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Q&A: Marina Hands: An online exclusive interview

An online exclusive interview

Marina Hands in Lady Chatterley


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

By Patrick Z. McGavin

In Quebecois director Denys Arcand’s Academy Award-winning 2003 film The Barbarian Invasions, a priest summons a meeting with a young art curator to ascertain the market value of the church’s artifacts. Face to face, the man is nearly speechless.

“I wasn’t expecting a ravishing young woman,” he says.

Marina Hands holds that power and allure. In the same film, during a critical emotionally revealing moment about the devastating personal consequences of her parents’ breakup, Hands reveals a wholly different side, recounting the bruising memory of blocking the path of her father’s car to prevent him from leaving. The moment is heartbreaking.

Hands is the newest art-house sensation thanks to her luminous, breakout performance in Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley, the French-language adaptation of John Thomas and Lady Jane, D.H. Lawrence’s alternative version of his notoriously censored novel. Hands dominates the nearly three-hour film, appearing in virtually every scene, delivering a sensuous, earthy performance as the wife of a war-damaged English aristocrat who finds sexual ecstasy and salvation in her taboo, class-shattering affair with her husband’s gamekeeper, Parkin (played by Jean-Louis Coulloc’h).

Hands won the César — the French equivalent of the Academy Award — for best actress. (The film captured five prizes, including best picture.) The attention has propelled Hands’ film career and generated a group of highly anticipated projects. In Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly — the French-language adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s memoir — Hands plays Josephine, the wild and unorthodox mistress of the French fashion editor. (The intelligent, stylistically adventurous work captured the best director prize for Schnabel at Cannes.)

Hands is the daughter of British theater director Terry Hands and French actress Ludmila Mikaël, as well as granddaughter of the Russian painter Pierre Dmitrienko. She grew up in Paris and studied at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique and the London Academy of Music and Arts. Since January 2006, she has been a company member of the Comedié-Française, the world’s longest established national theater.

Hands is currently shooting her English-language debut, portraying French fashion icon Coco Chanel in William Friedkin’s period drama Coco & Igor, which focuses on the relationship between Chanel and the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (played by Danish actor Mats Mikkelsen). She is also completing work on Agatha Christie’s Le Grand alibi, the latest feature from Cahiers du Cinema critic and editor Pascal Bonitzer.

In a recent interview, Hands talked about her life and art, and the acceleration of her career from a relative unknown to a sudden star.

Stop Smiling: Your father is a theater director and your mother is an actress. Was it inevitable that you were going to become an actress?

Marina Hands: I have to say I never dreamed of being an actress. I didn’t allow myself. My parents were very successful. They still are, and I admire them so much. I was very shy and never thought about acting. I went into drama school and it all clicked. Before then, I was passionate about horses and horseback riding. I was showjumping, and I was on the French junior team and doing quite well, though not quite good enough to go professional. I was totally into sports and competition. Then [acting] happened and it all went so peacefully, and I worked hard.

SS: Do you feel divided by your French and English backgrounds, as far as sensibility and temperament are concerned?

MH: The strange thing is I feel French when I’m in England, and I feel English when I’m in France. I always want to travel. Of course I love England, but I’ve never really lived there. My dad’s been living there all the time, and I used to go there for holidays. I kind of idealized it. I thought it was a peaceful country. People were amazing and in France, everything was crap. You always dream about somewhere else and I guess it’s not the truth. I feel both. Also, my mother is half-Russian. My grandfather, the painter, is Russian. My parents, especially my mom, have different cultures and origins and different nationalities in their families. I don’t feel totally French or totally English. I’m really a mixture.

SS: The fascinating part of Pascale Ferran’s Lady Chatterley is that, like Alain Resnais’ recent film Private Fears in Public Places, it takes a classic English text and renders it in a very French vernacular.

MH: Pascale doesn’t speak English. She doesn’t know much about England, except through art and literature. She had a very French vision. There was something personal for her. She really wanted to tell this story, and she had a close personal relationship with [D.H. Lawrence]. It really is her film. The film is very close to the book. It’s not like she has been changing things and making it her own, but there was a very intimate feeling for her, and for me. It was a low-budget film. We were paid two months after we were finished working. We didn’t know if it would come out in theaters. It took time to have it on screen, and everything went so beautifully afterward. It was a question of passion, and being passionate about the story. We gave a lot of our lives to it. That’s why it has a more personal quality.

SS: Do you think the fact you are English on your father’s side affected her decision to cast you as Lady Chatterley.

MH: No, I don’t think so. It affected the fact that there were certain aspects of the character that I could really feel, because my dad’s English, and I’ve been to England a lot. I know the relationship to the feelings is quite difficult for people from England, especially at the time [the early 20th century]. This is something I know how my dad is capable of being — at times very cold and, at the same time, so sensible and warm. There is something about the English attitude, especially in aristocratic families. They have ways of speaking and being, and everyone has different accents according to your social class.

