French-Argentine actress Berenice Bejo charmed the world in 2011 when she starred as the vivacious dancer-turned-matinee idol Peppy Miller in the Oscar-winning The Artist. Set in the late 1920s and early ’30s in Hollywood, the movie follows the relationship between a has-been silent movie star, Paul Valentine (Jean Dujardin), and Peppy Miller, whose stock rises during the talkies era.
A highlight of the film was Bejo’s tap dancing skills. Bejo is dancing again, but in a different kind of movie. In Ken Scott’s The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, starring Dhanush in his international acting debut, Bejo plays an actress. In a sequence set in a club, Bejo grooves with Dhanush to the Hindi song Madaari, composed by Amit Trivedi.
“There was a lot of pressure on me, because I know people had seen The Artist, and everyone thought I could pick up the dance in two days, which I couldn’t,” Bejo told Scroll.in. “So, I took about three weeks to get the moves right. Dhanush arrived many days later to the sets and picked up the steps in an hour.” After a global premiere in May 2018, the film will be released in India on June 21.
Scott’s film is based on the 2013 French bestseller The Extraordinary Journey of The Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas. The movie follows Ajatshatru Lavash Patel (Dhanush), a charming charlatan from Mumbai who sets off for Paris to look for his father, but instead ends up hopping across the rest of Europe and Africa.
“I play a famous actress who doesn’t enjoy life anymore and has given up on love,” Bejo said about her character, Nelly Marnay. “Then, Dhanush appears, and he is this young guy, full of life, who makes her feel connected to herself and her feelings, and she makes a fresh start in life.” The film’s supporting cast includes Erin Moriarty (Jessica Jones) and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips).
Bejo’s film credits include numerous French titles, including her collaborations with her husband, The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius. They met on the sets of Hazanavicius’s spy comedy film OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies, in which Bejo played an undercover agent named Larmina.
The Artist was a global box office success and fetched numerous accolades, including five Oscars. Bejo got a nod in the Supporting Actress category.
“The Artist was this special, unique, confidential movie which was so original, I thought nobody would see it,” the 42-year-old actress said. The mostly silent movie is in black-and-white, and made in a style that mimics American films of the era it is set in. “I only have fond memories of the awards run,” Bejo recalled. “My daughter was also born at the same time.”
Bejo was nominated in the Best Actress category at the 65th British Academy Film Awards. The award went to Meryl Streep for her role as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady.
Bejo explained, “Harvey Weinstein, the big producer who has done horrible things, decided that I couldn’t win Best Actress, and he wanted nominations in all categories, so he got me Best Supporting Actress.” Weinstein’s now-defunct production house distributed The Artist in the United States Of America.
“I was pregnant, and I couldn’t care, so I said fine,” Bejo said. “I would rather win Best Supporting Actress than lose Best Actress. But in hindsight, it was quite beautiful to lose to Meryl Streep at the BAFTAs.” Bejo will once again be seen in a Hazanavicius film, The Lost Prince, co-starring Omar Sy (The Intouchables). The film is set for a release in January 2020.
“The story is complicated to explain,” Bejo said about The Lost Prince. “There’s a father and a motherless eight-year-old daughter. The father tells stories to the daughter, which she loves. And when he tells the stories, the daughter closes her eyes, and we go into a movie set inside her head. But as she becomes a teenager, the relationship between the two slowly changes.”
The Artist is the “only film” that Hazanavicius wrote specifically for Bejo. “He is such a funny man with an incredible sense of humour,” she said. “He loves his actors and the actors love him back. The crew loves us when we are together.”
The award for Best Actress Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for Asghar Farhadi’s The Past was a key moment for Bejo: “The win was very important to me as I needed to show that I can work without my husband and do great too.”
In The Past, Bejo plays a woman grappling with her former and future husbands, disgruntled children and an unresolved suicide. “It was such a contrast to The Artist,” Bejo said. “Here’s this sad, humiliated but strong character, and it was very good that I got the part right after The Artist.”
Among the smaller films that Bejo has been a part of, she singles out Brady Corbet’s The Childhood of a Leader (2016), based on a short story by Jean-Paul Sartre. Bejo plays the mother of a troubled boy who grows up to be a dictator ahead of the World War II.
“My role of a mean, strong mother, playing a strange game with her son, was so far apart from my earlier roles,” Bejo said. “The film was made with barely any money, and yet the costumes, the lighting, the production design were so fabulous. The director, a genius, was just 25 when he made it. I am sad it wasn’t released in France, but I am most happy that I was a part of this special project.”