The French model-turned-actor on getting into character for her breakout role in Julia Ducournau’s Titane.
Landing a lead role in a Palme d’Or-winning drama from one of France’s most exciting new filmmakers is something most actresses would kill for – particularly a part as complex and challenging as the one Titane provides. Agathe Rousselle gamely takes on the persona of Alexia, a dancer with violent tendencies and strange predilections who goes on the run from her past and forms an unlikely bond with a grieving firefighter. Striking, subtle and hypnotic, she commands the screen in a way that feels effortless – an achievement made all the more impressive given it’s her debut film role.
LWLies: I read that you had an embroidery business before you got the part in Titane?
Rousselle: I have wanted to be an actress since I was 15 or something, so I did a lot of drama classes until I was like 21 or 22. But then I just started doing a bunch of different things that don’t really make sense with each other. It would be absurd to name all the things I did because they have no connection to acting, but I know that whenever I had the opportunity to be in a short or a music video, or even to model, I would do it straight away, because to me it was the closest thing to acting, which is what I really wanted to do. I’m happy I had a bunch of different lives before I got to do the thing I’ve always dreamed of.
It can often help to have a little life experience with acting, and to have a lot of different skills you can fall back on.
Yeah, and it’s also been a very affirming thing for me, because I know that I can do so many things. I want my acting career to happen – this is all I want – but knowing I’m able to do other stuff takes some of the pressure off me. I know that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll find something else. I don’t want to find something else ever again, but you don’t always have that much control over things. Being an actress is something that so many people dream about, and I’ve been dreaming about it myself for so long, but at the end of the day, it’s a job. It’s work.
Titane’s casting director discovered you through Instagram. How did they connect with you and how did the audition process work?
I received a direct message from the casting director’s assistant, explaining they were casting for a movie and asking if I would be interested in auditioning, and I said yes, because at that time I would have said yes to anything. I had the first round with the casting director and then the second round with Julia, and then two other rounds before I ended up getting the part.
That sounds quite intense. And you’re not a fan of horror films?
No! I hadn’t seen Raw before I got this role. But I don’t think that Titane is a horror movie at all. I’ve watched it twice, and I was able to watch it all the way through, except for the part where I break my nose because that’s horrible. But apart from that I feel like all of the violent scenes are pretty watchable, because they’re kind of funny.
So what was it about the part of Alexia and the Titane script that really appealed to you?
Reading the script, I was so amazed by the pace of it. Sometimes scripts, when you read them, can be quite dry, but Titane was so intense. I just couldn’t stop reading. It was like a good thriller. I was very excited and I thought the character was just so interesting because it had nothing in common with me. I really enjoyed working on something that had nothing to do with me.
The role is extremely challenging because there’s so little dialogue for you. It’s all in your expressions and physicality. How did you and Julia prepare?
We rehearsed a lot, and I had a coach to help me gain muscle. Then I had a stunt coach, and this dance coach who was amazing – she’s a pole dancer and she taught me everything that I do in the movie. I was very serious about everything, I’m a very disciplined person so it was very exciting for me, and I feel like the preparation part of the process was as exciting as shooting the movie. Even watching so many documentaries and archive footage of psychopaths – with Alexia being a psychopath and me being nothing like a psychopath – I had to get acquainted with what that means, and how you can show it without it being too clownish.
What did you learn from working with Vincent Lindon, a titan of French cinema?
Working with Vincent was probably the best gift ever. I was kind of expecting him to treat me as a beginner, and it would be right that he do so, but he treated me as an equal, which was so great because it really pushed me further. When someone does that, treats you the same, it makes you feel like you need to be as good as them, which is impossible with Vincent, but it made me want to do my best all the time. He said to me once, ‘You know, I love working with you because you’re very present. If you’re a great actor, very technical, with lots of experience but you’re not present, it won’t work.’ I’m going to try and remember this for my next endeavours.
“The way you look does not make you responsible for someone’s perception of you, or how they act towards you.”
