Charlotte Gainsbourg: “In New York, I finally dare to get out of my character”


Living in Manhattan for three years, Charlotte Gainsbourg has changed her life. Before the release of his new album, Rest, and two great films to come, the French actress and singer confides in L’Express diX, with emotion and simplicity.

First, the whole city appears on the other end of the phone. The frenzied sirens and rowdy jackhammers sound in a deafening din. No doubt, we are in New York. Then, a voice enters the scene, gently. She approaches the handset. It’s Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Between the delicacy of the French artist and the shine of the American decor, the contrast is striking. And yet, it is here, in the heart of Manhattan, that the actress took up residence three years ago with her two children. The death of Kate Barry, his sister, made his Parisian life unbearable. He had to flee, “save his skin”, she will say … To try to get better. Today it is. Well almost.

IN IMAGES >> Charlotte Gainsbourg in Manhattan

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In the following interview, the ghost of the disappeared hides between the lines. But life has taken over. New York culture, which will be discussed here, has infused its work. His latest album, Rest, designed with producer SebastiAn, is ready.

At the end of the year, the actress will be on the poster for the adaptation of the novel The promise of dawn, by Eric Barbier, and alongside Michael Fassbender in The Snowman, a psychological thriller by Tomas Alfredson. And then there is her image and Gérard Darel, of which she is the muse. Charlotte Gainsbourg has just come out of a session with photographer Alexei Hay. Here she is ready to confide.

Do you take pleasure in front of the lens of a photographer?

Much more than before! As a teenager, I hated it: I found the experience oppressive and boring. A real nightmare. A few years later, I served as a model for my sister Kate [Barry], who was also embarking on photography. Before her, everything became more fun and lighter. She knew how to stage me. We were playing, we were accomplices … It was another era.

On the other hand, I always hate seeing the teams flocking to the computer and commenting on the photos while we wait in front of the camera. Fortunately, today, fashion photographers are returning to film. They take their photos, and we discover the result by surprise much later. This spontaneity suits me.

Charlotte Gainsbourg.  Coat, MAX MARA.  Shirt, LEMAIRE.  Combination, SABINA.

Charlotte Gainsbourg. Coat, MAX MARA. Shirt, LEMAIRE. Combination, SABINA.

Alexei Hay for L’Express diX

Did you know the neighborhood of New York where these photos were taken?

Absolutely not. We were north of the city, west of Central Park, in a very residential area. Elderly people stopped to look at us, amused … We had a good laugh. Alexei Hay, the photographer of this series, is a very funny character, he kept bragging about this neighborhood which is in fact his!

“In New York, creation is a trivial activity”

And now you are at home.

Exactly. And I feel good.

You have lived here for almost three years. Are you becoming a New Yorker?

No! My scenery is intact. And I have never felt so French. Everything seems foreign to me and therefore new. From an artistic point of view, New York is an ideal city because creation is a trivial activity. Here, everyone writes, paints, sings or takes photos. Art is not a sacred thing, deserving special attention. As a result, I no longer have the same look on myself. I feel more free.

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Artists come to invent themselves, or reinvent themselves here. How do you explain it?

The cliché consists in saying that one feels insane energy and electricity … It is true, perhaps, but I am not here to set up a start-up or to change the world. I lead a quiet life, I take care of my children who go to school, I avoid the tumult which swarms at the feet of skyscrapers. A few months ago, we moved to Greenwich Village, the old bohemian district, located south of Manhattan, which is calm and peaceful …

“I didn’t go looking for a fantasized New York”

And the cradle of New York culture …

Absolutely. Besides, Patti Smith lives nearby. And we necessarily think of Bob Dylan, the writers of the Beat Generation or Woody Allen when we walk in these little streets. I grew up with this culture, so charming, so evocative, so important. But I absolutely did not go in search of a New York fantasized in my youth. I came here shortly after the death of my sister Kate. I could not stand Paris anymore, the air was becoming unbreathable … I needed to find myself, and to take stock.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Manhattan.

Charlotte Gainsbourg in Manhattan.

Alexei Hay for L’Express diX

Did you do it?

I believe. In any case, I became anonymous. I am recognized in the street, sometimes, but it is to tell me about my films and my music. Never from my parents, to whom I am always brought back to France. Americans have a very simple and direct way of starting conversations, without preconceptions. And since I’m shy, it does me a lot of good. I finally dare to get out of my character.

“New York is a city that inspires me”

Do you go out a lot?

More than in Paris, but it’s not difficult! I will soon be listening to my mother who will sing at Carnegie Hall on October 26, a legendary room: she will go on stage with a symphonic orchestra. I sometimes take my children to see musicals on Broadway. I always liked that, my mother and my grandmother took us to see them in London when everything still seemed so surprising to me. And during the day, I walk around a lot, alone. New York is a city that inspires me: its light is beautiful, its perspectives are photogenic, the mixture between modern and old architecture pleases me …

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Are you taking photos?

Full. When designing my album, I went in search of pictures that could illustrate a personal vision of the city.

What are your favorite subjects?

Photos of streets, garbage cans and windows … Isolated objects that evoke personal and particular emotions. When I lived with my teenage mother, I had a dark room in the back of the garden. I was not particularly gifted but I felt such a fascination to see the image appear as if by magic on paper … I found this pleasure of youth.

“Abroad, we sometimes need to find our roots”

And this album, you recorded it in Brooklyn …

Absolutely, in a very small studio with the French producer SebastiAn. I can’t tell you what Brooklyn’s direct influence was on this music, but that’s where it all crystallized. Then, the mixing was done at Electric Lady Studios, a legendary place built by Jimi Hendrix, where Dylan, Led Zeppelin, the Stones, David Bowie, U2, the Clash … Paul McCartney recorded a song with us. It was an amazing, magical moment.

You are also of Anglo-Saxon culture, by your mother. Is the daily practice of English a homecoming?

My mother tongue is not English, but French with a big English accent! This is how I always heard my mother speak … Since I arrived here, I started to speak English to my children. It was a touching and strange moment. I’ve always found French people who force themselves to speak in English a little ridiculous … Well, I got started! And the children are delighted.

What emotions are more accessible in English?

The humor is not the same, obviously. That of the British is cynical and biting. New Yorkers are more absurd … As in the films of Woody Allen! As if by chance, I have befriended the British or the French here. Abroad, we sometimes need to find our roots.

“The trip woke me up”

Aren’t you afraid that your children will make a living in the United States?

Not at all. They will do what they want! One is attracted by French culture, the other by American culture … we will do according to everyone’s desires.

What do you miss most about Paris?

My mother. My sister Lou [Doillon]. My past.

And how do you relate to Paris today?

It is complicated. When I was little I was seduced by the post-war pictures of Paris, as seen in the film The Little Thief, by Claude Miller, in which I played, at 17 years old. It is a Paris that no longer exists. I had different lives in Paris, which came to an abrupt end. That until the death of my father at my 19 years. My relationship with my sister … before and after. I left, maybe selfishly, but I needed to think about myself.

You will come back?

Yes, I’m sure. But maybe I will go elsewhere … Here, I feel myself. The trip woke me up.

It’s nice?

Yes, I live again.

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