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From Disconnection to Reconnection

May 24, 2013 Web Exclusive
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At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, French actress and singer/songwriter Soko is the face of La Semaine de la Critique (Critics’ Week), a section of the festival that showcases films of first- and second-time directors. The image used for the Semaine de la Critique poster was taken from Soko’s performance in Augustine, the debut feature of writer/director Alice Winocour. Augustine premiered as part of last year’s Critics’ Week at Cannes and now is opening in U.S. theaters. The text that accompanied the unveiling of the poster stated that Soko’s “luminescent and serene beauty…radiate the pleasure and sensuality of performance.”

Augustine, set in mid-1800s Paris, is based on a true story and explores the relationship between Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (Vincent Lindon), a neurologist and mentor to Sigmund Freud, and 19-year-old Augustine (Soko), a kitchen maid who, after suffering a violent seizure, is left partially paralyzed and with one eye shut. She is sent to a women’s psychiatric hospital to be treated for hysteria, and Charcot takes special interest in her when he witnesses the disturbing yet also orgasmic nature of one of her seizures. Soko, working opposite the esteemed veteran, Lindon, is endearing and quietly captivating as Augustine, a young woman who has no understanding of her condition, and whose desperate longing to be cured gradually gives way to emotional attachment to her doctor. Not only was it a physically demanding performance for Soko, one that repeatedly had her leaving the set with bruises, but also emotionally, as she struggled with returning to her other career as a singer/songwriter afterward.

Soko’s music first achieved widespread notoriety in 2007, when the song “I’ll Kill Her” became a hit on YouTube. She quit music for a period after that to focus on acting, but now she balances music with film work. Her debut album, I Thought I Was an Alien, was released overseas last year. Alex Ebert’s Community Music label will release I Thought I Was an Alien in North America on June 11.

Under the Radar met with Soko in Los Angeles in April, a day before Augustine‘s West Coast premiere at the COLCOA film festival.

Chris Tinkham: Can you talk about your reaction to the script for Augustine and what about this role appealed to you?

Soko: I read it totally unofficially. Usually, my agent sends me scripts and is like, “They want to meet you for this role, can you read as soon as possible?” I was making my first record, so I told him I didn’t want to read anything. I didn’t want to do any movies. And he said, “I know you. I made you. I know this is for you.” I was like, “C’mon, I don’t want to read it.” And he’s like, “Please, at least can you read the first 10 pages and tell me what you think? I don’t even want you to read the whole thing.” And so I read it, and then couldn’t put it away. I read it all the way as soon as I got it, and called him, and I was like, “You’re totally right, I want to do it. Cool. When is it shooting?” And he’s like, “Oh, I don’t know if I mentioned, but they’re not actually offering you the part. I was just curious if you liked it.” And I was like, “Duh, I like it. So, when are we shooting?” And he was like, “Oh no, but they’re not even casting yet.” I’m like, “Cool, well, let me know when they are.” And then we learn that they’re casting but they didn’t want to see any professional actresses, and I was really bummed. I was in L.A., and they were shooting in Paris, and I was so broke, I really couldn’t go back to Paris to meet them. So, for eight months, my agent was calling them once a week, being like, “Can someone come? She’ll come back from L.A.” And they were like, “No, we don’t want to see her. We’re not interested at all. We’re only seeing nonprofessionals. We want to find a face that no one’s seen before, and she’s already too famous,” blah blah blah. And I was like, “That’s so unfair! I’ve barely done anything! Fuck, give me a chance. No one knows me!” And then, after eight months and seeing 800 girls, they finally saw me. I went in, auditioned, and finally got the part! But it was a hard eight months to wait, so intense.

Did you say that your agent told you that he made you?

No, he was like, “I know you so well, ...” Not like that. In French, there’s a saying that says, “I know you like I’m your mom.”

Did you do any research for the part?

Alice was very clear about not wanting me to do any research at all. ‘Cause she was like, “Augustine is a total victim of what’s happening to her. You need to be a total victim of what’s happening to you being her. I don’t want you to know anything, because if Soko knows it, then Augustine knows it. And I don’t want her to know anything about hysteria. I don’t want her to know anything about the historical context of that time and what was going on around her. I want her to be like a bird fell out of the nest and was like, ‘What’s going on?’” So, she made it very clear that she didn’t want me to know anything at all.

