Speaking with Charlotte Gainsbourg and newcomer Stacy Martin about "Nymphomaniac" leads to the discovery they crafted the same character -- a sex addict named Joe -- at different phases of her life without having discussed the process prior to filming. Both actresses, despite not appearing in the same scenes or the same room during HuffPost Entertainment's interviews, present similar approaches to the story, even after minimal interaction while filming the movie.
When Lars von Trier's sprawling two-part sex drama opens, Gainsbourg introduces Joe as she's found battered in an alleyway and taken in by a older bachelor named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård). In explaining how she came to be found in such a condition, flashback scenes unfold in chapters, with Martin playing Joe throughout her teenage years and 20s, when she first begins to discover her insatiable sexual appetite. HuffPost Entertainment sat down with Martin, 23, and Gainsbourg, 42, at the film's recent New York City press junket.
How has the American response differed from the reactions in Europe?
Martin: People are very interested and quite surprised by the film. When they first heard about it, there was a lot of controversy, like who’s going to sleep with who and why would you want to film that? But now it seems like people are actually talking about a film, and I've had a lot of people tell me, “Oh, I had to change my questions after I saw the film.” And it made me laugh because when I was filming and I was hearing all the controversy, I knew it was just like, “Come on.” So, to see that is like, “See, I told you.”
Gainsbourg: I was surprised in a good way today because I thought the reactions here would be much more conservative in a way, and they weren’t. Not what people said to me anyway. Maybe that’s what the general feeling will be, but people are very respectful of the work. So it doesn't give you a true feeling of what people will think about the film, I'm sure, but anyway, it was a pleasure doing it.
How did "Nymphomaniac" come into your life?
Gainsbourg: I think it was written for me because [von Trier] came up talking about the idea for the film, but I thought it was a joke. It was in Cannes when we were showing “Melancholia,” and it was on a French TV show and he said, “My next film is a porn film with those two,” saying Kirsten [Dunst] and me. And so I thought it was a joke. Then all the terrible stuff happened at the Cannes Festival and so we didn’t think about it any more. And then he called me back and said, "It is going to be a porn film, and will you do it? It’s a porn film, but at the same time you’ve never talked as much as you will in this film.” So he was right in both aspects, even if it’s not a porn film. So I think he wrote it having me in mind, but I don't know how much it influenced him. I’m not sure it did. Because what I see is a lot of him, not a lot of me. And then he sent me a synopsis with all the chapters, so the film was already depicted in the same way, with all the conversation going on with Stellan and me. And then he sent the script and I was overwhelmed by the intensity but also the material. And I wasn't sure I was understanding all of it, all of Seligman’s digressions. I had to quickly look into a lot of stuff, just for my own curiosity, not for the character, because I don’t need to understand what’s going on. And then the shooting started.
Martin: I auditioned.
Did you know when auditioning that you'd play the younger version of Charlotte?
Martin: Yeah, I was auditioning for that part, not that I ever thought I’d get it. Lars works with the most incredible actors, and he can work with a lot of actors of his choice, so I never really thought that he would cast a complete unknown. At the time, I was still finishing my acting training. So I took it more as a real opportunity to have a glimpse of a Lars von Trier master class. So when I went to Copenhagen to do the screen test, I took it for exactly that. I had this chance to work with this director and it’s not going to happen a lot of times in my life, so let’s just really take it for what it is. And it was great.
At what point did the two of you connect?
Martin: When we were in Germany. Was it Germany? Yeah, it was Germany, and we’d arrived to do makeup tests and fittings.
Gainsbourg: He showed me pictures of her. He was very generous in that sense. From the start, [von Trier] did say there are even three actors playing Joe: “You'll play Joe old, and there'll be a younger actress, and there is a kid." [...] I really wanted to know when I was going to be able to play, because some of the scenes, of course I needed to be in: the scene with the father, having the baby, all of that. So it took him a long time to say explicitly that you're acting when she’s already had the child. It’s just to say that, because I have so much pleasure working with him, I wanted the work to be as big as possible.
Of course you never appear onscreen together.
Martin: No, that would be very strange. What’s going on? Panic, panic!
But did you feel like you needed to put your heads together to discuss characterization?
