The last time Charlotte Gainsbourg worked with Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier, on 2009's Antichrist, she took home the best actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of a grief-stricken mother who escapes into the woods with her husband following the death of their young boy. What followed were scenes of explicit sex, fierce hatred, and the type of bone-chilling torture normally reserved for Eli Roth and Tom Six. When it came out, the Guardian asked, "Antichrist: a work of genius or the sickest film in the history of cinema?" (It was both.)
Having so recently explored the darkest corridors of her psyche for that film, the 40-year-old Parisian actor and musician surprised us all when she signed on to star in von Trier's follow-up, Melancholia, the spectacular two-part saga of a family unraveling in the midst of apocalypse. As Claire, the sister of Kirsten Dunst's depressive bride, Gainsbourg plays a women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Over tea inside New York's posh Crosby Street Hotel, Gainsbourg says laughing, "It might be time to do a romantic comedy."
Having already worked with Lars on Antichrist, were you more comfortable with him this time?
No, I wasn't that comfortable on this shoot. It was different. The first experience was so intense, and I had to go to such extremes, do things that I'd never done on camera before. There was no questioning how I felt—you just had to dare and trust him. With Melancholia, it was much more subtle, so it was difficult to find my character, to find my own space inside of that story. Lars never answers any questions, so you never know exactly what you're meant to do. [Laughs.]
When we spoke of Antichrist, no matter how creatively fulfilling it was, it sounded like you were put through the wringer. It didn't sound like a fun set.
But it was, because it was so exciting for me to be able to scream and to go wild. I remember texting my mother [singer and actor Jane Birkin] throughout the shoot because it was so fun to be able to tell her, This morning I was naked, we made love, and then I was in the forest howling. I had to make fun of what I was doing. It was important in order to be able to cope with it. In a weird way, it was fun.
But also emotionally exhausting.
The death of the child at the beginning of that film was really difficult. People always said, "Wasn't it hard being naked, masturbating?" But it was nothing compared to the death of the child. Masturbating was the easy part.
Presumably because you couldn't help but think about your own children.
I didn't want to go there with my own thoughts, with my own children, but it was tough not to.
On the set of Antichrist, Lars was so depressed that there were times he couldn't even lift the camera. Did you notice a big shift in his temperament when filming Melancholia?
I had never known him before, so I thought Lars was always the way he was when I saw him on Antichrist—in a bad state, shaking a lot, being ashamed of his condition. He was so frustrated by not being able to handle the camera. And then I saw him on Melancholia, and he was a different man. He was himself. He was saying how happy he felt. And, um… he wasn't drinking as much during this shoot, which made a huge difference.
It's interesting that you've had two very fulfilling film experiences with him given his reputation for being so difficult on his female stars.
But he's not!
Maybe so, but the myth that surrounds him must stem from somewhere.
I know that Björk had a very tough time. I heard a lot of stories about that. But apart from that, I haven't heard a lot of actresses complaining about what they went through. He empathizes with you. With Antichrist especially, he was so much a part of character. I needed his eye, and I also needed to portray him. That was my feeling.
Did you tap into that recognition for Melancholia?
For Melancholia, I felt that I was playing Willem Dafoe. Kirsten was playing Lars this time, because Lars is the sick one. [Laughs.] But, really. He sent me a text saying, "You can't always play me."
Kirsten was telling me that she's trying to convince him to travel by boat to America since he refuses to fly. I would have never thought he'd be willing to do that. My father [the late musician and actor Serge Gainsbourg] was like that, too. He needed to get completely drunk in order to get on a plane. Each time we would go from Paris to London, we would go by train. So I do understand that fear of flying, but with Lars, he won't even get in a car with you.
He refuses to ride with anyone?
Well, he has his caravan, and he has somebody driving it, but he's alone in it. He needs things his way.
He'll never sit next to someone in a car? That's insane.
We have shared a taxi together once, but I don't think he was very comfortable with that. He's not even comfortable on a train. [Laughs.]