Premiere (France) November 1999

Jeanne Besson
by Jean-Yves Katelan

Premiere: Who were your heroes as a child?

Milla: Hmmmm...Voltaire. In my opinion, he is a God.

P: However, he wasn't very easy on Joan of Arc.

MJ: Maybe, but I've grown up with this author. He too was a little bit crazy. As the adage goes: "It takes one to know one".

P: When did you hear about Joan Of Arc for the first time?

MJ: My whole life, I think! I don't know if Americans know her well, but for me, my parents are European, so [Her mother, Galina is Russian, her father, Bogich, Montenegran, and Milla was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1975].

P: Is your character different from the image you had of her?

MJ: Yes. She was more a girl like the one we can see in the paintings by Boucher. With sheep and visions.

P: What other film versions have you seen?

MJ: The one with Ingrid Bergman [Fleming, 48] and "la passion de Jeanne d'Arc" [Dreyer, 28, silent film]. I think that's the best version. I get the impression that the arrival of sound has been detrimental to the character of Joan. The actors became so serious, so inspired [She imitates a gloomy, divine voice : "Jeaaanne", then she takes an ethereal, timid voice : "Lord?" ]. So what? My main concern, and also Luc's and the scenarist Andrew Birkin's, was to make her real, human, a person who it's possible to identify with, even if she is an extreme person. In all the other films, she spends her time thinking. The way I see it, Joan was an actor, not a thinker. Pure instinct.

P: Who chose this direction?

MJ: I think it came a bit from me, a bit from Luc, who knows me well, a bit from everybody! We've read a lot, all the pieces of the trial. There's a lot of stuff about it! It has been really difficult to put the human being together with this material. There has been so much censorship, so much rewritten, so many lies. Nevertheless, her personality is always highlighted. We can feel her vigor, her mind, her impulsiveness. She's so strong!

P: Here comes the choice of showing an overexcited more than a saintly woman?

MJ: She only became a saint in 1928. When people needed another mascot for another war. During her whole life, and above all after her death, Joan was used, recycled. It was her life and her fate, I guess.

P: Do you identify with her?

MJ: Absolutely. I'm very impulsive, very passionate. A lot of women may recognize themselves in Joan. She was very modern for her time. Today, she could be a scientist looking for THE ANSWERS via another medium besides God: why are we here, etc.

P: Is it a bit like Jodie Foster's character in Contact?

MJ: That would be an excellent equivalent. At the time [beginning of the 15th century], the philosophy of the world was so infantile! All those 80 year old men believing in a fairy-tale god. And all of society was based on this dream world in which, when you die, you go to heaven. So we can easily imagine how a 19 year old girl, who lived through horrible experiences, can believe so strongly in God, can reject the real world which has made her suffer such attrocities and turn to God to look for her answers. Today, I guess she could seek refuge more in science than in God. Because science, or physics, is the new religion.

P: What's your answer?

MJ: I don't know. I know nothing! The more I live, the more I doubt. Or in better words, the longer I live, the more I believe in myself, in my brain, it grows and evolves constantly. Maybe in a million years we'll fly, we'll do a lot of things. That's what I believe in.

P: What are your proudest achievements since your beginning [top model at 9 and heroine of Return To The Blue Lagoon at 15]?

MJ: I've worked a lot on my acting, my playing. In my connection with people, too. Being honest and not only trying to be. Trying to grow from a girl to a woman. Besides, Joan helped me to stop lying.

P: What's the short story of the film?

MJ: After The Fifth Element I modeled for Paolo Roversi. I adore this photograph. He took a picture of me in a very "legendary" look, in sepia colors, with dyed hair and makeup highlighting my skeleton. All this gave the impression that I was a "warrior of the past", a God of Olympus, or his muse. I looked like neither a girl nor a boy. I looked androgynous, like a strange creature. And I thought to myself that it might be an interesting basis for Joan of Arc. That's the first thing I thought when I saw this picture. Luc saw the photos and we immediatly began to discuss what could have happened to Joan and when. It was the start for him. He did some research and then he had a passion for her. And Luc must be passionate to do a movie. All his films come from an extreme belief in what he does. Anyways, because he's French, it was logical that he direct this film by himself.

P: And what about the "Bigelow affair"? [Initially, Bigelow was to direct & Besson to produce. Besson and she were in court for a year]

MJ: It was strange. I didn't really participate in all of that, but I went to an audition for Kathryn and Luc was helping her produce her project, but he doesn't usually sign anything in which he is doesn't believe. Kathryn was supposed to speak to him about the script, about her artistic choices.

P: Bigelow didn't write the script?

MJ: It's possible that the original script come from Kathryn, but Luc helped her to make it better, and it's on Luc's name that people put money on this project. Anyhow, she didn't ask his opinion, and Luc is so mother hen, he loves to control everything. In fact, she didn't know what she wanted: she wanted Claire Danes, she wanted me, she wanted a 30 year old woman. And Luc got frightened.

P: And today it's still not settled?

MJ: No, I think it's continuing. Maybe she has nothing better to do.

