PARIS — Almost every actor will go to extremes, at some point in his or her career, to get into character. Robert De Niro famously packed on the pounds to play “Raging Bull,” while Meryl Streep has mastered a U.N. conference worth of accents over the years.
French star Emmanuelle Devos, for her part, prepared to play the role of a deaf woman in “Read My Lips,” which opens today in New York, by plunging herself into a world of silence.
“I wore ear plugs from time to time to know what it felt like to be isolated,” says Devos, who adds that she also learned some sign language, studied with speech therapists and watched a documentary about reading lips to understand the part.
The movie, released in France last October as “Sur Mes Levres,” was a popular and critical success here, and Devos won a Cesar — the French Oscar — for her portrayal of Carla, a not-so-pretty secretary who earns little money and even less respect from her boss.
With the help of hearing aids, Carla tries to cope with the daily bustle in her office, where she struggles to answer the phone — and the contempt of her male colleagues.
Despite the difficulties of understanding the character’s physical handicap, Devos says she could relate to her struggle against isolation and loneliness.
“The character reminded me of my adolescent years,” Devos says. “When I was 13 or 14 years old, I was very withdrawn, timid. It’s that time of life when you have your fears yet you know that you have this hidden beauty in yourself.”
The movie switches into thriller mode when Carla hires an assistant — played by Vincent Cassel — who turns out to be a petty thief, just out of prison. Surprisingly perhaps, her handicap becomes a weapon. In the office during the day, on rooftops spying on gangsters at night — and reading their lips to find out where they hide the loot — her character undergoes a transformation. From an unhappy woman — “people like it when you’re made ugly,” she says — Carla becomes a glamorous, feisty seductress.
“It was easy once they made me up and gave me a miniskirt,” says Devos.
Devos will soon be back on screen — all senses on alert — to play a wife and a mother destined to meet a tragic end in “L’Adversaire.” And though she may not be that well known to American audiences, that is likely to change with “Read My Lips,” which she promoted with a trip to the New York Film Festival this spring.
“It was my first time in New York,” she says. “I loved it! And I even found my way to the SoHo Marni store.”