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Silence is golden
7:00am Saturday 14th January 2012 in Celebrity Interviews
Berenice Bejo is becoming the toast of Hollywood, thanks to her role as Peppy Miller in The Artist, released in cinemas nationwide on Friday, January 6. The French actress discusses how the silent black and white film has changed her life.
By Kate Whiting.
If you haven't yet heard of Peppy Miller or Berenice Bejo, you soon will. They're both actresses, but only one of them is real.
French actress Bejo plays Peppy, a young wannabe silent movie star trying to make her way in 1930s Hollywood, in the silent, black and white film The Artist, which is making huge waves and already hotly tipped for awards.
Hailed as the feel-good hit of May's Cannes Film Festival, The Artist has already received Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture, Best Actor for Jean Dujardin (who plays fading screen icon George Valentin) and Best Supporting Actress for Bejo.
With her sparkling eyes, glossy dark hair and classic looks, the actress is every inch the modern screen icon and it's easy to see why her director husband Michel Hazanavicius wrote the film with her in mind.
"Peppy was written for me, so I knew there was a lot of me in her," says Bejo, 35, looking effortlessly chic in simple jeans, a t-shirt and a black jacket.
While George Valentin reigns at the silent movie box office, Peppy is a young ingenue, totally starstruck by their first meeting on the red carpet for one of his premieres.
Peppy by name and by nature, the aspiring actress turns an awkward moment into an opportunity for publicity when she drops a kiss on his cheek.
"I enjoyed everything on this movie, but that was a difficult scene to film, because Michel was very far away. There were so many extras, so we were kind of alone.
"When you're acting and you hear 'Cut!' from far away, you don't know if it's good. We'd been shooting for so many weeks and suddenly I wasn't sure of myself, but now I love this scene. She's so cute on the red carpet, and so funny," giggles Argentinian-born Bejo in her soft French accent.
Hazanavicius had dreamed of making a silent film for 20 years, but had to wait until he'd made a name for himself with his OSS 117 spy movie parodies, starring both Dujardin and Bejo.
And while his stars first laughed at the idea, they soon warmed to it: "We said, 'If you finance it, we'll be there'," recalls Bejo.
"He said, 'I don't want a pantomime; I'll show you some movies and you'll see the acting is very simple, very normal'.
"We all know Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy, which is over the top, because it was comedy, but [silent] dramas weren't like that - I was very reassured when I saw them."
Filming with an English speaking cast and crew - including John Goodman and Malcolm McDowell - had its moments ("You have to eat lunch in just half an hour") and working so closely with her husband wasn't all plain sailing, either.
"We once had an argument and it was so funny, because we went behind a set and were going 'argh rah rah' in French, and the crew, who were all American, were like, 'Are they fighting?' At one point, we started laughing because it was so stupid," she giggles.
Bejo grew up watching old films with her mum and dad, and it was seeing the golden age of Hollywood on screen that made her want to be an actress.
"My favourite actor was Robert Mitchum when I was 10 years old. So when Michel said, 'I want to write a movie that's set in 1930s Hollywood', it was perfect for me,"
Valentin is very much the central character, as the plot revolves around his reluctance to embrace the 'talkies', while a smitten Peppy's star is busily rising - so Bejo made sure her scenes counted.
"Sometimes, when you have a lead role and you're there every day, you're not going to be 'on it' all the time. In this movie, because I have few moments, I worked very hard and I had so much pleasure," she says, her nose wrinkling sweetly as she giggles again.
All her hard work is paying off as audiences and critics are falling in love with Peppy and The Artist, but the awards season will involve doing many more rounds of publicity.
"Can it be any more intense than what I'm doing now?" laughs Bejo, who's reluctant to comment on her Oscar chances.
"I won't be crying in my bed if I don't get nominated, because it's already so amazing."
But when more nominations do come, don't expect Bejo to be walking the red carpet in Peppy Miller's beautiful flapper dresses: "I don't think it's a good idea. I'm not Peppy, I'm Berenice and if I get a nomination, it's for my work and as an actor," she says.
Bejo now lives in Paris with Hazanavicius, their three-month-old baby and three-year-old son, plus his two daughters from a previous marriage. So there's no way she'll be moving to LA when Hollywood starts calling.
"Oh no, I can't move out of Paris, but as an actor, you don't need to live there. You're doing a movie for two months, normally, they never shoot movies in LA, so I'll be on location. 'Mummy's going to work for two months and she'll be back for weekends' - great!" she says, smiling.
"For me as an actor, I already have all I want. In France, I changed stature. I got so many scripts and have met so many directors. If I have something more, it's great, but I'm already so thankful to the movie for everything that's already arrived."
Extra time - A Potted history of the silent film :: 1888: Louis Le Prince creates the first narrative silent film, a two-second sequence of people walking in a garden in Roundhay, Leeds.
:: 1903: The Great Train Robbery, a 12 minute long film, marks a new milestone in movie history with its then-groundbreaking use of location shooting and cross cutting.
:: 1911: Nestor Studios pioneers the Hollywood film industry as it becomes the first motion picture studio to open in Hollywood, with other studios soon to follow suit.
:: 1915: The Birth Of A Nation becomes the highest-grossing silent film in history, raking in 10m dollars at the box office in its first year of release - despite its overtly racist content.
:: 1920: Germany ventures into the movie business with horror flick The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari, the first film to employ a twist ending in its plot.
:: 1927: Warner Brothers releases The Jazz Singer, the first commercially successful movie with sound and dialogue, heralding the decline of the silent film.
:: 1936: Charlie Chaplin retires his iconic character of the tramp in Modern Times, considered to be the last silent film. Appropriately, it ends with him walking away into an endless horizon.
:: The Artist is released nationwide on Friday, January 6