Anamaria Vartolomei: “I love the beauty of performing. It fills me with adrenaline”
French-Romanian actress Anamaria Vartolomei wasn’t a totally unknown name before “L’événement” / “Happening” (2021). She made her film debut at the age of 12 starring alongside Isabelle Huppert in “My Little Princess” (2011) by Eva Ionesco. Since then, she has starred in several other French films.
But it’s the lead role in “Happening”, the feature film for which director Audrey Diwan won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year, that gave her her big breakthrough and made her famous, including outside France.
Anamaria Vartolomei plays a young writer who struggles to get an abortion in early 1960s France, when it was still illegal. The screenplay is based on Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel of the same name.
For her performance, Anamaria Vartolomei received the César Award for Most Promising Actress and the Lumières Award for Best Actress. And earlier this year, she was selected within Shooting Star, Berlinale’s program for young talent.
Born in 1999 in Bacău, the actress spent the first six years of her life in the Plopu village of Dărmănești, when she was raised by her grandparents. Her parents began working abroad when Vartolomei was as young as two, and after settling in France in Issy-les-Moulineaux, a commune in the suburban area of Paris, she joined them right before starting school.
For Anamaria Vartolomei, it meant a new life in a different country and France became her new world. And in her early teens, she entered the world of film. She only sees herself acting and never hesitates to talk about her Romanian roots in the interviews she gives for the French and international press.
In fact, the interview for Films in Frame, for this month’s Emerging Voices feature, was conducted in Romanian, by telephone. And it was possible with the help of Independenţa Film, the Romanian distributor of “Happening”, which will come out in cinemas on June 24.
How did you approach the period in which the story of the film is set, the early ‘60s in France, which is in many ways extremely different from the present?
I didn’t approach it in any particular way, because the subject is still very current. I didn’t have to act as if living in a different era. Maybe except for the manner of speaking. Me and the director (i.e. Audrey Diwan) understood that people used to speak more slowly then. So we tried to speak at a slower tempo. But that’s about it. Otherwise, I realized that, unfortunately, women’s condition is still the same in some countries. We, in France, are quite lucky because we have a law that legalizes abortion and we have access to women’s health clinics that perform abortions. But the rest…
When I was on my way to Venice, I found out the news from Texas (i.e. as of 1 September 2021, abortion is illegal in this American state). And what is happening right now with Roe v. Wade (i.e. the Supreme Court of the United States could overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which introduced the constitutional right to abortion in 1973). I feel that we are taking a step forward and three steps back when it comes to the women’s condition. The right to abortion is very fragile. It has been weakened over time.
I feel that, in a way, we made a present-day film. Audrey wanted the movie to be timeless. In fact, some people told me that in the first 20 minutes, until the character gives her date of birth, they didn’t know what era the film was set in. That’s because everything is neutral in terms of production design, costumes, and makeup. This is what Audrey wanted, to bring the viewer closer to the story and not to be a period film that feels alien when you watch it, as if it happened ages ago. She really wanted to create a connection between the viewer, the film, and the subject it explores.
How did you work with the director on your character? We don’t see much of the protagonist’s feelings and emotions, but we do see a lot of her actions, and her struggle to get an abortion.
I fed off what I felt when I read the book (i.e. Annie Ernaux’s novel on which the film is based) because I had no idea what a clandestine abortion really meant. When I read the book, I felt anger and hatred towards this unjust situation that many girls are forced to go through even nowadays. And I wanted to defend them. I think that is what helped me in my performance and in what I had to convey when playing Anne.
Then I checked out a lot of books and especially movies on related subjects to create the character. For example, I had some extra time that was not initially foreseen, that is during the lockdown, due to which the shootings were postponed. Audrey and I had a month and a half during which we called each other almost every day to talk about the movies we used as references. Among them were Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, Agnes Varda’s Sans toit ni loi, Lukas Dhont’s Girl or the Dardenne Brothers’ Rosetta. After watching Rosetta, we realized that Anne was a soldier. Rosetta has a goal and she doesn’t let anything bring her down. She has so much determination and courage. I think that was what kept us going, we created some sort of patchwork.
Then, after the lockdown, we had two weeks of rehearsals and we focused more on the tempo of the ’60s, on her way of standing and walking. On how to make it easy to understand, through her body language, through the way she moves and speaks, that she comes from a middle-class background. Then the shootings started. But we didn’t rehearse the abortion scenes, because I don’t really agree with rehearsing these types of scenes. I think there is something that needs to come naturally. As an actor, you have to let yourself be taken by surprise in some scenes and completely abandon yourself, to trust the one who is directing you. And you too should assume that risk that comes with creating on the set. If you try to do everything in advance, you might get stuck, somehow.
What about Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or 15 years ago? Wasn’t it among your cinematic references? Then, given your Romanian roots, were you interested in finding out about the ban on abortion during the communist period in Romania?
Not at all. I didn’t look at what it meant in Romania, because it had nothing to do with our story. I understand that people might make a connection between Cristian Mungiu’s film and our film because it’s a common theme. But we are talking about two totally different eras. Mungiu’s film is about communist Romania, and Audrey’s film is about ’60s France. It’s not the same story, it’s not the same culture, it’s not the same society. It wasn’t a reference, in the sense that we didn’t focus on it. But, of course, it was a film I had seen before because I like Cristian Mungiu’s cinema a lot, only that I didn’t watch it again for this project specifically.
