The Belgian actress opens up to Yasmin Omar about her difficult transition from light comedy to auteur cinema, overcoming early-career typecasting and choosing meaningful projects.
The Olympia, Paris. It’s the 2023 César awards and Virginie Efira is standing at the podium in a shimmering Saint Laurent gown looking out at a room full of her peers. Juliette Binoche, Louis Garrel, Noémie Merlant, Tahar Rahim… they’re all smiling at six-time nominee and now winner Efira as she calmly and confidently delivers her Best Actress acceptance speech for Paris Memories (2022), in which she plays a survivor of the 2015 Bataclan mass shooting. She seems taken aback by the auditorium’s effusive applause for her, and noticeably pauses before leaving the stage, savouring the moment. ‘I’m used to losing so this was a very welcome change!’ Efira tells me a few days later. ‘I was among good company that night because, in addition to having my fiancé [the actor Niels Schneider] there, Brad Pitt and David Fincher were also in attendance. It was a rather nice evening.’
Over the past seven years or so, Virginie Efira has established herself as one of France’s most in-demand dramatic actresses. Whether starring in doomed romances (An Impossible Love, 2018), psychological thrillers (Sibyl, 2019) or religious provocations (Benedetta, 2021), she gravitates towards portraying ‘stable women who have collapsed and are working out how to get back up again’. Efira is the master of unravelling, but never the whole way, playing scenes as though she’s flying a kite, letting it out little by little while keeping a firm grasp on the line. This is a performer who knows how to hold onto an emotion, then let it spill out; how to cast a shadow of sadness over joy. In 2023 – with a César on the mantelpiece and a filmography brimming with auteur-driven projects – she is at the peak of her powers. Although it may seem unfathomable to international audiences, who only really became aware of Efira during this recent upswing, she spent years fighting to get here.
Efira has wanted to be an actress since the age of six, when she performed at a school poetry recital in the middle-class Brussels suburb where she grew up. On stage, she burst into a fit of uncontrollable giggles and, much to her surprise, the parents in the auditorium started laughing too. She was struck by the power she had wielded over all those adults. ‘It was so strange, but I never changed my mind,’ Efira says. ‘That’s what I wanted to do.’ As a teenager, she enrolled in the Belgian capital’s Royal Conservatory where she began building her craft, but something didn’t feel quite right. She was plagued by the Groucho Marx quote ‘I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members’, and shrank from the vocation she had decided upon more than a decade prior. ‘I sacrificed this desire to act because it felt so far away from where I came from,’ she explains. ‘I thought, “Me? I can’t do it.” I was afraid, and when you’re afraid it’s difficult to make progress.’
So, she pursued an alternative career path, one that capitalised on her ability to connect with the public: Efira became a TV presenter. She started out with the children’s programme Mégamix on the Luxembourgish channel Club RTL in 1998, and her natural charm soon landed her a gig on the X Factor-style reality series Star Academy. Five years later, Efira was poached by France’s M6 to present the dating show Opération séduction and became a reliable, and popular, presence on national television across the Channel. Apparent success notwithstanding, she was unhappy. This wasn’t what she wanted to be doing. By 2010 she couldn’t put it off any longer. It was time to take up her métier. ‘I realised that life was too short and my fears started to dissipate,’ she says. Making the transition from reality host to established actress was complicated. ‘I was ashamed to want something else. I understood very well that it was impossible to move from one profession to another. I was really embarrassed that everyone thought I was one of those people who got famous and believed they could do any other job they wanted. That was a roadblock.’
From the beginning, Efira sought ‘to work with great directors, to explore their unique vision of the world’. The parts coming her way, however, were in perfectly fine, if artistically unambitious, comedies. Films with titles like Second Chance (2010), The Perfect Date (2010) and It Boy (2013), the latter of which the French magazine Télérama called ‘not exactly Judd Apatow’. In My Worst Nightmare (2011), she looks unamused as her scene partner Benoît Poelvoorde asks, ‘Do you go hiking naked? Do you go horse-riding naked?’ In Up for Love (2016), she brushes away repeated insults at the small stature of her onscreen boyfriend, a 4’6” Jean Dujardin. ‘When I made romantic comedies, I said to myself, “It’s a job,”’ she reasons. ‘Arnaud Desplechin or [Jacques] Audiard aren’t going to be like, “Oh, Virginie, I want you in my movie!”’
