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Charlotte Gainsbourg On Swapping Indies For Hollywood

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Photo: GETTY
If you don't know her by name, perhaps you know her face... Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of France’s most famous exports. As the daughter of musician and actor Serge Gainsbourg and model and actress Jane Birkin, she grew up surrounded by cinema, making her screen debut at 12 opposite Catherine Deneuve in the 1984 picture Paroles et Musique.

Now, with over 45 acting credits to her name, she's making her mark on Hollywood with a role in Independence Day: Resurgence, Roland Emmerich’s follow up to the original 1996 blockbuster, in which the actress plays French psychiatrist Dr. Catherine Marceaux.
This new role marks a significant departure from her roles in Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier's Antichrist, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac, or the "Depression Trilogy", as it's sometimes known. This was a series of highly controversial films that saw her portray some heavily emotional, gritty and sexually deviant characters between 2009 and 2013, picking up five awards and a further seven nominations in the process.
Gainsbourg says she didn't see the Independence Day role coming. “It was a real surprise when my agent called,” she explains, when I meet her in London's Claridge's Hotel, sporting a black T-shirt and pouring herself a cup of lemon and honey. “There was no doubt on my side,” she continues, “of whether I was going to do it or not. I wanted to be a part of it.”
Gainsbourg says that one of the main reasons she was drawn to the Independence Day sequel – her first big studio film – was the way in which we as viewers are consuming cinema today. “The big change is TV,” she muses, in reference to the Netflix generation. “When I was 15, going to the cinema was a big deal, we used to go with friends every week. I mean, it was part of our culture. Today, my own children, they don’t go to the movies. So I think it’s great to have those kind of films, that make us go to the movies.” Films that boast large scale budgets and extravagant special effects? “Yes.”

Shooting with Emmerich was a different experience to projects she'd been involved in previously, she tells me. “There are big, big differences [between independent and mainstream films],” she says, her distinctive French-English accent breaking to giggle at the mammoth contrast. “The timing was so precise, like minutes. In French films, it’s not that you take your time, but… This was not relaxed, this was very, very scheduled." It was still fun though, she says: "Roland has his spirit, and [co-star] Jeff Goldblum, who’s such a personality, was just being himself but entertaining everyone and singing and playing games." She smiles, "I wouldn’t say that it was hard work.”

Arriving two decades after Will Smith and co saved earth from the threat of extraterrestrials, Independence Day: Resurgence sees Goldblum's character David Levinson tackling a new alien species with 20 extra years of CGI technical advances. For Gainsbourg's character, however, the action focuses predominantly on an iPad, the key tool of Marceaux's research. "What’s difficult is that you don’t get to act enough," she notes. "I didn’t have that much to do on blue screen, so, my part was very normal in that sense.”
Gainsbourg isn't the only critically acclaimed actress making moves towards more big-time movies of late. She was name checked alongside Julianne Moore and Toni Collette on a blog by Benjamin Lee for the Guardian earlier this year in which the writer considered the trend for "female stars over 40" being tapped for more mainstream, action performances (Moore has been cast in the new Kingsman film, Collette in xXx: the Return of Xander Cage, even Dame Helen Mirren's been confirmed for Fast and Furious 8) – I wonder whether, now aged 44, Gainsbourg has noticed a significant shift in the kind of roles she’s offered.

“They’ve changed because I’m ageing, of course, but I think I’m having more fun now, and taking the space to have fun.” She says it’s not a question of being more daring, but not caring so much about the success of a film. “I think every experience now is becoming more special in the sense that I really know what I want as an actress. I’m not career driven, but I know what I’m aiming for and it’s a little more precise, and that’s something I’ve been enjoying.”

The main thing she’s looking for? A complex character, a challenge. “For me it’s more to do with finding interesting parts for women. I feel that, with French cinema, I haven’t been able to find that many interesting projects – so I’m very grateful to have been able to do films outside of France, but French cinema has always been quite open to women characters. Not too stereotyped, with a lot of bad sides too, but some originality.”

Outside of the film work, Gainsbourg's personal style has won her plaudits. She is a long time muse to her friend, the designer Nicolas Ghesquière, both today at Louis Vuitton and during his previous tenure at Balenciaga, and has appeared in his campaigns as well as frequently debuting his designs on the red carpet. Favouring black, her day-to-day aesthetic is chic but low-key, a bit like her indie cinema peers Chloë Sevigny and Sofia Coppola.

Is she comfortable with recognition for her style, or does she find it superficial? “I think it’s flattering, very flattering,” she offers, “but it’s not something that I value, and sometimes I feel that it’s exaggerated. But it’s lovely.”

And of her parents, whose prolific romance saw the English Birkin adopted by France as one of their own national treasures, and of which analogue photographs fill Francophile Tumblrs, I wonder whether she feels the pair's shadow over her own career. “The thing is,” she says with a marked awareness of her privilege, “I’ve never had to suffer because I was successful very young. I had a certain status,” she admits.
If anything, three decades of hard graft have seen Gainsbourg more than prove her worth as a performer, and, having done so, she’s passionate about the necessity of equal pay. “I’m conscious of those differences and what I find unfair. With American cinema I can also see stereotyping much, much more, so I can see what American actresses have to fight for."

With our time drawing to a close, I ask Gainsbourg what else she is up to. Following the release of the controversial Lemon Incest recorded with her father in 1984, Gainsbourg has a back catalogue of four albums, with a fifth – produced by Beck – dropping in the autumn. Preceding that is a second film, an independent thriller, True Crimes, which sees her star opposite Jim Carey, as well as a role in Joseph Cedar's forthcoming Oppenheimer Strategies alongside Richard Gere. First though, there's a Hollywood blockbuster to promote.

Independence Day: Resurgence is released nationwide Thursday 23rd June.
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