It’s always interesting to meet someone you’ve seen on the screen so many times. You always wonder: Are they like their movie image? I know, I know — actors are just playing a role, that’s not really them up on the screen.
Except sometimes it is. Some people gravitate toward certain roles because of who they are. Sean Penn is very intense in person. Emmanuelle Beart does exude sensuality. Drew Barrymore is winningly flaky. Tom Cruise does seem earnest and genuine, but in a carefully contrived way.
So I was wondering, before meeting Julie Delpy, an actress I’ve admired for years, would I get the on-screen Julie? Was she at all like the smart, sensitive but sharp-tongued Celine of “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”? Was she as romantically confused and casually wise as her character Marion in her new film, “2 Days In Paris”?
It didn’t take long to find out. Sitting across from the blonde, 38-year-old actress-director in a room overlooking Hibiya Park, I suggest that “2 Days In Paris” — which Delpy wrote, directed, produced and starred in — is a perfect portrait of what happens when there’s no trust in a relationship.
“Well, I think it’s always one who’s suffering,” says Delpy, her brow creasing in a way that suggests this is a bit more than speculation. “I don’t think it’s both, because there’s always one that loves more than the other. I’ve never seen a relationship where people love each other equally. And sometimes it fluctuates. Love is so difficult, always this back and forth. Sometimes you’ll be madly in love with someone, and you ask ‘is it real?’ and they’re like, ‘naah, we’re just friends,’ and you’ll be dying inside. I’ve had many experiences like this.”
Welcome to the world of Julie Delpy, where romantic love is hoped for, obsessed over, analyzed and doubted. Talking to Delpy — a self-described “optimistic pessimist” — it’s clear that although her characters aren’t the same as her, there’s sure a lot of her in them.
“2 Days In Paris,” Delpy’s sophomore effort as a director (2002’s “Looking For Jimmy” never opened in Japan, alas), is a hilarious comedy about a couple having a total relationship meltdown. Many have compared it to “Annie Hall,” and Delpy and costar Adam Goldberg — her: smart, funky, goofy; him: too-smart, neurotic, needy — really do seem like a 21st-century reincarnation of the classic Woody Allen/Diane Keaton pairing.
Delpy, however, points to Martin Scorsese’s rare excursions into comedy in the 1980s — “King of Comedy” and especially “After Hours” — as having been a big influence. “I like the way it shows a person’s life going from A to Z in a short period of time, and really being destroyed by your environment. It’s hilarious, totally my kind of humor.”
“After Hours” followed a yuppie played by Griffin Dunne, who, trying to score with cool Soho chick Rosanna Arquette, suffers one indignity upon another until he winds up fleeing a vigilante mob by film’s end. The movie toyed with stereotypes, embracing a clueless yuppie’s paranoid vision of downtown, all pretentious artists, punks and perverts.
Delpy follows a similar approach in “2 Days In Paris,” right down to the insane taxi drivers. The film follows a couple, American Jack (Goldberg) and Parisian Marion (Delpy), on a two-day stopover in Paris to meet her parents (played by Delpy’s actual parents, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet.) The trip starts badly for Jack and gets worse as every bad stereotype about the French comes true: rude service, people who have an aversion to English speakers, street crime, a parade of Marion’s ex-lovers, and endless talk about sex, sex, sex. Jack can’t even attend a dinner party without someone telling him how he gave Marion her first orgasm.
Delpy says there is “some” truth to the stereotype. “Certainly French men talk about sex a bit more than the norm,” she says. “They don’t do much more, actually. Unfortunately! They just talk more (laughs). There’s also truth in the paranoia of Jack, imagining that French people are so open about sex, and everyone’s having sex with one another! It’s his paranoia that French women are whores, and suddenly there are little hints that seem to be reinforcing it.”
The stereotyping cuts both ways, with Jack’s hypochondria and finicky attitudes about strange foods and living conditions (the “deadly” black mold in Marion’s apartment sets him off) seeming particularly American. Delpy says, though, that she based that aspect of Jack on a friend who wasn’t American, adding “it just seems American because we’re conditioned to it. You know, the stereotype of an American (abroad) who’s a little bit uptight. . . . I must say, though, when I was working with Adam Goldberg, I was shocked about the extent to which he was a caricature of an American! He wouldn’t come out of the hotel because he was horrified that we put him in the 6th District, near St. Germain des Pres. He was like, “Oh my god, it’s in the middle of nowhere!’ “
If he’s a little kvetschy, it was worth it, because Delpy inspired a great, extremely funny display of passive- aggressiveness from the actor. Goldberg is most recognized from his role in “Saving Private Ryan” (he gets knifed while Jeremy Davis looks on helplessly), but his knack at comedy was displayed as far back as one of his very first films, “Dazed & Confused” in 1994.
