It was very simple: two scenes, one improv and then [Alice Winocour] asked me to throw a fit in front of her.
At 27, SOKO is probably better known to us for her contribution in music. She has toured with artists ranging from Santigold, Nouvelle Vague, M.I.A., Ariel Pink, Pete Doherty, among many others. A lesser known fact outside of France is that the mono-monikered singer started her career as an actress, having already appeared in 13 French films. Her infant career even led to a César nomination–France’s equivalent to the Oscar–and the Best Actress honor last fall at the Mar Del Plata Film Festival in Argentina for her titular role in Augustine. Based on a true story set in Belle Epoque, Paris, Augustine tells the story of a 19-year-old kitchen maid (SOKO) who’s put under the care of a pioneering 19th-century neurologist following a violent seizure. Augustine fast becomes his most prized patient, with the doctor hypnotizing her in front of colleagues and putting on displays of her demonic fits. But soon enough, the doctor/patient relationship takes on a much more personal dimension in an escalating power play that threatens both of their sanity.
Augustine hits select theaters on May 17. Soko’s U.S. debut album I Thought I Was an Alien will be unveiled on June 11.
Alice [Winocour] says she saw over 300 girls while casting the part of Augustine. Did she ever tell you why you were so perfect for this role?
She actually saw 800 girls and the audition process went on for eight months. They “refused” to see me because they were primarily focused on casting an unknown–this real “wild girl”. They wanted a “virgin” who didn’t have any sort of “acting tricks”. I think they warmed up to me because, although I had been acting for 10 years, my main thing is now music. I really don’t feel nor act like an actress in the traditional sense. When Alice talks about what she liked about me, she says that I’m a mix of “shy meets strong and powerful”. She also thought my body looks like a painting. It was perfect for the film, which tends to have an aesthetic inspired by old paintings and photographs by the likes of Francesca Woodman.
What was the auditioning process like? Did Alice have any strange requests?
I was returning from L.A., super broke. It was a huge stretch for me, but I had been fighting for eight months to be able to get in the room with them for the audition. So I knew I had to do it. It was very simple: two scenes, one improv and then she asked me to throw a fit in front of her. Something very sexual… So I did touch myself a lot and screamed my lungs out. I wasn’t afraid of any of that stuff. I could tell right away that Alice had that thing, that extreme sensitivity and care that sadly too few directors have. She loves actors. She is so good at taking you where she wants you to go. It makes you trust her right away because she’s that good and you know you can’t cheat. She won’t let you look bad on screen.
This was arguably an emotionally and physically demanding role. I wonder what concerns you had going in in terms of what would be required of you.
Indeed it was. I got there full of questions, wanting to over do my job. I wanted to know, read and dig through everything about hysteria. But Alice stopped me right there. She didn’t want me to know anything. She wanted to embrace my character as a victim who doesn’t know what’s happening to her at all. She wanted me to direct all the questions I had to her only and she became my sole source of historical reference. Alice didn’t want to rewrite history. The challenge on this film was so beyond… She wanted to film a love story about a reverse of power and a victim becoming the master. One thing that really worried me was the scene where a chicken’s head is cut off. As an active vegan for 22 years, it was a real dilemma for me to do that. It got to a point where Alice didn’t want to work with me if I didn’t accept the fact that I had to do it. When that got sorted, I just had to come back when the scene was done, look at the blood and faint… And that was the easy part!
Augustine’s hysteric seizures were quite shocking to watch at first. How were those scenes choreographed? Was it very mechanical?
We worked on those a lot, very early on. There’s four of them in the movie and we approached all of them very differently. The first two had help from special effects with cables pulling my hands and body in crazy directions. Alice knew exactly what she wanted, so we just had to make sure to do that in the first two seizures. So those were spectacular and especially violent. The last two were just me. It had to be much more sexual, almost resembling a sex scene. I remember her saying, “Imagine that you’re being raped by an imaginary lover.” It never became mechanical. It was always very painful and tiring. When you go back home covered in bruises and can’t even move your neck, it hurts like hell. But at the end of the day, you know you did your job and gave it your all. It’s an amazing satisfaction.
This was Alice’s first attempt at a feature film. Do you have any reservations when it comes to something like that?
I had full trust in her. She’s such a strong-willed powerhouse. She can carry anyone on her adventures. She worked so hard on the script for so long that it felt vital. That’s the only way I can work with people. There has to be a vital story to tell. I’m still super young. I love youth and want to remain a child forever. So working with someone on their first film is exciting because you all learn together. Weirdly enough, three of the films I’m considering to do next are also by incredible women making their first features. I love shooting with women. That’s the feminist in me thinking, “Power to the women!”
