France’s new breakout star

Lyna Khoudri leaps from Papicha to Wes Anderson

by Richard Mowe

Lyna Khoudri, most promising newcomer in Papicha
Lyna Khoudri, most promising newcomer in Papicha Photo: Unifrance
In a relatively short space of time French-Algerian actress Lyna Khoudri seems to be everywhere - from Mounia Meddour’s multi-award winning Papicha (now available to view on digital platforms) to Wes Anderson’s much anticipated The French Dispatch in which she plays a student activist and co-star Timothée Chalamet’s girlfriend.

She still cannot quite believe she won a César award for most promising newcomer in Papicha for which Meddour won best first film as well as the accolade of representing Algeria at the Oscars.

“I wanted it so much that I still cannot fathom that I actually won it,” Khoudri said. Rather than residing ostentatiously at her flat in Paris, the statuette is safely under lock and key at her agent’s office.

Meddour says she was captivated by Khoudri’s “strength and fragility.” She appreciated the actress’s chemistry. “There is that innocence and enthusiasm but also a formidable rigour and a need for truth,” explained Meddour. “In talking with her her I discovered that her personal history was very close to my own. Her father was a journalist and her family had to leave Algeria in the 90s. She had to rebuild everything like me. I could not have found an actress that could better understand Nedjma.”

Lyna Khoudri on her character in Papicha: 'I would like to think I would have had the strength and courage of my character but I am not sure I would have managed it.'
Lyna Khoudri on her character in Papicha: 'I would like to think I would have had the strength and courage of my character but I am not sure I would have managed it.' Photo: Unifrance/Jean-François Robert
The nickname Papicha in Algerian means "a funny, attractive, liberated young woman” which could well describe Khoudri, 27, who was only two when her family moved away, first to Germany and then to France. She still managed to find many points in common with Nedjma, an 18-year-old student who refuses to let the Civil War prevent from experiencing a “normal” life and decides to fight for her freedom and independence by putting on a fashion show.

“If I had lived in Algeria at that period I would like to think I would have had the strength and courage of my character but I am not sure I would have managed it,” said Khoudri for whom the working relationship with Meddour turned in to a close friendship after discovering a common work ethic and the same artistic vision. “She’s become like a big sister for me,” said Khoudri, who started acting with her friends school before going to theatre school in Paris and then being selected for the prestigious National Theatre in Strasbourg by which time she was already a “veteran” of some seven films besides winning the Venice Film Festival’s Orizzonti Award for best actress for her role in The Blessed (Les Bienheureux).

She misses being in the theatre, but concedes that the temptations of a varied range of film roles have held sway, in particular the invitation to join Wes Anderson’s all-star cast for The French Dispatch. Among the ranks of Adrien Brody, Tilda Swinton, Kate Winslet and Bill Murray as well as French actors Mathieu Amalric and Léa Séydoux she was pleased to discover someone she had admired from afar: Frances McDormand.

Lyna Khoudri in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. 'It was a bit like being plunged into Disneyland'
Lyna Khoudri in Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. 'It was a bit like being plunged into Disneyland' Photo: Searchlight Pictures
“It was a completely new world,” she says in awe of the production which has been described as “a love letter to journalism” and was shot in and around Angoulême in the Charente region in south-west France. “I have never seen so many people on a set - it was bit like being plunged into Disneyland. I was particularly impressed by the technical team as much as my fellow actors. They all knew each other and had worked on previous Anderson films yet managed to have the same level of enthusiasm as the first time around.”

She liked living away from her normal surroundings and being part of “a big family,” whereas she finds it difficult to let go of characters when the film shoot is closer to home and every evening she returns to her usual routines.

She also appreciates when she has to change her personality and looks completely for a role. “I don’t like looking in the mirror at work and being myself peering back,” she says. In another new part in Gagarine by Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh (presented as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s Label 2020 selection) she plays a young gypsy girl who befriends a youngster (Alséni Bathily) named after the space ace because of his addiction to the world of science. “I got to know the gypsies for the film and learned a few phrases of romany. Most of all, though, I loved it because I had to dye my dark hair vibrant red,” says Khoudri.

Although Covid has put a brake on production levels in France Khoudri is biding her time until the autumn when she has a new shoot in the pipeline. “I have to be patient - like the rest of the world,” she says.

Papicha is vailable on Curzon Home Cinema/Barbican on Demand/Vimeo on Demand (UK)/BFI Player/ Virtual Cinema. It is also in selected cinemas, including Belfast Queen’s Film Theatre, tomorrow (14 August)

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