Stargazing sometimes leads us to believe that we really know the faces who act out our human dramas onscreen. Or that we know the characters they portray as if they were neighbors. It’s a false intimacy and a fantasy, fiction being fiction and strangers being strangers, but sometimes the illusion is too perfect to deny. Such is the case with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as Celine and Jessie in the “Before…” trilogy. The actors cowrote and costarred in the decades spanning trilogy under the guidance of Director Richard Linklater and the films, perfectly spaced out every nine years, have allowed audiences to age along with them, which has only added to their ephemeral mystique. The films are grounded in reality through their short single day stories and long takes - real life happens one day at a time and without a lot of fussy crosscutting – and the only fantastical element is that every day conversations are rarely this thrilling and this wide ranging and this funny simultaneously for 90 minutes straight without some dud moment or mundane distraction breaking the spell. For that kind of perfection you need miraculous writing and great acting.
Julie Delpy is not, of course, Celine. And though I know this as I settle into our conversation over the telephone I’m temporarily stunned when she, unasked, repeats her trilogy’s most famous line when I bring up the ending to Before Sunset (2004, for which she won a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination though not, tragically, the Best Actress nod she deserved as its companion). She sounds just like Celine… only somehow not...
Celine and Julie may share a feisty intellect and transparent moodswings but they’re not the same person. I sometimes struggle to separate them but the actress herself feels no such separation anxiety. She’s eager to set Celine aside again. She feels very lucky to have many new projects in the works (“It's not like i'm bragging. I'm French! There's money in France for independent films”), is protective of her lesser heralded work (“I’m not saying [The Countess] is great… but it’s not that bad”) and will also soon be acting again on other people’s visions (“I have this other outlet so I have no frustration”)
But for today’s interview we focus on Before Midnight.
NATHANIEL R: You created Celine. You write her. You perform her. But after all these years does she still surprise you during the creative process?
JULIE DELPY: It's kind of an interesting process, especially [with Before Midnight], to be fearless, to go places with the character that you don't expect in a romantic comedy. It is a romantic comedy. Obviously it's indie -it's not a broad romcom but it's still that in a way. It's fun to go darker places with humor with a certain irony. I was happy to make the character not the typical perfect fantasy of a woman.
I don't want to say that all men write one dimensional women but it's easy in movies for women to have just one dimension or maybe less than one… even half a dimension. [Laughter]
JULIE DELPY: It's fun to be able to write someone who is feisty and angry and sweet and bitter and kind of a mix of everything and not someone who is just happy and sexy and fluffy. And who is not either nice or evil.
Before you're 40 you're nice. And after 40 you're evil.
Ah, Hollywood ageism and sexism.
When you look back on Before Sunrise (1995) which started this all. You were an actress-for-hire on the first one rather than a screenwriter...
It's weird. People still say that. You know, I would say 90% of the original screenplay was entirely rewritten by Ethan and I. People don't know that when you don't have your credit written down. We were young, we didn't know. We were happy to be writing without knowing it had value. It's funny I looked at the original screenplay-- it's crazy. It's not the same movie at all!
I know it always sounds kind of annoying when people claim they've written something but really! In a way it's good we didn't get credited because probably people wouldn't have believed that 22 year-olds could write about love and death and the meaning of life and all that shit. People assume young actors are silly. People wouldn't have believed it. Even now when we're credited, people assume we ad-lib a few lines. It's pretty annoying.
As a woman it's even better. People think I just was cooking as the two men were writing; I was feeding them!
It's been the same process [for all three films] but different. The original film there was a screenplay taken apart and rewritten. The next two films from scratch, obviously. Someone will write a scene and then we'll work together on it. That's usually how we work.
What were your first impressions of them?
Richard really laid-back and Ethan kind of the opposite. It's a funny energy.
Is that still the case?
Obviously Ethan and I have mellowed out throughout the years but we're not laid-back like Richard. But Richard is a fake calm. I don't believe he's really calm. He's actually really anxious but he's good at putting his anxiety on us and we figure it out. [Laughter] That's a talent!
No, but he's lovely. He's very relaxed. He always puts challenges on us like those long takes but makes us feel like we could do it even though the chances of succeeding are very slim. The fact that he believes in us, we actually do it. If someone had more doubts… We walk on the razor's edge because, I swear to god, when we do the scene there's basically one good take. It's impossible. There's always a problem on a scene -- it's not a play -- there's a technical issue. When you film a long take, especially in a car. The chances of it being good, just technically… Let's not even talk about the dialogue and if we miss a line it doesn't work because everything is so written. But he makes us believe we can do it and we end up doing it.
NATHANIEL R: You're reminding me of that scene where you're walking in the sun for a really long time. You could get sunburnt or a lot of exercize...
JULIE DELPY: Yeah, it's very unpleasant. It looks relaxing when we're walking and talking. For me it is torture. I hate it. I don't want to do it again [Laughter]
Do you think you will? I mean a fourth Before... film.
Seriously, I have no idea. Do people want to see a fourth one? Maybe it's better to end it like this. I don't know. It takes six or seven years of not even talking about it for us to even get to it. We finished shooting barely a year ago, last September, so it's impossible for us to even think about the next one.
You set Celine and Jesse aside for awhile.
Totally and we have our lives. The truth is the three of us are busy. It's not like we hang out every weekend talking about the next one. We barely see each other. Rick is in Texas. Ethan is in New York. I'm in LA and Paris. We love working together and we have a wonderful time but it's good we have this time apart, too.
In terms of your legacy, you have to know that this trilogy is way up there. But I find it curious that you have this habit of revisiting things or participating in evolving multi-part stories: likes this or Three Colors, or the Two Days films.
Maybe because I don't love endings? I'm not a big fan of endings. It's interesting to not end a movie. It continues somehow - to imagine the characters have a parallel life in a parallel reality. What is the reality you create with making movies? Movies are the closest art form of imitating reality so it's interesting to play with time which is the trickiest thing about reality. I've always been obsessed with that concept which is probably why we do this.
Speaking of endings. Did you write that all time best movie ending?!
You must have known that it was magic.
Without telling them I kind of acted out the scene. I knew Richard would like it. And Ethan, too. And they did. "You are gonna miss that plane"
You've spent 20 years with this character now.
Something like that. Well, not full time. But you know.
Popping in for visits! What do you think the ideal way to watch all three is? I personally think it's the unrepeatable way. Watching them as they came out and growing with them. The first one came out while i was in college so I'm the perfect audience for it, I guess. But now that they're all out I imagine people will binge watch.
I guess it would be interesting to watch them one after another. It's such a progression. Or backwards. [Laughter]. Why not?! See what is now and what was originally. Go back in time.
NYC Readers take note: Julie Delpy will speak alongside a screening of Before Midnight, Tuesday night, December 3rd at the 92nd Street Y