What kind of conversations did you have about your character with Alice at the beginning?
We talked so much about Augustine. Her symptoms, paralysis, how we’re going to pull something off without it looking totally fake… We trained a lot in hypnosis too. We wanted to make sure it looked as real as possible. It’s not just about rolling your eyes to the top of your head and speaking stupid like in a lot of movies. I asked to be hypnotized for real each time I had to be on camera, which was amazing. The amazing thing about Augustine is that, once she was healed, she left the hospital dressed as a man and no one knows what happened to her after that.
I understand that Alice asked you to watch some movies as a point of reference. What movies were particularly useful to you?
We’re both big fans of Jane Campion. She made me watch An Angel at My Table, which was the same sort of character. It’s based on a true story about someone who starts out as a victim and overcomes her “handicap”. The character is a true star of poetry.
Can you recall your first professional acting job? What did you take away from that experience?
The first thing I booked was when I was 16 on a Belgian telephone company commercial. It was actually directed by Xavier Giannoli, who I ended up working with years later. I got nominated for a Cesar for his film, In the Beginning. It was really fun working with him. It was only a commercial, but I knew I loved acting right away.
I’m assuming you put more emphasis on your acting career when you’re on set and music when you’re on tour, but do you feel more passionately devoted to one or the other?
I’m definitely more music orientated. I live a pretty weird life, unsettled. It’s definitely more in line with a musician’s life. I have no real home and I travel a lot. I’ve been staying with friends in different cities and countries for 6 years although I’m officially based out of Los Angeles. I’m a really hard worker though, whether I decide to do music, movies, direct videos, paint… I do it fully. I can’t even write or pick up an instrument when I’m on set or prepping for a film. I’m working two different parts of my brain. I also have crazy ADD and need extra energy in order to focus. I just have to shut the other parts of my brain off while I’m doing one particular thing so I don’t go completely crazy.
You got your start in music after film. What was that transition like?
You got it right. I was doing movies, but it was very frustrating waiting on people to be able to be creative. I’m in constant need of stimulation. I want to keep learning new stuff and fill my days with creativity. I actually get depressed when I don’t get to be creative. I was writing since I was a child and started playing piano when I was 4 years old. So I knew music. I just had to teach myself how to play guitar, bass and drums. That was so fun. I’m a fast learner. All of a sudden, I felt like acting didn’t matter anymore because I found a new endeavor that made me feel so much more independent and it brought me more satisfaction. I love having the ability to generate exciting stuff on my own. Having an idea, writing and recording it in just a few hours by myself is the best gratification because at the end of the day, you have a real tangible thing. It’s the proof of your emotions that will remain forever.
What were you listening to growing up?
I grew up in a small village in the south of France with barely no access to any culture whatsoever. It was just stupid soup on the radio. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 16 and became a total music nerd. I first became obsessed with the Beatles, Paul Simon, The Zombies, Love… These days, I’ve been really into a lot of post-punk bands/riot girls like The Slits. Electrelane is one of my favorite girl bands. Monochrome Set is a must in any playlist. Yo La Tengo’s front lady is my hero, a drummer/singer inspiration. I’m a huge Richard Hell fan. I’m also back into obsessing over The Cure’s first record, which is super punk. I listen to a lot of Morrissey… I’m obsessing over the new Tame Impala and the new Unknown Mortal Orchestra records. I also like more obscure things like John Maus. Also, Alan Vega/Suicide is my biggest sound inspiration!
What about in terms of movies?
The Piano by Jane Campion is always a huge influence. Ponette by Jacques Doillon is one of my favorite movies. I guess I love movies with children because they can’t cheat. They’re so real. They’re a constant reminder of spontaneity.
Do you have any plans to step behind the camera to write and direct your own films?
I’ve already been directing all of my music videos and it’s so thrilling. I’ve gotten a lot of offers to do that for other people too, but so far, I haven’t quite had the time to fit it in. But to answer your question, yes. I’ve been thinking about an idea for a feature film for years now. I just need time to bring it to life. In the long run, that would be my dream job!
What are you working on currently?
I’m in the studio finishing my second album called My Dreams Dictate My Reality. It’s very different from the first album with barely any acoustic instruments. There’s a lot of “cure-y” guitars, organs and drum machines. It’s very mellow and dreamy, but punk too. It’s more ’80s, but not in a cliché way. My voice has changed a lot too… I guess I’ve been channeling a lot of Morrissey and Alan Vega!