Quentin Tarantino is famous for resurrecting careers. Harvey Keitel was on the wane before Reservoir Dogs. In Pulp Fiction, Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta got a helping hand. Jackie Brown starred Pam Grier and Robert Forster. Kill Bill featured the late David Carradine. As Death Proof suggested, Tarantino has had less success at bringing new talent to the table. But this theory, with much else, was blown to smithereens in Inglourious Basterds when the maverick director turned Mélanie Laurent into a superstar.
Before her leading turn as the revenge-seeking Shosanna Dreyfus in the Second World War caper, Laurent was largely unknown to British audiences, though she appeared in Jacques Audiard's The Beat That My Heart Skipped and Rachid Bouchareb's Days of Glory.
In her homeland, her career got off to an unusual start. "When I was 14 I met one of the best actors in France, Gérard Depardieu," she explains. "I was on the set of Asterix and Obelix as my best friend's father was working on set and I wanted to see what it was like. I remember first thinking, damn, they have to get up at five, I don't know if I can do this. Then Depardieu, dressed in his Obelix costume, saw me and said, 'Hey, do you want to be in the movies?' I said 'Why not', and the next week his assistant called me."
Depardieu gave Laurent a part when she was 16 in The Bridge, a drama he starred in and co-directed with Frédéric Auburtin. Yet it wasn't until seven years later that Laurent broke into the mainstream in France, with her César award-winning turn as an anorexic in Philippe Lioret's I'm Fine, Don't Worry. But acting success is only the tip of the iceberg for the daughter of a ballerina, whose father is one of the voiceover artists who dubs The Simpsons into French. Laurent has begun directing: she made a short film, De moins en moins, selected for competition in Cannes, and a short for Canal Plus as part of the X Femmes project, which employed women to give their perspective on erotica. She has a feature film in the works and has also been recording an album with Damien Rice.
She credits her parents for her ambition. "I had the most peaceful and great
childhood ever and my parents were just great and always said, 'I love you and do what you want', and so I'm very confident and I just do things."
She watched Tarantino on set to pick up tips on directing, and describes him as one of her "masters". With a confidence verging on arrogance, she says: "After the Tarantino film, I think it was a bit easy for me. I got all the best scripts and all the best projects offered to me."
So she decided to challenge herself. Earlier this year, Laurent made her Paris stage debut in Promenade de santé and received some great notices. "I wanted to take a risk," she says of the decision to tread the boards. "For the first time in the last 10 years, I was scared. It's not a great feeling but I think I need to be checking myself a little bit because making movies has got so comfortable. When you make successful movies, everyone on set takes care of you, everybody is so nice and you disconnect from reality."
Also helping her keep her feet on the ground is Damien Rice, who she started dating after working on Inglourious Basterds. "Working with Damien on my first CD as a singer also makes me lose confidence, because compared to him I'm not a singer. But I think it's important to lose confidence because if you don't, then you risk just being the same actress all the time."
Music is central to her performance in Radu Mihaileanu's Le Concert. She plays the violinist Anne-Marie Jacquet, who is employed to work with a group pretending to be the Bolshoi orchestra. Thirty years before, a Brezhnev-era conductor, Andrei Filipov, was relegated to sweeping the theatre floor for having too many Jewish people in his orchestra. When Filipov intercepts a fax inviting the Bolshoi to play in Paris, he decides to get the old band back together.
"I had to learn how to pretend to be the best violinist in the world," says Laurent. "I only knew how to play the piano when I was a little girl and stopped. But now I want to learn to play the guitar for my album and my violin teacher is going to play on most of the songs. I'm proud of the results because it's a smart movie and a popular movie, and I'm glad because French people wanted to watch a movie with classical music."
The Jewish theme is strong in her choices of roles. It connects the Tarantino with Le Concert and her next film The Round Up, which is about the Second World War deportation of Jewish children from Paris to Germany.
Laurent's own grandfather survived deportation by the Nazis. "It's about that terrible period in France that is important to remember, when the French told the Germans that they could deport the children," she explains. "It's an important story to tell because it's easy to say that the French were amazing during the Second World War but they were not. Not everybody, not the police. And it's more important to say now as the French government are starting to agree to a little too many police checks."
Her grandfather tries to advise her on suitable parts to play about the war. However, she adds, "My grandfather doesn't want me to do politics. But sometimes I can't stop myself. I met with Kofi Annan and he chose me to speak about climate change. I spent a day with him and his bodyguard, writing my speech. It was a great experience but I had to say something about my government."
She says she'd prefer to make the occasional error than be muted or, worse, banal. She asserts, "When I think it's good not to say the truth, I don't say anything. I don't like actors in general, they lie, they are liars, trust me."
Laurent claims that she learnt how to speak English on Basterds, despite playing a part where she mainly spoke French. She has now landed her first English-language role, in Mike Mills's Beginners: "I was proud to land this role because two Hollywood actresses wanted it. Mike Mills saw a clip of a performance that I made on YouTube, and sent me a script which is like a mix of Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. He asked me to send an audition tape and I said, 'Do I have to, because I have no time as I'm so busy in Paris', and he said, 'Yes, you have to.' Because I'm crazy and I didn't want to just say my lines, I made a short film in which a dog talks and contained all the lines and did a voice over. Mike Mills called me and said, 'You just made my movie'. Two weeks after that I was in Los Angeles with Ewan McGregor."
The part was rewritten for Laurent so that the woman McGregor falls in love with is not American but French. She quips about playing the romantic interest in so many films: "I like playing this part because I'm the specialist of big drama; I always do big drama." One suspects this may apply as much to her life as to her career.
'The Concert' is released 16 July