Declining the sexual advances of a Hollywood director early in her career earned Delpy an enduring reputation for being ‘difficult’. She talks about how, despite her successes, she is still battling misogyny in the film industry today.
Julie Delpy is angry. Right now, the French actor and director should be up to her neck in spreadsheets. For three years, she has worked night and day “fighting, fighting, fighting” to get her sixth film as a writer-director, My Zoe, financed. The script is the best thing she has ever written, she says, a mother-daughter drama “with a crazy third act”. The plan was to shoot this spring, but in November, the night before Thanksgiving, a financier pulled out at the 11th hour, spooked she believes, by a “sexist” American lawyer advising him. “My God, the guy was like a poison.”
So here we are, drinking tea in a fancy Paris hotel a few days before Christmas. (Delpy lives in LA but is home for the holidays.) In theory, we are meant to be talking about one of the few acting roles she has taken on while concentrating on her film, playing a love-interest French teacher in The Bachelors, a sweet, emotionally grown-up US indie about a grieving father and son. But her blood is boiling and her brain is in overdrive.
Don’t get her started on that lawyer. “I’ve never dealt with someone, so, so …” For a moment, the sheer scale of his perfidy stumps her. “He is a third-rate lawyer, not a classy guy. Really trashy, trashy, trashy.” Her words hang in the air, deliciously transgressive in the genteel atmosphere of clinking porcelain.
She has had bad experiences before, but never anything as awful as this. For eight months, Delpy says, she negotiated with the lawyer, along with her female producer. “I couldn’t believe how he was behaving, the bullying, the aggression.” If you want to discredit a woman film-maker, you just need to drop the “e” word. Which is what he did at the beginning of a conference call, she says, warning the two women “not to get emotional. As if the discussion was going to be emotional because there are two women on the line!”
Her eyes widen with disbelief. “He wasn’t saying: ‘It’s great to be emotional.’ He was saying: ‘Your money is at stake. Do not invest in a woman’s film.’ And it’s easy to put the idea into [financiers’] heads that women will take the money and go buy Prada bags.” She screws up her face sarcastically. “That’s what I do. I take the money and run to the Prada store. It’s exhausting dealing with the stupidity.” In cold print, perhaps a little of her screwball Diane Keaton-ness is lost; but believe me, she is hilarious. You could time Big Ben by Delpy’s delivery.
While she pauses to gather steam, I sneak a look at her handbag. Knackered black leather, definitely not Prada. Delpy has lived in LA for years, but has yet to acquire the swallowed-a-lightbulb glow of the rich and famous. She is very beautiful, of course, but doesn’t seem to go in for poise or gloss. In fact, I almost didn’t recognise her walking into the hotel reception under a huge woolly hat.
She’s back: “He would not feel comfortable destroying the film of a man. But he’s comfortable crushing a woman.” She balls a fist and slams it into the other hand, miming the action. “But he picked the wrong woman to crush. I’m not going to let him get away with it. When I’m under attack, I’m fierce.” Taking a sip of herbal tea, she eyes the tape recorder suspiciously and says, a little wearily: “I’m so angry. I sound like I’m on drugs. I’m not. I just don’t sleep. I haven’t slept more than two hours a night for the past three weeks.” Worrying? “No, trying to find solutions.” Her outspoken attitude has got her into deep water before. In January 2016, Delpy issued an apology after suggesting that women in Hollywood face a tougher time than people of colour.
This experience with the hateful lawyer has triggered her disgust with the misogyny in the film industry. So, too, has the wave of recent stories of men abusing their power. Delpy doesn’t identify as a victim, but reels off encounters with “scumbags” over the years that have kicked the trajectory of her career off course and slammed doors shut. Shockingly, she claims that, from the age of 13 or 14, “creepy directors” in France warned her that she would never make it if she didn’t go along with the casting-couch culture. Not a chance. She moved to New York at 19. “It made me really tough.”
