Romain discovers his inner femme

Interview with Roman Duris about François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend.

by Richard Mowe

Duris left holding the baby in The New Girlfriend by François Ozon
Duris left holding the baby in The New Girlfriend by François Ozon

That most hunky and hirsute of French actors, Romain Duris (40), gets in touch with his feminine side (and then some) in François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend (Une Nouvelle Amie). Adapted from a short story by British writer Ruth Rendell, it's turned in to a heady concoction of transformation, desire, sexuality and identity. Duris plays a bereaved husband, David, who on occasion turns in to cross-dressing Virginie. Shocked at first by David’s open admission of a long-standing cross-dressing habit, his late wife’s close childhood friend Claire (Anais Demoustier) is intrigued to be in on his secret. Duris had already demonstrated his feminine wiles in Christophe Honoré’s Seventeen Times Cecile Cassard, in a campy rendition of the eponymous cabaret dancer’s song from Jacques Demy’s Lola. But at Ozon’s behest the actor takes it to another level. The film screens at the Glasgow Film Festival in February before receiving a full release in the UK later in the year. As part of the delegation of Gallic actors and directors at the 17th Rendez-vous with French Cinema in Paris, Duris (a protegé of Cédric Klapisch in Le Peril Jeune as well as the trilogy of Pot Luck, Russian Dolls and Chinese Puzzle) talks about his inner femme and why it was a liberating and engrossing experience.

Richard Mowe: Were you surprised when François Ozon asked you to appear as a woman for most of his new film?

RD: No, actually, because François read I wanted to play a woman in an article that appeared some time ago. The interviewer asked me what kind of character would I like to play and I said a woman because I was sure that the transformation would be very interesting to do. And I think also that all actors have a female part inside of them. Every guy, I mean. I was interested to play with that more and to reach to that part inside of me.

RM: Did the role resemble what you were imagining at the beginning?

RD: It was even better because I felt free on another level. Even in the way I acted I felt freer. I have been doing this strange job for more than 20 years so I have been incarnating lots of guys but now I am given a woman to play. It is magical and you can play 100 women in one movie. Every time I had 1,000 options to play with in all the small details.

RM: Did you find out anything new about yourself and about women in general when you played the role?

RD: I discovered how important it is to play with the physical aspect and to trust something you feel inside. I worked with a coach for a month or may be more and I worked on the physical things. I was walking with high heels, and examining different details of a woman’s daily life. It was fascinating to listen to all the things that came as a result of opening this little door within me and to carry out these daily physical activities.

RM: What was the hardest thing to learn?

RD: I like to learn so that wasn’t difficult. The difficult thing was to trust. Before the shoot I wanted to come on the set and not to have any doubts about the importance of what the transformation into a woman meant for David. It had to be authentic and obvious and profound and it had to be sensitively handled otherwise it would have turned in to a farce.

RM: How much of the character did Ozon leave for you to invent and how much of it was written on paper before you started?

RD: It is difficult to say because most of the story was there on paper but after you have to imagine a lot of things. There are no real markers about why a man wants to transform himself into a woman. It is very personal and there are many different levels. It is something you have to find within yourself.

RM: What did your family think of it all?

RD: My sister saw stuff about her in the portrayal because it is true if you have a big sister and you have lived with her for some 18 years she would be a source of inspiration. I borrowed from her and also probably from every woman I have known – but I did not ask their permission!

RM: Did Ozon treat you like a woman on the set?

RD: Yes, he called me “she.” He did not have a choice because I was a woman at that stage and I spent like two hours in hair and make-up every morning. I was an actress for sure. For me two hours for make-up is a lot. It was magic for me because it was part of the process of feeling the character come alive – the physical transformation helped me to feel even more a woman.

RM: Did you keep any aspects of that feminity after the day’s shoot?

RD: Yes, I kept on my nail polish so I would get some funny looks in restaurants. She was difficult to leave at the end of the day, and also difficult to forget at the end of the shoot. It was a real pleasure to play her and without the film I could not have done anything like that. It is not fancy dress. It was nice to find out what it was like to be a woman in reality. And no I didn’t keep the dresses but I did keep one pair of high heels and I lost them.

RM: Are the two characters actually one human being?

RD: They are two parts of the same person. It was also a consideration of how to create David because we concentrated so much on Virginie at the start. We didn’t want the woman to be very light and happy, and David very sombre and dark. There is a certain joy and happiness that you see in Virginie that you may not see when is just David. David is more complicated and particular to define than Virginie.

RM: Do you have any female icons that also may have helped you invest in the part?

RD: There are two different styles: actresses who do their roles with a lot of femininity and pride such as Pretty Woman. Or Charlize Theron in the commercial for Dior. That is a very strong feminine image. On the other side there are documentaries about men who dress up as women and I watched them. I had a good mix of things that came from the outside.

