Always more than an ingenue, she's taking on everything that's wrong with movies—and she's bringing Chris Rock
By Karina Longworth, Photographs by Stephanie Diani
Julie Delpy materializes on the patio of Hollywood's Chateau Marmont on a wave of nervous energy. Hair pinned up away from her makeup-free face, she looks like what she is: a worn-out working mom. She continues without stopping to take a breath: "They get everything from preschool, wherever he meets other kids. They're dirty little things. So cute, though. When he's sick, he's all curled up, and he wants Mommy all the time. It's, like, my favorite thing. It's horrible." She pauses. "I shouldn't say that; it's, like, the most dysfunctional thing I could say."
This is how Delpy talks: in full paragraphs, spat out at run-on speed, her mouth like a scampering toddler that's always one step ahead of the exhausted caretaker of her rational mind. Which is not to say that the way she presents herself is unconscious. Her paragraphs almost always conclude with a punchline—comic, provocative, insightful, or a combination of the three—it just sometimes takes a while to get there.
The daughter of French theater radicals, Delpy, now 42, began acting as a teenager, and by her mid-twenties had worked with a roster of European masters (Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax, Krzysztof Kieslowski) that could fill a full and admirable career. She says she threatened her status as an all-purpose muse by daring to speak out about casting couch culture. "In France, when I started talking about the fact that at 13, people would hit on me—which I think is pedophilia—people were like, 'Who do you think you are?'" Delpy says. "It destroyed my career. It destroyed it. The press was against me, saying I was a bitch, basically, a horrible person to dare to accuse these directors of being bad for wanting to have sex with a 12-year-old. That was the time, you know. '80s France."
She moved to the States in 1990 and started appearing in American movies: as a lady-in-waiting in the Charlie Sheen–starring Three Musketeers, as a hooker in Roger Avary's Killing Zoe, and finally, as the introspective, ethereal French student Celine opposite Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise. Sunrise and its 2004 sequel, Before Sunset, are without question the most significant American films of Delpy's acting career. The former cemented her in '90s pop culture as a kind of hot foreign exchange student imparting Euro cred to the American indie scene—every photograph of her from this time is a study in sex as a dialogue between death and eternal youth, all gap-tooth pout and cigarettes. Before Sunset earned her an Oscar nomination and kick-started her own filmmaking career.
Delpy skewers her reputation for speaking the truth to the point of self-sabotage in 2 Days in New York, her third effort as writer-director-star, a sequel to her 2007 indie hit directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris, and the reason why she has left her sick kid to have lunch with me. Delpy's character, Marion, a former Village Voice photographer whose art career is riding on a major gallery show, is introduced at the opening to an important critic. Over the course of about two minutes, what begins and should end as an exchange of bullshit pleasantries is pushed by Marion into a self-defeating outburst. The artist tries to goad the critic to go beyond passive-aggressive quasi-praise into stating his honest, unvarnished opinion, only to go way too far with her own "honesty," which increasingly manifests itself as childish hostility. "You can just say it—you hate my show," Marion says. Before he can take her up on the offer, she spits, "And it's good because I want to tell you something: Everyone hates you!"
A film about a neurotic creative navigating tricky issues of love and domesticity in Manhattan, featuring a protagonist who intermittently wears big black-frame glasses and is played by a performer who is also the film's writer and director, 2 Days in New York all but begs for Woody Allen comparisons. Certainly, Delpy's portrayal of Marion's hapless attempts to balance work and artistic ambition with the emotional and logistical demands of family brings to mind a famous Allen self-deprecation: "The only thing standing between me and greatness is me."
But though Delpy's stridency has sometimes seemed to be her kryptonite, her tendency to insistently, sometimes foolishly, push any given dialogue just past the point of politesse has also been her secret weapon. There are few people in the film industry who get to play by their own rules; most of them are men, and pretty much all of them have proved capable of making money for someone else. None of them are beautiful French actresses who have never starred in a mainstream hit film. And yet Delpy has learned, with savvy, how to do exactly what she wants to, under the guise of doing what's expected of her.
The next step is breaking free of those expectations.
In 1994, when she was 24, Delpy told GQ that she was writing a film to direct and star in, featuring a heroine who was "not evil, not slave, not bitch, not mistress. I can do better than be naked on top of somebody." This quote appeared in a spread whose raison d'être was to dress actresses in menswear.
Years would pass before she'd direct a feature. "No one wanted to finance my films," she says simply. At one point, "before I was an actual director," she sent a producer a script with a man's name on it, just to see what would happen. "That's what Colette did," she shrugs. "But that was, like, 120 years ago!"
