x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Strong material

As she takes on the role of Coco Chanel, one of fashion's most influential women, the actress Audrey Tatou speaks about her career, her goals and herself.

"She had such a brilliant spirit," says Audrey Tatou of Coco Chanel, whom she plays in Coco Avant Chanel. "She was so intelligent with such a sense of humour, a genius."

As she takes on the role of Coco Chanel, one of fashion's most influential women, the actress Audrey Tautou speaks to James Luxford about her career, her goals and doing things her way. The Beaumont-born actress Audrey Tautou has always been -eclectic in her choice of roles, one moment a romantic heroine, the next a tragic protagonist. The actress, however, is very sure of who she is - a starlet who courted Hollywood but refused to join its A-list, preferring to be known primarily as a French actress. Even in her home country she shied away from the limelight, opting to travel to Indonesia after the premiere of her film Amélie instead of capitalising on her new-found fame. While she will not be drawn on her private life, her attitudes towards filming seem to reflect her philosophy in general: "I have to be in charge." Tautou has taken on what may be her most challenging role yet, as Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, one of the most influential women in modern times. In addition to playing the designer, Tautou has also agreed to be the face of the company, taking over from Nicole Kidman, who -famously starred in Baz Luhrmann's advertisement for the brand. Directed by Anne Fontaine, Coco Avant Chanel, or Coco Before Chanel, tells the story of the young Chanel, who worked as a seamstress by day, sang for a rowdy crowd at night and dreamed of stardom and life in Paris. The film shows Chanel's developing love of fashion along with her penchant for simplicity and smaller frames in an age of excess and curves. "Before Chanel, women were wearing decorations," -Tautou says. "To show that they were rich, they had to show that they had clothes and jewels. But she was very unique because she knew that that was not elegance, because true -elegance comes from within." The film also follows Chanel's -relationships with two men - first the French aristocrat Balsan (played be Benoît -Poelvoorde), who befriends her in the bars where she sings and -accepts her as his lodger, introducing her to high society, and -second, the Englishman "Boy" Capel (-Alessandro Nivola), Chanel's true love and the man who urges her to follow her dream. "Benoît is really an excellent -actor," Tautou says. "I did not know him before shooting but I had seen him in other films." She is equally enthusiastic about her other male co-star. "Alessandro, who was an American acting in French, has this charm and mystery that brings a lot of contrast. It was very important for me to play next to both of them. Their characters were crucial men in the life of Chanel." One of the film's final scenes features Tautou as Chanel, sitting on the famous mirrored staircase of her apartment as models walk past. For Tautou, living up to the expectations of those gathered on set was one of her biggest challenges. "It was the scariest scene for me," she says. "Of course, there were a lot of models but also some people who had known her there, people who worked for Chanel the firm, and all the extras. So, I was very, very focused. I was thinking: 'If I show any lack of confidence, I am dead!'" However, Tautou insists it is not a film about fashion. "I was interested in the Chanel character, and with the director we agreed to make a movie for people who are not crazy about fashion; that's too restrictive, it's not interesting." The film is partly based on the book L'Irrégulière by Edmonde Charles-Roux. One needs only to glance through the photo section of the book to notice the startling resemblance between Tautou and Chanel in her early twenties. Tautou, however, brushes this off. "I had noticed, but it's common of some people in this area of France." Such a part had to involve a mountain of research. "I read the books about her and watched footage, but she was much older than she is when I play her," Tautou says. "I wanted to see her movements, and I also noticed how clever she was. I looked at a lot of photos, because the photos allowed me to use my imagination, to think about what had happened or where she was in her life when the photo was taken. I tried to know her as much as I could." Through the research, Tautou says: "I did not develop a special knowledge or taste for her clothes, but I have always liked them because the style is very elegant, very feminine and very French." Tautou believes it is the strength of the person that makes Chanel so enduring, rather than the fashion she created. "I think that her desire to hide her past - the fact that she was an orphan and a self-made person - she didn't want to use that to make her glory 'nice,' or to say: 'You see where I came from?' She was so proud