Movies + TV

Q&A: Charlotte Gainsbourg Is Fine with Using a Porn Actor Double for Her Nymphomaniac Sex Scenes as Long as the Audience Knows It's All Pretend

"It cost a lot, to go from a very innocent place, with my baby in my hotel room, to doing those very dark scenes. It was two real extremes."

Is there a more fearless working actor than Charlotte Gainsbourg? The Anglo-French beauty, who speaks like an angel, has plumbed some terrifyingly shocking depths—exhibiting psychosexual-violence in Antichrist (for which she won best actress at Cannes Film Festival), facing apocalypse in the epic Melancholia, and, most recently, exploring carnal extremes in Nymphomaniac, her cinematic reunion with Danish writer-director Lars von Trier.

Last week, Gainsbourg sat down with us at Soho's Crosby St. Hotel. She sipped tea and showed no qualms about discussing masochism, "smashed dicks," and porn doubles—a testament to her paradoxical nature as a mild-mannered artist with a penchant for uncommonly daring projects. So far she's proven to be a master at keeping a certain distance from the disturbing material that attracts her to certain projects, while utterly understanding its core elements. Not everyone could go from breastfeeding her newborn to hitting her marks in one of the most controversial sex-centric flicks in history.

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DETAILS: Nymphomaniac is reportedly the closing chapter of Lars von Trier's "Depression Trilogy." Do you feel a sense of completion, or of having come full circle?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: I was hoping not, because I would enjoy working again with him. But I do believe that he'll go on to something different and new without me anyway. I never thought of those three films as a trilogy, though. So, yes, I do understand this depression feeling, but for me, in Nymphomaniac, it's not the main subject. The suffering is, of course, but there's a lot of other things.

DETAILS: Given how shocking Antichrist and Melancholia were, I was surprised to find that Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 is very humorous. It's an interesting trajectory, how the three films go from deep darkness to light. What was it like, following that arc?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: Volume 1 takes you into light, and then Volume 2 brings you back down. That's what I find interesting. I saw the combined five-and-a-half-hour version, which is a different experience, but the rhythm and the energy are the same. And the first volume brings you into something very energetic. I don't think [Lars] could have talked about the sexual aspect and come up with all that provocation without the humor. It's completely necessary, and it's part of who he is and how he puts himself on screen. I believe [my character] Joe and Seligman [played by Stellan Skarsgård] are the two parts of who he is. It's like I'm playing him. But in Volume 2 he really takes [Joe] down, as well as everything he built up—he crashes.

DETAILS: I'm going to ask you two questions that usually make me recoil when they're asked of an actor, but I think your work makes you an exception, so let's try it out.

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: [Laughs] Okay.

DETAILS: The first is about bravery, which is so often reductively misused when folks evaluate and inquire about an actor's work, particularly a female actor who's doing nude scenes. But given the extreme nature of your work with Lars, I genuinely want to know: Do you need to muster a lot of courage to make these films with him?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: No, I don't feel that brave. I do feel that he takes me all the way into these very dark places, but I'm very willing to go there. The bravery has nothing to do with the fact that I'm naked, and also, in this film, I don't have that much nudity, at least compared with Stacy Martin [who portrays young Joe]. The suffering, yes. The masochistic part, yes. Taking her so far down into the shame—that was quite hard. But you don't need courage; I just need to trust him. And I do. And it's the trust that makes me want to follow him. Because I admire him, and of course, now, I'm very affectionate. I feel close to him and his family. I had shown things, parts of myself, for this movie, and I wasn't quite sure how he was going to use them. It's always nerve-wracking once the film is done. I had no idea what was going to happen. But once I saw the film I was very reassured. For me it's a beautiful film and I'm proud of being there.

