Despite her relative obscurity to many audiences, Bejo has previously held her own against some of Tinseltown’s more established starlets, most notably as a confidante of Shannyn Sossamon’s in Brian Helgeland’s pop confection “A Knight’s Tale.” But after “The Artist” is released this week via The Weinstein Company, expect to see a lot more of her, thanks to her unforgettable performance as a young ingénue named Peppy who’s plucked from obscurity and transformed into a Hollywood star. Bejo, meanwhile, credits her success in the film as being due to a combination of great writing and personal qualities that transcend physicality or even acting ability.
It’s in that opening scene that Peppy quite literally collides with screen legend George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) – a brush with fame that soon becomes infectious to the young woman. Bejo suggested there’s something universal about the thrill of a surprising experience where you inadvertently end up in a spotlight you didn’t necessarily seek. “When you have that in the very beginning, you love her right away,” she said. “You understand her just having fun – you’re like, 'Oh my God, she’s so funny.' She’s having her moment, she doesn’t realize that she’s over the top, and you excuse her. Because some time, something special happened to you, and you’re so happy that you’re just suddenly not on earth any more.”
Bejo admitted that she found a lot of inspiration in the starlets of yesteryear, albeit perhaps subliminally. “I think Hollywood movies helped me a lot, movies like the Clark Gable one, ‘It Happened One Night’ or ‘Philadelphia Story’ with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. I watched a lot of silent movies by [Frank] Borzage and [F.W.] Murnau that I didn’t know before,” she revealed. Ultimately, however, she decided that it was more important to internalize our collective memory of these actresses rather than directly impersonate one or more of them. “I realized that what I needed for this movie was not to understand silent movies; that was [director] Michel [Hazanavicius'] work. I just needed to find the American way of being a movie star. So that’s why I focused on ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood movies. But I’d seen them all before because my dad is a big cinephile, so it was something that was in my mind, and came in a very intuitive way. I didn’t really do any research; my own consciousness was pretty full of these images.”
Nevertheless, there was considerable pressure on her to get the details right, if only in order to accurately reflect our collective memory of that period. Bejo demurred when asked how she tapped into that image of ‘30s stardom: “I think I don’t think about it,” she said plainly. “I just try to focus on my character and how I would love to move and laugh and behave, and I think if I’ve got it right, then the audience will like it. If I do my work, you’re not going to think, ‘Oh, she’s not very much like this.’ When it works, the audience just follows you; it doesn’t think about it, it’s just following the story and the character, and that’s thanks to Michel and the story and how the characters are built and how it’s directed.”
“I think the most challenging moment was the interview,” she revealed. “Because I had to trust my body, and the fact that I was speaking so loud, so high, like ‘That’s life!’ and going so over the top. And we did it maybe ten times and I couldn’t bear myself any more, and I watched the crew cringing, and I was like, ‘I’m so sorry – I’m so bad!’ Michel was like, 'No, you’re very good – come and look at the monitor! Don’t judge yourself, just go!' So that was something where I really had to trust my body, and not think about my voice. But in other scenes, there was no dialogue and no need to be over the top, but just to be right.”
“I think in France it’s very hard and it’s always the same,” she said. “Here, you have so many different kinds of movies – action movies, science fiction, dramas, westerns and we don’t do that in France. ‘The Artist’ was very special – we’re doing a period movie about Hollywood, which we never do, so it was a lot of good things in one movie. And it’s the same in Spain – they’re doing lots of different kinds of movies. But that’s my job and I deal with what I have – and I’m pretty content.”
"The Artist" opens on November 23rd.