Audrey Tautou giggles through the majority of our interview. I promised myself I wouldn't spend this entire phone call imagining Amélie on the other end of the line in Paris, but it’s proving to be a challenge. She laments the limitations of our phone call versus a face-to-face interaction: “I'm very sad I can't take your picture!” Ideally, I learn, my visage would be incorporated into the photo scrapbook of every journalist who’s ever written about her. I can’t get over the cinematic novelty, not to mention the familiarity, of this “scrapbook full of strangers’ portraits” concept…
Though the seasoned actress inevitably reminds me of the fictional Amélie Poulain, she’s been all over the map since that role, from a Turkish chambermaid in a derelict West London hotel (Dirty Pretty Things) to the sharp, sexy surprise descendent of Christ, Sophie Neveu (The Da Vinci Code). This year finds her as far as ever from the quirky dreamer we’ve been crushing on since 2002: She stars in the new biopic Coco Before Chanel, an elegant chronicle of the fashion icon’s life before her international renown. Not coincidentally, Tautou has also replaced Nicole Kidman as the face of Chanel No. 5, the haunting commercial debut of which marks her third screen endeavor with director Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, A Very Long Engagement).
Tautou is a seamless visual match for the part of Chanel, a resemblance that Coco Before Chanel's director Anne Fontaine recognized immediately. (Rumor has it she threatened to walk away from the entire project if Tautou didn't sign on.) The actress’s large eyes, boyish figure, petite frame, were all too strikingly reminiscent of the original. Tautou voiced some ideological common ground with Chanel as well. “I have the same desire of independence and freedom,” she explains. “I really understand her desire not to depend on anybody, and to be able to earn her life without reliance on a man—I think that was a very, very modern concept.”
But aside from taking place in France, Chanel’s and Tautou’s early lives are quite disparate. The talented Tautou went to acting school and then straight to the screen, never having dabbled in another career. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s rise to fame was less direct, to say the least. Born in a poorhouse in 1883, her mother had died of tuberculosis, and her father, a traveling salesman, left his five children to earn money for the family by the time Coco was twelve. She spent the next seven years in a Catholic orphanage—which no doubt left its mark in the graceful, simple, practical designs her brand would become known for. Despite less-than-glamorous origins, Chanel managed to claw her way out of obscurity with talent, resolve, and a love affair here and there, changing the fashion world forever by the time she was 30.
At nearly the same age, Tautou portrays Chanel as a seamstress by day, cabaret entertainer by night, at the brink of an illustrious fashion career. This span of Chanel’s past was relatively unexplored until Coco Before Chanel: “We have videos or a lot of pictures when she's famous, when her character is already settled. But within the period we are talking about, which is the moment of her character's construction, I had much more freedom. This freedom was not really comfortable. I had to find a way to be right, but in another way I had to invent who she was before becoming the icon that everybody knows.”
Watching her navigate such an intense character, it’s a little easier to take Tautou seriously. Despite her default setting of adorable, she said doesn't feel pigeon-holed into the role of the cute, quirky gamine, and is up for working on any type of film “as long as they can teach me something.” Nevertheless, she’s right at home with funny. A forever Woody Allen fan, she’d be well-placed as the token sexy-eccentric female lead in his hypothetical next picture. And she's just begun filming a new comedy, her second with director Pierre Salvadori (Priceless). While she claims to harbor no particular hopes or expectations about what role she’ll play next, she may have plans for a future career… as a sailor. “You know, somebody who drives boat?” Tautou says. She cops to a lack of experience, but that won’t sink her. “That’s my next goal. I don’t know which [film] part I would like to play—but I know I would like to have a boat and drive it.”
Coco Before Chanel is out September 25.