Sex. If you don’t want to dig any deeper, it’s easy to claim that’s all Danish director Las von Trier wanted to put on screen with his latest endeavor, Nymphomaniac. With more beneath its skin than some may be willing to admit, both volumes of Nymphomaniac do still put some of its high powered stars in some risqué positions. We sat down with two of them, Stacy Martin and Christian Slater, and picked their brains on what it’s like working with a director like von Trier and how easy it is to put themselves out there for him. Especially for Martin who at 22-years-old played Young Joe, the teenage and 20-something version of Charlotte Gainsbourg’s sexually adventurous heroine in Nymphomaniac Volume I. Joe developed many a carnal appetite during the film, and Slater played her very kind and intellectual father. Together they made for a fascinating pair to speak with.
What did you guys think of the script when you initially read it?
Stacy Martin: Loved it. I fell in love with the whole story, the humor. I was thinking, “How is this all going to work out?” I mean it’s a crazy story. For me, it was the first script I’ve read, considering a part for. So it was interesting going through that process for the first time.
For such an early role, it was a very vulnerable one for you. Was that a difficult thing?
SM: It was and it wasn’t. When I read Joe, I saw a lot of Charlotte in it, but I also saw someone who was very lonely, but also who’s very determined in her own self. There’s a lot of conflict in her. As an actor, that’s a gift, because you get to work on a character that is so far from who you are, and it’s a lot of work. That’s the magic of being an actor. You get to just completely jump into someone else’s mind. It’s sort of crazy, and different, and difficult.
A lot of times when you’re the person who’s now mirroring somebody later on in the timeframe, you want to kind of get their feelings. Not necessarily mimic them, but kind of see who they are. Your story is really building who she becomes. Did it kind of work the opposite way this time around?
SM: With Charlotte, we didn’t actually talk about Joe, which a lot of people would go, “(gasp) You didn’t do that together?” No, we didn’t. We actually probably talked about family a lot but we didn’t actually prepare together. For me, it was great, because Joe, I play her in her formative years. She’s discovering a lot, so I didn’t want to have a set idea of who she was, because she doesn’t know who she is at that age. I wanted to keep the curiosity and the possibilities. When Charlotte takes over, she knows who she is, she knows what she believes in.
How many times did you go in for the auditions and the callbacks?
SM: I went to two auditions in London and then went to a screen test. At that point, I had no idea what a screen test was. “What do you mean? They’re going to test cameras?” “No. It’s a good sign, if you go in for a screen test.” That’s cool.
How did it work for you [Christian Slater]? Did they just call you up and say, “Do my movie”?
Christian Slater: No. For me, it was my agent. My agent Darren Boghosian was doing some kind of agenty-lecture thing in Denmark. He took the trip out to meet, I think it was an hour and a half drive to Lars’ studio, to meet them. He threw my name out there, and they said, “Oh, that’s definitely not a name we would’ve thought of to play the father but that’s interesting.” Then they wanted to see what I look like now. Did I look old enough to play a father? I did use a little trick, of course. I used some of my wife’s makeup to put some dark circles under my eyes and I sent them a photo and they said, “Oh, yeah. He looks sickly enough. We can do this.”
Did they send flowers too?
CS: Yeah, “We better get him now before he…” So that was it. I was very, very, very happy. I was very thrilled that my name was thrown into it, because it’s definitely not the kind of part people necessarily had seen me in or wouldn’t necessarily see me in, but I thought it was a special part, and I was thrilled, happy, and very surprised. To get the opportunity to work with somebody like Lars, I was equally excited and scared and trepidatious. I was very excited.
If Lars offers you something, do you automatically take it? Or do you want to go through the script and stuff?
CS: No. I was just so excited at the prospect of working with him. I said yes, and all I knew was that I was going to play Joe’s father. That was it. Then I got the script, and it was very daunting and very dense. “Now I’m in this and I’ve got to learn these speeches about trees and ash trees. How is this going to work? And there’s the hospital scene…” The first time I met Lars was in Germany, Cologne, where we shot some of it. He invited me to dinner, and it was just the two of us, and we had a great conversation. He was so phenomenally down to earth, and I just felt immediately safe and comfortable with him. I just felt like I would do anything with this guy.
Was there any adlibbing? Or was it all in the script?
SM: There’s a bit. Not that much.
CS: I wouldn’t say there was so much adlibbing, but in the script, there would be a line like, “Father falls out of the best.” That sort of thing. We were given a lot of freedom and given a lot of room to create. One of the wonderful things I remember, I had one of the speeches about trees, and I think being an actor in Hollywood is so much about, “Let’s get the day. We’ve got a big speech. Let’s get the pages that we’re supposed to get.” That tends to be what it’s all about. This was much more about getting the moments. It was wonderful for me to sort of shift gears and be told, “Slow down. Take it easy. We’re not going anywhere. Nobody wants to be anywhere else. This is really what we’re doing right now. There’s no other party we need to be at. We can really just allow ourselves to be in the moment and not feel rushed and just take our time and get it.”
I read a long time ago that Bjork advised Nicole Kidman not to take on the role in Dogville. Did you feel intimidated, knowing Lars’ track-record and what he puts actors through?