Martin: We didn't talk at all about that, which is very interesting and kind of strange. I guess that would have been people’s initial thing to do, but for some reason it just didn't happen. When I read the script, I could see that he wrote it for Charlotte. Not that she’s a nymphomaniac or that she’s like Joe at all, but if she hadn't been cast already, that it would be for Charlotte. So that kind of helps me get my gear into place. But we didn't talk. But it’s great as well because I'm playing Joe from her formative years when she’s very curious and she’s discovering herself. She’s very elastic in a way. So I didn't want to set an idea; I wanted to discover her. I didn't want to say, “Oh, she wouldn't do that.” You don’t know at that point, so I wanted to keep that not knowing and constant discovering, because Charlotte plays Joe when she’s very aware of who she is and very critical of herself. I didn't want to bring that into her naiveté and her teenage years.
Do all of your sex scenes use porn doubles?
Martin: Yeah, anything that’s penetrative sex, there’s a porn double there. I had a prosthetic vagina, so the scene with Nicolas Bro, when he’s going down on Joe, that’s fake and you can't feel a thing. And that was very important for me because I'm not there to be a porn star -- I’m there to be an actress.
Gainsbourg: The fellatio I had to do, with the pedophile. It’s a fake dick, but it’s still me doing it. But for me, I didn't have that many penetrations, per se. It was always either physical, not mutilation, but physical violence with the masochistic thing, and that was not me. It was not my intimate parts being shown. But I didn't have explicit sex scenes with another actor apart from the two black guys. And they were porn actors, and I was dubbed by a porn actress as soon as something too explicit came about. Lars had explained everything to me before we started, and it was the same on “Antichrist,” saying that he didn't even need me to be naked for real. Other aspects were really hard, but for that, I was never embarrassed of being completely naked, apart from in the masochistic thing where I had to show myself and show my bosom for real. But that’s it.
Is it more uncomfortable for you watch yourself in graphic scenes or to actually film those scenes?
Gainsbourg: No, and it’s quite weird because I am embarrassed watching myself when I see other films that I've done. I don't believe in what I do. I'm embarrassed in that sense, that I see myself acting, and I don’t like that. With Lars, it’s always a surprise, but a good surprise, because he picks little accidents, little moments that are real. He makes the performance into something. So that’s always very interesting to watch, and also there’s a lot going on where I’m not involved. And I was so curious to see what Stacy had done. And I thought that was so beautiful, all that sex exploration that she goes into in the beginning of Joe’s adult life. That was really something that I hadn't imagined reading the script: the aesthetic. Even if he had said that each chapter was going to be filmed in a different way, I had to see it to understand what he really meant by that.
Martin: To film them is quite boring. It’s so technical, and what’s great in the way Lars works is that he gives you a lot of freedom. And suddenly we were sort of puppets. You know, the ones with the strings attached? Suddenly there’s someone going, “No, the porn double had her hand like this, and she was breathing a bit more, so the ribcage expands a bit more.”
Imagine being that script supervisor.
Martin: Yeah, it’s crazy. But it had to be that technical because of the CGI, and they had to make sure everything fit so that when they get into post it’s perfect. Which I completely understand, but doing them is just strange. You just think, “Oh, this is so un-erotic.” And people always question me, like, “Do you ever get aroused?” Geez, if you knew how it went down, it’s the last arousing situation ever.
We never really learn, beyond simple biology, what gave Joe her sexual thirst. Did you concoct any additional backstories or have conversations about what led to who she is by the time she's found battered?
Martin: It’s exactly all those experiences that we live, especially the ones when she’s younger and the one when she’s on the train. To be able as a viewer, and also I think as an actress, to go through the progression -- I played her from 15 to 31; when do you get to do that in film? -- I think it’s exactly that. And then you get this Joe who is everything at the same time. When she leaves her son, it’s heart-wrenching. So you can see she has a heart, but she’s also so determined. Because you’ve seen it all, you never at the end question what she’s doing because you've seen her form herself. You might not particularly understand why, but you get it. So that’s what she sets out to do with Seligman because she says, “Well, I’m this,” and he says, “Well, why?” Oh, I need to explain my whole story for you to understand it. So it’s everything. It’s life.