To her credit, Efira injects gravitas into even the most far-fetched premises. Take Bye Bye Morons (2020). She plays a beautician suffering from an autoimmune disease caused by inhaling hairspray, and somehow makes it believable. (There are very few actors who would commit to the line ‘The perms I gave are killing me!’ the way she does.) Most of these films never got UK distribution, despite being huge box-office hits in France. ‘The comedies I did when I was starting out perhaps weren’t the grandest form of cinema but they were successful thanks to my work on television,’ she explains. ‘Viewers had spent time with me in their living rooms over the years. That allowed them to form a relationship with me.’
Throughout this period, commercially bountiful as it was, Efira was frustrated by the sameness of the ‘sexy blonde’ roles she was being offered. ‘I had to accept a kind of typecasting that had to do with the way I was perceived,’ she says. ‘The characters I was offered resembled ones I’d already played. As soon as I was given more options, I tried to refocus my efforts to make the kind of cinema that I’m interested in.’ Here she was again, at another turning point.
Determined to stop publications referring to her as ‘a French Cameron Diaz’, she accepted a small part in Paul Verhoeven’s rape-revenge thriller Elle (2016) – it was so small in fact that a number of other actresses had already turned it down. Appearing in this film, and following it up with a string of thought-provoking dramas, helped shift Efira’s girl-next-door image. No longer was she the grasping TV presenter mocked in a national newspaper for showing up to Cannes when she had no business being there. Now, she was the toast of the festival, posing at photocalls with Isabelle Huppert, attending press conferences with Gaspard Ulliel. It was exhilarating. ‘Unless you go to church or are part of a union, it’s difficult to find your tribe,’ Efira says. ‘Those of us who make films commit to the belief that there is a beauty that is higher than us. For me, that gives my work meaning.’
By this point, she had proved – to herself, and the industry at large – that she was a rare talent whose down-to-earth relatability had struck a chord with filmgoing audiences. Regardless, there was still a sense of sneering derision from the Francophone press. It was less blatant than this 2005 clip from her presenting days, where a colleague outrageously suggests she become a porn star live on air. And yet, how she is spoken about to this day is incredibly revealing. Interviews frequently revolve around her nude scenes, her appearance, her love life. Just last year, Vogue France wrote that Efira was ‘the kind of woman women dream of being friends with and men dream of sleeping with’. Just last month, Le Monde cited an extract from her teenage diary as ‘proof she wasn’t totally brainless’. (For the record, the British media hasn’t fared much better, the very first sentence of her 2022 Guardian profile is about sex scenes.)
Perhaps what rankles about Efira, and leads to this scoffing, is that she didn’t follow the overnight-success rubric that fuels showbusiness – she clawed her way up, and had the audacity to do it in the public eye. She is, to quote many of the aforementioned interviews, a ‘hard worker’ and isn’t afraid to talk about the effort that goes into her creative practice. ‘France isn’t like the UK or the US,’ she explains. ‘Very few people are willing to talk about their work. Here, perhaps due to the influence of the New Wave, we pretend that we don’t work, we’re just playing ourselves.’ Unable to employ her usual tactic of drawing on personal experience for Benedetta, in which she plays a 17th-century nun possessed by spirits, Efira hired an acting coach who had her doing ‘slightly weird’ exercises that included repeatedly screaming ‘Blasphemy!’ at such a volume as to perturb the neighbours. ‘I was trying to build the character’s unconscious,’ she says. ‘It was much more in depth than thinking about her childhood, it was a psychoanalytic excavation.’
Her new film, Rebecca Zlotowski’s endearing romance Other People’s Children, posed a different kind of challenge. Efira stars as Rachel, an easygoing, perpetually late fortysomething who is forced to navigate the messy terrain of composite families when she falls for a man with a four-year-old daughter. ‘It was the first time I got to play a loving, luminous person,’ she says. ‘Of late, I’ve been cast as a fair few psychologically disturbed characters.’ Through her personable performance, which registers the isolating pain of being rejected by a partner’s child, the actress lends humanity to a figure coded as evil incarnate: the stepmother. For Efira, rehabilitating this character was part of the project’s appeal. ‘I don’t sign onto films that are bound by social norms I don’t believe in,’ she says. ‘The film questions the cultural dismissal of the stepmother, who is very rarely considered a worthwhile subject, even though so many women can recognise themselves in this role. We don’t pay this subject enough attention.’ Therein lies the beauty of her work: it shines a light on the forgotten, the discarded, the unfamiliar. Virginie Efira has something to say about the world we live in. All we have to do is listen.
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