I’m not saying that we choose characters because they’re like us, because that would be limiting. But of course, there’s something in the way that you feel close to these people.
Virginie Efira may wear it lightly, but she has been riding on a wave of creative fervor and critical acclaim this past year. A mainstay on the film festival circuit, the Belgian actress brought Alice Winocour’s Revoir Paris to Cannes in 2022—she was also its Mistress of Ceremonies—and received rave reviews for her performance in Rebecca Zlotowski’s Other People’s Children, which rippled out of Venice in the fall. This January, Efira received the Unifrance French Cinema Award, a prestigious honor for those carrying the banner for Gallic cinema across the globe, joining the ranks of previous winners like Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche. The following month, she picked up the Best Actress César (France’s answer to the Oscars) for the aforementioned Winocour film. At this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, Efira was on hand to support Other People’s Children and Revoir Paris as the films made their respective New York City premieres.
Other People’s Children centers on Rachel (Efira), a high school teacher who strikes up a romance with single father Ali (Roschdy Zem) at her weekly guitar lessons. But rather than focusing on their waxing and waning affections, Zlotowski excavates Rachel’s relationship with Ali’s young daughter Leila—often exuberant, at other times fractious, but always laced with the indefinable melancholy of co-parenting with Ali’s ex-wife (Chiara Mastroianni)—all the while longing for a child of her own as she approaches the precipice past which pregnancy would be impossible. On a much higher dramatic register is Revoir Paris, inspired by Winocour’s brother’s own accounts of the 2015 Bataclan massacre. Efira plays Mia, a woman who’s recovering from a terrorist attack on a Parisian restaurant. The shock of its violence has deadened her senses, which eventually pries her away from her partner (Grégoire Colin) and sets her on a rocky path towards re-integration.
Anthem met up with Efira for a conversation and photoshoot at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.
Other People’s Children opens in NYC on April 21, and Revoir Paris opens in NYC on June 23.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview was conducted in English and French via an interpreter.]
So where to start, Virginie? Big moments this past year—films at Cannes and Venice, the Unifrance French Cinema Award—have culminated with you picking up the César for Best Actress recently. They’re calling your performances in Other People’s Children and Revoir Paris “career-best.” I would think that might inspire moments of deeper introspection.
Sometimes, we don’t have to understand fully what’s going on. It’s good not having the time to dwell on everything that’s happening. It’s just better to keep forging ahead. It’s good to analyze, but you don’t dwell on the victories. You can take time with the bad things, to ask, “Why is it that this happened?” But with the good things, you don’t go around asking, “Oh, why is it that this happened? Maybe it’s because I’m wonderful!” [laughs] No, we don’t care about that. The other thing is, I’m not shooting anything at the moment. That’s great, too, because when you make three or four movies a year, as great as it is to spend some time with characters, it’s also great to take time to yourself. They’re different dynamics. Doing movies one after the other can be interesting because it takes you away from your brain and that gives some immediacy to your performances. But right now, I don’t have projects one after the other so I have time to read and do many other things I enjoy in my life. Sometimes it’s good to have the unexpected—the unscripted. It’s good to break from the rhythm and to not be doing the same things all the time.
You have a life outside of being an actress.
But it’s complex because everything is mixed together. Everything goes together.
Roschdy [Zem] recalled seeing you helping your daughter with homework on set at the end of each shooting day on Other People’s Children. He said seeing that really affected him.
For me, of course. All the time. I have the opportunity on shoots where I can go to a trailer and take time with her. And I like that she doesn’t care about what I do for a living. Sometimes I will tell her, “I’m going to go do something very funny.” She says, “I don’t care about it.” [laughs]
Unifrance president Serge Toubiana compared you to a “Swiss-army knife.” You can do it all, it seems. Other People’s Children and Revoir Paris are a showcase of that versatility. And although these are very different stories, they share some parallels. The subject of children, of wanting children before time runs out, is an obvious one. But Rachel and Mia feel deeply connected in other ways. They’re compassionate. They survived traumas. They wear their heart on their sleeves. Did you see a connective tissue between them? How did you relate?
It’s a great question. I’m not saying that we choose characters because they’re like us, because that would be limiting. But of course, there’s something in the way that you feel close to these people. There is something about your own identity that is in them. It’s conveyed and comes across in these two characters. They’re very different, but at the same time, there’s something very solid in both of them in terms of where their life experiences have taken them. There’s a melancholy there, in them feeling like that they can’t quite get to what they want. There’s some obstacle they can’t push past. That’s something that’s true in both characters.
To take it a little bit further, there are parallel moments at the end of both movies that I found so incredibly moving. Without saying anything, from afar, you’re exchanging a look with Roschdy, and with Amadou [Mbow], turning melancholic moments into life-affirming ones. It’s a look of mutual understanding—of accepting life’s unfortunate circumstances.
