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THE ARTIST

The Players
It was during the making of OSS 117: NEST OF SPIES in 2005 that Hazanavicius first mentioned his dream about making a silent movie to that film's stars, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Béjo. "We thought it was wonderful madness; we never imagined such a project could ever be achieved,” Béjo acknowledges.

When Hazanavicius finally set to work on his silent movie story, he wrote the roles of George Valentin and Peppy Miller with Dujardin and Béjo in mind, certain they would excel in the format. "Jean is as good in close-ups, with his facial expressions, as he is in long shots, with his body language,” he comments. "Not all actors are good with both; Jean is. He also has a timeless face that can easily be ‘vintage.' Bérénice has that quality, too. She exudes freshness, positivity, goodness. I thought viewers would easily accept the idea that she would stand out from the crowd and become a big star in Hollywood. George Valentin and Peppy Miller are, in a way, Jean and Bérénice fantasized by me!”

Dujardin knew that the filmmaker had been researching the silent era and watching numerous films, but he had little idea of what to expect when Hazanavicius gave him the screenplay for THE ARTIST. "He handed it to me, slightly feverish: ‘Read this, but don't laugh, do you think it's possible? What do you think of it? Would you be ready to do it?'” the actor remembers. "I read it in one sitting. My first thought was that it was really gutsy to have pursued his fantasy all the way. As was the case with each of Michel's scripts, I thought it was really well written, with everything perfectly in place. Up until then, we'd made comedies where we had a lot of fun with characters and situations. THE ARTIST had comedy and action, yet it was full of emotion. I was touched by all it said about cinema, its history and actors. I loved the premise, the meeting between George Valentin and Peppy Miller, the story of crossed destinies.”

Dujardin was moved by the transformation George undergoes as he grapples with the arrival of sound. "At first George doesn't ask himself a lot of questions. He's not arrogant, but he's sure of himself, confident in the charm that he assumes so easily,” the actor remarks. "George is very showy, always acting. It's as if he was only an image, a face on a poster. Then, little by little, this confidence, this lightness starts to crack. He starts sliding towards the bottom. Luckily, there's an angel watching over him. At the end he is not a photo but a man -- only a man. I liked this path.”

Béjo is married to Hazanavicius and so had the closest view of the story's development and evolution. She reports that Peppy Miller began life as an incidental character, less central to the story than the dog who is George's best friend. Remembers Béjo, "Michel told me, ‘There will be a girl who will appear here and there. It will only be a small part but I'd really like you to do it.' I would joke, ‘Even the dog has a bigger part than me!' Later, Michel told me, ‘it's strange when you write: you create characters, a story, but at a given point they become stronger than the hand that writes them.' The story of this silent movie star became a love story between him and this young extra. From version to version, Peppy Miller gradually became more and more important.”

Béjo found much to admire in the fledgling actress. "I liked Peppy right away; she stimulated me. When you do improv you're taught never to say no and take everything that is offered to you, accept it and play with it. Peppy applies this rule throughout her life; she has fun with everything. Stars often have that quality. They're not where they are by coincidence: they have enormous self-confidence, they grab what's available to them, that's how they climb the ladder and become stars. But Peppy's not in any way calculating. She's a good person, and doesn't forget where she came from. And she doesn't forget George.”

The casting process moved to Los Angeles, where Hazanavicius worked with casting agent Heidi Levitt. John Goodman was approached to play Al Zimmer, the studio chief who walks the line between coddling and corralling his contract stars. The actor liked the script, and a meeting was arranged at his agent's office. Remembers Hazanavicius, "We talked for a few minutes. Then John said, ‘Okay. I've never seen a movie like this and I want to be part of it.' I said, ‘Okay' and that was it!”

Another key addition to the cast was James Cromwell, who plays Clifton, George's trusted and steadfast chauffer. A native of Los Angeles, Cromwell is a child of the movie business; both parents, as well his grandmother and stepmother, worked in the industry. "My father arrived in Hollywood at the advent of the sound era and became a director in the 30s. My mother was DeMille's leading lady when he first moved into sound pictures,” the actor remarks. Prior to meeting with Hazanavicius, Cromwell reviewed a presentation book the filmmaker had put together that included detailed storyboards. "The book was wonderful. Michel had put a lot of thought into how exactly he would make this movie, and had a very clear vision. To me, the project was too good to pass up, and I'm certainly glad I didn't.”

Cromwell describes the chauffeur as a steady, reassuring presence in George's life. "Clifton is more than a chauffeur. He's really George's right-hand man and he cares for him a lot,” says Cromwell. At the same time, there is a formality to their relationship that is true to the period and true to Clifton's nature. "Clifton is old-school: gentlemanly, quiet, unobtrusive, sympathetic, handy and dependable.”

Hazanavicius also sought out actress Penelope Ann Miller, who portrayed silent movie actress Edna Purviance in the biopic CHAPLIN with Robert Downey Jr. In CHAPLIN, Miller had played silent scenes recreating portions of Chaplin's work, and she was intrigued by notion of acting in a feature-length silent. The period setting also held great appeal to the actress, a lifelong movie buff who is extremely knowledgeable about Hollywood cinema history. She gravitated to the part of Doris, George's increasingly disaffected wife. "I saw a lot of emotion to work with in Doris,” says Miller. "At the point where we come into the movie, there's clearly some tension in the marriage. Doris is a proud woman, upright, and it's very important to her to keep up the appearance of a stable marriage. They've grown apart, but deep down, Doris still loves George, and still wants him to adore her. I think she's suffering as a result of that.”

THE ARTIST was an unusual casting proposition in Los Angeles: a film without dialogue and only a handful of supporting roles, some quite small. Nonetheless, the film attracted an ensemble of accomplished, well-known actors whose faces will be very familiar to American moviegoers. Among them: Missi Pyle, who plays Constance, an actress who is none too pleased when George upstages her; Beth Grant, who plays Peppy's maid; Ed Lauter, who plays Peppy's butler; Ken Davitan, who plays a pawnbroker; Joel Murray, who plays a policeman; and Bitsie Tulloch, who plays George's co-star in a jungle adventure.

Veteran star Malcolm McDowell heard about the production and requested a meeting with Hazanavicius. "I only had a very small part to offer him, almost an extra, and he was delighted!” marvels the filmmaker. "I really had tremendous good fortune with the entire cast.”

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