CANNES, France — When Quentin Tarantino landed in Paris last year to cast a French girl in his audacious World War II action movie, “Inglourious Basterds,” he sparked a mad scramble among the city’s actresses desperate to land the role. The lucky winner was Mélanie Laurent, 26, who joked that delivering a death threat to Tarantino after a dinner during auditions might have helped get her hired to play Shosanna Dreyfus. Others associated with the film chalk it up to talent.
“She is extraordinary,” raved producer Harvey Weinstein of Laurent, who has been acting since she was a teen but will be introduced to American audiences for the first time with this film, out Aug. 21.
Tarantino echoed the praise, saying the actress embodied his character “wonderfully.”
Here, Laurent, her naturally blonde hair dyed red for Cannes, talked to WWD about film, fashion and recording an album in Woodstock, N.Y.
WWD: How did you get into acting?
Mélanie Laurent: I’ve never taken an acting lesson. Gérard Depardieu approached me on a film set that I was visiting with a friend when I was 14 years old and asked if I’d like to be in a film.
WWD: This was your first time working with an American director. How was that?
M.L.: It’s more that it’s Tarantino. He actually had a real European style. On the set it was quite intimate. The crew was German, and the makeup person was from Iceland, so it wasn’t such an American experience.
WWD: You play a character who sees herself as the voice of Jewish vengeance. Were you at all nervous about tackling such a controversial role?
M.L.: It’s a beautiful role and the script is intelligent. I know there’s a debate surrounding the film over whether we can laugh about anything, and I think when something’s done in an intelligent way, we can. I felt very close to Shosanna.
WWD: Was it poignant filming a World War II action movie in Berlin?
M.L.: What we sensed over there is a new generation that carries a lot of guilt and is ashamed of its [country’s] past. It’s a heavy thing for these youngsters to carry. [But] as a result, it’s an extremely creative city with tons of new places opening every day, lots of exhibitions, concerts, clubs. France is dead by comparison. France is an old country that needs to wake up.
WWD: How do you think “Inglourious Basterds” will be received in the States?
M.L.: I don’t know how Americans will react to all the different languages [in the film]. I think it will be difficult for them to go to see a film with subtitles.
WWD: You’re a director yourself. What did you pick up from Tarantino?
M.L.: Everything. I watched him all the time. He was the star of that project. I was more impressed by him than by Brad Pitt.
WWD: I heard you’re recording an album in Woodstock. Why there?
M.L.: [Since] I had just embarked on a kind of American adventure, my manager, who’s American, thought the idea of singing in French in one of the most representative American towns for music would be cool. I worked with some great musicians in a cabin in the middle of the woods.
WWD: What designers do you like to wear?
M.L.: I like Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent. I have some great Balenciaga jackets and I’m shoe crazy. The latest addition is a pair of black gladiators by Giuseppe Zanotti with sparkly heels.
WWD: Why did you choose to wear a white YSL ‘Le Smoking’ for the “Inglourious Basterds” premiere?
M.L.: I thought it was the best symbol of French elegance. Also, I didn’t want to be dressed in some big gown on Tarantino’s arm.
WWD: You’re also working on the script of your first feature film. You must have a lot of energy.
M.L.: As a kid, I slept a lot but I’m [now] more hyperactive. I have more desire to create and I’m more freaked out by how quickly time passes. I’m not scared of growing old, I’m just scared of not achieving everything that I want to do.