P: Is it difficult to talk "in single" about a film you began to do in "couple" with Luc?

MJ: There are so many complicated things in life. And it's normal that there is: nothing is really simple when human nature, the human psyche is involved. But it's not very distressing because Luc and I are the best friends in the world. So it's not very difficult.

P: Joan after Leeloo [Milla's character in The Fifth Element]: Do you love these particularly strong characters?

MJ: I guess it's not hard for people to imagine me as a psychotic woman! And in the Wim Wenders film, The Million Dollar Hotel, I play a crazy woman again. I think I know the origin of this. When I was a teenager, the last thing I wanted was to play in a good movie. In any case I didn't know the meaning of being an actress. I didn't care about that. When I came back to the movies, when I was 18, I really wanted to work and learn. I was curious and interessed. It's been a big change. And I refused categorically all the obvious roles of girlfriend or of sexy girl at a party. I went for the opposite: I wanted more underground, less "normal" roles. All the more because I was a top model and that my other movies were so ??? anyway. I wanted more strong and marginal (???) roles. And now I'm the inverse stereotype! As a result, today, I'd like to play normal roles.

P: You want to become Michelle Pfeiffer?

MJ: Oh, Michelle's great!

P: Will your next movie be a romantic comedy?

MJ: That would be great! Light-hearted and easy.

P: With Harrison Ford?

MJ: Oh no! That is--

P: Somebody younger?

MJ: Yes, if possible. Having said that, I don't know if I'll be really enthusiastic about the idea of shooting with a young director who's never made anything. I'm not self confident enough as an actress to feel capable of helping him. I have the impression that it's me who needs help.

P: Is it strange to go from a prostitute [in Spike Lee's He Got Game] to a saint?

MJ: Well, it's a bit like the story of my life: I constantly go from one extreme to another. When I'm dead, I think that it would be interesting to see the range of characters I've played. But that's what I'm looking for. Not because it's more interesting or because I want to become a great star. What I mean is that I am not obliged to act. As a top model, I am financially independent, so I have the freedom to choose and I want to make good use of that freedom. I'm not obliged to do simply what I'm expected to do. I want to do the things that help me, that teach me something. I want to play different characters because I need to learn more about this life.

P: Do you still write songs?

MJ: Yes. I've made an album. Even if there is a "second one" spreading on the Internet that is the result of four days of mucking around with a friend. I compose, I play guitar, I write my own songs, and at the moment I've formed a band called "Plastic Has Memory".

P: Do you ever think of stopping modeling?

MJ: I've already stopped. For three years. After Dazed and Confused [1993, Richard Linklater]. I stopped acting and modeling for music. I was living in England and I had a folk band. It was funny. Then, I needed money for personal reasons so I started modeling again and acting. About a year later, I had The Fifth Element. And I wanted very seriously to concentrate on acting, to become better. And when you're a full time model, you simply don't have time to take acting lessons. You spend your time between Milan and Japan, for example. It's a constant leisure activity, but it's necessary to earn money. And I needed eight months to just work on myself.

P: Aren't you afraid of the confusion, of being the beautiful girl who does film instead of being the actress who is also a top model?

MJ: I'm doing what I have to do. I don't half-do anything. I think that these last three years, there is nothing in my acting career that is questionable because I worked hard and I did my job. In my mind, I did my best and that's the best I can do! I'm a top model for the money and I want to do films because I love it. And I have no modeling contract when I'm doing a film.

P: Do you really need so much money?

MJ: Yes. At the moment, I have to meet my band's needs, even if I hope that we'll sign a record contract very soon, which will pay me back. But you know, there are a lot of other things: I have a house & a family.

P: How long did the filming of Joan of Arc last?

MJ: The filming by itself lasted six and a half months. And personally, I had three months of rehearsal. We shot in Normandy for the first month, then in Dordogne for a bit less than two months, and in the Czech Republic for almost three months. And then Paris.

P: What did Jan Kounen and Matthieu Kassovitz do during the filming?

MJ: They dragged and shot! They came on the set, Luc gave them a camera and they filmed! During the battle scenes, they all had a portable camera and they were shooting. We had to take care of the film speed and Jan had chosen a kind of "fast film". As a result, he had to run everywhere and the result was like vertigo! It was impossible to understand what was happening, we felt like throwing up. But there's a take of Jan that stayed, when all the ladders are rising and leaning against the wall.

P: And the balls that knock down the attackers, was that Jan's idea?

MJ: No, that was Luc's. He's incredible! The main part of these scenes were shot from the shoulder. Physically it's very hard, but he's a rock! The way he shoots is just crazy!

P: How were the battle scenes organized? Was there a lot of training?

MJ: First of all, all the extras had training. Training with swords, with horses. Every morning, there were fifty riders in sparkling armor who rode in front of my van to go to work. After the initial training, we were divided into battle groups and each group learned their own scene. All the fights were choreographed. Only the scene of mass retreat, outside the turret, was "improvised". But the choreography was necessary because it can be very dangerous [there was, like during the filming of Taxi 2, one death during the shoot. Joan of Arc is dedicated to that person].

P: What did you have to learn?

