Audrey Dana is an up-and-coming French-American actress who has nurtured and diversified her talent in the realms of theater, television, and film. As a student at the prestigious Conservatoire National d’Orléans, she won the award for First Prize of Dramatic Arts. Throughout the years, Dana built up her career through numerous appearances on French television programs and performances in over fifteen plays. In 2006, she jump-started her path into film by starring in Bernard Werber’s Nos Amis Les Terriens (Our Earthmen Friends), a faux-documentary about humans from the perspective of an extra-terrestrial race. The film opened the thirtieth Montreal World Film Festival in August 2006. Dana’s performances continue to garner a warm critical reception – at the 2007 Prixe Lumieres in Paris, she earned a nomination for Best Female Newcomer for her role in Claude Lelouch’s Roman De Gare(2007). Her most recent projects include Olivier Baroux’s romantic-comedy Ce Soir, Je Dors Chez Toi (2007) and Pascal Laethier’s comedy Difference C’est Que C’est Pas Pareil, La, which is currently still in production.
Bijan Tehrani: You were born in a culturally colorful family. How much has that helped you in your career?
Audrey Dana: The one thing that I think helped me a lot was that during my teenage years, I spent a lot of time with my mom and she was taking care of a center with troubled kids from various cultures. These kids had been raped and were hurt so badly, and had no parents and had really terrible stories. I think this is really the one thing that opened me up a lot, and prevented me from turning into a shallow person. Of course, having an American mom and a Tunisian dad, and a Jewish dad and a Catholic mom, I didn’t really have a religion so I was open to different cultures and religions. I truly believe that even though these were the hardest years of my life so far, they truly opened me up to an understanding that human kind was way more complex than what I thought before.
BT: I believe you were in a family of six kids. I think this also helps you to better communicate with others and to solve conflicts.
AD: Absolutely. With those teenagers I was living with, there were about 30 people at one point. There were 12 teenagers plus people taking care of the teenagers, plus my mom, plus my family, plus the friends. This was the real thing that helped me communicate, because those kids hated me. I represented all that they didn’t have. I had a mom and a dad, and I was a good student, and I had a lover, and my mom allowed me to do stuff and I had to do really well in school. So they hated me so badly. And I always had to walk on eggs and never forget whom I had in front of me, and learn to be quiet when sometimes I just wanted to burst. So, more than my brothers and sisters, these kids taught me to deal with life and not getting what you want right away. They also thought me about differences. We are all so different. It was rich and full because I didn’t have the same relationship with each one of them. It is very different. I love having a big family.
BT: I think it is also interesting to learn early in life about problems and conflicts. A lot of kids are prevented from knowing what is really happening in this world.
AD: Yeah, there are really horrible troubles. There was this little kid called Ottman. His mom was a whore, and for 50 Francs more she would give up her son’s butt–just so horrible. So yea, definitely taught me that life was not as easy as it can look. When you are a child you are helpless, and if you don’t have parents that can protect you, you are destroyed forever. I know that there are cultures and places in the world that can destroy you and your life as a child.
BT: Did you have any desire to be an actress at this age? Was there anything you did in school that showed that you could be an actress?
AD: I always wanted to be an actress. I cannot explain why. I just always did, even before I knew what it meant. I was very expressive as a child, and one night when I was six my sister said, “You should be an actress”, and I just thought, “Oh yes, this is what I want to do”. Then when I was eighteen I moved to New York City, and I wondered, “Do I really want to be an actress?”, and after two years I realized this was definitely what I wanted to do. This desire for acting, and this passion for theater helped me to go through those years and really gave me strength to hold myself together and not go crazy with all the violence I was raised in. It was truly a very violent world I was raised in, and the kids around me were crazy, sad, and mad. Some were going to the psychiatric hospital and coming back to our house. There was serious violence all the time at home: knives, broken chairs, and broken walls. I know that it helped me so badly to hold on to my dream, and I knew that one day I was going to get out of that place and become an actress. I think that if I did not have this passion, I could have just melted down.
BT: I think you can see the influence of those early years on your acting. In your role in Roman De Gare you can see that you bring out this conflict in Huguette ‘s character really well. Sometimes she lies for no reason and the way that she pretends by lying–
AD: Huguette wants to be loved so badly. She wants to regain trust and love from her family because she thinks she has disappointed them and that she is never going to recover from it. It is why Huguette wants to bring back her boyfriend, the doctor, because if she has a boyfriend who is a doctor it means that she is a normal girl, that she has made it. Also, I am truly and totally inspired by my true self, and I just took that passion that I have for theater away, and just said, “Okay, what would you have done if you didn’t have it to drive you? Maybe you would have been pregnant at 15, maybe you would have turned into a whore at 20 just to make it, just to have enough money.”
BT: Have you have been trained in other forms of art besides acting?
AD: Sculpting is the art that I really like, but I never trained for it. I write, and I just finished writing my first short movie, and I am writing my first feature movie. It is definitely a way of expressing myself. I have written two theater plays. I am going to direct my short movie. Depending on how it goes, I probably will direct my feature.
BT: Talking to you, one can feel the fire inside you. When you were talking about different issues and about your background, I could feel it. I think a good director is someone who can step out from any situation and look at it from a distance, and you have carried that quality from your childhood with you..