DETAILS:The second question concerns the idea of shaking off a character. How do you compartmentalize your life and leave this uncommonly intense stuff you've been doing behind you on the set?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: It was a lot of compartmentalizing. I was breastfeeding my little baby during the shoot, and I remember very well going from that to being in a dark place during a scene. We were very often having a lot of fun, even if the scenes were hard. The whole enterprise was very exhilarating. But still, it cost a lot, to go from a very innocent place with my baby in my hotel room to doing those very dark scenes. It was two real extremes. They had nothing to do with one another, but I think that's how I got a balance, and it was possible, in that way, to go from one to another. And also, when a film is finished, I am completely out of it. It's behind me. I have no recollection, even.

DETAILS: During the process of making Nymphomaniac, did Lars ask you or any of the other actors about your own sexual histories, to be worked into the narrative, perhaps?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: Not at all. The only thing we talked about was real nymphomaniacs that he had seen and talked to. He had it all well documented. And he explained to me what nymphomania was, because I imagined before that it had to do with the sexual pleasure. But he described a world of suffering and frustration. So that was a completely unknown world to me. He did ask for personal stuff, but only in his directing, because he doesn't want you to fake anything. Of course you fake it, but he wants to believe in what you do. The only direction he's really given is, "I didn't believe you; go again." And in that sense it's very personal, because you can't put on another character—you have to believe you're really there and you are that person. And this person is very far from me. I don't believe in what she's saying—I don't have no faith in humanity the way she says she has. But I find her very touching in how she absolutely wants to persuade Seligman to believe she's a bad person, and that everything is her fault.

DETAILS: Volume 2 was able to make a scene involving a pedophile seem somewhat touching, and finds empathy for the most reviled sexual being in our culture by stripping sexuality down to its most base elements. Did the film change any of your views on sexuality?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: Maybe it taught me more about the suffering. For me—and I feel a bit stupid saying this—sexuality was all about the sexual pleasure. I didn't try to understand a human being through his sexuality, and I didn't try and analyze or believe that it would give an insight into who somebody is. And of course it does. Of course it's the core of who we are. So in that sense it taught me a lot. But I don't think the film is really about sexuality. I think it's about a woman exploring herself, really, through her sexuality. And exploring love, and the devastation love has on her, and the fact that she feels completely incapable of dealing with our society. It's more a portrait of a women than a discussion about sex.

DETAILS: I understand you used porn actor body doubles for both this film and Antichrist.

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: Yes, but for Antichrist, it was very specific. It only happened three times in the film because there was something about lawsuits. He needed to be very protected, and he needed to show me pictures and storyboards of exactly what was going to happen. So the three times were the clitoris being cut, a penetration, and then the smashing of the guy's dick—he was a porn actor.

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DETAILS: Did you get to meet these actors and interact with them? Was there anything that you learned from them?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: It was very weird, because in Antichrist I didn't understand where my limit was. I mean, of course I have a limit, because I'm not going to perform sex in front of camera. But then, being with a porn actor who wasn't Willem Dafoe, for instance, I thought I'd have no problem with that. But when I was actually doing it, and being in the same room with him—and I don't want to be nasty—but it was a different film. It was suddenly something else. And that's when I said to Lars, "I can't do this. You have to bring in [my double]." It made no sense, really, but the thing was, Lars knew that was going to happen. He just wanted to see how far I could go.

DETAILS: And what about in this film?

CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG: In this film it was all over the place. He didn't storyboard everything, but he asked me to do certain shots on my own, with the other actors—porn actors. And one scene I was going to do with my knickers on, so no problem, really. But then he was going to make the porn actress come in, take my position and actually do it. And then he mixed both images so it would like I was actually [the one having sex]. And he asked, "Do you have any difficulty with that? With people believing that you've actually done something? Or do you have any difficulty being naked in front of the crew?" And the most difficult for me was to be in front of the crew. Because the idea of faking something is fine with me as long as, in the end, people know that there were porn actors, and that it was all made up.

• • •


Also on Details.com:
Watch This Three-Hour Foreign Film (and Not Just for the Graphic Lesbian Sex)
Oldboy's Elizabeth Olsen on Remakes, the Fashion Biz, and Nude Scenes
Robin Wright is Back and More "Machiavellian" Than Ever in Season 2 of Netflix's House of Cards

Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
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