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
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---