By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist November 13, 2012 at 3:00PM
After two visually lush and emotive efforts from director Xavier Dolan -- “J'ai Tué Ma Mère” and “Heartbeats,” both of which landed him on the Cannes red carpet -- those following his latest drama, “Laurence Anyways,” should have no problem believing the film's unconventional romance, near-three-hour runtime, and late-'80s period setting as anything less than appropriately ambitious. However, two facets sure to surprise audiences within this grand narrative are the wonderfully committed lead performances from Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clément (the latter of whom netted a Best Actress prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes this year for her work). Centered around high-school teacher and writer Laurence's transformation into a woman, and the effects of that choice on his girlfriend Fred, Poupaud and Clément impeccably chart the emotional pitch of the film, finding in their potentially sensational relationship not a hint of melodrama, but instead a realistic through-line that keeps the audience invested over a decade-spanning narrative.
'Laurence' marks Melvil's first encounter with the director, a choice made expedient by a last-minute casting dropout for the lead, while Clement featured in “J'ai Tué Ma Mère,” where Dolan first presented the idea to her. The four-year journey since has certainly seen Dolan grow in both form and content for his most demanding material yet, and Poupaud and Clément, while in Los Angeles promoting the film's recent AFI Fest premiere, likewise spoke about their journey with the film, Dolan's directing style, and the shock of 1980's costume design.
Melvil Poupaud: No, it was in Cannes for “Heartbeats.” It was there he told me about 'Laurence,' but there was actually already an actor [Louis Garrel] to play the lead then. He wanted to work with me though, because he had seen a few films I was in, so I was just supposed to play a supporting part. But then this other actor left the project abruptly, and when Xavier needed to find another quickly, he thought of me.
You both started acting at quite an early age.
MP: Yes. I'm much older, of course, but yes, I began acting when I was nine.
MP: Not really. We had no time - I got to know Xavier a bit better once the movie was finished, but because the production was so intense and so quick for me, we would only really talk about the film -- try to exchange ideas, listen to some music, things like that. So we had really no time to make those sorts of connections. I just thought, “Let's work, let's do it how you want it. I'm here for you.” After the movie was done though, at the premieres, we started to talk about things. But Xavier is so focused on his work… It's hard to shake.
In regards to the film's period '80s and '90s setting, did you guys contribute your own impressions of that time?
Suzanne Clément: Not many, but I remember when I started trying on the costumes, I hated them. [Laughs] I hated this period. It's not a period to me, it was just… boring and normal life. And when we tried everything on, the costumes seemed too big; I was so mad at Xavier, but you know, he knows exactly where and how he wants you in the scene. Some scenes were harder than others, though.
SC: The scene in the supermarket [set in the '80s], where I wear this leather jacket that is way, way over the top. I thought, “Xavier, do you hate me this much?”
MP: For me, because I knew that period so well, I didn't even notice sometimes that it was a period movie. When we were on set, he would stop and point out to me that all the cars on a street were rented, the houses were changed, and I would've never known.
SC: He just follows his intuition. He never loses contact with reality. He goes a bit wild, he experiments --
MP: But if it doesn't work, he stops. He says, “It's not working,” and everyone carry on.
SC: And with the actors it was great, because sometimes with famous actors, people take them and don't actually want to…
MP: Direct them.
SC: Right, because they're scared to hurt them. But the actor gets frustrated, because then they start to wonder if they're bad and if they are, nobody will ever say so.
MP: It was the case before with Nathalie Baye [who plays Laurence's mother].
SC: Right, so when Xavier started to actually demand quite a lot of her, she was really happy about it.
MP: Yeah, because I think it had been a while since she'd had this type of approach.
SC: And she's fucking good in the film. In the scenes with Laurence and her, there's a really amazing chemistry.