She hates being lumped in with "women filmmakers," she says. "By making it obvious that it's rare, you also minimize my work." But she also talks at length about gender discrimination in the film industry on both sides of the Atlantic. She accuses powerful French film entities—the Cannes Film Festival, the financing and sales outfit Wild Bunch—of being dominated by a jockish mentality. "In French, we call them footeur—footeur means they watch soccer," she says. Hollywood is not much better in her opinion. "Sometimes, I go to meetings, and people will ask me if I know what a dolly is," she says. At least in L.A., she rationalizes it as part of the local corporate culture.
"I think women have this image of being emotional. A girlfriend of mine is in meetings for producing a film, and I was like, 'Don't be passionate.' Because the smallest sign of emotion is terrifying to Hollywood because the people financing films are businessmen. And so they have no emotions. Or they [repress] them so much, they'll die of ulcers."
In a roundabout way, Hollywood's ingrained assumptions pushed Delpy into the director's chair. Before Sunset began as a series of conversations between Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke, which Delpy then worked into a 40-page first draft. While she was writing it, she remembers: "My agent called, and he was like, 'What are you doing?' And I'm like, 'Well, I'm writing a screenplay with Ethan and Richard for a sequel.'
"And he was like, 'Why are you doing that?'
"And then he called me back an hour later, and he's like, 'Well, we had a meeting, and you know, we think you're not focusing enough on your acting career.' I mean, he asked me to play a sexy Latina in Rush Hour 3 or whatever." The agent, she says, would send her to read for parts that were already cast, just to keep her busy.
"And I'm like, 'You guys have sent me on one audition in six months, and you're saying that because I'm writing, I'm not a dedicated actress?'"
The agent responded, "I think the film will never be made, and even if it's made, no one's gonna go see it."
Delpy says, "A year later, I was an Oscar nominee for writing the screenplay."
The nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, which she shared with Hawke, Linklater, and Sunrise co-writer Kim Krizan (they lost to Sideways), made "people take me seriously," Delpy says. "Which is crazy."
She knew she had to take advantage of that craziness, and fast. "I wrote the screenplay [for] 2 Days in Paris quickly because I realized from years of going around with screenplays that people like to finance the same thing over and over." Her pitch? A man, a woman, Paris. "I went to European financiers kind of selling it as Before Sunset, but then I wrote something very different in tone. So I kind of tricked them."
Starring Delpy and her real-life ex-boyfriend Adam Goldberg as a New York–based couple on a bad European vacation, 2 Days in Paris uses the classic romantic travelogue form (Delpy's opening voiceover implicitly references Roberto Rossellini's Voyage to Italy) as a container for an equal-opportunity inspection of the fault lines in a long-term adult relationship. Delpy's actor parents, Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy, co-star as Marion's parents, their long-term happiness contrasted with their daughter's self-admitted difficulty with "deciding to be with one man for good."
Goldberg's character initially seems like a toxic jerk, but over its running time, the film's point of view flips, and boyfriend and girlfriend switch roles. Ultimately, Paris plays like a referendum on the idealized version of a captivating Frenchwoman put forth in the Before films.
"I hate that men's fantasy of how women—especially Frenchwomen—should be cute, sweet," Delpy says, noting that she created the character of Celine "with two guys, so I had to be a little more in the male point of view. Obviously, with Marion, that fantasy is out of the way. She's not an unbearable person, but she's real. She's a lot of work, like any other woman. And like every man is a lot of work. I mean, men are a lot of work," she says, laughing. "Men are prima donnas more than women now. They're very sensitive. They get offended for no reason."
Case in point: In a 2004 Sunday Times profile, writer Christopher Goodwin expressed his exasperation with how Delpy's character in Before Sunset had changed from an angelic, unformed girl in the earlier film into a "just too good to be true" woman and sniped, "Celine seems to have become the kind of person who would insist on telling you how great she is at sex while you're doing it." 2 Days in New York owns that kind of criticism by almost literalizing it. Before they're even dating, when they're just co-workers gossiping in a cubicle at The Village Voice (in a scene shot in an actual cubicle at the Voice office), Marion tells Mingus (played by Chris Rock) how good she is at fellatio: "My specialty!"
Like Paris's, New York's setup is heavy with voiceover; Delpy puts us deep inside the psyche of her character before she shows the character behaving badly. The sequel is at once less emotionally resonant than the first film and more radical a bait and switch. In the movie, the equilibrium of the blended household she has built with boyfriend Mingus is disrupted by the arrival of Marion's father, sister, and ex-boyfriend, visiting from Paris for the art show. Paris used romantic-movie tropes to call bullshit on certain types of romanticism, but New York puts more into the Trojan horse, smuggling into a cheerfully vulgar domestic farce a utopian model of post-racial relationships, a rumination on selfhood as a commodity, and a study of a fortysomething working mother's emotional life within a culture obsessed with flattening work/life balance into binary "can we have it all" reductions.