What was your audition like?

I had to throw fits and scream my lungs out. And, you know, the fits are very sexual, and I think she only saw girls that were screaming their lungs out but not really feeling anything. And I was not shy about the sexual aspect of the fits. I definitely screamed my lungs out, and I think it looked very real to the point where they were scared for me. [Laughs] And then we did the few scenes that I havelike one that I was supposed to have with Vincent, and another one that I’m supposed to have with my cousins, in talking about my condition. And that was it. That was pretty awesome.

Was the sexual aspect of the fits evident in the script?

Yeah, very much so. And also, we talked about it very freely, and Alice really made a point in wanting to shoot every doctor-patient scene like sex scenes. So everything was like, “This is a blow job scene, this is a foreplay scene.” She wanted to feel the sexual tension the whole movie. So we did talk a lot about sex during the whole film [laughs], which was a good way to exercise how dramatic the film was. We always made sex jokes, like, “Oh cool, so that’s like the scene where I give him the biggest blow job on the planet,” and he’s just feeding me soup.

Did you practice the fits on your own before auditioning?

No, I was just practicing with her, but it was so clear to me. We watched so many little scenes of fits, and she showed me pictures and paintings and films from that time. She showed me a lot of Francesca Woodman’s work. She wanted the film to be very goth and that sort of lost feeling and longing that you can see in her photographs. But the fits were actually the most simple aspects for me. [Laughs] It was like the one thing that I really didn’t feel challenged by enough. I was much more challenged by the nudity and the sex scene, for instance, than any fits. That was like, “I know how to do that.”

But that was something you said you did when you first met with Alice, so you had to do one

—Yeah, but she said it looked very legit. She felt like we definitely had to work on it and make sure that I don’t hurt myself, and we did a lot of training with special effects. They were pulling me with cables to do things that are not physically possible to do with your own body.

What was the trick to keeping one of your eyes closed?

It was glued. My eyelashes were glued with eyelash glue. That was really weird, ‘cause I’m also very claustrophobic, so it feels like suffocating to not see half. It’s so weird, but I totally forgot about it, and I would just remember when people would look at me in a weird way, like you’re a total disabled person. And then you’re like, “Oh yeah, my eye is weird.”

On camera, Vincent is always giving you these stern looks. What was it like playing opposite that, a veteran actor always glaring at you?

[Laughs] He was so gentle and generous with me. It was ideal. He was very helpful, talking to me a lot and making sure I was comfortable with everything. He was guiding me a lot. He gives a lot of tips. He loves young actors. The naked scene, I was naked for a whole day in the winter, in Paris. My body was blue, and I was so petrified to be naked in front of so many people that I totally disconnected myself from my own body, and I would just not talk, and people would be like, “Are you OK?” And I didn’t want to complain at all during this. Anytime someone would ask me something, I would rather they not talk to me because I was so petrified to be naked, and I would just want to cry and be like, [stifled] “I’m OK. I’m good, yeah,” but was petrified inside. And after each cut, he would come and cover me up with his coat. So, just really tender gestures always, like super caring. And he was always like [claps hands], “You are naked for your awards. You’re going to win best actress, I fucking know it! You’re naked for your awards, just think about that!” Like, very funny. We had a really good, close relationship, definitely.

Was the nudity harder than you thought it would be? Or did you know all along that that was going to be difficult?

I didn’t have any surprises on the film, because, for the first time in my life, I wanted to do the exact same movie that was written. Sometimes you think, “I wish I could change this line. Or, I wish I could change this or that.” But, what was written I thought was so brilliant, and Alice was so clever, and she’s such a great director, that I felt so cared-for and looked-at in the best way possible, that I knew everything, and everything was really clear. The only thing that was a problem for me was cutting the chicken’s head, and I told her, “I’m vegan. I can’t do that.” And she was like, “It’s in the script, Soko. You read the script. You approved it, you have to do it.” And like, “I’m not hurting an animal. That’s not happening.” That was before the shoot. I thought she was gonna not take me because I didn’t want to do that. Like, “She’s too much of a coward” or whatever. But, in the [film], I’m not cutting the chicken’s head. I was not there when it happened.

How was working with Alice different than working with other directors?