That, first and foremost, comes from the attitude of the filmmakers. And I wonder in which films we don’t talk about connections, right? But definitely. There’s a deep sense of connection in both Rebecca’s [Zlotowski] and Alice’s [Wincour] movies. I remember the looks you’re talking about. At the end of Rebecca’s movie, Rachel looks at her former partner that way. In Alice’s movie, Mia looks at the young man that she experienced the terror attacks with. There’s a deep recognition between them that goes way beyond just having shared any old experience. When you share the kind of experiences that they went through, there’s something of the other person that remains in you, with you, that goes beyond words. The words themselves are too weak to convey it. And what you’re talking about is part of acting, but a lot of it is also about how the movies are shot. For me, I just needed to feel what was going on. I didn’t need to verbalize it.
You are a great conduit for emotions, and high up on the relatability scale. Alice put it like this: you provoke an immediate empathy. Why do you think people find you so relatable?
I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m very malleable. [Virginie tugs at her cheeks.] I have a “synthetic” face. And I come from Belgium, a little country outsized by its neighboring France. So maybe we make more of an effort in the things we do. The French will sometimes say to Belgians, “You’re so simple.” I am simple. So maybe it’s those kinds of things. I also started out on television, and began acting by making a lot of romantic comedies. So I would read a lot of articles that say, “the girl next door.” For me, that was okay. But it was also a problem because I wanted to explore more tortured and complex and layered characters. Overall, I think I come across in a good way in France. But then I also think that it can be a superficial mask as well.
I do remember you telling W that, because of your long career in TV hosting reality-type programs, you were initially offered comedies. How did you spread your wings from there?
Well, the first thing is to not feel like you’re in a box. When you’re typecast, what choice do you have? You just accept that and try to do something within that, even if the movie or the writing is not so good. It’s also about meeting people. I met Justine [Triet] and made Victoria, which is a great, great movie. It was also a romantic comedy, but so weird about depression, too. It’s the first one that gave me a role like that to play, where I could do something very funny, but also explore other things. It was a discovery for me, even though I knew I had that inside of me. So, of course, it wasn’t always, “Life is so great!” I know that. But with her, I found an intimacy with a director. After that movie, I received a lot of different propositions. The thing I’m really proud of is that, before that even happened, when I wasn’t receiving a lot of propositions, sometimes directors would ask me to play in some comedy that I didn’t find so funny or intelligent, and I still said no, when nobody even knew that I existed. You want movies that have a sense of urgency to them—the need to tell the story. I want to work on movies that have good stories to tell.
Going even further back, when did you first discover cinema—the kinds of movies you knew you’d want to be a part of and the filmmakers you would one day want to work with?
It’s a layered process. There have been so many influences that factor into it. When you’re a little girl, it goes through the actresses that you like. When you’re 12 or 13, you discover Marilyn Monroe and you sing all the songs. There are the Billy Wilder comedies. When I was little, I was really infatuated with Romy Schneider. There were all kinds of actresses that I adored, like Gena Rowlands. And I would watch pretty much only American films. I had an old aunt who would take me to the cinema all the time and sometimes she would offer me movies that I wasn’t particularly interested in. I would be like, “Wow, I don’t want to go see that.” [laughs] But I would go and end up falling in love with them. For example, that’s how I became familiar with Asian cinema. I really loved it. I never thought I would be interested in certain things, like Raging Bull. At first, I said, “I’m not going to go watch a movie about a boxer. What do I care about that?” Of course, I fell in love with that, too. There’s so much stuff that comes in from different sources at different times in our lives—to nourish your imagination and sensitivity. At the César ceremony, I had the honor of presenting David Fincher with his Honorary Award. When I think of movies like Fight Club and Gone Girl, he also contributed to my development.
Did you get the opportunity to share with David how you feel about his movies?
I actually had the opportunity to tell him indirectly, publicly. That is almost easier than doing it in private because when you’re one-on-one like that, you can feel a bit reticent about it.
So was it by chance that you were asked to co-present that award to David with Brad Pitt?
The reason I was chosen goes back to me praising his movies on the French program. I was asked about my favorite films and I had mentioned Gone Girl. I said it was among my top ten films, ever. I saw all of his movies, but that one in particular stands out. I think it’s incredible. I’ve seen a lot of American films. For example, I was just thinking about Road to Perdition. These are the kinds of movies that never forget its audience. They’re very intriguing on a superficial level, but then there’s so much more to them as well. They tell you so much about the state of our society and about the role we play in it. There’s so much more nuance and layer to it about the human condition. It’s just like what Paul Verhoeven does. He’s a director that I admire a lot as well.