Vanessa Paradis has never been pinned down to one label. Before she was an actress, she was a model and a singer, becoming globally famous at the age of 14 when her single Joe Le Taxi became a smash hit in 15 countries. But despite winning a French Cesar for her 1989 debut Noce Blanche, she’s turned down several major film offers over the years and taken prolonged sabbaticals from acting in order to focus on her music and raise two children with Johnny Depp (they’ve been a couple since the 1990s). In the last couple of years, however, she has picked up the pace again with film work and her starring role in Cafe De Flore may be a sign that Paradis, now 39, is about to enter the most fruitful phase of her acting career.
Jean-Marc Vallée’s emotive, mystical drama tells two parallel stories: one, set in present-day Montreal, depicts the break-up of a marriage and its devastating impact on Carole (Hélène Florent), who remains convinced that her bond with husband Antoine (Kevin Parent) was meant to last forever; the other is set in 1969 Paris, where single mother Jacqueline (Paradis) is raising a young son with Down’s Syndrome.
To call Jacqueline devoted is an understatement – she showers love and affection on Laurent (Marin Gerrier), enrolling him at a normal school, teaching him to defend himself from bullies and maintaining a steely determination that he’ll live past the norm of 25 years for a person with Down’s Syndrome.
But when he develops a close attachment to Veronique, another Down’s syndrome child, her maternal devotion comes under threat, leading to unforeseen consequences. It’s fair to say that Paradis is heartbreaking in the role and she was duly rewarded with a Best Actress prize at the 2012 Genies, Canada’s equivalent to the Oscars.
Congratulations on your award. Were you there to accept in person?
Thank you very much. I wasn’t but Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, went and accepted it on my behalf. He asked me to send a little note just in case I won. I thanked Jean-Marc and Marin, the little boy that plays opposite me, because if they’re giving me the prize, it’s really because of these two men. It’s the case in every movie that you’re only good if the people around you are good. That little boy added so much grace and so much humour to our little tandem.
Was it difficult finding a young actor to play your son?
It was by luck and by love that Jean-Marc found Marin, because he is the actual friend – boyfriend even – of Alice [Dubois], who plays Veronique in the movie. Alice’s parents had sent a tape of her to be considered for the movie and Marin was on that tape because he was playing with her. They’re pretty much in love with each other.
You’re known to be picky with film roles. Why did you choose to do Cafe De Flore?
It was so brilliantly written. It was a shock to read but such a beautiful script. I also loved the movies that Jean-Marc had done before and the fact that he offered me a character unlike any I’ve been offered before was irresistible.
She’s a tough and devoted mother. What did you make of Jacqueline?
She has set a goal in her life because she has nothing. There’s no husband, no family, no friends and no money – nothing but the love she has to give this little boy. It’s all about him for her and she lives with the threat of losing him so her goal is to make him strive and survive and be strong. She doesn’t do everything well – it’s actually the contrary – but she does everything from her heart.
Did you ask Jean-Marc why he wanted you for this role?
He didn’t want me for the role! He met with other actresses in France. But after I read the script, I called him and I think he could see that I was so into it. It was that conversation that made him choose me, I think.
What did your collaboration with Jean-Marc bring out in the character?
She’s so different from me so I had to erase a bunch of things. I couldn’t be seductive, sensitive, vulnerable. When Jean-Marc and I were looking for the voice of this woman, it became really clear at one point that she had to be very masculine. Because she is both the mom and the dad, we had to find the masculinity in her.
Without giving too much away, did you ever meet or talk to the actors who star in Cafe De Flore’s parallel storyline?
No, we only met when the movie was done. They started to shoot the Canadian part first, and then Jean-Marc came to Paris for a month of preparation. He brought a 20-minute edit of what they had just shot in Montreal so we got to see the other characters and also the tone and rhythm and level of emotion they were playing. We still had to find our bearings together but there was already a movie that we could relate to, even if our story in Paris has nothing to do with theirs… apparently.
Had you had experience of working with or knowing anyone with Down’s Syndrome prior to making Café De Flore?
No, it was the first time. And it was an amazing experience because Marin comes from such an amazing family. He has an older brother and a younger brother and the parents, Natalie and Christophe, are just unbelievable people – great parents and great human beings. This little boy was born with Down’s Syndrome. He was also born with an amazing personality, amazing intelligence and a sense of humour. It’s in his genes. It was beautiful spending time with them; we got along so well.
Were his parents there all the time?
No. It’s a tough thing for parents to leave their son in the hands of other people. It’s a big responsibility for us and they trusted us very much. They got to know us and then trusted us enough to leave their boy with us. They gave us shortcuts to what he likes, what he doesn’t like, what works, what doesn’t work.
How did he behave with you, the woman playing his mother?
He was great. That was my biggest fear because with Down’s Syndrome, most of the time there is a problem with assimilation, of processing new information. It’s quite a weird thing anyway for anybody – kids, grown-ups, Down’s Syndrome or not – to be in the scenes we were playing. It’s not a comedy, it’s tough, but he always knew that we were playing and when it was done, I was just Vanessa.
So you made him feel relaxed on set?
You know what? He made me feel relaxed. Everybody fell in love with this little boy on the set. He’s so funny and he’s a little angel. He’s a demon as well! He’s very stubborn so it wasn’t easy all the time.
Did you introduce your own children to him?
Yes. We had a few parties where we danced and ate fries and drank Coca-Cola. It was great.
Here’s the ‘official trailer’ to Cafe De Flore, but be warned there are two f-words in there…