SS: For me, the key sequence of the film is when your character catches herself naked in the mirror. In part, you’re inviting us to watch and look at your body. There’s a deeper realization of this woman’s declaration of sexual need.

MH: Absolutely. This moment when she seeks Parkin [the gamekeeper] and his body, it’s a shock and it’s quite beautiful. The way she looks at herself, it’s very pathetic. She feels miserable at that moment. She suddenly realizes she’s like an empty shell, and there’s something totally dead about herself as well, almost as her husband has died from half of his body. There’s this moment when she cries just afterward; she tries to read, she puts the sheet on very gently, like you’d imagine she does every evening on her own, and there’s a feeling of loss, solitude and feeling so miserable it comes alive. She realizes she is totally empty and something is missing.

: You mentioned the film was produced on a small budget, but I heard your rehearsal time was extensive.

MH: Pascale really wanted us to feel free. She wanted us to continue to act as characters, even during the love scenes. We had to tell the story through the movements and not just the text. We chose how she was going to take her jacket off the first time, how she takes off the socks, the shoes — and how she was feeling about this. We had a long time [to prepare]. For over a week, it was the three of us talking about these scenes and figuring out how it would have to be, and it was not at all improvisation. We were training like theater actors. We did exercises with a Japanese dancing teacher, she’d make us do dances so that we’d be totally in the work.

SS: The sexual content of the film is fairly explicit. Did the shooting of those scenes make you feel awkward or liberated?

MH: What was amazing is that Pascale chose to do the film chronologically so that, as actors, we’d be freer as we went on. That was amazing. We didn’t have any money, but we went with the film in a very natural way. I was frightened. There were many things that were very important to me. The body had to tell something from the beginning to the end. It had to be something very alive. At the beginning I wanted her to be stiff, a bit boney and strange in her way of walking — not very at ease. By the end she’d be totally free. I thought it would be difficult, this very moment where you don’t look at yourself and give this sense of freedom, even if it’s strange or not perfect. That’s the truth of somebody who is inside herself and not looking at herself. It was a challenge. It was the first time I had to be exposed this way. With Pascale, we were talking about Constance’s study. She said, “There’s no way to me this woman can have a model’s body. She has to be a woman. We have to see the flesh. Are you okay with this? Every woman has the same body. This is what I want; I want to capture something that would look true and not fantasized.”

SS: What have been the personal repercussions of being in this film for you?

MH: Professionally, it started when the film came out. The press really wanted the film to be seen. The press in France has been wonderful. People were calling me, saying they liked me and wanted to meet me. With the César, things changed very suddenly; the media was different to me. I was in theater at the moment. I never had so many producers calling and wanting to know about the theater. I thought, “This is Lady Chatterley working for me now.” I didn’t expect it at all. It was a big thing for the film. I was unknown. Now things are changing. I have great projects to come.

SS: Julian Schnabel told me he wanted to cast you in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly because, in all the films he’d seen you in, you were always cast as this morose, narcissistic and suicidal young women.

MH: [Laughs] Yes, that’s true. But he hadn’t seen Lady Chatterley. Before this film, everything was very dark, complex characters. I have a theater background, and I was cast as difficult characters. He said to me, “In real life, you’re very lively, and I really want you to be funny and have a good time.’”

SS: The movie is a paradigm of global filmmaking. It’s a French-language film by an American painter and filmmaker, written by an Englishman and shot by a Pole and featuring a cast of mostly French actors, but also a French-Canadian and a Scandinavian, Max von Sydow.

MH: I love these kinds of projects. We had an amazing relationship. When I met Julian, he said, “I’d really like you to be in the film, but I don’t know which part I’d like to cast you in,” because I was too young to play Jean-Dominique’s wife. The first shot of the film was my hair going wild, with hair dryers, and it was a great moment for him, because he thought, “My film is starting now. This is me.” We had a mostly French crew, and I think of lot of them were thinking, “Who is Julian Schnabel?” The whole film went wild. He’s in the moment the whole time. He’d say, “We’re doing it this way,” and then he’d change. He wouldn’t rehearse. He would grab things or steal things from people.

SS: You have a substantial career in theater as well. Of course, that’s an entirely different kind of discipline. What’s the attraction for you of doing theater?

MH: I’ve been [a company member of Comédie-Française] for a year and a half. We have four shows during the week, and I typically work three times a week. It’s my background. I always thought cinema was something you can’t grab. It comes or it doesn’t. There’s nothing you can do about it. With theater, as an actor, you can work all the time. It’s why it is something I have to practice regularly. I have the feeling I’m working, things are getting better, and I’m learning my craft through theater. But you can’t stop and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, I missed it. Could we do it again?” That is challenging for an actor.



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