Vanessa Paradis: “I mean, people forget we are human beings, we have kids.”
The Times of London
May 13, 2014
“Those you love hurt you the most”
Good grief, what will Vanessa Paradis talk about? Her personal life is off-limits, I am told, as is talking about Woody Allen (her co-star in her new movie, Fading Gigolo). Perhaps we’ll start with the blandly decorated, crypt-like room in the chichi Manhattan hotel where she has been entombed for this interview. Outside, publicists hurry about. Inside, it’s numbing, soft-cushioned hush.
Paradis, 41, sitting at a ginormous table, is elfin. Dressed in a T-shirt, skinny jeans and a fitted black jacket, she has a new choppy hairdo. What she is prepared to talk about — here in our crypt — is her role in Fading Gigolo, written and directed by actor John Turturro.
In the film, a guy, Fioravante (played by Turturro) becomes a middle-aged male prostitute on the advice of his friend Murray (Allen). Through Murray he meets Paradis’s character, Avigal, a grieving Hasidic widow, who is being pursued by Dovi, a hunky, brooding Hasidic cop (played by Liev Schreiber). She’s meant to be a client of Turturro’s, then something fizzes between them: she appears to want to leave the strict rules of Hasidic living behind and he falls in love with her. It’s a quiet film with whimsical jazz music, so a bit like a Woody Allen film, which is confusing as he’s in it, playing the kind of funny, smart, dishevelled “Woody character” he usually plays in his own films.
It is Paradis’s first English-language film and her performance — a series of longing, questioning glances and whispered phrases — isn’t a million miles away from her yearning, breathy recitation of Joe le Taxi, the 1987 French pop song that made her famous when she was 14. She still sings as well as acts, releasing an album last year called Love Songs. But for a long time Paradis was most conspicuous as Johnny Depp’s partner. They split in 2012 after 14 years and two children (Lily Rose, 15, and Jack, 11), never having married. Depp, 50, is now engaged to the bisexual actress Amber Heard, 28.
Paradis has denied that Love Songs was personal (she didn’t write the songs herself) and tells me: “Love songs are made for everyone. Everyone relates to them whatever generation you are part of.” There are conflicting reports that Paradis is perfectly fine with Depp’s engagement to Heard, while others whisper that it is an (understandable) source of family tension. Depp recently said of Paradis: “We see each other all the time and giggle and hang out just like we always did. She’s a wonderful woman. I love her and she loves me and she’s a great mommy. I have nothing bad to say, ever.”
For her part, Paradis has never bad-mouthed Depp and appears to have moved on. She was reported to be in a relationship with the French singer Benjamin Biolay (who once dated Carla Bruni, the wife of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and was previously married to French actress Chiara Mastroianni, daughter of Catherine Deneuve), but rumours now swirl that she is involved with French hair stylist John Nollet, who cut Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow dreads in Pirates of the Caribbean and may also be responsible for Vanessa’s new urchin haircut.
I ask if she is in love now. “Oh, that is none of your business,” she says merrily. “That is my business.” She doesn’t know if she’d like more children. “I am more secretive than out there. I think I have always been like that. Growing up in the public eye teaches you to keep your mouth shut to protect yourself. People want to know about everything; it’s never about your art. I am nostalgic for the old days where cinema and everything was beautifully lit and presented and everything else should be private.”
But still she has to promote her work — films she believes in — through interviews with newspapers. Of this apparent contradiction, she says: “You get a private life. You don’t tell everything to your boss. You’re not going to give out your deep, intimate emotions. Talking about everything is too precious.” Well, I say, she did have a relationship with Johnny Depp and when two famous people get together there will always be interest in that. “For sure,” Paradis concedes.
And, I say, when that couple breaks up, similarly . . . “Anything I am going to tell you will be returned against me,” says Paradis forcefully. “Everything I tell you, whether I speak from my heart, it’s never going to . . . You can never be right. A lot of people are judging something they have no clue about. Everyone is commenting, making funny jokes, when talking about people’s divorce. I mean, people forget we are human beings, we have kids. How could you be so light, given the fact you have no idea what’s going on? You have no idea how un-respectful and how hurtful . . . so . . . you know . . . I don’t know . . . That’s all I want to say about that,” she trails off.
Depp is said to have bought his former partner a $4.4 million (about £2.6 million) home in Los Angeles, where their children attend school. So Paradis divides her time between LA and Paris. She shot Fading Gigolo in the aftermath of 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which she says showed “how much solidarity there was between New Yorkers”. Like Avigal, her character in the film, she is discreet rather than effusive, with an enigmatic, conversation-shutting-down smile. She speaks English softly, with sporadic French-ifying.
