From all outward appearances, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds look like a guy movie, for manly men. It’s a scrappy group of Jewish guys led by a Tennessee-born lieutenant (Brad Pitt) out to cruelly and unusually kill as many Nazi soldiers as they can. Gruesome and violent with lots of knife action, that sort of thing. All of that is true. However, Tarantino is also the guy who made Kill Bill, Death Proof and Jackie Brown, all truly memorable stories about women triumphing over everything. What could be a more daunting challenge for one woman to overcome than the entire Third Reich?
That’s the burden Shosanna Dreyfus (played by French actress/director/singer Mélanie Laurent) carries, along with the bulk of the emotional weight in Tarantino’s latest. The first thing we see is the wickedly charismatic Nazi detective Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) brutally killing her family and forcing her to flee for her life. When next we find her years later, she’s running a Parisian movie theater and is forced to show Nazi propaganda films. But when a German war hero and rising movie star named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) starts to show an interest in her, her little theater winds up playing host to a film premiere that all the German high command are going to attend, including Landa. What to do, what to do? She resolves to bring the house down. The harshest way possible.
“I love when Mélanie is getting ready to blow up the theater and the David Bowie song is playing and she’s putting on warrior-like make-up and going to this glamorous premiere,” Laurent’s Basterds co-star BJ Novak said, when asked about his favorite scene in the film. “It’s so Tarantino to me, because it’s so feminine and visual, but it’s in the service of something so violent and action-packed. It could only be Tarantino.”
We don’t see much of Shosanna in the trailers and clips, since her dialog is all in French and subtitled, but Laurent herself had plenty to say about her experience making this challenging movie. “Most of the time you don’t make movies with Quentin Tarantino, you know?” she says excitedly, in English that she will hopefully continue to polish. “Most of the time it’s really not like this. You wake up at 5 and you’re just want to stay in your bed, you have a hysterical director who is just yelling at you, but it’s not clear, and at the end of that four month experience, you discover the movie is crap! So when you just have that amazing opportunity, when you are the most lucky French actress ever at that moment, you just have fun. You just enjoy it.”
“I’m really confident,” she says, about how fearless she is to strike out into all these creative fields. “I had a perfect childhood. I had perfect parents and grandparents. They just love me, simply. So I have no fears. And I just realize that the job is completely absurd, it’s not life. Ok, that’s not life. That’s not real. This is not real. I’m 26, and I’m in a poster with Brad Pitt. That’s not really real. But it’s my life now, and I just want to take time, and go to Ireland, and make my music.”
She’s currently at work on an album with Damien Rice, and she couldn’t be happier about it. “Masters! It’s funny to have just met two masters. They’re very different, because it’s music and it’s cinema, but I was like, ‘I’m so fucking lucky!’ He explained to me the word ‘working.’ ‘You wanna be a singer? Ok, work! Make some piano! Just go to work! Listen the birds! Caress a tree, be with the nature, and just be inspired!’ And I just forgot that. Sometime you just work, you work, you work, and you have no life, no boyfriend, you have no more friends, no more nothing, you just make movies, and you’re tired, and you don’t know why. Then everybody says ‘oh you are so lucky, you are working!’ And you’re like, ‘oh yeah, oh yeah, it’s so great! I met that master of making movies! And I met that master of making CDs, and I worked with those two guys!’ The common point is inspiration, and make that job with passion, and that’s all. And it’s so great, because I just have a new life now. I enjoy everything.”
How was it working with the master of movies? Laurent can’t say enough about him – especially how great his attention to detail was on set and with production design, going so far as to actually play the Bowie song for her while she was shooting that scene that Novak loves so much. “He’s a captain on a boat,” she gushes. “He’s an amazing director for the actor. He’s really respectful and he loves actors. So he just understands how it can be difficult sometimes. But you know what, when you have that sort of mise en scène, it’s kind of easy to play, because you have everything around you. You just have to concentrate, you don’t really have to even work for details. Because he’s the details, and you have everything on the pages, in the script!”
“When you’re in front of Brad Pitt and producers and Quentin and everybody and your friends and you’re 26 and it’s your first movie and you don’t speak English and you’re going to spend 4 months here with this, it’s a lot of pressure,” she adds. “But I didn’t want to leave it like that. I said ‘ok, I’m just going to be stressed out every day. So he trusts me, ok. I’m going to trust that. And I’m going to try to just relax and have fun.’ So it was sometimes, hard because – you know what? No. It was not hard. It was just great. And it’s very rare. Because most of the people in that world want to do that job.”