She pauses, thinking deeply about the question before giving her response. “It’s very mysterious what one has inside. In acting, I know that I can invade someone else’s mind, someone else’s soul – in character, to be revealed instead of revealing [someone else].” If nothing else, Elsa Zylberstein is a pervasively passionate woman. Recently seen on Irish screens in Philippe Claudel’s superlative French drama I’ve Loved You So Long, the Parisian actress has now established herself as a major figure in French cinema. This emergence is hardly a surprise, as through films such as Van Gogh, Mina Tannenbaum, Time Regained and Little Jerusalem she has slowly built up her reputation both in her homeland and European cinema.
Like many, Zylberstein’s life as an actress is grounded in unassuming beginnings. She studied classical dance throughout her adolescence, but ultimately chose to abandon it. “As a child, I didn’t seem to want to do anything at all. I don’t know what drew me to acting. But my father encouraged me to go to drama school and, after one lesson, I told him that this would be my life.” She sips slowly from her white wine with fond recollection; “I was awfully shy as a child, but things happened inside me when I went on stage; there was a strangeness in my body. I knew it was meant for me.”
In 1994, Zylberstein achieved widespread acclaim for her role in Martine Dugowson’s Mina Tannenbaum, but it is only recently that international critics have once again taken notice of her talents.
Introducing her new film, The Feelings Factory, as part of the Irish Film Institute’s recent French Film Festival, Zylberstein drew a beguiled audience on the pretext of her stunning performance alongside Kristen Scott Thomas in I’ve Loved You So Long. “It was a great experience and such a beautiful film,” says Zylberstein with genuine affection. “Philippe Claudel wrote my character especially for me, so I feel it has great honesty. “
I’ve Loved You So Long is a dense melodrama concerning the inescapable immediacy of the past. It focuses on the reunion of two estranged sisters and the haunting reconciliation of shared hardship, exploring themes of family estrangement and personal redemption. “It all runs very deeply on the screen,” says Zylberstein. “Philippe finds the right tone, the right balance, the right pace. Like much of French cinema, it’s not trying to be efficient; the film takes its time – its unique rhythm is its quality.”
Zylberstein admits that she is – above all – a method actress. She sees her work as her life. “I’m always swayed by deep emotion in a part. It takes time afterwards to go back to life when one is so moved by a role.
“I’m not interested in actors and actresses that don’t get emotionally involved with characters. When I look at people like Meryl Streep or Sean Penn acting, I can see soul in their eyes; I can see life. I know they draw deeply and honestly from their bodies, and that’s all that interests me. I observe them, and it feeds me, it nourishes me. Everything feeds me – all life feeds me, but when I watch a single scene over and over again featuring someone like Meryl Streep, it is inspiration, and I swim in it like the sea.”
In an industry that is dominated by English-language cinema, it is inevitable that Zylberstein must work in a very specific French context. The internal preconception towards “foreign language” film ultimately detracts from her chance of global fame. “My dream is to take more English-speaking roles,” she says, “and to work with the great directors of today: people like Mike Leigh, Jim Sheridan, Paul Thomas Anderson. It’s not that we don’t have great directors in France, but I feel I am variable and I love working with new directors – it’s like diving into someone else’s universe.”
Zylberstein’s new film with director Jean-Marc Moutout, The Feelings Factory, centres around the cultural curio of “speed-dating” and is an ironic commentary on the superficiality of most human interaction. Though less emotive than I’ve Loved You So Long, it is another outstanding vehicle for Zylberstein, who features in almost every frame. “I think The Feelings Factory offers a very cold perception,” suggests the actress, “but it bears true witness to the state of the world today. It shows the hard solitude of the heart, which is universal. It has such deep characterisation, such deep honesty.”
Since both I’ve Loved You So Long and The Feelings Factory were screened at the Berlin Film Festival this year, Zylberstein has been busy not only with promotional work, but also with an influx of new offers. “These days, I have no spare time. What has always been hardest in the profession, is sharing a career with a personal life, but I’m obsessed with my work. I might rest in January, but probably not.” Most recently in France, she played the mother of directorial titan Ingmar Bergman in Enfances, a fragmentary film examining the formative years of six major world directors.
“Lately, I’ve also had to turn down a lot of stage roles because I’ve been so busy with films. I can’t wait to return to the stage, but I don’t see acting in the theatre and acting on screen as the same work at all. Sure, we still say lines that are not ours, but the projection is different. It’s harder physically, and any true emotion will really only affect the first four or five rows. Even if I’m passionate, the result will be diminished, because it’s all so distant. With film, it’s more intimate and direct.”
Zylberstein expresses no wish ever to direct; she is a woman completely devoted to her craft and utterly enamoured of its power. “Sometimes I’m astonished with what I have inside me and with what I can do,” she says slowly, after careful consideration. “Sometimes it’s like another person. But ultimately, no matter how deep the emotion, it is always something coming from me alone. I believe that acting is always linked to the person you are, to what you have in your own character. Even if I’m not aware of what I have or what I have not got on the inside, I will always know there’s a whole market down there, waiting to be brought to life.”