BT: You also spent some time in the U.S. When did you first go to New York?
AD: The first time I went to New York was in 1997. I went for two weeks, and then I moved there in 1998.
BT: Did you go there to learn about theater? What did you do in New York?
AD: I was supposed to stay for two months, and I had a job as a secretary set up for two months, but I only stayed at that job for 10 days because I was going mad behind a desk. It was fun for five days, but then it was so boring. So, I walked into a theater and said, “I want a job in your theater, anything, an usher, anything.” So I started as an usher, then I started bartending, and then I started managing the door. Then I just thought that I had to be creative. So I gathered people that I thought were talented, singers and dancers, and I said, “Do you want to do a show with me? Lets do a show about family and madness.” The first show I did in New York was crazy. I said, “Okay, imagine that we are all coming from a psychiatric hospital. These are texts and costumes you can use, and now do the show.” So we were all trying to do the show, but it was going crazy and breaking apart. I put the audiences in two triangles facing each other, so they were as uncomfortable as we were, because no one could pick their nose or act bored because they were facing each other and being watched. That was the first show. And from there on I started writing and directing everything, and walking into crazy spaces and starting shows there. So for two years I created a company called the Cosmic Joe Collective, and we did a show that was never the same, called “I Hope that I Feel Better Tomorrow” that changed each time we performed it.
BT: So you did experimental theater?
AD: Absolutely. It was full on experimental theater.
BT: Did you think about making a film, or acting in a film, back then?
AD: No. The thing I used to say to my dad when I was six years old was, “I am going to have my diploma…”–because you need to have your diploma when you turn eighteen–“…and then I’ll do movies to make enough money to buy a theater.” But it turned the opposite way, actually. I started acting in theater, and then started doing movies, which I really like. I really like it because it is about a team, and it is short and intense. Also, you are nothing, but you are everything as the sound guy, as the camera guy, as the lighting guy. This whole thing of everyone working together makes your ego disappear. I love it.
BT: You were in a film before Roman De Gare.
AD: It was a documentary thing, which was really interesting as a first experience because you have to be yourself full on. They even wanted me to use my real name, but I said no because this was the only thing that belonged to me. The whole training was really about being yourself, and how you would react to a situation. I would wake up trapped in a place with electric walls, not knowing how I got there, and finally realized it was an extra terrestrial experience. It was shot as a kind of documentary, but it was truly fiction. It was good and intense. Claude [Claude Lelouch, director of Roman De Gare] produced that movie [The film, Nos Amis les Terriens, directed by Bernard Weber], and this was how we truly met. He saw me on the stage before that, wanted me in that movie, and then produced that movie. This is how he got the idea.
BT: When you got the offer to act in Roman De Gare, what was your reaction? Did you have any doubts?
AD: It was very strange. It never felt like, “Oh, I am having a main part in a movie.” It was very smooth and natural, and just about the work coming ahead. I never thought “Wow! I am doing a movie with Claude Lelouch!”
BT: Did you do any studies about the character that you were playing when you read the script?
AD: What I do is I hold a diary, and each time I have a scene I just talk as the character, and write as the character. This is the way I work on the script. Before that, I worked a little bit with a coach, and then lots of talking with Claude, and lots of reading the script.
BT: Were there any improvisations on the set?
AD: Yes, there was a lot actually. Claude loves to use accidents, and whatever happens. So if something would pop in, he would totally allow it.
BT: The scenes in the car, when you are mad and your mom calls, it comes so naturally. It is like a documentary, it’s like seeing the real thing.
AD: I was into it. Once I was so badly into it, after that scene when she starts breaking apart, saying, “I’m shit”, “You’re so full of shit!”, and “I’m a bad mom”…He [Claude Lelouch] let me go. I started looking for a positive thing that would make someone hold onto life, and I didn’t find it. Because I realized that my daughter was fine without me, probably better and that my family was fine without me, probably better. I didn’t have any trusting job. I was not needed, and had no aspiration for anything. I thought, “Man, I might as well just die”. That was so intense. I didn’t say it out loud, but when I got out of the car for five minutes I really felt like shit, because I realized that some people have no passion, have nothing, and they are really deep down in the shit. At that moment I just understood people who kill themselves, and it was deep.
BT: I know that you are already in another film, and then you are going to be in another Lelouch film also. How do you see your future right now?
AD: I’m not craving to do a lot of movies. There are too few directors that allow you to express all of yourself, and I need to express all of myself. My true dream would be to work with great directors, and do a couple of movies a year. I really want to create my own work, to do my own movie, write more, and go back on stage. Also, I’d like to work with American people, because there is a professionalism here that we don’t have in France, except with a few directors, and it is rare to find them. Here in America, there are professionals. It is very serious and intense; you work hard. I would love to work between Paris and America, do my own stuff, be an actress, and have a big, beautiful family.
BT: When this film was done and you went back and looked at the finished piece, what was your initial feeling?
AD: The first impression I had was that I felt that Claude squeezed me and got the one drop that is me. Also, I felt like I saw who I was and I felt like Claude knew me better than I did. I got to know myself watching this movie. I was intense. I had friends in the room, and they were blown away by the movie. They kept saying, “It’s you, it’s so you!” Then it got strange because people who didn’t know me felt like they did. I only felt happiness watching the movie.