MJ: To handle a sword, especially with twenty kilos of armor on my back! Riding with armor and with the sword in the Spanish style, which is very different from the modern way of riding. Also learning to ride my horse with one hand, directly at the camera, to be really capable of releasing a hand. A lot of work! This was a great moment for me! And I had to take it very seriously to avoid being dragged hopelessly under my horse! I really wanted to jump down with elegance. To pass my leg over the head of the horse without staying jammed in the middle. I'm really muscular now and it helps me when I play electric guitar!

P: You play guitar with a sword?

MJ: That's it, more or less! And I sing like I howl in the battlefield!

P: Was there a big difference in the work habits between the French [Cassel, Karyo, Greggory] and the Americans [Malkovich, Hoffman, Dunaway] on the set?

MJ: Pffff. [She laughs]. Honestly, I concentrated on my own character. Luc managed the rest.

P: But you had scenes with all the others, so certainly certainly you can compare...

MJ: No. Dustin, John and Faye (Dunaway) were simply incredible. All I could do was listen, watch, and learn. All, all the time. I didn't want to miss anything they did. I really wanted to learn from them. All the rest was blurred. Of course, all the French actors were wonderful.

P: We could easily imagine that the French are working with a friendly amateurism and the Americans are very serious professionals...

MJ: I don't want to talk about it!

P: Nevertheless, that's not value judgement.

MJ: No no, come to your conclusions by yourself. It's your job to decide who at the end of the film has worked hard.

P: Jack Nicholson was considered for Dustin Hoffman's role.

MJ: Yes, and I'm happy it wasn't him: Dustin was so wonderful! Jack is an incredible actor too, but Dustin really wants to work. Although the first thing Nicholson wanted to know was if there was is a golf course in the south of France. And it's great to meet people who have worked all their life and are always feeling the same passion in what they're doing.

P: What name did you give to Dustin Hoffman's character?

MJ: "Conscience". But we always called him "the man".

P: Would you like to have this kind of conscience?

MJ: I'd adore it! He could talk through me during the interviews, it would be great! He could also sit in my head and help me for my next roles. It would make me very happy.

P: Did you seen other films to prepare for this one? Braveheart, for example?

MJ: No, not particularly. To be honest, I don't watch enough movies. I based myself on the rehearsals, the second reading of the script for my character to become a second nature, and after I try ten thousand interpretation possibilities. I always try new paths. In my mind, it's the most beautiful part of acting: ask yourself how the characters walk, talk, laugh, why they cry.

P: What was the hardest part of Joan of Arc?

MJ: In my mind, the hardest part was the beginning.

P: Was it shot in chronological order?

MJ: Yes. And that's probably the reason. It was particularly difficult for me to be young. I was always repeating to myself "you are nothing, you are nothing, you are nothing". Trying to be humble. Because even if you're not self confident, you can pretend to be, and that's not my style! I'm concealing my fears a lot. I've had difficulties finding innocence.

P: What were the stages of your life?

MJ: I believe that I got over a lot of stages this past year. I've had to make major decisions on the emotional level towards honesty in saying things, trying not to be the person I'm supposed to be in other people's heads. In all areas of my life, I tried to be direct even though, when I was younger, I was trying to take a tangent. Now, I think that the easiest way is to say the truth without beating around the bush a thousand times. Furthermore, I realize that the more I work the more I love to work and now I can't do anything without working very hard on it. I'm just understanding that I'm not especially talented for all of this and I have to work a lot to find any honesty in my life to exceed the superficiality of making a film only because it's cool or because it gives me cash.

P: Did the story of your father (convicted in the USA for 20 years of imprisonement and a fine of several hundred thousand dollars for a medical swindle) help you, paradoxally, morally?

MJ: You know, it's probably the most difficult thing that's happened to me. And my father is the most important man in my life. But I don't know. I suppose that all that happens to me transforms me and that we can try to see the positive aspects of things. But it's hard to talk say that I'll become better through the suffering, this major suffering inflicted on my family. All that happens certainly has a reason for being and everybody can make mistakes. But unfortunately my father has paid twenty times more than each error he could have made.

P: Do you feel adult today?

MJ: I don't know what an adult is supposed to feel. I feel like somebody who has a lot to learn and, I hope, a lot to give. And I hope I won't die before having given all I can.

P: The magazine Rolling Stone defined you as a "sour Sharon Stone that Kurt Cobain would have loved". How do you define yourself today?

MJ: Wow. I don't even know if I should take it as a compliment or an insult. Even if I like the part about Kurt Cobain. You know, language is such a reduction of thought to its simplest form. Definitions are totally stupid! When we think all the things we think, the way we reduce it to words can only add confusion. You try to have a discussion with your lover and finally you fight; you try to explain something to him and he doesn't understand. It's all like this! So, in my opinion, trying to define myself, for heaven's sake! I don't know! I let the others do it, I leave it to Rolling Stone. Because in my mind, I'm not particularly finished, there's no chance that I'd be able to define myself before, let's say, the next fifty years! Maybe on my death bed. The best definition I can give is: I am a human being, with all and nothing.