Q&A with the co-star of Paris 36
Mar 31, 2009
Now that 19-year-old actress and singer Nora Arnezeder has earned newcomer awards in France for her performance in the fictional 1930s period film Paris 36, the possibility of one day working with her idols Woody Allen and Quincy Jones seems like less of a stretch. But there is one hero from Arnezeder’s girlhood who will remain elusive to her, no matter how successful she becomes.
“I was really in love with Aladdin,” she confesses. “I wanted to meet him one day, but I realized that I never would, so I was really disappointed.” Arnezeder grew up in Aix-en-Provence, roughly 500 miles south of Paris, so it’s only logical to ask if she ever made the trek to Disneyland Paris. “Yeah, I love it,” she replies. “I’m a child. No, I love it, and I like to watch old Walt Disney movies, and I’m always crying.”
Arnezeder yearns to voice a character in an animated film at some point, but she intends to be particular in choosing her next film role, understanding that Paris 36 was a rare opportunity and that finding a worthy follow-up will take patience. In the film, set in 1936, she plays Douce (Sweetie), an aspiring singer who auditions to perform at the Chansonia, a neighborhood music hall in a working-class district of Paris. Amid worker strikes and mounting support for the left-wing Popular Front, three friends who are former employees of the Chansonia decide to occupy and refurbish it, hoping to stage a hit show that will allow them to buy the theater from the criminal town boss who closed its doors. When the opening-night audience grows restless with their revue, Douce is prompted to sing, and her rendition of “Loin de Paname” (vibrantly captured by cinematographer Tom Stern) is a showstopper.
Part musical, part comedy, part prewar drama, Paris 36 is directed by Christophe Barratier, whose previous effort, The Chorus (Les Choristes), received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005. The idea for Paris 36 (titled Faubourg 36 in France) originated from contemporary songwriters Frank Thomas (lyrics) and Reinhardt Wagner (music), who wrote a set of songs chronicling a Paris neighborhood in 1936. Arnezeder, a veteran of several music and theater schools, including the International Academy of Dance, Song and Theater, sings five songs in the film. When I spoke with Arnezeder in Beverly Hills earlier this month, she expressed delight with the U.S. one-sheet for the film, which, unlike the French poster, features Douce singing on stage. “I’m very proud,” she said. “It’s a beautiful poster.”
How did the auditions for this role come to your attention?
My agent told me that Christophe Barratier wanted to find an actress and a singer, so I went into the office of Christophe and said, "I want to do the audition." And he said, “OK, but I think you are a little bit too young to play the lead part. But as long as you are a singer, you can audition for a smaller part in my movie.” And I said, “OK.” It was better than nothing. So I received the songs, and I fell in love with the songs. I did that audition, and he liked it and said, “OK, I’m going to give you the script and you’re going to do an acting test, and it will be for the character of Douce.” And at that time, I didn’t know that Douce was the lead character, so I read the script and I realized that it was the first role. So I was very happy and very stressed. I did that acting audition and I had no answers at all for about two months. Two months later he called me and said, “There’s five actresses left, and you will do a screening test. We are going to dress you with ’30s clothes and makeup and hair and everything.” So I did that screening test and one month later he called me and said, “Would you like to be a part of the movie?”
How did you familiarize yourself with the songs for the singing audition?
He gave me two songs from the film. It was a tape recording, and the composers were singing.
Are there many opportunities in French film and TV for actresses who can sing?
No, there are not. This was a real chance.
What did Christophe tell you about playing a young woman in the 1930s?
He just told me be myself, feel confident and try to not imitate actresses from the ’30s. Be more natural and sensitive.
What part of yourself do you think you brought to the role of Douce?
My shyness, I think. I was really shy at the beginning. They were all family and I had to really put myself into it, to prove to people that I could do it. I think those feelings really helped me to play the character, because when you don’t feel really strong, sometimes it’s not that bad. You have to feel a bit confident, but not too much, and that helped me.
Did you have experience singing those types of songs?
No. I was singing a lot of jazz music, so I had to work hard to get ready for the audition. I worked three hours a day, by myself, in my room just to succeed and maybe have a small part in that movie. I remember, I was telling my mom and my dad, “OK, now it’s 12, can you please come at 4 and see if I made improvements? [laughs] And they were staring at me, and my mom said, “If they don’t choose you, they will be stupid.” And I said, “OK mom, please, you are the mom.”
Do either of your parents have a background in music?
My dad, he’s a real fan of music, so there’s always music in our house—Asian music, jazz music, classical music, Indian music, a lot of foreign music.
What kind of music do you listen to on your own?
Jazz music, a lot of French music, musicals from the ’50s. I love a movie called Footlight Parade, and I bought the soundtrack, and they are beautiful songs in that movie.
“Loin de Paname,” is that the song you sing when Douce first takes the stage?
Yes. We recorded it live. Christophe Barratier thought that it was more powerful to sing live, on set.
What was your reaction when you saw the edited cut of that performance, as it appears in the film?
I cried, because I think it’s a beautiful movie. I was very touched. It’s very hard to see yourself on the screen. Very hard, so sometimes I was putting my hands over my eyes, like this [she peeks through her fingers]. I wouldn’t see my face, ‘cause it’s hard to see yourself on the screen.
How has your life changed since the film was released?
I have more proposals.
You’re talking about roles?
Yeah, I ‘m talking about roles, not marriage. [laughs]
You had done some TV work in France before this film. Did that prepare you at all for a production like Paris 36?
Not at all. The TV shows were great—were not that great—but great for my own experience. But I really learned a lot of things thanks to Paris 36. In TV shows in France, you don’t have time to do a scene. We’re always in a hurry. You don’t learn in a good way, I think.
Do you have any plans to record an album?
Do you write music, or will you have to find songs?
I try to do both. I try to write, I really like to.
Do you play piano?
I used to play piano a little bit, but I want to play guitar as well. When I have a sound in my head, I can play the notes on the piano and write it.
So you know notation?
A little bit. It is hard for me to have a paper with notes, to sing without the music, but it is not that difficult to have the sound in my head and to try to find the notes on the piano and to translate onto a paper with a scale.
Have you had any offers to record an album?
Yes. And I really, really, really— I had a [great opportunity] to play that character [Douce], and it’s very important, the second movie, so I really want to try to do a good movie.
After you auditioned for Douce, and you knew that they still were looking at other actresses, what were those weeks like for you?
You know, it’s part of our job. It will always be like that, even now. So that’s OK, no problem. I really trust in destiny. If it works, it works, because it had to work. If it doesn’t work, that’s life.
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