She talks to you so much, and she preps you so much. She sees everything that’s slightly fake or that could tend to look like you’re acting. She erases it out of you. She’s like, “That seems fake. Let’s do it again.” And she’s very honest. I wanted her to be brutal with me, in the fact that I was like, “Please don’t let me be bad. If I’m bad, come and slap me in the face. There’s no way I can be bad in this movie.” So she would be like, “That was not good. You’re not into it. I don’t see anything from you. Do it again.” And then she would comfort me, like, “That was so amazing. That was better than I ever imagined!” She was such a good coach, not just a director who was removed from the actors. She’s so talkative and so sensitive to acting, and such an actors’ director. It just felt like I was very well surrounded and very well looked-at, so that I felt like it couldn’t go wrong. Like I was in total trust [of my] environment, not doubting anything. And, at the end of the day, every day felt like I couldn’t have done it any better, like, she got the best out of me. Like every day feeling, she got it, she got me. I was so open to give her everything that it was easy for her to take whatever she wanted. So I never had a feeling of frustration, or, I wish I did that scene one more time, or, I think I failed. For the first time, I was watching myself in a film not being so uncomfortable watching it, because I couldn’t really see my acting, and I couldn’t really recognize myself. And even my brother was like, I couldn’t recognize you at all during the whole movie, except that one smile you did when you’re smiling at the monkey, that’s totally you.” And I told that to Alice, and it made us laugh so much because the monkey scene was where Alice was like, “You’re not Charcot and Augustine right now,” you’re Soko and Vincent hanging out with a monkey. So, that was totally on purpose. So, the only [characteristic of] me that slipped through the movie on purpose was what my brother caught immediately. He was like, “That was a real smile. I know that smile.”

There’s a scene where you’re having a fit, and you’re being carried away, and your head seems to come dangerously close to hitting a column.

Oh, I hit my head on the ground multiple times. They were extras, so they were not used to actually carrying a person throwing a fit, so it was very dangerous ‘cause I was going full force on it. I did really hurt myself multiple times on this film, multiple times covered in bruises and thinking, I’m not going to be able to walk tomorrow. [Laughs]

You said before Cannes that you would have to see the film with an audience before you could let the character of Augustine go. Has that happened yet?

Yeah, definitely, because it was over a year ago. But it took me a while, and I definitely went to see a therapist. I did this really beautiful, ceremonial hypnosis session where he had me bury her. It was really beautiful. It was like a fucking beautiful ceremony. ‘Cause I learned so much how to not talk about my feelings, and my character’s almost mute, I feel. Like, she never talks and everything is inward. So I feel that, because of the movie, I became very much the same. I had a really hard time talking about my feelings and talking about what’s going on in my life at the same time that I was putting my record out, and I was supposed to do so many interviews and talk about what I’m feeling, and how it feels to put my record out after working on it for so long, and I couldn’t talk about it. I was having such a hard time. So I went into a crazy, super deep depression, canceled the tour, felt super suicidal, and was having panic attacks all the time, and then went to see a therapist. My little brother forced me to go see a therapist and was like, “Go on fucking medication.” He was like, “What do you prefer, killing yourself or going on medication?” And, I was like [sheepishly], “Going on medication. Fine.” So yeah, I did that.

Was therapy new to you?

No. I did a lot, because I lost my dad when I was five, and that was very traumatic. And I lost a lot of people, like a huge part of my family before I was 12. So I spent a lot of time in therapy when I was a kid, but I hated it, obviously.

You mentioned having a difficult time talking about your feelings. How did that affect making the album?

Well, the album was finished. Yeah, it was just coming out after the movie. But yeah, I couldn’t even write a song while I was doing the film. I couldn’t play music. I couldn’t get close to my guitar, which I usually play every day. It was really weird. I felt totally disconnected from myself.

When were you able to pick up a guitar again?

I had to go on tour soon after, so that had to happen, and then I felt really bad and canceled half of the tour. I think I started writing again maybe six months ago. It took a while, though normally I write very day.

Does the writing feel different now?

Yeah, very different. It feels like I can’t put my heart out so much. It’s still very personal, but I feel like I expressed most of my dark feelings and fears on the first one and that now it’s just a bit more light, and it’s more about dreams. The record is called My Dreams Dictate My Reality, the one I’m making now, it’s almost finished, and it’s much more light, in a way that it doesn’t feel like I’m gonna kill myself in front of you.

