First the facts: Mike Mills is a 45-year-old creative polymath who began his career as a graphic designer with commissions from some of music’s coolest titans like the Beastie Boys, Air, Cibo Matto and Sonic Youth. Naturally, music videos and commercials soon followed. On the feature film front, Mills made his directorial debut in 2005 with the critically acclaimed Thumbsucker. As for Mélanie Laurent, the 28-year-old French actress cemented her status as one of Hollywood’s hottest new imports in one fell swoop with her memorable turn as the vengeful Shosanna Dreyfus in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in 2009.
In 2011, Mills and Laurent unite for Beginners, a dramedy that coincidentally marks the director’s altogether winning sophomore narrative feature and the actress’ second English-speaking role in an American film. Beginners tells the story of Oliver (Ewan McGregor), a sensitive yet romantically challenged graphic designer who meets Anna (Laurent), an irreverent and beautiful French actress, only months after losing his father (Christopher Plummer) to cancer. Loosely based on Mills’ own life, most notably the part about a father coming out of the closet at the age of 75 after the passing of his wife of 45 years, this is a personal project.
Anthem shared a conversation with the director and actress at the Waldorf Astoria in New York last month.
Beginners is now playing in select cities.
Mike, how closely did you want to render your father with Christopher Plummer’s character? Is this a fairly loose portrait of him?
Mike Mills: It’s a story with other people in it, but I feel like the spirit of my dad is really, truly in there. There are a lot of real facts in there, you know? So it’s a strange hybrid. The goal was always to make a story for other people and not have it be a memoir for myself, but I’m happy that it’s very true in some key parts of it.
Mélanie, how did you get involved with this project?
MM: Someone wrote her name on a piece of paper. I didn’t know her at all.
Mélanie Laurent: What?!
MM: [Laughs] Inglourious Basterds wasn’t quite out yet when I approached her. It wasn’t being publicized. I’m not one of those powerful directors who can say, “Get me that girl from Inglourious Basterds!” so I started looking her up on Youtube. I don’t speak French, but I found all these interviews with her and there were a couple where I thought, “Wow, she’s so strong.” I really needed a strong woman. I obviously didn’t know what the fuck she was saying, but I could tell that she was very intelligent.
ML: I was just saying stupid things.
MM: [Laughs] You could tell her mind was following a very particular path and there were real rigorous thoughts there. She kind of felt “un-careful” and I mean that in the best sense. She was like “un-precious” and I loved that.
Mélanie auditioned for you without even knowing it.
MM: I was completely sold, but I had to ask her to audition for real because she hadn’t been in other American films or in English-speaking roles, you know? My financiers also insisted. Of course, I wanted to see it as well. I remember her being nervous and she was like, “Please, don’t make me!”
ML: “Just choose me!” I said that. “Just choose me! Please!” [Laughs]
MM: Mélanie’s also a writer and director, and she made a really amazing short film with music, costume changes, location changes and this little plastic dog with subtitles. No one does stuff like that! It was like, “Oh, that’s it. That’s Anna.”
Anna doesn’t talk much in the film because she has laryngitis. Is that a gift or a curse for an actress?
MM: I’m actually curious to know as well. Everyone asks me about this, but this is the first time that Mélanie and I’ve been interviewed together.
ML: It was easy because it’s all about your look and your feelings. It’s good because you trust your director even more because there are no words. I was really afraid of speaking in English. Mike also wanted some improvisations and I was like, “Oh my god. I have to improvise in English and it’s going to be a mess!” But Mike told me, “You can use French words if you don’t know how to say it in English.”
MM: I didn’t write Anna to be French, but once I fell in love with Mélanie, I really wanted her to be her with the amount of English that she knew. You’re really good, though! You picked it up really fast.
ML: It’s really strange because a lot of French actors have told me, “You’ll see that it’s easier to act in English” and it’s true in a way. You’re behind a character and you’re also behind another language. It’s like you’re far away from it and it’s all about instinct.
MM: She’s super in touch with her instincts and every take would be so surprising to us because it was so amazing. But she never blows continuity. She knows where the light is and where the camera is, you know? It’s cuckoo. [Laughs]
Can either of you recall shooting a particular scene or a day on set that was more memorable than the others?
ML: The scene with the roller skates where some woman comes up and says, “No dogs allowed in here!” When we did that scene, I thought that was real.
MM: [Laughs] Is that true?!
ML: Yeah! I started talking back in French and Mike was like, “I don’t know what you said, but it looks great!” I said, “American people, they are such assholes!”
MM: That woman was actually an employee there. We asked her, “What would you really say in this kind of situation?” and we were like, “This woman is amazing.”
ML: That’s the best way to shoot.
Was Anna based on anyone from your personal life or is she entirely fictitious?
MM: She’s me. Little did you know that I’m actually a beautiful French woman. [Laughs]
Everyone must ask you if she’s based on Miranda [July].
MM: Yeah, but it’s not Miranda. Being with Miranda definitely helped me with the story because it really brought me close to how love makes you face all these crazy parts of yourself. Love can really change you, you know? If anything, Anna is everybody that I’ve known.