that she didn't want people to pity her. She just wanted to be equal. I think that's what makes this character so mysterious and so powerful." Playing the part also changed a few of the impressions Tautou had about Chanel. "I knew just a bit about her personality - the main lines, the arrogance, the pride," the actress says. "Apart from that, I knew nothing. I had about the same knowledge as most of the people in the world. "Maison Chanel, Coco Chanel; we have an idea. We know a face, but we do not really know her personality and why her destiny was so amazing. Now I know her better, I am very sensitive about her character. She had such a brilliant spirit that I am very moved; she was so intelligent with such a sense of humour, a genius." As for Tautou, it may be too early for her to have achieved the iconic status of someone like Chanel, but she is already scaling the heights of stardom in the film industry. First appearing on television in 1996, aged 20, she found international acclaim five years later as the titular waitress in Jeanne-Pierre Jeunet's whimsical Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie). Although the film was controversially ignored by Cannes, the -Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took notice, nominating it for five Oscars, including Best Foreign Language Film (Tautou was invited to join the Academy in 2002). She followed this success with 10 films in five years, gaining more critical acclaim for A Very Long -Engagement and the British film Dirty -Pretty Things. -Although many predicted she would decamp to Hollywood almost immediately after Amélie, it was not until 2006 that she was cast opposite Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code. As with Amélie, for which she was chosen over Emily Watson for the lead, she beat -several established Hollywood -actresses, including Kate Beckinsale and her fellow French actresses Julie Delpy and Virginie Ledoyen (who starred in Danny Boyle's The Beach), to the role of Sophie Neveu. Howard -reportedly tried several times to get the initially hesitant Tautou to audition for the role. Ironically, the film opened the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, but the premiere was met with a poor reaction from the crowd, which laughed at a pivotal scene and booed the film as the credits rolled. In spite of poor reviews, The Da Vinci Code made $224 million worldwide. Despite this brief jump into the mainstream, Tautou is often quoted as saying she considers herself a fundamentally French actress, and she has backed up this claim by appearing in another critically adored comedy, Hors De Prix (Priceless), and starring opposite the Tell No One -director Guillaume Canet in Hunting and Gathering in 2007. A consistent theme running through the 32-year-old's career is an insistence on doing things her way. She puts her happiness before notoriety or fame. This -single-mindedness has led to some controversial moments. Before the release of Amélie, the then-French President Jacques Chirac hosted a screening that Tautou declined to attend, saying she was in Portugal. She was, in fact, watching her brother being sworn in as a policeman (when she eventually turned up and Chirac commented that he thought she was in Portugal, the -actress -allegedly replied "you'll have to check your sources"). "I don't have special goals," she says. "I'm not ready to do everything for a career. I am not ambitious in this way. When I wanted to be an actress, I knew what I wouldn't do. I am not a person who compromises." Early reviews for Coco Avant Chanel have been positive, with the trade paper Screen International calling -Tautou "striking". Variety's Jordan Mintzer says: "Tautou's performance is one of her finest to date, revealing her character's headstrong personality through smart delivery and a permanent but attractive pout." The Hollywood Reporter says: "Tautou fully inhabits the role of Coco, her face a mask as if her character has yet to determine which identity she is to assume, sexually as much as socially. The flamboyant Balsan, by contrast, appears to be all of a piece - -Poelvoorde is excellent, stealing many of the scenes he appears in - but Fontaine shows that his force-of-nature persona too is a mask, concealing deeper vulnerabilities." As for the future, Tautou is keen to keep her options open, but insists French cinema is where most of her work is. "I don't say that I will never make another English film or never make another film in -America," she says. "But I am French. My home is here and I will never move to America. I can work on wonderful films without leaving home." Perhaps this determination to stay true to herself is what makes her popularity so enduring. Her individuality mirrors that of Amélie Poulain; her strength of mind that of Sophie Neveu's in The Da Vinci Code. It seems that what makes her characters so interesting and endearing is exactly what makes her so loved as an actress. Coco Avant Chanel will be released in the UAE later this year.