The rumor mill had it that Delpy and Goldberg were once a couple; I can’t help but think, however, that “Two Days” would have been an excruciating film to make with an ex-lover, as every sort of petty spat couples ever have gets pilloried for laughs. (Try the bedroom scene where Jack whines about Marion always being on top.) When I gently raise the topic, Delpy says that “it was nothing,” but that while her affair with Goldberg was fleeting, their friendship endured. “We had a very interesting dynamic, which very much inspired the film,” said Delpy. “It was a friendship, but one in which we were constantly arguing.”
Goldberg, as Jack, certainly has to argue a lot in the film. As he learns more about Marion’s past — particularly her ex-boyfriends — he becomes more insecure about the present. By film’s end, he is demanding total honesty, telling Marion, “To truly love each other, we need to know the truth about each other.” I suggest that the film is evidence of the wrongness of this idea, that having too much information is worse than not knowing. Delpy shoots back: “That’s because all men wish their girlfriend was a virgin. In a weird way. Well, a virgin and a prostitute and their mother all at the same time!” This was punctuated by a big, throaty laugh.
Ignorance is bliss, I say. “You kind of put it aside,” says Julie. “But I think it’s better to know the truth and deal with it than discover the truth and freak out or imagine worse or . . . y’know, the truth is, I’m not really good at relationships. I’m very confused about it.” Delpy has been with someone for four years now, and given how Marion says in the film “two years nowadays is some kind of miracle,” this is a “double miracle” for Delpy.
She points out that Marion differs from her in that “Marion doesn’t know if she wants to be with one man for the rest of her life; she’s the one questioning the idea of true commitment.”
What’s truly striking about “2 Days In Paris” is Delpy’s sense of humor and — better yet — her mastery of comic timing, how to make a joke work on screen. Early in her career, Delpy had the good fortune to work with some excellent directors — Leos Carax in “Mauvais Sang,” Jean-Luc Godard in “Detective,” Krzysztof Kieslowski in “Three Colors: White,” Richard Linklater in “Before Sunrise.” “I think every director I work with is an influence on me,” she says, but you wonder where the comedy came from.
Her talky style is closest to that of Linklater, but she notes “Richard doesn’t like to leave anything to chance, doesn’t like improvisation.”
Delpy prefers to let some things happen serendipitously, though she says it was hard to stick to the script. “A lot of times I would push Adam to say a line he didn’t want to say, like ‘the mother’s a slut too!’ He was kind of embarrassed, like ‘how can I say that? It’s so rude! And to your real mother!’ He forced me to do other takes, but obviously I picked that one. It’s so politically incorrect, but quite funny and in character.”
Asked what it’s like to direct your parents, Delpy describes it as “a lot of fun, but a challenge. My Dad — it was like directing a 2 year old! Harder even!” But she enjoys it enough to have just finished directing another film, “The Countess,” a period drama set in 16th-century Hungary.
Delpy starred in this as well but said she’ll never do a period piece this way again: “It involves directing all day in a corset, and you can barely breathe.”
Maybe it’s good she takes a break from modern romance for a while. Delpy starts talking in the abstract about her characters in “2 Days,” how she sees its ambiguous ending as a happy one (much like “White” ‘s ending), and how she feels “there is the possibility of real love, not necessarily complicated.” This soon turns personal, though, with the actress confessing “I’m always amazed at how uncomplicated a person I am in relationships, and how people are convinced I’m extremely complicated.”
Could this have something to do with your films, I ask. “My films, yes! And also the fact that I’m so strong in my work life, it makes people terrified of me. Only when someone’s with me do they learn otherwise. But y’know, I know so many guys who end up bored with life, and now they call me back all like ‘why didn’t I stay with you?’ And I’ll say ‘it’s good you didn’t stay with me because you’re a f**king bore!’ (Laughs.) I tell them to go f**k themselves, because these men are idiots and they deserve to be miserable with their f**king manicurists.”
Julie, not complicated at all. Just watch her films and find out.