ML: So Miranda hates me.
MM: [Laughs] Miranda is so different from you and Anna. Anna is actually really important to me because I’m saying really intense stuff that I feel and believe through Anna, more than through Oliver in some ways.
How come it took you five years to follow-up on Thumbsucker with another feature? Were you feeling uninspired?
MM: I was just waiting for Mélanie to come along. I was like, “Mélanie is only 20 right now. I have to wait like five years until I can cast her.” [Laughs] I was writing this all the way back in 2005 and it took a long time to get it financed. It’s a tough scene. The film industry in America is really hard. Even with Ewan and Christopher attached, it took almost a year.
This film reconciles your disciplines in a really cool way, especially with the graphic design that was woven into the narrative as production design. Is this something you’ll continue doing with future films?
MM: Probably. I love Godard, but I also love Godard as a graphic designer. I think Godard is an amazing graphic designer. With Beginners, I got to put in all in: stills, graphics and drawings, anything I wanted. Maybe this is the most successful integration of all the things that I’ve done. I love making films like that.
Are you still doing a lot of graphic design work?
MM: Oh yeah. I just did the Beastie Boys album cover. I’m doing their single, too, which I worked on this morning.
ML: And you’re going to direct my video!
MM: It’s going to be all nude, an orgy. It’s going to be great. [Laughs]
What was the creative process like between you guys on set?
MM: I remember we had dials on Mélanie’s arm and I’d go, “A little funny, cry and then nothing.” That’s how I would direct her. Then I would try to make it more and more impossible for her and she would fucking do it! I remember being like, “How in the hell did you just do that?!” Oh my god, she’s funny. Mélanie’s fucking funny.
ML: I could be funny because Mike let us be funny and free. I can be the complete opposite on a set with a psycho director. It’s like, “Okay, I’m not going to have fun today.” I can choose the people that I want to work with now, which I love. Even if it’s three weeks of shooting, I don’t want to spend three terrible weeks. I’m not a good negotiator because I never negotiate anything. There were times on set when I didn’t totally agree with the vision for Anna. I said, “I don’t understand why Anna is being so difficult. Why doesn’t she fall in love and that’s it?” Come on, it’s Ewan McGregor! [Laughs]
MM: And sometimes about what you had to wear, too. I remember Mélanie coming out of the dressing room like, “Why in the fuck am I wearing this?” [Laughs] But she would just do it because she was really giving. She was like, “Okay, Mike. I guess this is what she would wear.”
Mélanie, what sort of roles were you being offered after Inglourious Basterds came out?
ML: Action movies with guns…
You didn’t like that.
ML: No way! At the end of the Inglourious Basterds shoot, Quentin asked me, “What’s next for you in America?” and I was like, “Oh, I don’t know.” He was like, “Be careful. You have to make a beautiful movie now.” It was such a mess for me because I received a lot of propositions. It was like, “Okay. I’m going to say no to this and this and this, but am I taking a risk and fucking up my American career?” I don’t give a shit about making Hollywood movies. I only care about making beautiful movies. The nationality of a director doesn’t matter. I care about the story and that’s it, even before a character.
You really made the right choice with this one.
ML: It’s so beautiful, isn’t it? It’s cool because it talks about homosexuality a lot, but in a modern way. Most of the time, you see beautiful movies, but they’re historic or really clichéd. I think this has the potential to change the minds of that stupid guy who still thinks it’s a problem to be gay. I didn’t get to see the finished movie until Toronto and I cried 10 minutes into it. It was so moving to be a part of this movie and I was like, “I’m in that movie and it’s a beautiful movie!”
MM: You were relived.
ML: I knew it was going to be great, but I didn’t expect it to be that moving and that pure. I’m so glad that I made the right choice after the Tarantino experience. I did other French movies, too, which weren’t really that good. I wanted to be really selective after Inglourious Basterds. You take risks as an actor because you fall for a beautiful story and the director can do anything he wants to it and it’s not about you. I know this now because I directed a movie. [Laughs] You can change everything in the editing room. It’s terrible when you discover that the movie you put all of your soul into is just not very good. It’s terrible!
What should we look forward to from both of you after Beginners?
MM: I’m bummed this silent movie came along at Cannes because I would love to make a silent movie with Mélanie. That would be amazing. I’m writing something right now, but it’s in its early stages.
ML: Beginners 2?
MM: [Laughs] I’m so happy to be writing again. I love working. I love directing. I just want to get back to it.
How about you, Mélanie?
MM: Mélanie has a record coming out.
ML: It came out two months ago.
ML: In France.
MM: You have to hear it, Kee. It’s amazing.
ML: The recording industry is weird because it’s territory by territory. It’s only released in America if I come here, play shows and just give a lot of myself. It’s not like a movie. I might live in London next year for like three months. I’ll probably end up coming back home after two days. It’s totally that French attitude: “I’m going to leave for three months or maybe just three hours.”