Bérénice Bejo was ready to roll. For two months, she’d been rehearsing to star as Marie—a Frenchwoman juggling an estranged Iranian husband, a younger new boyfriend (with a comatose wife) and children from different relationships—in The Past, the new film from Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi (A Separation). And she was losing patience.
“I was so tired, and I said, ‘Come on, Asghar, let’s just shoot the movie!'” recalls the Argentinian-born 37-year-old actress, who was herself nominated for an Academy Award for costarring in her real-life husband Michel Hazanavicius’ silent 2011 smash The Artist. “I remember going home and telling Michel, ‘I can’t stand it anymore.’ It was funny because I was just as fed up with Marie and her problems as she was. Like her, I wanted to find a solution and move on. I’m sure Asghar did that on purpose.”
Indeed he did. “This is a feeling all the actors in my previous films also had,” says the Iranian filmmaker, through a translator. “It’s the feeling of a pregnant woman who’s going to become a mother soon and cannot wait to have a child.” Inherently, Marie is a complex character who’s as frustrating as she is frustrated.
“Bérénice is very different from Marie,” says the director. “She has a very strong character. She is determined and can make up her mind very quickly. She is very ordered and her life is planned. Marie is not like that.” It was, in fact, Bejo’s wordless performance as starstruck fan-turned-Hollywood It Girl Peppy Miller in The Artist that sold Farhadi on casting her as the conflicted Marie. “Playing a role without dialogue is a very difficult thing,” he says. “If someone can manage that task, they can play other roles well.”
Ironically, Bejo’s biggest concern about taking the role was that she’d make a convincing mother of a 15-year-old daughter, even though she’s the real-life stepmom to Hazanavicius’ kids (15 and 10), and biological parent of two more with him. “But I trusted Asghar,” she says. “Everyone is perfect in his films. I thought, ‘There is no way I cannot make it.’ I just took it piece by piece and did my work.”
She was born to trust directors—she’s not only wed to one, she’s also the daughter of one—and in the hands of a director she respects, she’s the first to pay it forward. “I’m wholly devoted to the director,”she says. “I’m a good actress—I’ll do anything you want. I’m very much a good soldier. I feel like I owe everything to the director. Sometimes I cannot see what I have offered.” Even when she was awarded Best Actress for The Past at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, she recalls, “I couldn’t help but think, ‘This is not fair.’ I’m a good actress in the movie because Asghar’s a good director. It’s teamwork.”
Bejo will next reteam with Hazanavicius for The Search, a remake of a 1948 Montgomery Clift drama that’s been updated and set during the Chechnyan War of 2000. “It’s three different stories—a soldier, a kid and a woman—and how they cross paths and it changes their lives,” she says. “It was very hard to do, complicated and quite intense. It’s very much the opposite of The Artist.”
It remains to be seen if Bejo’s new gigs will include Hollywood blockbusters. She dipped her toe in the American movie-making pool with a lead role opposite Heath Ledger in 2001’s A Knight’s Tale but hasn’t dived back in since. “I was very young at the time, and it was not something I was looking for,” she says. “I was on holiday, and it just happened. Now that I’m all grown up, I guess I’m more ready to go for an American movie.”
Even if she does make it in the States, Farhadi doesn’t think she’ll forget her past. “She will go higher, but to me, going higher doesn’t mean entering Hollywood,” he says. “She might work in Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean she will be abandoning European cinema for good.”
After her tour de force in The Past—which could earn her another Oscar nod—Bejo won’t settle for any ingénue roles. “I’ve always looked young, and now my family makes fun of me and says I don’t look so young,” she says with a wry laugh. “I’m starting to look my age, and that’s okay. I don’t want to play 25-year-old women anymore.” And Farhadi would agree.
“The Past” opens in New York and L.A. theaters December 20. More details here.