For Delpy, upping the subtextual stakes was part of the attraction of making a sequel. "There's a bittersweet quality in the first film. Like, OK, it's working out for now, but how long is this gonna last? The reality of life is sometimes tough, and people break up. I wanted to explore that. Like moving on to a new boyfriend: How do you build your life on this rock, quicksand? Marion has a new boyfriend—so who is it? And I thought of Chris."
Rock's Mingus is a public intellectual whose conversations with the cardboard cutout of Barack Obama he keeps in his home office constitute New York's only real nods to race as an issue in contemporary American life. It's a movie in which a white woman and a black man are raising a family together, without ever suggesting that racial difference is an issue in their home or in their relationship. Its very nonchalance could be considered a step forward.
"One of the reasons Chris said yes was that the screenplay was not about, like, this dramatic issue about black and white," Delpy says.
Still, she knows that if future species were to judge our civilization based on Hollywood films, they'd probably assume that interracial relationships were either illegal or somehow scientifically impossible. "And actually, that was probably an issue for some of the distributors that really liked the film but were terrified of the fact that it's not the subject matter of the film," Delpy says. "I've had even friends that reacted, like, 'Um, why would you pick Chris Rock?' I was surprised. Like, smart, educated people. And I've never had that in France, even though France is pretty racist. And then when they saw the film, they're like, 'Oh, I get it.' I made them forget that it was an issue."
At the big art show in the film, Marion literally auctions her soul to the highest bidder. She's initially blithe about it ("My gallerist promised me she's not going to sell my soul to the devil—just some rich motherfucker"), but once the deal is done, she panics. The subplot allows Delpy to probe her own thorny feelings about spirituality, which flared up with the 2009 death of her mother, who appeared as Marion's mother in Paris.
"I thought it was funny, the concept of selling the soul," Delpy says. "If the soul exists, then the people you love should be sending you messages. But they don't, the people that are gone. A soul would mean an afterlife, and they don't show up, so there is nothing. And it's a very sad thing. But I make it lighter because humor is part of our survival, I think. It's one of the reasons why [the species] made it—outside of being belligerent, violent, and ruthless."
The art piece puts Marion in contact with Vincent Gallo, playing himself. "The actor, the director, the poet, the fashion model, motorcycle racer, legend," as he refers to himself in the film, is also an expert in self-commodification: His real-life website infamously offers his services as a sperm donor (for natural or artificial insemination) for the price of $1 million. (Gallo's site contextualizes the offering as part of "a conceptual work [of] Internet art [that] questions celebrity, procreation, ego, social agenda, and views of religion, race, and sexuality.")
Delpy doesn't want to say too much about Gallo's one-scene role in her movie because "I think it's more fun to discover." Here's what I'll say: It's the best stand-alone scene in the movie, and not because of the potential shock factor. The gimmick actually gives Delpy the director a shtick-free space away from the juggling act of the narrative so that Delpy the actress can deliver, with subtlety and vulnerability, Delpy the director's insight into the internal life of the character.
Delpy insists the only aspect of the film that's autobiographical is that Marion, like Julie, has since the first film had to live through the death of her mom. "I included it because she was in the first film, and I didn't know how to exclude her without telling the truth," she says. But Marion also struggles with asserting an identity as an artist, as a domestic partner, and as a mom, and this is a conflict that's a part of Delpy's own life since she gave birth in 2009 to a son with her boyfriend of five years, film composer Marc Streitenfeld (Prometheus).
"It's very complicated to be a mother and a creative woman at the same time because it's not just a job I'm going through. It's something I really want to do," Delpy says. "If it weren't that, maybe I wouldn't want to be going back to work. But the minute I started writing again, three months after my son was born, it was like breathing again. It was like being a fish out of water put back in.
"Not everybody understands that," she continues. "I always say, 'Guess why Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven?' It was because she was a creative woman in a world where being a mother was [placed] way above being a creative woman."
Delpy, who edited New York from her L.A. home "with my son coming in and out," is determined not to live in such a world. Part of her conception of being a good mom is making sure motherhood doesn't completely subsume her identity.
"It's not the kid's fault, but the position of being a mother can destroy you creatively," she says. "If you go and write, you feel guilty. So you have to get over that, because in the end, it's not good to have your mom hanging from a tree or, you know, in a mental institution for the rest of her life."