“I tricked my accent a little bit,” she admits. “I prepared for the movie by meeting a young Hasidic girl who had escaped from her community. Listening to her talk, I stole a bit of how my character sounds from her and a little bit is my own.” The woman she met was “shy, humble and discreet,” and, when Hasidic, lived not just by strict rules, but under the ever watchful eye of her rabbi. “You don’t have any communication with the outside world,” says Paradis. “Now she is an artist, a painter, something you’re not allowed to be.”
On the film she says Allen was “so charming, so funny, so easy. He improvises a lot. My character is so serious and shy. I had to keep a straight face: that was quite something. He made me laugh, he made everybody laugh.” But when I ask what she thought about the claim and counter-claim that Allen had abused his adopted daughter, she responds sharply. “I watched it like I know this life. I know about being famous. A lot of journalists in the world, they don’t research. They talk before they know. “I don’t know Woody that well,” she insists. “How could you make any judgment when you don’t know what it is; and what it is is a very personal family matter and nobody should interfere with it except [his] family.” Is she sad for him? “Of course.”
Paradis understands the consequences of fame. When Joe le Taxi became an overnight hit in 1987, she felt like “a caged animal in a zoo”, with fans pointing and staring. “It was really, really sudden. It was brutal. When you’re a teenager, learning your job — it wasn’t like I was a professional singer — I didn’t know how to answer in interviews. You’re in the public eye and you’re being judged; everyone makes comments. And as you become more famous there are more comments. And you are 14 years old, about to become an adult. You have no idea who you are. You’re searching.”
In retrospect it made her a stronger person. “I got to travel. There was something really magical about it. It took me a while to get used to fame.” Everything has its advantages and disadvantages, she adds. “It let me do so many amazing things I would never have accomplished at 14.” Maybe, she concedes, being so successful so young “makes you a little less ambitious”.
Growing up happily in the suburbs of Paris with “the best parents”, both interior decorators, Paradis attended dance classes. She watched MGM musicals such as Singin’ in the Rain and Bob Fosse’s jazz-influenced choreography. She wasn’t an extrovert, never thought she’d be a singer or actress, but she ended up on the local television programme L’École des fans, a talent show for child singers. She recorded her first single in 1983 and performed it at an Italian festival, which paved the way for the release of Joe le Taxi. It was No 1 in France for 11 weeks and, unusually for a song sung in French, was released in the UK, where it reached No 3. “No one pushed me into a recording studio,” she insists. “No one knew Joe le Taxi was going to be a hit. It was the real thing.”
It has always been about the music and meeting other artists, she insists. “This was 20 years before reality shows and the internet, when there were more . . . organic thoughts. Fame gives you the power to do what you want. People want to hire you or build projects in your name. The difficulty is in one’s private life, which is really intrusive. What I always liked the best was the show. Doing your art. I didn’t feel the pressure that ‘I must keep having No 1,’ it was never that for me.”
She was proud to win a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar, for her first movie, Noce Blanche (White Wedding), which she made when she was 16. “I played an ex-junkie prostitute with no make-up and filthy hair, so it was perfect to break the pop star image.” Later she dated Lenny Kravitz, who wrote and produced her third album, Vanessa Paradis (1992), before meeting Depp. I ask if love was important to her. Did she crave marriage and children? “Love is important from the day you are born,” she replies. “You’re seeking love from your parents, friends and siblings. That’s your gasoline isn’t it?”
In Fading Gigolo, they recite the old Spanish proverb: “Donde hay amor hay dolor” “Where there is love there is pain.” Has that been Paradis’s own experience? “Well, yeah. Don’t the people you love the most hurt you the most? Or you fear for them the most. Becoming a parent teaches you that.” When you become a parent, Paradis says, “suddenly you are not your own number one. Somebody matters more to you than yourself. That is a great thing.” She has “learnt a lot about men and women having a boy and girl. From day one we are different animals. We are differently wired. Boys play with cars. They are stuntmen. We [women] don’t think of that.” It is the opposite, she suggests, to the “femininity and complication of a girl”.
Paradis claims not to fret about ageing. “I kind of like it. In my job it’s not the greatest thing, but this is inevitable and you’d better embrace it. Ageing with wrinkles and a smile is better than pulled skin and no expression in the mouth. I don’t feel pressure around that. You’ve got to bring light and youth from the inside. I think the hardest thing in life is to make yourself happy and make others happy, so that’s the first thing you should think of, instead of cutting and pulling.”
Meanwhile the singing career continues. Paradis will play her love songs at the Forum in London next month, and says her dream roles would be in a period musical. On the whole she prefers living in “magical” Paris to LA. It’s where her roots are, she says — which is good to hear, as I’d hate them to be attached to this airless, chintzy tomb from which we are both, no doubt, overjoyed to escape.