Mélanie Laurent on Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds: 'To Survive On That Set, You Learn Fast!'

As we told you yesterday in our review, though Brad Pitt gives Inglourious Basterds its marquee value, Mélanie Laurent provides its heart and soul. It falls to the 26-year-old French actress to anchor some of the World War II film's most challenging scenes as Shosanna, the Parisian theater owner who's seen her entire family slaughtered by Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and seizes the opportunity to lure the S.S. into her theater for murderous revenge.

Though cool and collected on screen, in person Laurent (pictured above in an exclusive still from Basterds) is all impish charm, suggesting a younger, delightfully bratty variation on Marion Cotillard. As she folded her legs beneath her and smoked a slim cigarette, Movieline asked Laurent to elaborate on all things Basterds, including the unconventional demands made on her by Quentin Tarantino, her relationship with onscreen suitor Daniel Brühl, and the Shosanna scenes that Laurent found pivotal, yet ended up on the cutting room floor.

I heard that to prepare you for your role as a theater owner, Quentin secretly had you serve as projectionist for a double feature of his at the New Beverly theater in Los Angeles.

Were you there, at that moment?

I wasn't -- though if I had been, I guess I wouldn't have even known that you were up in the projectionist's booth.

Because it was a secret! [Laughs] Well, it was an amazing experience, I just loved that. The experience at the Beverly, it had many, many tensions because nobody knew and I was alone in the projection booth and I was like, "OK, I can't fuck up." I really loved to prepare the reel, just to fix the reel with the little glue. You are in your laboratory and you're just so close to movies in a different way.

Who taught you how to do it?

His name is Jeff? He's the personal projectionist of Quentin.

Did you make any mistakes?

No, although nobody would have known because I was very prepared. But I had a lot of mistakes at Quentin's house, where I [practiced]. Quentin was not there, he was in Berlin. But Jeff was like, "No, don't do it this way!" "Oh, sorry!" "Yeah, because you can burn the reel if you do that." "Oh, I forgot." "Well, don't forget when you're going to be at the Beverly."

You've learned a lost art, as everything's going digital.

Yeah, and it's a pity because it's a beautiful job. It's going to be machines everywhere now.

Ironically, you learned a great deal of those skills for a series of scenes that were actually cut from the finished film, scenes that show how you inherited your theater from Madame Mimieux, played by Maggie Chung. Did you ever get to see those scenes cut together?

No. I was a little bit frustrated, to be honest. In the [cut] scenes, I was hiding myself in the cinema, and after this screening, Maggie just appeared and said, "I know you're hiding yourself, and I don't want to have any troubles, so get your ass out." And I was like, "Can I stay?" And she said, "No -- except if I can use you." The next scene was at the projection booth, and she says to [her assistant] Marcel, "That young lady wants to hide herself here. Usually, you need one day to learn how to project a movie. I'll give you twenty minutes. If you do it, you can stay."

When did Quentin tell you those scenes had been cut?

When I saw the movie [at Cannes].

Hopefully they told Maggie before that! What was her performance like?

She was great. She was so beautiful, I was like... [Laurent lets her jaw drop]. I remember one take, I just forgot my line. I went, "Oh, sorry, I was watching Maggie, this beautiful woman." I was really impressed by her beauty.

You really do torment poor, lovesick Daniel Brühl in this movie. Did you continue to off-screen?

It was a strange relationship, actually. We had real fun in Paris when he came to read the lines with me during casting. I know he said to Quentin, "It's her." So I have to say thanks to Daniel for that. There was this chemistry between us immediately, but after that we had these little fights -- but cute fights! Like, "You're so French!" Or, "You're so German." We were like little children, fighting over these very stupid things. Then we had this moment at that festival in Capri [last December] where we finally discovered each other and had fun and said, "OK, let's make peace." But even without those little stupid stories, every time I was so glad to have a scene with him, because he's so professional and very, very generous. When he's off camera [during another actor's close-up], he's still "here," performing a scene for you. So we had a lot of fun together.


How did Tarantino direct you when he doesn't speak French?

Well, it was strange for everybody -- especially for me, because I didn't speak English at the beginning of that movie.

But you speak it so well now.

Had to! To survive on that set, you learn fast when you have to. It was step by step -- at the beginning of shooting, sometimes I would be like, "I didn't understand what you said." So I know sometimes he was a little bit upset because it would waste time. Because of that, I would learn [English] very fast. Of course, [Tarantino] knows exactly what he wants and he had a good translation of the script. He knew the sound of certain words in French, so even if I wanted to just change them, he would say, "No! It was not that in the script!"

And then a lot of your performance is silent. What did you want to be inside Shosanna's head during those moments where she's merely thinking?

I think we built Shosanna in a very cold way -- I didn't want it to be too much like [affecting an over-the-top voice] "I'm going to do THIS and THIS!" I think because of that first scene [where she witnesses the slaughter of her family], she was just dead inside. It was not logical to see her being passionate, even with her crazy ideas. So I really wanted her to be cold, like this clever person you've just met who lives so much in their mind that they can explain something to you and you just go, "What?" She tells everything she has in her mind to Marcel, "We're going to do this and this and this. We're going to burn that freaking cinema with everybody inside." So I really wanted to do something natural, except for that scene on the screen with that crazy laugh.

Yes -- without giving too much away, you're eventually called upon to deliver an over-the-top, sinister laugh. And it's sustained.

I was terrified when I saw that [in the script]. Honestly, I really didn't know what I would do until he said "action." You have two options: You can think about it all the time, be obsessive, try out lots of laughs every day...or you can just say, "Of course it's gonna come out. We will see. And maybe I can use my surprise to discover my own laugh." I never practice before, I never work hours on a script. I just choose my characters and trust them, and after that, it's about the director taking your hand. Especially with [Tarantino], he puts you in the middle of a grand mise-en-scène and it's easy, actually, because everything is there to help you.

Did you have a lot of input?

In the details! He would ask me to choose my axe, my clothing -- he would be like, "What do you prefer?" "Oh, I feel better in that suit." "OK, it's gonna be yours." You feel so comfortable with everything that it's not that hard. It's hard when you make a movie with someone who doesn't know what he wants, but when you have a master like [Tarantino]...for example, people say, "Oh my God! That scene with Landa at the lunch, how did you do it?" Well, it's a close-up, so you have to concentrate. And all of a sudden you hear [Landa's] crazy voice -- and she never forgot that voice. And then that hand on your shoulder, and you have to take...your...time...to discover his face. It's so easy to be in that scene! The [over-the-top laugh] was the hardest scene because it was so unnatural, but all the other scenes were easy, because it's easy to work with the best.