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Hereafter - Cecile De France interview

Hereafter, Cecile de France

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BELGIAN actress Cecile de France talks to us about the joy of working with director Clint Eastwood on the emotional drama Hereafter, as well as how her character develops throughout the movie.

She also talks about her views on near-death experiences and the afterlife, as well as performing her own stunts for the film’s amazing tsunami sequence.

Q. I imagine the combination of a script by Peter Morgan and direction by Clint Eastwood was an offer you couldn’t refuse?
Cecile de France: It was! I got involved with casting because Clint Eastwood wanted a French speaking actress… I’m Belgian of course, but the character written by Peter Morgan in the script was French. So, I did casting and very quickly – perhaps just three weeks after – I received this amazing positive answer! I was so happy and, initially, I was sure it couldn’t be me because it was too much luck in one life. I even said to myself: “This is not possible…” I was so very, very surprised when I received that answer.

I then met Clint the day before we started shooting and, again, was immediately very, very happy. In fact, I’ve been very happy from the moment I first received the positive answer to now. This experience… working with Clint Eastwood has changed my life. And I was never disappointed. The whole experience was so much better than I could dare to have imagined because he is such a great man. Everybody who works with him will tell you the same.

Q. And what did you like about Marie, your character?
Cecile de France: The most interesting part, for me, was seeing how she changes. At the beginning, she is completely overwhelmed by her experience, and completely obsessed by it… so much so that it turns her life upside down. But it’s very difficult for her. At first, she finds it very painful and struggles to find the right word to explain it… because she doesn’t initially know she’s had a near death experience. So, she prefers to try and keep things the same. But then when she finds a way to express what has happened to her, she’s not taken seriously and everyone thinks she’s crazy.

So, when she meets Dr Rousseau, it’s such a relief for her… she knows she’s not going out of her mind and that prompts her to continue her research and takes her on this journey of self discovery that improves her understanding of what has happened to her. She asks herself a lot of questions and discovers a brand new meaning to life. Indeed, because she’s not afraid of death anymore, that changes her fundamentally.

For example, her professional success is less important, she wants to do more with her time, and she’s more open minded. She’s craving to fulfil her life and give meaning to her actions. She becomes more altruistic because she has knowledge and experience and wants to share that with her audience. She wants to help with the advance of science and promote scientific change about the subject and she is writing this book so that she can help people in their last moments and relieve the sorrow of people who are about to lose someone and make their sense of loss more acceptable. So, it’s a positive dramatic experience for her and she evolves as a person. She profits personally, too, because she will find a real love at the end of her journey. So, of course, it’s very enjoyable to be able to play a character like that.

Q. How was filming the tsunami scenes? I gather you performed your own stunts?
Cecile de France: I was very exciting because we shot most of it in Pinewood Studios in London. But it was fast, too. We prepared for three or four days with some fantastic English stunt-men and again on the actual day of shooting – and then it was over very quickly. We shot most of the biggest part of the tsunami in one day. That meant it was a very tiring day and I was constantly exhausted. But it was exciting to be a part of, as well as quite a strange sensation. Obviously, I felt a sense of responsibility because, of course, you are aware that a lot of people died in the real tsunami, but you still have to be very professional and tough and you have to be good in the moment.

Fortunately, I had already shot two films with underwater scenes, so this was not my first time with water. If anything, it [water] seems to be very special in my career… so I was prepared. We also shot one scene in the real ocean in Hawaii – the scene where I miss the hand of the little girl. Clint Eastwood was with us in the big waves on that occasion [laughs]! We also shot the scene in the streets, which was completely digital. So, when we’re supposed to turn around and see the wave, there’s nothing there. But incredibly, hardly any of that sequence is a digital effect… for the most part, a lot of what you see in that scene is real.

Q. Did you speak to any tsunami survivors as part of your research? Or people who’ve had near death experiences?
Cecile de France: I read a lot of witness statement and books, especially in regard to tsunami survivors. But in terms of the movie’s main themes about the hereafter I can honestly say that I never thought about the subject before this film. Getting older doesn’t scare me so much, as I’ve always accepted that death is part of life. So, I read a lot of testimonies and talked to a lot of friends of mine who have had near-death experiences in their lives. I also spoke to several doctors – some of whom were very serious on the subject and some of whom were very cynical. I tried to get a lot of different opinions. But it was exciting to do the research… to concentrate on near death experiences and to try and understand about them.

