Julie Delpy didn’t stalk Chris Rock. Honestly.
“I like observing people,” she explains, “and how they behave and their body language. And, I bumped into him after the Oscar lunch when he was hosting and I was nominated, and it was very interesting to me that he was not at all like how I imagined him to be. He wasn’t serious, but he just wasn’t ‘on.’ And it just stayed in my mind. I mean, not obsessively; I wasn’t stalking him or anything. But it just stuck in my mind that he had more than what he shows in a lot of his roles, and I was interested in that. I’m always interested in comedians and their real personalities. I’ve always had this feeling that comedians have an angst, that there’s more to them than meets the eye, and I always find that interesting. Because they’re always ‘on’ and they sort of have this persona that’s ‘on,’ and what is behind that? So, when I thought of a new boyfriend for my film, he’s the first person that came to mind.”
As Delpy explains it, Rock sounds like a perfectly natural choice to play her boyfriend Mingus in 2 Days in New York, the sequel to her wildly successful debut film 2 Days in Paris. But not everyone saw it that way. “A lot of people thought it was a weird choice at first,” Delpy admits. “A lot of people were like, ‘You could get more obvious indie actors for the character. But, I was like no, I really want him, and I’m going to get him. And it’s interesting to work with someone who was really eager and excited to do something different. I think he went into it with that idea that it was not going to be a typical Chris Rock type of role. A one-man show, that was not the goal. Even in the scene when he speaks to Obama, he didn’t want to do it in a way that he usually would have done it. More like in-character Mingus.”
Rock rewarded her with a performance that had critics buzzing at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year. He and Delpy create a real lived-in quality to their relationship, a naturalness rarely achieved with onscreen couples. “Essentially I didn’t know him that well,” Delpy says. “I wrote the screenplay and the part for him, but I really don’t know him like I know Ethan Hawke, for example. It’s easy for me to be comfortable with Ethan or with Adam Goldberg. With Chris it was very different, but I tried to be as friendly and as direct as possible. To me, it’s very important that actors feel comfortable with me, that they don’t feel like there’s a distance. I put myself at the level that we’re all at. I try to be very friendly. I’m not offended by anything they say. I’m very easy-going. I just try to be as direct as possible.”
Part of the naturalistic feel also comes from one of Delpy’s goals as a director, to have scripted films that feel improvised. “I love when people feel like it’s not scripted,” she says. “To me, the best acting is when you get this feeling that it’s totally free and no one’s acting and it’s just happening in front of your eyes and you’re just part of it. So, it kind of breaks the feeling that you’re just watching a movie; suddenly, you feel like you’re a part of it. When it’s super-naturalistic, you just feel more connected to the people. Watching a lot of documentaries as a kid, I feel like documentaries really capture something that is really poignant because it’s real and you know it’s real. Personally, it grabs me. But, some people don’t like it, and it disturbs them to be part of something. Some people want that distance; they go to the movie to escape reality. I kind of put reality in their face, and even though it’s funny, it’s still reality. And, they don’t always like that. People have flaws, and they’re annoying, and they have all these problems.”
And as fans of 2 Days in Paris will no doubt remember, Marion certainly has her share of problems. They haven’t dissipated since we saw her last. But she has, of course, gone through changes with the passage of time, and Delpy is able to explore those, much as she did with the character of Celine in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. “Marion is fragile,” Delpy muses, “and she’s very confused with her life, and she’s not sure what she’s doing with her life. She has a new boyfriend and it’s working out so far, but it could fall apart in any minute. She’s not someone who is grounded. The character of Celine is much more grounded. It’s interesting to explore both of those characters in a long-term kind of thing over years. How do these people evolve?”
And Delpy sees much of herself in each character. “They’re kind of an alter-ego of me,” she agrees. “They’re different from me, but they have things that could be similar to me. We have things in common and things that cross that are similar in a way, but in very different ways. It’s strange. It’s almost like an experiment. It’s my scientific side. It has nothing to do with movie-making; it’s just an experiment.”
One of the most fascinating elements of Delpy’s directorial voice is that she makes films that come very distinctly from a woman’s perspective, but one which doesn’t exclude the male experience, either of her characters or of her audience. It’s a mix she has in her personality, as well. “I kind of have this guy thing a little bit,” she admits, “like guys love to hang out with me as a friend, not just to get in my pants. That’s more in the past than now! But we joke around and just say the dirtiest things you can possibly imagine. I have the dirtiest mouth on the planet. I was raised by parents who were extremely feminist, my dad as much as my mom. And, the role of men and women was not as defined as it is in most families. I think that has a lot to do with it. I was raised with the idea that I have the same capacity as a man. I can have the same humor as a man; I can have the same thoughts as a man. Just because I’m a woman I don’t have to be a certain way. If you haven’t been raised with that cultural idea of sexism, you can actually really relate to men.”
Delpy’s father, of course, is a veteran French actor who is a hilarious highlight of both films. “It was great working with him,” Delpy says. “He’s a fantastic actor. I was lucky to witness him all my life acting in theater and everything. It’s great to be able to give him a good part where he can really express himself and have fun with it. He plays like a true free spirit, a Rabelaisian character, embracing life and everything else. And he definitely has that in real life. I think even his looks show that he does enjoy life. It’s very pleasant to be raised by someone who has such a love of life. He’s a true lover of life. He’s had some tough times not long ago, but he’s still very much loving life, even though life hasn’t always been so loving to him. He’s just so much fun. And everyone loves him. Aside from the costume girls, who were sick of him because he always left with his costume on!”
He’s a key element in a film that beautifully balances reality and farce. “I used a feeling of reality in situations that are not necessarily really or plausible or possible,” Delpy says. “It’s like reality mixed with comedy, sometimes over the top stuff, but because it seems real, it’s kind of trying to trick people into believing that this is real. But yeah, there is outrageous stuff in the film and unrealistic stuff. Not far from reality, but just pushing it a little bit too far, you know.”
That’s a characteristic shared by some of the notable films of one of her great influences, Woody Allen, and in fact at times 2 Days in New York does feel like a French woman’s Woody Allen movie. “I love his films,” Delpy gushes, “and I’m very flattered that people would even consider that I even come an inch close to his talent, an inch close to his spirit and his greatness. For me, it’s pretty amazing and surprising. I’m writing a film for him to star in, though, so maybe I’m going to solve that there. Maybe I need to make a movie with him where I direct him to really figure it out. Maybe we were separated at birth!”
Whoever their parents are must be awfully proud.