Julie Delpy has done it all. Over the course of her career, the actress has starred in films by some of cinema's most esteemed filmmakers — Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieslowski and Jim Jarmusch — in addition to helming several features of her own. (She made her directorial debut with 2002's Looking for Jimmy.) She's earned two Oscar nominations for co-writing the final two installments of the Before Trilogy with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke.
If you ask Delpy, though, she will be the first to tell you that she hasn't gotten to do enough. "When people tell me all the things I've made in my life, I always say, 'Well, that's just the tip of the iceberg of what I want to do,'" she explains. "I keep doing comedies because that's what I've done successfully. So, people want me to do them, and they'll give me money to make them. But I have other films I've written that are definitely not comedies."
Her role in The Lesson gives Delpy the chance to dip her toes into a new genre: film noir. Directed by Alice Troughton, The Lesson casts Delpy as Hélène, who is married to an accomplished but abusive novelist, J.M. Sinclair (Richard E. Grant). When Hélène hires an aspiring novelist (Daryl McCormack) to tutor their son, she not only shakes up her family's carefully controlled world, but also opens the door for some of their darkest secrets to be revealed.
Delpy's performance as Hélène is one that is designed to only truly reveal itself upon rewatch, and Troughton says it's the actress' willingness to commit to such a role that makes her a vital collaborator. "It can be quite easy for an actor to be the center of attention. It's not as easy to exist peripherally and cut through what is typically a more voiceless space," the director tells A.frame. "But Julie does so much in this film. I could have cut to her all the time."
For her part, Delpy found The Lesson to be a breath of fresh air. "I read screenplays all the time where I'm like, 'It's another romantic comedy that says absolutely nothing new,'" she says. Because ultimately, Delpy has reached a point in her career where she's only interested in films that feel new. "I'm at a period in my life where I don't want to be bored. I don't want to waste my life being bored doing something boring."
A.frame: What initially drew you to The Lesson?
It came at a time when I was longing for film noir. I was watching a series of classic noirs with my son from the '40s and '50s and I was thinking, 'Oh, God, I miss that kind of vibe.' Then I read the script for The Lesson and I liked it right away. I loved the story. The idea of stealing someone else's writing is one that I've always been interested in — I was actually writing a short story with a similar premise. It was very, very different, but all that really made me sit back and think, 'It's interesting that this script is coming to me at this time in my life,' so I just went for it.
Hélène is simultaneously withholding and forthright. What was it like playing a character like that?
Well, she lives with an awful man who is, obviously, very psychologically abusive, and who destroyed her son's life. She's ready for some kind of payback. There's a certain moral compass within her that makes her see certain decisions as acceptable and unacceptable, and she sees what Sinclair has done to their lives as unacceptable. In French, we have an expression — I think the English version of it is, 'Revenge is a dish best served cold' — and I think that really applies to Hélène. On the one hand, she wants answers and a certain kind of comeuppance. On the other hand, she wants to protect her other son, who is very sensitive and fragile. I just really loved her as a character. When I was talking to Alice, we talked a lot about not making her a typical noir femme fatale. If anything, she's a mother fatale. [Laughs]
How was it working with Richard, Daryl, and Stephen [McMillan, who plays Delpy's son, Bertie]? They seem like three actors with very different energies and personalities.
It was interesting, but I think it works. We all got along, even when our processes were very different. Richard was always in character a bit, always very focused, and Daryl was as well. I'm very focused, too, but I don't try to stay in character when I'm not shooting. I was always asking Alice a lot of questions, like 'How much do you want of this? Should I lean further this way or that? Do you want her to be more mysterious here, more upfront, or more obvious?' I was always fine-tuning my performance with Alice in order to give her what she wanted from the character. And Stephen is this amazing young actor. Watching him, an extremely sensitive young man, play an extremely sensitive young man was really beautiful, because he's a very subtle actor. All of them are really fantastic actors, though. It was a very pleasing environment to work in.
In addition to acting, you’ve also written and directed your own films. In the case of a movie like The Lesson, what joy do you get from getting to work on something solely as an actor?
It's very different, because I get so much more help from the director than when I'm directing myself, obviously. [Laughs] When I'm only directing something, and I've done that a few times, I'm usually very in tune with the actors and their questions, and I can be very good at answering whatever questions they might have about their characters. When I'm acting in films that I'm also directing, though, it's another story altogether. In those cases, I usually do my research as I'm writing, instead of arriving with questions as an actress on a movie that someone else wrote.
What is it you look for in scripts now? What inspires you creatively?
Something that I find exciting to read, basically. [Laughs] Something I'm not bored by! And that's true whether I'm looking at scripts as an actor or as a director. I'm always like, 'Oh, there’s nothing original here.' It can get really boring, but when I read The Lesson, I was intrigued and I was really amused. It was like, 'Finally! I'm reading something that's exciting!' And the part itself was intriguing. She’s weird, Hélène, just as weird as everyone else in the film.
At this point in your career, do you find yourself drawn to certain genres that you haven't explored as much previously?
I have a pretty cinema-centric background, so I have a real hunger to rewatch certain films from my childhood right now. My dad is a film noir fanatic. It's almost an obsession. Every time I go to his home, he's always watching a film noir. He's watched hundreds of them. I don't even know where he finds them all. [Laughs] He finds DVDs in the craziest places, and finds things from directors that I’ve never heard of. He'll watch the most obscure film noir, because there was a time in the industry when they were being made all the time for very cheap. I was really raised on cinema because my dad is such a cinephile, but the noir genre is one that I’ve not gotten to explore as much as I would love to. It's always just a question of getting the money to make the films themselves. Sometimes, I really wish I just had a lot of money to make all the films I want to make. People might not like all of them, but I'd love to make them.
It's officially been 10 years since Before Midnight was released. Do you still think about your and Ethan's characters from that trilogy? Do you ever think about where they might be, or what they might be doing?
Yeah, I do sometimes. I know people think I'm the one who ended it, but I was disappointed we didn't do another one. I remember getting an email from Richard one day with an idea for a fourth film that would have been about my character, Celine, dying of cancer. I just thought it was so wrong that it didn’t even occur to me to acknowledge it, if I'm honest. I thought it would have been the wrong message to send, especially in that series. To me, it seemed like too Hollywood of an idea, like, 'Okay, the woman is 50, now she has to die!' The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who's 57 and she was saying, 'Now, I'm only getting offered characters either dying of cancer or who are already dead and a ghost.' Is that all we have to offer actresses who are 50 and over? They're either dying or already dead?
That's not really what I want to put out into the world. Richard emailed me the idea, and I think it was inspired by an encounter he had with a fan whose wife was dying, but the fan was an older man too. For me, I just thought, 'Why make the fourth film about Celine dying?' It felt like we'd be buying into the idea that women should be dead on-screen by a certain age, so I said, 'That doesn't really make sense. Let's just forget about it.' Then we didn't come up with something else, so a fourth film didn't happen. But I do think about it. I think it would have been interesting to make a movie about them in their 50s that wasn't about them dying. Because your 50s are really interesting! I just can't picture a movie about those two people at this stage of their lives where one of them is dying. It's not like it'd be Amour where the couple is in their 80s. If Jesse and Celine were in their 80s, it'd make sense, but not in their 50s.
I don't know if anyone needs to see Jesse or Celine die anytime soon.
I know. It's better to leave it open.
By Alex Welch