Audrey told me that she was afraid she would not be able to approach this topic, not after seeing Mungiu’s film, which she considered to be perfect. Then she realized it was a totally unfair way of thinking. If a movie about the First World War has been made, it does not mean that there isn’t room for a second one. Audrey allowed herself to make something according to her own vision. What differs, and is a major point, is the perspective, the point of view from which the issue of abortion is approached. Our film is told from the perspective of the one who gets the abortion, while Mungiu’s film is told from the perspective of the one who helps her friend to get an abortion.
What was the relationship with the camera? Given that it constantly follows you very closely.
I would say it was very natural. I got along very well with the camera operator, which facilitated my relationship with the camera. Indeed, it’s almost always close to my face, like a shadow. In fact, I used it as a tool: I thought it was so close as if there was someone who was pushing Anne from behind and made it impossible for her to take backsteps, to turn back. I felt it as force, not as something to stop me.
Although you were already a well-known young actress, it’s clear that this film and the Venice award gave you greater visibility. How has this role changed you, both personally and professionally?
As I told Audrey, I think I started the film as a young girl and finished it as a woman. I feel like I fed on Anne’s determination and courage so much that I didn’t want to let go of those qualities. I kept them with me and it helps me to make progress and have more confidence in myself personally, but also professionally. Through this role, I think that I have shown myself that I’m capable of some things I didn’t imagine I could be before. This experience helped me to grow both personally and professionally and to feel that I’ve gained a lot more.
What are the benefits and risks of starting a career in acting as early as childhood?
Risks can occur if you are not surrounded by family and trusted friends. You can easily get lost and be consumed by this industry, which has many faults and is quite dangerous. I believe that what saves you is a very solid group of supportive and caring family and friends.
Otherwise, the advantage is that you grow up in front of the public with the films you make. People see you at different ages, and you grow with every experience that you live, every project that you work on, and every character that you play. You’re like a sponge and absorb everything that can be absorbed. And that makes you more mature, more open-minded, and more knowledgeable.
Your story is a success. You worked hard for that. How difficult is it for a young actress like you to make it in a highly developed but highly competitive field such as the French film industry?
I don’t know how difficult it is. I think everyone has their own path. It doesn’t mean that if you make one movie a year or one movie every five or ten years, you’re better or worse. I think you have to embrace everything that comes your way and try to be content with what you have. Of course, we are not talking about ambition and motivation here. But I think every path is different and you shouldn’t look into your “neighbor’s garden”. If you do that, you can easily get lost.
I have many actress friends of the same age, and we’ve had several discussions on this topic. When you are young, especially as a teenager, you may not understand things as you will understand them later, so you may be wondering what it is that a colleague has and you don’t have, and if she might better than you and that’s why she was given the part. But then you realize that there is no such thing as stealing a part. Each role corresponds to a person. There are people who are destined to do a certain project. No matter how hard you try and how many auditions you go to, that role will still belong to another, because it’s about what the director is picturing, what they have in mind, it’s about having a certain chemistry, a connection, it’s about many such things that are not necessarily related to your acting and what you can do technically. If you understand that each of us is unique, that each has something that makes them be chosen, you can move on much easier. It won’t do you any good if you’re constantly trying to be in competition.
Happening is part of a wave of films made by women directors who have been awarded at major festivals and ceremonies in the last two years. From your position as a young actress in the French film industry, which is among the most evolved in terms of women’s rights, do you feel there is any significant change in what concerns female filmmakers’ visibility and access to resources?
From the discussions I had with Audrey, who is part of the 50/50 Collective, which fights for equity and parity in the film industry, we realized that now there is less distrust of women in general. Producers have more confidence in women’s vision, in the scripts they write, and in what they propose. And that greatly facilitates progress because now there are more women who feel legitimate to present their scripts and have more confidence that it is possible. Gender doesn’t matter so much anymore. We are moving forward slowly, but I’m confident in the future and I believe that one day we will reach parity, at least in this industry.
You said in interviews that you always wanted to be an actress and nothing else. What do you like most about this profession and what does it offer you? What fuels this strong need?
It’s very simple: I love the beauty of performing. I think I make films just for that. I like to play characters, I like to tell stories, I like to have the opportunity to say and do things that I wouldn’t say or do in my personal life. I like to experiment with areas that are unfamiliar or not at my reach. I like to take risks, and I’ve become more and more daring lately. And I like to have fun. You have to see cinema as a child. At least that’s how I see it, as I used to when I started. I like what I do. I like it when we shoot a take, then another, and another, over and over again. It fills me with adrenaline.
I saw that your next projects include a film in which you are going to play actress Maria Schneider. Could you give us more details?
It’s a Jessica Palud movie. We’ll be shooting early next year. It’s a biopic about Maria Schneider, which covers her life between the age of 15 and her late 20s. Of course, her experience with Last Tango in Paris will also be approached, but it’s not going to be the focus of the film because it would be disrespectful to her and her family to limit her only to this movie. That is all I can say for now.
I also saw that you will star in the next film by Bruno Dumont, one of the most inventive and original French filmmakers.
All I can say is that I play a soldier of Good sent from space to Earth to deal with the beheading of the monster, the devil, who is the embodiment of the ultimate Evil. It’s a metaphor for good and evil being naturally drawn to each other. The shootings take place in July and August. Bruno Dumont is a director whose oeuvre is so diverse that I think this new film will have nothing to do with what he has done before.
You have always talked about your Romanian roots. Would you like to play in a Romanian film if you were given the chance?
I would love to. Cristian Mungiu is at the top of my list. I wish we could work together. Romania is a pretty small country, but I’m impressed to see so many talents. Romanian cinema is very appreciated and highly respected abroad, and for good reason. It’s very good, sensitive, both polished and unpolished. It’s a social cinema, which is very generous and interesting. I would definitely like to perform in Romanian films if there are filmmakers who also want that.