But Sylvia Plath wasn't the first female writer to battle insecurity or to have her own priorities scrambled by societal expectations. Delpy is startlingly straightforward in admitting that she has very recently stood in her own way, even internalizing the external prejudices that she suggests have held her back. According to IMDb, Delpy's next project as director is The Right Profile, a micro-biopic about Joe Strummer's calculated disappearance to France in 1982 before the release of the final original-lineup Clash album, Combat Rock. But she tells me she's no longer involved.
"I was offered to direct [it], because I love the Clash, and I love Joe Strummer," Delpy says. "And then I said no because I got scared, as a woman and as a Frenchwoman, especially, to touch such British subject matter. And then after that, I met the guy that story's based on—because it's about Joe Strummer and a friend, a French friend of his—and actually, he told me, 'You are the best person to do this.'"
"It's stupid," Delpy admits, defeatedly. "But maybe I thought [U.K. financier] Film4 didn't like me. Like I had the feeling they didn't want me to do it because they probably wanted a British director. And I felt, I don't want to fight to do something when I have other things that people want me to do. To fight a company to prove I'm the right person—I've done that too many times, and too many times it turns out negative, and then they're not behind me, and they kind of contradict everything I want to do during the film."
This is what happened on The Countess, which Delpy wrote, directed, and starred in between Paris and New York. The movie, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival but had no significant theatrical exposure in the States, is based on the story of Elizabeth Báthory, a 17th-century noblewoman who allegedly believed the secret to eternal youth lay in bathing in virgin's blood. It's definitely a mixed bag but worth Netflixing for its often darkly funny counterpoint to Delpy's '90s image of near-vampiric sexuality. Delpy admits the film was compromised by behind-the-scenes drama—the financiers, she says, didn't believe in her.
"It's very hard because you make a film that's OK, but it's not exactly what you wanted to do because you've been fighting every day. It's much easier when everyone's on the same side."
Getting everyone on the same side—or at least the same page—remains a hurdle holding up another announced Delpy project, the long-rumored follow-up to Before Sunset. Hawke claimed in June that the third film in the series would shoot this summer, but at our lunch a couple of weeks later, Delpy suggests the production is not a done deal.
"We're in the process of talking about it, but we're not sure 100 percent. It depends on—um, I don't know what it depends on. On everything, on the weather . . ." She trails off. "The problem is getting the three of us in a room to work, to write, and then shoot it. They're not very long films to shoot because it's usually three weeks. It's mostly the two of us. But it's very hard to get the three of us focused on the one thing. So we'll see. Maybe it will happen; maybe not. I hope it will. I don't know."
I ask if she's concerned about talking on the record. "No, it's not that," she says quickly. "It's that, when I don't know, I'm kind of insecure to talk about it. I feel like, OK, what am I talking about? It's kind of a pointless conversation."
She sighs. "My life is really stressful, actually, because I don't know anything, and it's stressing me out like crazy."
We're interrupted by a male executive from a distributor, a competitor of Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing New York in theaters and has already made it available on cable video on demand.
Delpy and the executive kiss hello. "What's going on, darling?" he asks.
"I'm OK. My film's coming out in August," Delpy says.
"Who bought your movie?"
"Magnolia. You guys didn't buy it." She smiles. "You'll regret it!"
"I want to see it! Why didn't we buy it? It's not me. I would have been all for it."
Delpy says, deadpan, "Because there's a black man with a white woman."
She's joking—sort of—but maybe there's a kernel of truth to the accusation, because instead of quipping back, the exec gets slightly defensive. "No, we did, we did, um . . ." He names a Chris Rock film his company distributed, in which there is no interracial relationship.
"Why, then, didn't you do me?" Delpy asks.
I realize she's doing something kind of incredible, in playfully nudging this mundane kiss-kiss Hollywood run-in into the realm of interrogation. The exec is smiling tightly, trying to keep the encounter light, clearly frustrated that she's pressing the issue. It's almost turning into an echo of Marion's conflict with the critic in Delpy's movie: Confronted with an opportunity to help herself via schmoozing, Delpy can't resist a potentially damaging confrontation.
"I don't know, I didn't see, because you didn't . . . when did you show it? In Sundance? I wasn't there," the executive says.
"In Sundance," Delpy confirms. "It was the day Bingham Ray died, so basically no one showed up. And Magnolia was so happy, they bought the film right away. But I'm happy it's Magnolia, actually. I'm very happy. We'll see. Inshallah, like they say in Algeria."
The exec repairs to his table, and Delpy turns back to her vegetarian couscous. "Inshallah, like they say in all those countries that hate Jews."