Actress Audrey Tautou and designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel are both international symbols of modern French femininity – Chanel as the trend-setting couturier who liberated 20th century women with the simplicity and ease of her clothing, and Tautou as the single most recognizable French actress in the world, thanks to her captivating performances in films like 2001’s Oscar-nominated Amelie and a little 2006 thriller called “The Da Vinci Code.
This fall, the lives of Audrey Tautou and Coco Chanel converge in Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel, a handsomely crafted biopic that takes the unconventional tack of highlighting the couturier’s life leading up to, but not beyond, the success of her signature style.
Tautou portrays the young Chanel as she struggles to fulfill her destiny, first as a dancehall performer, then as the unconventional companion to two rich playboys, Etienne Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde) and the Englishman Arthur “Boy” Capel (Alessandro Nivola).
Ironically, it was through her relationships with both men that Chanel was able to claim her independence and discover her true talent for fashion. So, too, did the death of Boy Capel cause Chanel to channel her grief into what eventually became the House of Chanel.
Tautou – who is now, coincidentally, the latest face of Chanel No. 5 — sat down in Los Angeles to talk destiny, Coco and the allure of portraying characters “more interesting than the nice little kitty cat.”
JEN YAMATO: You and Coco Chanel have some things in common — like where you’re from and your astrological sign. What did you know of Chanel and her life before deciding to portray her?
AUDREY TAUTOU: I actually didn’t know very much about who she was beyond what everybody knew – the fact that she was an icon and she had such success in fashion. But beyond that, I didn’t know the parts the film actually reveals. I knew the fact that we both came from the same region in central France, in the Auvergne, and that we saw the we saw the same kind of landscapes, and that we were both born in the month of August so we shared the Leo sign. So there was some kind of kinship there, but other than that, the details of her life I didn’t know.
YAMATO: Leos are sometimes known for their strong masculine sides, and Coco Chanel seemed to fit the sign’s description pretty well, especially with her revolutionary sense of style for women. Do you feel like you share that quality with her as well?
TAUTOU: I’m not a specialist in astrology at all, and perhaps Leos have something strong to them, although other signs also have those elements. But maybe part of that is pride.
YAMATO: What was the most surprising thing you learned about Chanel in the process of researching her?
TAUTOU: The initial surprise was the fact that she never dreamed of couture, or of making clothes, but that her first dream was to be an actress or a singer. Also, that her destiny really hung by a thread, because had she not met the two men that are portrayed in the film, her destiny would probably have gone in a different direction.
YAMATO: It’s true, she doesn’t quite find her niche as a designer until she meets Etienne Balsan and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. After that, she’s able to pursue her natural talents and open her first shop. But even with her eventual success, her story is one of loss. When you think about Chanel’s story — and your character’s arc — do you find it to be one primarily of inspiration or tragedy? Or was it luck?
TAUTOU: Maybe it’s a little bit of all three. But then the element of chance is perhaps overstated, and she really determined what her future was. So maybe chance had a smaller role than her own will to move, and to evolve. Some say that there is no chance, there is only rendezvous – meetings – and she met the right people at the right time. She was present and she knew then how to take it to the next level.
YAMATO: Have you had any similar fortunate happenstances in your own career?
TAUTOU: Life is made of those types of rendezvous, of those meetings, and you can’t miss out on them.
YAMATO: Coco Chanel had an intense ambition to become an actress before she found her calling in fashion. Judging from your experience as an actress portraying her, why do you think she was so attracted to perform?
TAUTOU: It was really a way for her to envision getting out of the misery that she was in, and she didn’t want to remain in that situation. So it was a way out. She felt deeply different, and wanted to make something of her life. Her sister always hoped for something, but Coco Chanel imagined her life as something different.
YAMATO: And then, made it happen for herself?
TAUTOU: Yes, she was not passive.
YAMATO: And, why did you choose to act as a profession?
TAUTOU: I have no idea. Because I like to act! I like the fun, the childish fun. But other than that I don’t know. [Pause] I don’t like to analyze my relationship with my work.
YAMATO: To some people, Chanel comes across as almost unlikeable character; she’s often very dour and serious in her pursuit of success. Did you see that as a challenge to try to overcome, to make the audience embrace her more, or is it an element that you like about her?
TAUTOU: I don’t see my characters as sympathetic or not; I always like my characters, even if they have a hard side. I don’t judge my characters. Maybe Chanel had a harder edge because she was stubborn, or she was wholly herself. But it was also her means of survival, her tool of survival. Also, those types of characters who are conflicted or have a darker side are usually more interesting than the nice little kitty cat.
YAMATO: Do you think that your fans will see Coco Chanel as a departure from the previous roles that you’ve done?
TAUTOU: I have no idea. Those aren’t the terms in which I choose my roles, and it’s not something that preoccupies me. I’m selfish about my choices and what I do.
YAMATO: And what have you chosen to do next?
Tautou:I’m going to a play, Hedda Gabler, in Paris, and I’m very excited about that.
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