The actor talks about her career so far and her new film Return of the Hero.
For emerging talent Noémie Merlant, showing up on the set of comedy Return of the Hero every day was like attending an acting masterclass. Handing out valuable lessons were Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin and Mélanie Laurent, who has two Césars on her mantelpiece. “Jean and Mélanie were both very generous and caring,” recalls the 30-year-old actress. “They both gave me a lot of advice. They told me that, with comedy, the important thing is to be sincere, as it is in drama. It’s just the rhythm that changes. Working with them was an amazing opportunity.”
Return of the Hero is an important stepping-stone for Merlant. While the Parisian has been in the industry since 2011 - and was nominated last year for the Most Promising Actress César for drama Heaven Will Wait - Laurent Tirard’s farce marks the first time she’s tried her hand at a comedic role. In what is a part that requires her to put in an over-the-top performance, Merlant plays Pauline, the feisty daughter of a wealthy land-owner in 19th-century France, who finds herself caught up in an ongoing game of one-upmanship between the swindler who wants to marry her (Dujardin) and her well-meaning but scheming sister (Laurent).
“I always thought drama was more satisfying but after Return of the Hero, I realise I love comedy just as much,” she enthuses. “It requires a huge investment. It’s intense, it takes concentration and you work tirelessly. I still have a lot to learn, but the more you are comfortable with doing comedy, the more fun you have. It’s like starting a new musical instrument.”
Starring in Return of the Hero was both an acting and physical challenge for Merlant. With the story taking place from 1809-1812, she had to deal with the scourge of many a period production – the corset. “It felt like I was suffocating,” Merlant remembers. “We were filming during a heatwave and the role of Pauline requires energy. But at the same time the costume helps a lot. When you put on your outfit in the morning and get your hairstyle and makeup done, it takes a while and this is a time actors use to enter the role, to get into the skin of the character. We go back to another time.”
Merlant is no stranger to spending hours in the make-up chair and wearing uncomfortable clothes having once earned a living as model. It’s not a time she looks back on fondly. “It’s a profession that I found destructive, both physically and mentally,” Merlant says. “I felt like a piece of meat. I was weighed constantly. I was never asked my opinion. It was a case of ‘Be beautiful and stop talking’. It did teach me not be afraid of the camera and to be strong, alert and less naïve in the face of inappropriate behaviour. And it paid for theatre classes so I could become an actress and finally express myself.”
Having found her voice, Merlant is intent on having her say, not just through the roles she picks, but also as a director. “I want do a short film about the Roma community in Paris,” she reveals. “I’m not in a hurry to get it done but I find it compliments my acting. I have things to say that I don’t necessarily have the opportunity to say in roles.”
Until Merlant slides into the director’s chair herself she is content to learn as much as possible on every set. When I catch up with the actress, she’s busy filming Céline Sciamma’s Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu alongside Adèle Haenel – an experience that has her positively buzzing with enthusiasm.
“It’s the story of a female artist in 1780 who is painting a young woman for her upcoming marriage,” Merlant explains. “When I read the script Céline wrote, it made me shudder. It’s full of emotion and intensity. I like women’s movies made by women. It’s been such a pleasure working with Céline and Adèle. It’s great to be able to listen to what they have to say.”
I felt like a piece of meat. I was weighed constantly. I was never asked my opinion. It was a case of ‘be beautiful and stop talking’.
Return of the Hero is in cinemas from 7 December. See Pierre’s review on page 86.