Berenice Bejo on ‘The Artist’: ‘Everyone is Gonna Be So Jealous’

“Who’s That Girl?” reads a Variety headline in the early stages of ‘The Artist.’ The subject of that query is Peppy Miller, an unknown wannabe actress thrust into the limelight when she stumbles, literally, into silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) outside the premiere of his newest hit. Of course, it’s also an apt question for the woman playing Peppy Miller — Berenice Bejo, the 35-year-old Argentine-born French actress who has been the recipient of her own spotlight this fall as a possible Best Supporting Actress contender for her work in the new film. Who’s that girl?

Possibly the next big thing. Bejo — who is the long-time partner of ‘Artist’ director Michel Hazanavicius, as well as a new mother — has been a working actress since 1996, but is only now getting some major recognition. That’s because she turns Peppy into a whirling dervish of a character — a strong-willed and kind-hearted female who knows what she wants and stops at nothing to get it, while simultaneously remaining true to herself in the process. This isn’t ‘All About Eve’ territory; Miller, as portrayed by Bejo, is one of the most charming characters you’ll likely find onscreen this year. No wonder Bejo in awe of the experience she had while shooting the film. “I feel so lucky,” she told Moviefone, while also discussing ‘The Artist’s’ box-office potential, her reaction to the finished film, and why Hazanavicius is such a good director.

Michel has said that he needed to convince himself to make ‘The Artist.’ What did he have to do to convince you?
He didn’t have to convince me. I really trust him and I admire him as a director and writer, so I was just very excited and very curious to read the script. I couldn’t wait. The first time I read the script was in December 2009, and I was like, “OK, I’m the first one.” I had meetings and stuff and I had the script and I knew I had the script waiting for me at home. And I laid down on a couch like this and I started reading and I cried. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so lucky!” He did such a great job. There’s something that people don’t realize is how hard it was to write the script. To make it so touching and every image. He’s been really working hard.

Peppy is such a joy — she’s not cynical, she’s caring, and even though she’s upwardly mobile, she doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body. Was that all in the script when you first read it?
The only thing not written was the interview scene when Peppy is arrogant and self-aggrandizing. When I read the first draft, I said to Michel that Peppy was too perfect. She was too cute! We needed to see her in a different environment. That’s why he wrote that scene — to give her a real life. We needed that.

That scene works because she immediately regrets acting in that way.
What I love about her is that she is very faithful to herself and George, even when he’s going down. She cares about him all the time — even when he’s not a movie star anymore. She trusts life. Always. She’s not calculating anything. She just goes on, and — if something happens — she takes life and turns it into a positive. She goes on step-by-step and becomes famous, but she’s not like those actresses who are like, “I wanna be famous.” She’s lovable to men and women. And what I didn’t realize when I read the script, is that every scene she’s in, she’s in action. She’s going somewhere, she’s doing something. She’s never passive. Things never happen to her. She provokes things.

As an actress, what did you have to do differently on a silent film?
My voice was very high, because I didn’t work on my voice. I was like [affects high tone], “That’s life!” I would have to apologize to the crew. Then Michel would say, “Come and see the monitor. Don’t listen.” And I was like, “This is working.” I needed to be over the top and really high to find it in the body. You trust the director — and yourself — and go. Especially in this kind of movie.

How did you think it worked when you saw the finished film for the first time?
It was not finished the first time I saw it. I was like, [mouth agape]. The whole movie. I was like, “This is me? In this movie? Everyone is gonna be so jealous.” It’s true! If I was not in this movie, as an actress, I would be like, “Oh my God. It’s never gonna happen again.” I don’t think there’s going to be another silent movie. So it’s me and nobody else. I feel very very lucky.

Michel said that he used music onset. How much did that help your performance?
It felt like you were already in a movie. When you watch a movie, there’s music. So, when we’re shooting, the crew is watching us playing, acting, with music, so it already felt like a movie. Everybody was in the mood. It was really strange. Everyone was enjoying everything together. When you do a talking movie, it’s like “Sound. Quiet.” Everyone is like this: [serious face]. The actor’s are playing. “Cut!” Then everyone moves again. Here, everyone is enjoying it and laughing and crying. I don’t know. The music was loud. I remember we were shooting at Warner Bros. and there was another shoot. And people would stop by and would say, “What is that? This is a French movie? What’s the music? That’s so cool!” We had “The Way We Were” from Barbra Streisand. Some jazz. Some French music. It just created a mood. It was very special. Very special.

The reaction to the film has been uniformly excellent. Does that surprise you at all?
I’m not surprised when you see the movie that you like it, but I’m still curious if people are going to come.

It will be interesting to see if American audiences show up.
I think what’s going to appeal to the American audience is that it’s about Hollywood. It’s a Hollywood love story. A classic. And I think everyone loves Hollywood. And I think an American might be curious to see this French director doing something about their industry. Soon enough you forget it’s silent. In two or three minutes you’re like, “I’m actually not listening to anything and it doesn’t bother me. And I’m having fun.” The first 40 minutes happens so fast. So many things happen. It goes on and on and on. The editing is fast. It’s very modern. It’s a today movie. It just happens to be silent.

Plus, it ends with a raucous dance number. How was that to film?
I’m not a dancer. It was hard. For five months. I remember that I recorded myself during my first lessons, because I thought, “I’m never going to be able to do anything.” It’s not possible. I remember looking at the recording. Shuffle, step, shuffle, step. Again and again. I have all those recordings of me and Jean and little by little, you can see the improvement. “I’m doing it! I’m doing it!” It was one take, we did it 18 times, and it was amazing.

Michel said just smile. All the way. Look at each other so people won’t look at your feet. We actually knew the steps. And we were very focused. Michel was like, “Yeah, that’s good, but you’re not smiling.” Then we started smiling, but we didn’t have the steps. Little by little we had to connect the smiling and the feet…

Like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.
Exactly! Exactly the same! Then when you get it, it’s such a pleasure.

The film is in the thick of the Oscar race already. Have you given a lot of thought to what it would be like to get nominated for Best Supporting Actress?
It’s amazing. You’re doing this silent, black and white movie. French. And you’re suddenly in the running for the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writer, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress. You’re like, “What? You’re sure? OK!” So, whatever happens — nomination, no nomination, Oscar, whatever — it’s all good already. We feel very honored.

Your first American film was ‘A Knight’s Tale.’ What was that like?
‘A Knight’s Tale’ was great. It was a big studio movie. Lots of people on set. Lots of producers. Producers behind the monitor with the director, telling you, “Yes, no, yes, no.” It was an American experience. I had 12 weeks of shooting for 10 lines and, maybe, 20 minutes of appearance. So … but, I liked it! I was there and watching everybody work. I wouldn’t imagine doing that again, but we’ll see.

I imagine this was more fun.
Oh, yes!