That definitely comes across in the film, because you spend so much time on screen together and have a wonderful rapport. It seems especially crucial for Titane because it’s a love story in a lot of ways.
Oh yeah, it’s absolutely a love story! It’s not about having sex with cars, we don’t really care about that. It’s about how someone who has never been loved before meets someone who thinks he will never be able to love again, and together they find out that love is still possible. It’s beautiful, like they’re finding their humanity all over again. It’s very tragic, but in a Greek tragedy way. That’s what I thought of the first time I read the script – it’s like mythology, with this value at the centre.
Titane also feels like a truly sympathetic and open exploration of gender, examining what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man.
Yes, it’s one of the reasons the part made sense to me. Since I was a kid people have mistaken me for a boy – and I wasn’t doing it on purpose, I wasn’t a tomboy. Growing up it was the same, and I kind of made my peace with it, since I worked a lot as a model on shoots where they wanted someone really androgynous, but I’m not that androgynous, you know, I have boobs and a big ass. I never ask myself if I want to dress more like a guy or a girl, but naturally some days I’ll put on clothes and look a little more masculine or a little more feminine. If people say to me, ‘Hi sir,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, hi, cool.’ It’s whatever. I’m not responsible for other people’s perceptions of me. But I think this question of gender shouldn’t even be relevant anymore. Who cares?
It’s like Vincent says in the film to Alexia – I don’t care who you are, you’re my son.
Exactly! Fuck those kinds of boundaries that are of no use, and always attract hatred and aggression. Just let people be who they want to be. And again, the way you look does not make you responsible for someone’s perception of you, or how they act towards you. When you think like that, you realise you can live however you want, and it’s such a relief. As women, we have to be conscious of what time of the day it is, which neighbourhood we’re in, whether or not we can wear a miniskirt. You have to think about your gender just because you’re not safe – and it’s even worse for marginalised communities, such as gay people, or Black people. You’re not free to be who you want to be because these are all the things you have to think about when you’re not a white straight male.
Early in the film Alexia is confronted by a very persistent male fan in a car park, and we’re used to seeing scenes like that go a very particular way. Even though Alexia is definitely unhinged, that moment did feel quite satisfying.
I wish that men would think for one moment before they treat women like this. A man approaching a woman usually thinks ‘I’m stronger, she won’t do anything.’ It would be really nice to live in a world where men have to think twice. ‘Should I try my luck, or is she going to kill me?’ Girls should all learn martial arts at school, if only so they can defend themselves.
It’s sad we even have to think like that, because really the onus should be on men to not see women as targets.
I know! Why can’t men just not do that, is that so crazy? [laughs] While preparing for Titane, I found out serial killers are mostly men, there’s only a few female ones.
That’s one of the things I find interesting about Alexia – she’s presented as quite an unrepentant killer. We’re not really used to seeing figures like that in popular culture…
Yeah, it’s unusual to see dangerous women. There’s a couple of serial killers, like Aileen Wuornos, and she was dangerous but she was also crazy. Pop culture could show more potentially dangerous women that are not crazy – that are just incredibly skilful, and that could kill you in an instant but are sane. Even Alexia is dangerous but she’s a psychopath. I wish we could show powerful, strong, potentially dangerous women, because you get men like that, and they’re never crazy.
Actors often say when they play a very intense role it can be hard to step away afterwards. Did you find that at all with Alexia?
It took me like a good month and a half to sleep well at night again, because we’d been shooting at night a lot and my sleep was fucked. But also there was so much adrenaline every day on set, your body is just tense all the time. So it took me a while to just rest. Apart from that, I was not haunted by the part. I was just very tired, when we finished shooting I was so happy but just so exhausted. And I’m proud of the whole team because the team effort on the film was crazy. It was really intense every day – the makeup artists, technicians, everyone was so supportive. I was spending sometimes eight hours in makeup per day so I spent a lot of time with the girls, so we were having so much fun together. It was a great source of decompression for me.
Titane is released in cinemas 31 December, with preview from Boxing Day. Read the LWLies Recommends review.
Published 22 Dec 2021