But then the film doesn’t try to give an answer to this issue, and – likewise – it was the same for me in preparing for it. After all the research, I still didn’t have an answer [laughs]. But then nobody has an answer. And I don’t think you can have one unless, perhaps, you have lived through a personal experience. In that regard, it’s better to accept that it [death] is a mystery.

But then death and the afterlife is just one of the themes that the film explores. And it does so without making judgements. It also talks about real life, about loneliness, and human beings with all their weaknesses and defects. It’s not a ghost story or a science fiction film. And it stays very close to Peter Morgan’s original script, which is excellent. When I read it for the first time, and then saw the finished film, I wasn’t surprised that Clint had chosen to stick with the simplicity of the script.

Q. Coming back to Clint Eastwood as a director, a lot of people talk about how he likes to shoot quickly and often with just one or two takes. How was that for you?
Cecile de France: Yes, it’s true. But that was a good thing for me because I come from a theatre background. I’m used to preparing my character and then, when on set, my job is to adapt myself to any kid of direction that I’m given. I really love his style because he’s constantly trying to capture the magic moment of the first shot. And that’s a good thing for me because I’m always better in my first shot as opposed to after 30 shots. He’s in the present and he completely transmits that to everyone. So, everyone knows they have to be prepared. Shooting with Clint is very quick… in one day you can do five big scenes and that’s it. So, you get used to finishing earlier than you’re supposed to. It’s very simple. You know your job, you know what you to have to do, and you also know that he’ll give you the freedom to try different things. And because it’s Clint, you bring the best of yourself immediately.

Q. You only share two scenes with Matt Damon, but they’re incredible moving. How was that for you?
Cecile de France: Again, it was very quick. It was only two days and two scenes, and they were shot in almost one take. But it’s not by chance that Clint Eastwood had chosen to ask Matt to work with him again [after Invictus] because they are very similar in that they’re very humble, very friendly and very cool to be around. Of course, I was very impressed with Matt Damon’s acting, but I was also completely impressed by him as a person. Between takes, he’s very cool and very sweet and Clint and him would make a lot of jokes. They also know the crew from past films, especially Clint because he’s worked with the same people for so long. So, it’s like a familial atmosphere.

Q. Clint has actually described you as one of the very best actresses he’s ever worked with. How does that make you feel?
Cecile de France: It’s like whoooah! It’s not possible. I don’t really know what to say about a compliment like that. It’s like an Oscar when you hear it. And he’s said that a few times! I was near to him when he first said it and I literally didn’t know what to do. Should I kiss him? Or scream out loud? I could have died right now… it’s wonderful. But then this experience has completely changed my life.

Q. How so?
Cecile de France: Because he offered me his trust and his confidence and that changes your opinion of yourself as an actress. You say: “OK, I can do it.” If Clint likes you and what you can bring, you feel strong and it’s very good for all of my other experiences. He also offers you a lot of love because he’s completely at peace with his ego. He’s found trust, serenity and calm and he emanates love, really, so when you are near him, you can feel something sweet and very powerful at work.

Q. How has being in a film like Hereafter helped your international profile? Mainstream audiences already know you from films like High Tension, but has this helped to raise your profile even further? Are you noticing more offers from America, for instance? And is that something you would like?
Cecile de France: I don’t know, to be honest. The film was only just released and so I have no idea as yet. I have since done another film, with Gerard Depardieu. But for me, the most important thing is to have an interesting character. So, I need a very, very good script and a director I really love… a genius. If those two things are in place, I don’t care if it [the film] is in the US, England, Africa, France or anywhere in Europe. Cinema is universal. I wouldn’t want to do something just because it’s bigger and end up feeling disappointed. I just respond first to the material and then try to do the job as best I can… and something beautiful usually happens after that. So, I don’t really expect anything. I just try to live in the present.

Hereafter is released in UK cinemas on Friday, January 28, 2011.