SM: No. I think with Bjork and Lars, it’s too geniuses, and they will not compromise.
So Nicole Kidman’s not a genius?
SM: No she is. (laughs)
CS: People have different experiences with Lars.
SM: It’s person to person.
CS: It is. I think it’s the same thing, like you said earlier, with his movies. People either love them or are scared by them, or completely the opposite. He’s just that type of personality. From the first moment I met him, I loved how sweet he was. To me, he was just phenomenally sweet and gentle, and funny. He’s definitely got a very ironic sense of humor. We would shoot these scenes and they would be very intense, and very actory. He would let the moments happen and then come in at the end and say, “Well, you’ll probably never work again.” If you’re at all insecure or you don’t get it, you’ll be freaked out by it. I just kind of went, “Yeah, okay buddy. That’s hilarious.” I would laugh at these things and try not to take it seriously. I’ve been in other situations where directors will come in and say, “Oh that was amazing. We really got something special.” And then you see it later, and it’s awful. This was the opposite of that.
It’s interesting, I think, for both of you to have these roles. Going forward, will you guys look at things a little different now? Will this make you more likely to want to challenge yourself, or more interested in something different?
SM: It’s completely impacted my life, doing this, because it’s put me in the situation now where I have the luxury to work on something that I feel so passionate about. Whether or not it will be with Lars von Trier or a Hollywood movie, or Disney, I’m open to any kind of opportunity, because it’s my job as an actress. That’s what’s so exciting: to maybe do the opposite of what I’ve just done. I would work with Lars again if he did another movie. A whole new world just opened for me.
What’s your next project?
CS: Well, I did work on this Hot Tub Time Machine Part 2 movie, which was very fun. I had a great time doing that. Those guys, Craig [Robinson] and Rob [Corddry] and Steve Pink were wonderful. Good experience. I think I’m working on this film with Ed Harris next. After working with somebody like Lars von Trier and having this experience, moving things in a particular direction, you do sort of get addicted to it and that becomes all you want to do. You want to work with artists, and people who are willing to take chances and really push the envelope. This was very exciting.
I thought the soundtrack was incredible for the film. It suited it so perfectly. I talked to Kirsten Dunst after Melancholia. She said when she wasn’t filming, she was obsessed with listening to Beach House over and over again. I was wondering if you guys were listening to any music when you weren’t actually shooting.
SM: No, not any particular music. What’s so great about when you’re on set and you’re not filming is that everyone’s so amazing. He built a family around him. He worked with the same people. The costume designer did Breaking the Waves with him. So it is really amazing. You just end up spending time with them. As much as the experience on set was incredible, what I take back is the experience off set with all these amazing creative people.
CS: You really see how much they love him. They just looked at him with such love. You just get a sense that everyone who’s there is so completely devoted to making whatever the vision is that he has to life.
He is construed as being anti-American sometimes, but he picks out incredible American songs, like that Talking Heads song. Perfect.
CS: He’s got great taste in music. Music has definitely carried me through different times of my life. I’ve had themes that I’ve listened to, and music is certainly a vital part. But my taste, I don’t know. Even listening to Beyonce sing “Survivor” is good for me sometimes. I get into it. But Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra. I kind of find one that I like and I stick to it. It just kind of goes in a loop in my head.
When you were starting out in your career, can you think of any times that stand out in your mind of being terrified?
CS: Yeah. Hell yeah. I grew up in New York and was just a kid goofing around, really, in this business. I did some theater and had some great experiences there, and loved it. I remember being really excited about getting the job at Radio City for the Christmas Spectacular. I thought, “That’s it. I’ve made it!” Then I got this job in The Name of the Rose, where I was playing this 13th century monk who had a pretty explicit love scene in that film. I was like 15. I remember being particularly scared in that particular moment. And working with Sean Connery, that was intimidating. I was just a kid from the streets of Manhattan, thrust into this, wearing a robe and shaving my head. It was weird. Exciting but crazy.
For such a jarring film, there were some real themes of tenderness between the two of you. I thought that was a really special thing. I think maybe that’s why they paired you together. But there was a certain chemistry. It was something that was, within the whole context of the film, an important element. It was separate from the film, but real nonetheless. Did it evolve as the film went on?
SM: It’s a very delicate relationship. For me, the relationship with the dad is always constant. When he dies, he’s always part of her, and she’s always connected to him in a very intimate way that has nothing to do with the rest of her life. It’s that one anchor that keeps her going. It’s so human. That’s when you see that she has feelings, in a way, because she’s so void of them. You just think, “Is she a robot?” He’s the most important person in her life. You connect to that, because we all at some point go, “Oh shit.”
CS: Yeah. Definitely an important ingredient to have in the movie. Yeah, when I looked at it, the loss of her father, this relationship that was actually appropriate and honest with somebody she really trusted – losing that person creates a very deep well and void within her character. I think she spends a lot of time trying to recapture those feelings.
Can you imagine how you would have felt, as a man, with a daughter like that?
CS: Boy oh boy. I do have a daughter whose 12 now. She is obsessed with One Direction and things like that, and it’s frustrating.
She’s not going to see the movie?
CS: No, she’s not going to see the movie. [Laughs]
*** Interview photography by Matthew Schuchman.