Roger Ebert, still an eminence-grise in American film criticism, was so smitten by Cecile de France’s performance as Samantha in The Kid With A Bike, he spent the last two paragraphs of his review waxing rhapsodically about her “sad beauty” and “this actress [who] carries lifetimes in her eyes”. Join the queue, Roger. De France is the first well-known actress to work with Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (they’ve previously worked almost exclusively with non-professionals) and she delivers a performance of pure, uplifting benevolence. Before working with the Belgian filmmaking duo, de France (also from Belgium) already had a thriving career in France thanks to Switchblade Romance, Cedric Kaplisch’s Pot Luck and Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1, to go along with her occasional Hollywood forays in the likes of Around The World In 80 Days and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. But as the kindly hairdresser who takes an unruly, stern-faced youth under her wing in Seraing, the Belgian suburb that’s home to so many of the Dardennes’ marginalised folk, de France strips it back to basics to give the siblings what Dave Calhoun described in his five-star Time Out review as “a big-hearted film far more complex than its brisk simplicity may at first suggest”.
The Dardennes didn’t offer you any background for Samantha. Did you feel the need to manufacture your own back story for the character?
No, I didn’t want to do my own private direction. I wanted to completely adapt myself to their way of directing. I wanted to live this experience as deep as I can. They said to me, “We have chosen you because you are very close to Samantha. Your face, your voice, your body, your light inside, the fact that we can see that you’re not holding the misery of the world on your shoulders – that’s all we need. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know her motivation.” There is never psychology on a Dardenne brothers set. They said to me, “It’s like a fairytale and in a fairytale we know nothing about the fairy.”
Did the lack of character specifics make it easier to play?
It was new for me. The most difficult thing for me was that I already have so many filmmaking experiences. Thomas [Doret], who plays Cyril the kid, was ahead of me because he was like a blank sheet of paper and this is a power when you work. That’s why the Dardennes use non-professional actors. This was their first time working with a well-known actress but it was me who had to hold back my desire to do a performance, which I have done on every film. Every actor wants to perform. We want to defend our character, we have empathy for our role so we are always tempted to emphasise their acting. Like Robert De Niro! But on this film I couldn’t, and because they are the Dardenne brothers, I trusted them. Also, I knew I was there to help Cyril’s story – I’m not the main character.
At one point your boyfriend in the film says, “It’s me or the kid”, and you choose the kid. Didn’t you feel that such a pivotal decision on Samantha’s part needed an explanation?
It’s the fairy! We don’t know why. I honestly don’t have an answer and I didn’t build my own answer privately just to be able to play this scene. We rehearsed a lot, we did a lot of takes, but we never discussed why. And what you see is for the audience to interpret. That’s why I like their films – they require the audience to be active. Like Le Fils [The Son], which is my favourite of their films – you’re trying to understand why the main character is doing what he does the whole time. When you work with the Dardennes, you have to be a soldier. They make masterpieces so if they tell you, “Don’t think about that”, you don’t think about that.
You’ve built your career in France. How did it feel to be back working in Belgium?
I’m very Belgian and I will die Belgian. I just have my house in the north of France because I have more offers there. I began my career in Paris, even though I don’t live there anymore. It’s not far – only three hours in the car – but the mentality, the culture, the art is very different. I like that there is no star system in Belgium. No hairdressers, no make-up, no trailers. I did my hair every morning myself on this film. There is no privilege for actors.
But by hiring you, the Dardennes were displaying a desire to tap into your star quality...
They’re open to change. It’s their first film where there is a lot of hope, love, light, gentleness, sweetness… and a famous actress. They just want to try new things.
It was good to see you in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. Would you like to do more English-language projects? Are you approached often?
I don’t want a Hollywood career. It’s wonderful to have the possibility in your life just to win a role in a Clint Eastwood film and you are the happiest person in the world. But I’ve refused a few things. I need three criteria to be happy: I need a good character, a director that I’d really love to work with, and a story that I want to defend when I’m doing press. It’s part of your life so I really want to be happy on a film set. Sometimes it can be hard to refuse something but one of the criteria is missing so I say no.
Both Eastwood and the Dardennes are economical, efficient storytellers. Did you find similarities in their working methods?
Not at all – their way of working is completely the opposite. I mean, you’re right that they are both trying to find the essence of a subject, but I see them as opposites. Clint Eastwood is trying to capture the spontaneity of the first take; he never rehearses. And the Dardennes do an entire month of rehearsal with the sets and the costumes, and they do a lot of takes. As an audience member, you can see that they both have a love of humanity, a passion for human beings, because they are great directors.
Are you fairly relaxed about having time out of work?
Yes, I need it. If I do two films in a year, it’s enough. I have a kid and a husband and my family and it’s important to live the real life, both for my job and for me. I don’t want to offer my whole life to cinema. It’s only cinema.