RM: Ozon has been compared in some aspects to Pedro Almodovar. Were he and his films a source of inspiration?

RD: No, not too much, because I did not want to look at men who had done this sort of transformation in other films. But I did watch Tootsie because it was older and it was a comedy and then with Tootsie if you stop the film in the middle you still have Tootsie as a creation – she has a life of her own. And I wanted to bring some of that to Virignie.

RM: When you went in to the film were you unsure of the tone – whether it was supposed to be a comedy or drama?

RD: We tried to keep it light and funny but there is also something serious, tragic and dramatic, and it poses questions at the end about which you cannot laugh.

RM: When you saw the finished film were you surprised?

RD: It was a bizarre feeling. It is hard to say what I felt. I really went on a long journey for this character. It is complicated to look at yourself on screen and especially so in this film. The shoot is its own experience, which belongs to you, but the film is something else. I like the period between finishing the shoot and seeing the final film because that belongs to me. Once the film is out there it is time to say Goodbye.

RM: Did you have any expectations about working with Ozon?

RD: I like the fact that he is impatient because that provides a certain kind of energy during the shoot and on the set. I am ready to do another film with him but that is not up to me. I am open to all propositions. All Ozon’s films are very different and he has a rich filmography. He is always framing the shot and once he has done it he wants to get on to the next one. He is like a painter who once he has finished one work he wants to get on to the next one. I find that energy very interesting.

RM: Do you think you understand women better now than previously?

RD: No, no - there is still plenty of mystery around women. During the shoot and because we spent so long in make-up it is true that I became very conscious about all the details of make-up and so my eye became more attuned – perhaps more so than most men.

RM: Did you have detailed discussions about David’s sexuality and motivations or was it left reasonably fluid?

RD: It was left rather vague because I do not think such background would have helped to create the character and make him any different. We didn’t want to put words on David’s sexuality – it is more about gender and also freedom to love who you want to love. There is a strong moment in the film where Claire is going to make love with David as Virginie and then is shocked when she comes across his penis and perhaps she has a further way to go to accept her own complications on sexuality and motivations. David’s sexuality does not change that much – Claire refuses him as a man. His desire for her is the same. I wanted to keep it in my imagination.

RM: Is psychology important in your work as an actor?

RD: You do not see that as much as you see the “dance” of an actor. Physical aspects are more important but it depends on the film. Perhaps having done a theatre piece with the late Patrice Chéreau, perhaps I felt the need for psychology more in the theatre when you have to reinvent the character every night. You need more information and background for the stage.

RM: Has playing a woman helped you to develop as an actor?

RD: Perhaps I have learned to trust myself more about certain things because I am someone who has a lot of doubts. The rhythm and timing was very different and that was always important for me. Some times I had the habit or weakness of going too fast but in Virginie I had the chance to relax and I am using that in my more masculine roles. So thank you Virginie.

RM: What is your take on same sex marriages, which are in the headlines in France and elsewhere and are the subject of much debate?

RD: I think we have gone beyond those reactions. People were trying to protest against something they wanted to control but it has already escaped and we have gone beyond that. This freedom that some want stopped is already established. Marriage was going down and seemed not to be so popular but through this it is coming back in to style.

RM: Do you think there is stereotypical way of regarding a French man?

RD: If there is I cannot describe him. You have one example in front of you. The last Cédric Klapisch movie we shot in New York [Chinese Puzzle] I played one but I do not know exactly what defines a French guy.

RM: Is there another kind of character that you haven’t played yet but would like to play?

RD: I would like to try playing a policeman, especially in the aftermath of the terrorist events. It is difficult to say, OK, I want to play a certain role.

RM: Do you have anything in common with your generation of French actors?

RD: I don’t really know. The work has changed. The status of an actor has changed. We used have real stars but that has changed. Belmondo, Delon – that has altered. Even if we are famous we are not like stars. It is a way of being that has changed but also in everyone’s minds too. Before we wanted to dream and fantasise about stars with a privileged life, now we eye privilege with suspicion.

RM: So what are your projects?

RD: I am doing a first film by a new director called Emmanuel Courcol Céssez-feu (Ceasefire), which is about a character during the First World War who lives in Africa. And the film is about his return to France after the horrors of the war and the effect on his family. That explains the beard, which will get cut shorter during the film. I am on the hunt for interesting characters rather than the typical French guy, which I seem to get offered all the time. I want to work on a character – I don’t want to play around my own image but rather create a role. I have an agent in Los Angeles and the UK so we will see what comes up next. Virginia certainly helped me to break through a barrier.

The New Girlfriend on release in the UK from 22 May. It will receive its Scottish premiere as part of the Glasgow Film Festival (18 February to 01 March).

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