“Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe.”
Julie Delpy is a French-American actor, director, screenwriter, and singer-songwriter based in Los Angeles. Born in Paris, France, to actor parents, Delpy’s career began at the age of fourteen, when film director Jean-Luc Godard cast her in his film Détective. With films including Two days in Paris, Two days in New York, Europa Europa, Killing Zoe, and Before Sunrise (which she also co-wrote), Delpy has achieved worldwide recognition as a cult actor and feminist.
In this interview, Julie Delpy shares how Jean-Luc Godard hired her for her first job when she was 14, her experience directing her first movie, and the complex nature of working in the film industry as a woman.
TGL: How did you begin in the world of cinema?
JD: I started very early. My parents are both theater actors. When I decided to be an actress, I had some pictures taken. My parents had a couple of photographer friends and brought the head shots to casting directors. My parents were not really known in the film world, they were almost exclusively doing theater. These two worlds are not really connected - at least they weren’t at the time in France.
When I was around 13, I did a Besnehard casting - the famous Dominique Besnehard who discovered so many actors and actresses - but they didn’t hire me. Later when I auditioned for Jean-Luc Godard, he hired me on my first film. I was 14. I’d never taken a theater class. I wasn’t completely sure that this was what I wanted to do, but as a child I had been on stage with my parents on a couple of small production.
TGL: When did you feel you were going in the right direction?
JD: I didn’t feel acting was 100% my thing. I only felt that way when I started writing. I wrote my first screenplay when I was 15. That's when I thought I wanted to be on the other side of the camera as well as in front. I never really loved only being an actress, I didn’t like the life of being an actress. I like to act - I love to act - but when I was young, I hated the process of casting and everything that comes with being a young actress.
TGL: When you direct, do you feel more in charge and more free?
JD: I feel like the final result looks more like what I want to say. I mean, your performance depends on something you have very little control over. I think good acting begins with good dialogue. It's very difficult, even for a skilled actor to be good if the dialogue is badly written. Sometimes very good actors in bad movies can pull it off. Only a few can do that. In France, you have Gérard Depardieu who can still be great even if the film and dialogues are so so.
TGL: What was it like directing your first movie?
JD: It was very difficult to get financing. For years I had scripts that I dragged around without being able to make them. Then eventually, I wrote a very low budget movie, Two Days in Paris. I found a way to finance it with very little money. I was given the opportunity to make my first movie with a bit more than half a million euros, to shoot it in 15 days, etc.
TGL: What is your relationship with the United States like? Because this is a topic we see frequently in your movies.
JD: I live in the United States, I work there as well as Europe. I studied directing and screenwriting in my early twenties at New York University. After that, I did a few writing seminars. I tried to practice my writing, because that's where a movie starts. I have an Anglo-Saxon and American training, but I work a lot in Europe.
TGL: For you, what is the benefit of working in Europe?
JD: Maybe different kind of films are given more of a chance to be made than in the United States.
TGL: Do you mean more experimental films?
JD: I wouldn’t say experimental, because I don’t think Two Days in Paris is experimental at all, but maybe just there is room for a little less conventional project to be made. I also think it's a little easier for women to be directors in Europe than in the United States, but that is changing right now, even big Hollywood studios are considering women directors seriously.
TGL: Do you feel like cinema is a more complex world for women?
JD: When I wanted to be a director 30/35 years ago, this world was totally closed off to women except for some very rare exceptions. It's much less like this now, but I think there is still inequality of opportunity, even in France. You have to be resilient and that’s what women directors are.
TGL: I've interviewed several women and they have all talked about this too. It's interesting because I also feel that in the past, women talked less about this challenge.
JD: I feel the difficulty even though I am very blessed to be able to make my films. It's hard to get movies financed for everyone, including men of course. I have a good support system around me, people that believe in me but it is still a struggle sometimes. I have to say over the years some projects have been easier than others to get off the ground. I'm not the kind of person who only does one thing at a time. I always try to write and put together more than one project at the same time. I find that if you wait and focus only on one film, you won’t pull through. This is true, I believe, for any film maker - men or women.
TGL: Can you talk about the film you're working on right now?
JD: It took a while to write it - I usually write other screenplays quite fast - in part, because the subject matter triggered positive and negative emotions in me. The film is very emotional, full of angst. It is quite complex subject matter if you have the depth to understand the subtext. The film explores morally complex territories.
I just finished it, and I'm pretty happy with the journey, even if it wasn’t always easy. People that are not scared of exploring their own emotions will enjoy it.
TGL: There is a kind of humor that we see a lot in your work, is this some-thing you work on? It seems like it's a natural part of your personality.
JD: We say that comedians are quite tormented people. Unfortunately, I think it's true. I'm a pretty tormented person in some ways, but my humor has always kept me out of real darkness. It's also my creativity and the way I like to express myself, and so on. Being creative helps you live with your anxieties and demons. Humor actually saves me - humor allowed me to survive all the difficult times I have lived through in this job and this life.
TGL: Do you feel strong?
JD: I do actually. There is a lot of injustice around the world. As a woman, we constantly face injustice; not only at the professional level but at all levels. Even when I bring my car for repair, I know I’m being bullshitted! Haha! We have to be resilient on a day to day basis. As a woman, I learned to be resilient very early. "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." You always have to get back on the saddle right away when you’re thrown off the horse. So yes, I'm strong, because I'm still here.
TGL: How do you overcome your moments of weakness?
JD: I think I let myself be fragile when I am in safe territories like with my wonderful husband who always says to me, "Come on, we're at home now. Leave your bow and arrows outside - as if I was an amazon!
I think we have a very healthy relationship. My husband helps me, he supports me a lot. We’ve been together for 7 years, and he gets me. My son and my dad help me a lot too - but they also exhaust me! And my friends as well. It is all about friends, love, family and creativity.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
JD: I never think about this kind of thing because it’s just fantasy, and I live in the real world, so I don’t know. I don’t know, frankly, I don’t know…no, maybe Michelle and Barack Obama.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JD: I have a mantra in my life. I’ve always had it and I continue to keep it especially when I face difficulties. “Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe,” which translates to, “the dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.”
That’s how I look at it. I visualize myself as a passing caravan with the dogs barking around. It means to just move forward no matter what. No matter what people say, no matter if some people say I can’t do it and keep on moving forward and doing it. And so far so good.
I think my strength is to always move forward and even if it can be a slow step by step process at times, like a big and unstoppable turtle that goes forward, I get where I want to get.