Interview With Berenice Bejo
What was your first impression when you read the script of THE PAST?
I had to wait a month before I received it. I'd met Asghar, then I went
abroad on vacation and I waited to find out if he was going to give me the
script, and if he was going to offer me the role or not. When I finally got hold
of it, I picked it up like a jewel, a rare object that I was lucky to have in my
hands. I found everything in it that I liked in his previous films. A mood,
characters who aren't just monochrome, and who always retain a degree of
mystery, and a complex story which continually makes the spectator change his or
her mind. I finished reading it enchanted.
How did your first meeting go?
We met two hours before I took a flight, and I've never done a test like
that! Asghar was looking for something in my face, I didn't know what. Then he
put some cotton wool in my mouth, he darkened my forehead, he worked on the
corners of my mouth. To the point where I said to the make-up artist: "If he
wants to change my face that much, he might as well find someone else." We
hardly spoke on the day of the tests. Just a little about the character. And
when I left, I knew next to nothing.
When he spoke about the character, what did he say?
"She's a woman with two children, who is in love with a man who has a child,
and who has to get divorced from another man." He asked me if I had any
children. I told him I have two, and that my partner also has two. So I'm mother
to four children, every other week. It was a way of telling him: "I can relate
to what you are telling me, and perhaps I can find an echo of it in my life so
that it works on screen."
Asghar Farhadi is very keen on organizing rehearsals before his shoots. How
long did they last?
Two months. We met up three or four times a week, sometimes also on a
Saturday, and we rehearsed for four to five hours. It's something I'd never done
before, and must be close to the preparation for a stage actor, working as a
troupe. Asghar had us do exercises for half an hour; we walked round the room,
we ran, we relaxed, we did sit-ups. And he always demonstrated the exercises to
us, clearly taking the role of troupe leader. After that, we read the script,
and sometimes we improvised a little around it. And we always all did the same,
even when the scene didn't involve us. By the end, I was growing more and more
impatient. I wanted to get on with filming, especially since Asghar's demands
were becoming increasingly precise.
Did this precision scare you ahead of the shoot?
I was mainly afraid of growing tired of the text and the story. And once we
started shooting, I felt I'd already done the film! In movies, the first montage
that the editor puts together right after the shoot is called the "rough cut". I
felt as if I had done this rough cut myself! When you're an actor, you sometimes
worry about lacking in spontaneity, but I discovered that it is through
working that one becomes more spontaneous. You know the character so well that
things escape from you.
So in the end, how did the shoot go?
Asghar made it easy. I was never struggling, I always played Marie quite
naturally because I knew her by heart. I'm not saying there were no moments of
doubt, times when we redid takes, when we were all groping around for something,
but I experienced all the incidents in her life from the inside. Sometimes in
the evening, I'd say: "I don't understand. I feel as if it all came so
naturally." That was exactly what Asghar was after: for me never to
intellectualize the character, for me to always live it from the inside.
Are you at all like Marie?
Not at all. That's an interesting point: I was shooting scenes in which
Asghar asked one thing or another from me, and I would think: "That's so not
me!" At no time would I have reacted the way Marie reacts. What a delight for an
actor to play a character so easily who is the complete opposite of themselves.
What did you know about Marie at the start of rehearsals? Had you constructed
a back-story for her character?
I knew she was a pharmacist in Paris, whilst living on the outskirts. It's
not really very clear, but I imagined she was a simple employee at the pharmacy.
During rehearsals, we thought about her relationship with Ahmad, how they had
met, and also who was her first husband with whom she had two children. And also
why Ahmad and Marie split up. We even acted out some break-up scenes. We
imagined that they separated via Skype. Ahmad left, saying he'd be back, but he
never did come back. It was important for me to act out those scenes: it forged
something between Ali, who plays Ahmad, and me. I could look him in the eyes,
laugh with him, cry - he was part of my everyday life. We also constructed the
past of the character played by Tahar. For example, we did quite an interesting
exercise in which Asghar asked us, facing the camera, to say who Samir's wife
was. I described her physically. Then Tahar did the same thing. And gradually a
picture of this woman emerged...
The script stipulates that there was a complicated episode, that Ahmad was
depressive for a long time. Did you discuss this period and imagine these
No. Asghar often talks about immigrants. He often says that Iranian culture
is very different than ours, and that often those Iranians who come to France
cannot adapt to our lifestyle. They get depressed and return home. I think
Ahmad's character is a little like that. He's someone who tries to integrate
into a new society, into a new life, and who genuinely falls in love. But at
some point, it's too much for him and he'd rather go home. Marie has understood
what happened to Ahmad. If she's angry with him, it's because he didn't have the
courage to tell her to her face. You can tell in his films that Asghar believes
in women more than in men; that he finds women stronger and more expressive.
The story is universal, but does it say anything about today's France?
No, not particularly. It has something to say about today's world. About the
complicated relationships between human beings, about the situations in which
they may find themselves, which are sometimes completely absurd. In fact, Asghar
likes posing questions, putting people in certain situations, but don't count on
him to supply any answers or solutions. That's what works in his filmmaking.
Your character in some ways serves the role of provoking emotions, while the
masculine characters are more evasive, or cowardly.
It's true, Marie is always at the heart of the action. She's the one who asks
the difficult questions, and who is waiting for the answers. But as an actress,
I didn't really feel that, because Asghar's way of shooting is very particular,
very meticulous. The shoot was very long. Sometimes we did five shots a day,
when on another film, you might do 15. Everything is at once diluted and very
How do you grasp the character when you work fragment by fragment?
That's what the rehearsals were for. Then there's the total confidence I have
in Asghar. He can be really very, very precise. Certain scenes are put together
like a ballet. For example, he would say: "Now Berenice, you do this, you go
there, at this point you speak, you move in that direction. And you, Tahar, once
she speaks, you move this way." And he would perform all my movements, then
those of Tahar, then say our dialogue but without acting. To begin with, this
can be quite unsettling. You wonder how you can put your own stamp on it. But in
fact, it doesn't always happen as he demonstrated it; he just indicates a path.
It's his way of helping us, of saying: "Here, I'll give you a pathway so that
you feel loved, aided, watched over, but from then on, do what you like." And I
love that. He's a manipulator, but with no perversity.
Asghar Farhadi doesn't speak French. What did that change on set?
During the two months of preparation, we really had time to get used to the
person who was translating, Arash. He did an extraordinary job, translating
everything. When Asghar said to us: "I'd like you to go to the left, er no,
sorry, I'd like you to go the right," Arash repeated all that word for word. He
became Asghar's voice. To begin with it was quite disconcerting, but as things
went along, I didn't even think about Asghar not speaking French. Anyway, Asghar
is so expressive, he makes so many gestures, I don't even need Arash to
translate. I already know where he's going.
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