Gainsbourg: How to explain the appetite? No, I think that’s who she is. There’s no explanation to give because sexual appetite is your DNA. There is a voyage and, with Seligman, there’s her own understanding of who she is, because of what she’s telling. It’s very close to therapy in the sense that she’s expressing what she believes is who she is and understanding different things and trying to persuade him. She’s coming into his room with such stubbornness and faith in what she believes is true and how bad a human being she is and how society is not meant for her. All those ideas are quite reactionary ideas, and I believe by the end of the films she’s come to peace with herself and she has changed. She does lie to herself. I don't believe that she doesn't believe in humanity that way she says she doesn’t. It’s just a way of having him react. The whole discussion between them is what I find interesting because it’s two completely opposite minds and the fact that he hasn't lived anything -- only through books. And she has gone through everything but has no education. I find the collision between those two completely different characters very interesting, and I really believe that those are two aspects of Lars, of himself. I think that’s like two oppositions that anyone has.
Von Trier's portrayal of women is a frequent media discussion. Is there a message about female sexual empowerment in this movie?
Martin: It’s a movie about a lot of things. It’s a movie, yes, about female empowerment. People find it difficult to call Lars’ movies feminist. But they’re humanist movies because they show a woman going through life and being in really awful situations and going through hell, especially in films like “Dogville” or “Breaking the Waves,” but they stand their ground and they stay who they are, and I think that’s empowering for anyone. As a human being, to believe in yourself and to actually stand up for who you are, and the fact is that female desire these days, we’re getting there, but it’s always been a taboo and it’s always been frowned upon. So suddenly it becomes something that exists and that’s there, but he doesn’t make a big deal out of it either, which is great. Because she says, “I’m a nymphomaniac,” and that’s it. She’s a nymphomaniac and she moves on with her life. Yes, there’s a lot of sex, but it’s also her life story, and that’s part of her life. Sex is part of everyone’s life -- that’s why we’re here, because we reproduce the same way. So it’s interesting to hear people’s take on it. Why are you so scared to talk about sexuality? Your mom gave birth to you because you had sex. You wouldn’t live otherwise. It’s a beautiful thing, and it can be a terrible thing and it can be ugly, but it’s real and it’s part of us, so let’s stop to talk about it. Let’s be curious culturally and approach it because otherwise there’s a lack of communication and then there’s frustration, and you have all these feminist movements rebelling because people are holding on so tightly to what is seen as good.
When you saw the movie, penis montage and masochism included, did it look the way you'd envisioned it would?
Martin: Yes and no. It’s weird because your imagination will never really equal what’s on the screen, but it was good to see it actually come off the page because when I was filming, I would do my bit and take two weeks off and he would film with Charlotte for two weeks. And I’d be a complete stranger to that, so to see it come together, and with the inserts, it completed the film. You say, “That’s why we were doing that! That’s when I was really jealous and I felt lonely because you were filming with Charlotte.”
Gainsbourg: There’s a whole aspect of the character -- a very dark aspect of the character -- that’s not in the film. It’s in the five-and-a-half-hour version. And that was very extreme, but for me it’s missing that. Even if sometime I’m relieved that people will see only the four-hour version because it’s softer, there’s a whole aspect of the character that, for me, makes my understanding of her worth it. And that is shocking, so that was surprising, even if it was written. The surprise was more to do with the extremeness of it.
What was the hardest thing about filming such a visceral movie?
Gainsbourg: We finished the whole flashbacks. The action scenes were all done, and I thought at the time, “Oh, I’ve done the hardest, now it'll be easy. I’m just sitting in bed talking.” It suddenly became the hardest part because it was so much talking. We hadn't learned the lines as you would for a theater piece because Lars’ method always has to do with reinventing the words. But suddenly being in that bedroom we understood that it was only to do with the words. The exercise was so intense that that became the hardest part. But it was so interesting to have done the acting of my life and to suddenly talk about it. It’s so different.
"Nymphomaniac: Vol. I" is currently available via on-demand services and opens in theaters on Friday, March 21. "Vol. II" arrives in April. Read HuffPost Entertainment's interview with Uma Thurman about the movie here.