Cast of ‘Nymphomaniac’ talk about working with Lars von Trier

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Nymphomaniac-PostersBack early March, I was invited to take part in a couple of roundtable interview sessions for Lars von Trier‘s Nymphomaniac. Myself and a few other journalists were paired off into groups and sat down for roundtables with Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgard, Christian Slater, and Uma Thurman. Martin and Slater were paired together and played off of each other really well, while Gainsbourg and Thurman came in separately. Below you can see the highlights from each of the roundtables. I’ve highlighted my specific questions, and I hope that you all enjoy! Remember, both Volumes of Nymphomaniac are out now (and you can see my reviews here and here), so make sure you experience them for yourself.

First up are the highlights from a paired roundtable with Stacy Martin and Christian Slater, which was by far the longest interview of the day.

Question: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Christian Slater: 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.”

Joey Magidson: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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 bed.” 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.”

Q: Did you feel intimidated, knowing Lars’ track-record and what he puts actors through?

CS: People have different experiences with Lars.

SM: No. 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.

Joey Magidson: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Q: 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.

Joey Magidson: She’s not going to see the movie?

CS: No, she’s not going to see the movie. [Laughs]

Here now are the Charlotte Gainsbourg highlights…

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

Charlotte Gainsbourg: They haven’t.

Q: They haven’t?

CG: Nope.

Q: Did you ask them not to?

CG: 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.

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

CG: 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.

Q: Did you find yourself surprised while on set?

CG: 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.

Q: 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.

CG: 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.

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

CG: 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.

Q: What are your next projects?

CG: 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.

Q: Can you name any of them?

CG: 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.

Joey Magidson: 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.

CG: 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.

Q: 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?

CG: 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.

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

CG: 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.

Here’s the brief Uma Thurman highlights to close this out…

Q: How did you like working with Lars von Trier?

Uma Thurman: It was a fantastic experience. I’d always wanted to work with him and never knew that I would be able to. Because we didn’t know each other. We’d never met. It was such a wonderful thing. I got this phone call that said, “Lars von Trier wants you to do this big, giant scene in his movie.” I was so excited. My baby was three weeks old and along came the script. I thought it was a magnificent, wonderfully textured, challenging scene with more twists and turns than I’ve had sometimes in a whole movie. It was just perfect, perfect, perfect. It was a dream come true.

Q: Did you ad-lib?

UT: It was all in the script. She lost control of her life and is desperately humiliating herself, trying to do it with some kind of pride and dignity.

Joey Magidson: How different was it to prepare for one intense scene instead of a whole movie?

UT: This character does as much as you could do over the course of a whole movie in one massively concentrated section. I prepared like I would if I were going to do a monologue in a one-act play. I ran it and ran it and ran it and worked through the lines, and thought through them trying to get inside the psyche of von Trier through his words. That’s what you do. It’s like breaking down a poem but then performing it. I walked in prepared and we let it fly together. I think we had a really good time — but you’d have to check with Lars. [Smiles]

Q: What’s next for you?

UT: I think I’m almost settled on doing a film, which should be starting soon, but it’s not quite set yet. It’s in the press* so you can see anyway, but I don’t think it’s 100 percent secure yet so I don’t want to really talk about it. But you can google it, though, because it’s been written up in Variety or something.

There you have the highlights of the Nymphomaniac press day. Both the films are available now On-Demand.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!