Then there was the director who smeared her reputation in Hollywood. The first week she arrived in LA in 1993, then in her early 20s, she brushed off his sexual advances. “It wasn’t aggressive. I didn’t snap at him. I just said: ‘It’s not for me. This is not who I am.’” Years later, she found out through friends that the man in question had spread it about that she was “difficult”. “I couldn’t figure out why every time I had a studio audition it would end up: ‘We love her, but we don’t know if …’ And the part would go to someone else.”
So he damaged her career? “For sure. I didn’t work with a lot of people because I had the reputation of saying no. But men of power never say to other men of power: ‘She said no to me.’ They say: ‘I can’t work with her. She’s too crazy.’ Or: ‘She’s too difficult.’ And you realise that all those actresses who had the reputation of being difficult, they’re not difficult. You realise so much damage has been done. Careers destroyed. Lives destroyed. It really hurts me inside. Luckily, I was able to turn my life upside down by directing and writing. I won in the end.” She treated Harvey Weinstein like the plague, she says, after meeting one of his victims early in her acting life: “I knew he was someone to avoid being alone with at any cost.”
That reputation for being difficult has lingered, she believes. After shooting The Bachelors, the director Kurt Voelker came up to her and said how easy she had been to work with. “I was like: ‘What were you expecting?’” She took the role of Isabelle the French teacher partly in response to playing a monstrous mother in her previous film, Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. Weirdly enough, funny and kind Isabelle in The Bachelors also reminded Delpy of her boyfriend: “He always wants to help people. He’s a kind person. I think that’s an undervalued quality nowadays. People admire Trump, who’s a scumbag. He has no kindness in him whatsoever.”
Delpy and her partner – he is a Greek production manager and assistant director – met on the set of Before Midnight, the third in the trilogy of films that has earned her two scriptwriting Oscar nominations with director Richard Linklater and actor Ethan Hawke. Any plans for another sequel? “No, I don’t think we will.’
These days, the truth is that she’s not being offered so many parts, Delpy says. “Some actresses would be crushed by that, but I’m not because I’m doing my own stuff. I rarely get screenplays. Especially after I directed 2 Days in Paris. From then on it was just …” She pulls a comedy horrified face. “It was like I was blacklisted, or something. First, you say no to a few powerful men. Then you start directing movies, and then you’re done.”
“You need milk?” Delpy nods down at my pot of tea and calls over a waiter. She strikes me as a woman who gets things done, steelier than the quirky, slightly scatty figure she has often portrayed on screen. People make the mistake of confusing her with Marion, her character in 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, the pair of relationship comedies she wrote, directed and starred in. “They think I’m a little bit crazy, a little bit neurotic,” she says, with a touch of frustration.
What does drive her nuts is the Hollywood old guard’s hostility to female directors – a deep-down feeling in the gut that women are simply not up to the job. “What is directing but multitasking?” she jokes. “That’s all it is. It’s basically multitasking. Women were meant to be directors. We were bred to be directors.”
The thing is, says Delpy, that no one has ever lost money on one of her films. Male directors get away with murder by comparison. “Men are indulged so much bullshit. Shooting for eight months, assaulting people on set, screaming. Women? You can’t even run an hour over time.” More than ever, she believes, we need to see the complexity of women and their lives on screen in films: “When I see films by women like Jane Campion I feel like I’m home. It’s a feeling of peace inside. It’s tough for women, huh?”
Now, she is working on overdrive to reduce the budget of My Zoe – cutting locations and trimming the script. “The film is getting smaller, smaller, smaller, but there is a limit to what I can cut without destroying the project. So I’m probably not going to get paid. It’s hard to work for free for five years. After a while you get exhausted. I’m 48. I’m a mother [she has a son with her ex, Marc Streitenfeld, the German composer]. I can’t even take care of my kid if, after a certain time, I don’t make a living. But I will make this film. Because I’m not going to let this rat …” Exasperated, she doesn’t finish the sentence, and ends instead with a long low chuckle. You wouldn’t bet against her.
- The Bachelors is in cinemas in March