM fetishist character], because, on paper, I had read a sort of masculine brute. I thought it was so interesting to ask such a refined actor who was so youthful. It gave a completely different aspect to that character and to the whole masochism part that I had to go through.

Did you find it hard to come out of such a dark place? It seems like you went to a really dark place, which it seems his films have taken you to in the past.

I have to say that during the shoot, I was still breastfeeding my baby, and it was so strange to go from such extremes on the set to something so innocent and such light places, in my hotel room with my little girl. It may be a necessary voyage. It’s a film and it’s a game, and I had a lot of fun shooting it.

Do you find yourself in the same creative place when preparing for a role, as when you’re doing your music?

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No. With films, I really have the impression that I’m a tool. I love being a tool, but I’m in the hands of a talented director like Lars and I want to be sort of a puppet for him. That’s the whole pleasure. With music, I have a feeling and that’s why I find it much harder; I have a feeling that I’m in command, that I can say what I want to say, and explore myself and put myself out there much more. They’re completely different perspectives on work.

What are your next projects?

Since I did Lars’ film, I think I did seven films or six. I especially did four in a row, since last September, which was a lot for me, so now I’m taking a break. Maybe I’ll try concentrating on music, if I can. I’d love that. I’ll have to promote those six films.

Can you name any of them?

I did a Spanish film that I loved doing. Then I did a comedy you might have heard of. It’s a French comedy by the guys [Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano] who did Intouchables. I haven’t seen any of those films yet. It’s lovely to go from Lars’ film to a comedy.

When you finally saw the movie, you got to see the story that you were telling brought to life. You wouldn’t see that on set. You were literally telling a story. More so than usual, you get to see something that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. You got to see the script come to life in a different way. I’m just curious how that felt to finally see it all come to life.

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Yeah, it was a whole surprise. Sometimes, [actress Stacy Martin who plays young Joe and I] were there, in Germany, at the same time. We would cross into each other, but I never saw any of the dailies, even mine. I didn’t know anything that was going on with her. I was so amazed by the beauty of what she had done and the aesthetics that were put into that part of the film, because in Volume 2, I really have the impression that all that is being put on a pedestal for her and her beauty and the experience and sex, well it all collapses once I come in.

Having worked with Lars before, do you feel like you’ve built up a rapport with him? Or is every film you work on with him an experiment in terror?

I do believe that we have some kind of friendship. I love him very, very, much and I don’t know much about him. He’s still very mysterious. There’s a real awkwardness between us and that’s the way it is. I like that about him, not knowing too much, not being able to analyze everything, not being able to have him answer my questions. But at the same time, I have a feeling that he knows everything about me. It’s a strange relationship.

I really feel that he’s not given enough credit for what he does for women in film.

Yeah, because I’ve heard he’s misogynistic and I don’t see how it’s possible. There’s a lot of self-hatred, and I believe he has that for himself, as a man, and he portrays himself through women. On the contrary, I think there’s a lot of affection and admiration for women.

All of his movies are filled with people he’s worked with plenty of times. Is there a certain sense of entitlement when you walk on one of these sets?

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No. Not at all. On the contrary, I remember Melancholia was my second film with him; I would’ve been entitled to some kind of consistency, but on the contrary he was quite tough with me on that film, avoiding me for some time. Because the first part of the film, I wasn’t really there. He put me in a place where I felt very uncomfortable. He’s never where you think he’s going to be.

That must keep it interesting.

Very interesting, because I do like not being balanced and being in an awkward position. Being unsure of myself is part of the way I like working. That’s what I finally understood. I think I like being uncomfortable.

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