What was your first love, acting or music?

It was acting.

Did you crave for attention as a kid?

Oh no, I was super shy and borderline autistic.

So was acting a means of

—I had no friends. I was doing really good at school but I would not talk to anyone. So I think, yeah, it was something that could make me feel like I’m not this shy child, and give me a chance to be someone else.

Was that what drew you to it, or were you inspired by something that you saw, a certain work?

No, I think I just wanted to be someone else. I just didn’t like my life and who I was. I was so sadI was a very sad childthat I just wanted to embrace someone else’s feelings rather than mine.

How did you find that outlet? Did you find acting or did it come to you?

I fought for it. I was doing theater school-ish stuff until I was 15, and at 16 I moved to Paris.

Where were you before Paris?

Bordeaux, the countryside. And I moved by myself to a bigger acting school and started auditioning and did a lot of extra work and then, step by step, going from audition to audition and then finally booking stuff every now and then.

When I saw you play at Bootleg a few years ago, you started taking requests, and someone called out for “I’ll Kill Her.” You didn’t say anything, but from your reaction, it was obvious that there was no chance it was going to be played. What is your relationship with the song these days?

It’s like if you drew something really stupid when you were a kid, and then suddenly people are like, “That’s your best drawing!” You’re like, “No, what I do now is what I worked on doing my whole life, and this is what I’m really doing now.”

So the fact that it somehow resonates with people doesn’t make you feel obligated to play it.

I hate it. No. I don’t care. It’s not even on my record. It’s not anywhere. It’s like a YouTube version that I’m trying to take down every month.

How did you team up with Spike Jonze, and are you interested in continuing to direct?

He didn’t direct my video. He just filmed a scene. I met Spike because he did this film called I’m Here, about robots, this short film, and he cast me for the part of the girl, and then I didn’t end up being able to do it, because I was 23, and it was sponsored by Absolut Vodka, and so people had to be over 25 on set, so I couldn’t do it. We ended up being really close friends, and then I met his brother and played music with his brother, and his brother is now my best friend that I live with in L.A. So his brother, Sam Spiegel, is in my video, “I thought I Was an Alien,” that I was directing, and my brother, Max, was having me film. Max and I were staying at Sam’s place, and Sam was going surfing with Spike. And I was like, “Max, you have to film this scene where Sam and I are having sex and he has an alien mask,” and Spike was like, “Oh, I’ll just film it!” And he grabbed my iPhone and filmed that last scene. That was really awesome, and I love Spike. Love him, love him so much. And I also did this little voiceover in this film for Olympia Le-Tan called To Die by Your Side, that’s animated felts. And I did the music, the end credits for that. That was awesome, and I love that we’re still friends. Of course, I would love more than anything to collaborate more with him. And he definitely is the person that inspired me to direct, because, when he cast me for the short film, we were bonding a lot on so many ideas. I had to make the character better, and make her more interesting, and he was taking so many of my ideas and being like, “Oh yeah, that’s great!” and being so excited about it. It was like, “Holy shit!” If Spike Jonze likes my ideas, then maybe they’re somewhat legit. Maybe I can do one too. And he was such a support. He would look at my cuts…overlook what I was doing, which was a great feeling.

Are you still living in L.A.?

Kind of in and out. Since the last year with Augustine, I’ve been working in Paris a lot. But here still feels like home.

What was your reaction to being chosen as the face of Critics Week at Cannes? How did you find out?

They asked me if that was OK, for them to use a photo from Augustine, and I was just like [nonchalantly], “Yeah, sure,” but didn’t pay much attention to it. Then, half a month later, it came out and everyone was calling me like, “Oh my God, oh my God! You’re the face of Cannes!” Like, holy shit, is that a big deal? I don’t know. Eventually, for everyone, it’s such a big deal that I’m kinda clueless about it, like [calmly], “Yeah, it’s cool.” I mean, I’m super proud, and I love the movie. So, you know, the more exposure it gets, the more happy I am.

Augustine is now playing in theaters in New York and Southern California. It will roll out in June. Click here for a list of theaters.

Soko’s debut album, I Thought I Was an Alien, will be released in the U.S. on June 11 by Community Music.


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