Ooh là là! Au­drey Tautou tells Don­ald Clarke about bring­ing it all back home – encore .

Since stum­bling into the role of Amélie, Au­drey Tautou has forged a sin­gu­lar ca­reer, one of the few res­o­lutely Gal­lic film stars to be­come a global star. ‘I al­ways tried to fol­low my in­stincts,’ she tells Don­ald Clarke

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Out here in An­glo­pho­nia, we are wary of grant­ing proper star­dom to any ac­tor who doesn’t speak the lan­guage. It can hap­pen, of course. But to fully cross­over you may need to fully em­brace the Hol­ly­wood life­style. You need, in short, to be­come an hon­orary Amer­i­can.

Yet the English-speak­ing pub­lic has made an ex­cep­tion for a small num­ber of French women. Brigitte Bar­dot man­aged it in the early 1960s. A few years later, Cather­ine Deneuve also made the cross­over. In re­cent times, we can add Juli­ette Binoche and Au­drey Tautou. Both have ap­peared in big US movies, but nei­ther has shifted their base camp from the home repub­lic.

In­deed, Tautou could hardly seem more French. Perched twitchily on a well-padded sofa, her eyes al­ways ea­ger to widen, she speaks in a flu­ent, but ec­cen­tric class of English that jug­gles Amer­i­can drawl with RP vow­els.

“French people are not very good with English lan­guage,” she says with­out any ap­par­ent dif­fi­culty. “I have got bet­ter. I re­mem­ber Stephen Frears telling me, af­ter we had shot a film: ‘You have got bet­ter.’ I said: ‘I couldn’t get any worse.’ It’s true, maybe.”

There are a few odd noises in there. But her English re­ally is pretty good. I bet it’s bet­ter than Stephen Frears’s French.

“Oh, it can be very frus­trat­ing,” she says. “You feel like a fool. You are aware that your an­swers are like those of a three-year-old.”

She shouldn’t worry. Tautou’s USP is a kind of charm­ing, quirky awk­ward­ness. Few ac­tors can fall off low-ly­ing walls with such ac­ci­den­tal grace. It all came to­gether for her in 2001 when Jean-Pierre Je­unet’s Amélie un­ex­pect­edly broke out of the art­house ghetto and scared up main­stream busi­ness. Then 25, Tautou had ap­peared in just a few mod­er­ately suc­cess­ful French pic­tures when she (ap­pro­pri­ately enough) stag­gered into the role.

“Ev­ery­thing changed. Of course,” she says. “It was all a huge sur­prise. I have a very spe­cial re­la­tion­ship to that film. But none of us could have imag­ined how uni­ver­sal that sen­ti­ment would be. I am still sur­prised how big it was. It had a sin­cer­ity, I think. But it was still strange.”

One of the odd­est as­pects to this story is that – de­spite be­ing re­lent­lessly Gal­lic through­out – the comic fan­tasy was orig­i­nally writ­ten with a spe­cific English ac­tor in mind. In­deed, the ti­tle char­ac­ter’s name of­fers a pho­netic nod to that star: Emily Wat­son. When Wat­son proved un­avail­able, Je­unet re­mem­bered a face he’d seen on the poster for Venus Beauty In­sti­tute, a re­cent ro­man­tic com­edy, and brought young Tautou in for an au­di­tion.

Au­di­ences rel­ished the height­en­ing of cer­tain French flavours and the pointed odd­ness of the ti­tle char­ac­ter.

“I think it touched the very best of ev­ery­body,” she re­mem­bers. “It is not a ques­tion of cul­ture or lan­guage or na­tion­al­ity. It shows uni­ver­sal fragility. It ex­presses doubts about how we can be our­selves. Yes, we­chose Paris, be­cause there is re­ally some­thing in­ter­na­tional in the love that people feel for it. And that film has been a great pass­port for me.”

Tautou was raised in cen­tral France, where dad worked as a den­tist and mum served as a teacher. Sen­si­ble sorts, they made sure that, as well as tak­ing act­ing lessons, their daugh­ter stud­ied for a de­gree in lit­er­a­ture at the Sor­bonne. When asked when she first re­alised act­ing was her vo­ca­tion, she re­treats into a for­est of mut­ters and good-na­tured eva­sions. “Talk­ing about my­self is not my favourite thing,” she says.

Fair enough. But she must have some mem­ory of how se­ri­ously she took act­ing in her years as a stu­dent.

“I had to re­as­sure my par­ents and I had to re­as­sure my­self by do­ing what I re­ally wanted,” she says. “So, yes, I did theatre school. And I would say this job took me from an­other life I could have had.”

Oh re­ally. And what might that life have been?

“I have no idea,” she laughs. “But I wouldn’t have wanted a job to be my life if that job didn’t want me. Do you know what I mean?”

I think I do. At any rate, as she ex­plained ear­lier, Amélie of­fered her a pass­port into the wider in­dus­try. Tautou ad­mits that she was sud­denly of­fered an ar­ray of bizarre and un­suit­able in­ter­na­tional projects. It fig­ures – just look at some of the US films that Deneuve and Bar­dot made dur­ing their pomp. When such break­throughs oc---

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