What Elsa Zylberstein wants more than anything is an American film career, and she just might get one if she keeps delivering performances similar to her turn as Lea in “I’ve Loved You So Long.”
The French pic, written and directed by Philippe Claudel, tells of two sisters attempting to reconnect after a long, enforced separation. Lea, the younger one, teaches literature; Juliette, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, used to be a doctor.
The lead performances move the film from melodrama to a deep exploration of sisterhood. Of the two, Zylberstein’s might be more revelatory if only because Scott Thomas’ talent is already widely celebrated.
That the role proved a perfect fit for Zylberstein is no accident. Claudel wrote it specifically for her.
“We met through his publisher,” says the actress, a native Parisian. “I thought he was gifted and talented, and I said he should write a movie. A couple of months later, I got this beautiful script.”
Though her role is less showy than Scott Thomas’, that doesn’t mean there’s less going on.
“You think Lea is happy, but then you see how shaken and guilty she is,” Zylberstein says. “Her life is going crazy, and everything’s pulling apart. My character has a schizophrenic relationship with Juliette: she hates her, and she loves her. They’re really discovering each other, like strangers. It’s very interesting how Lea evolves. It was a strongly emotional journey for me.”
Playing opposite an actress as
esteemed as Scott Thomas might have been daunting for a less self-assured thesp, but Zylberstein was unfazed.
“I didn’t think about that,” she says. “Of course, I was happy and excited to work with a great actress, but you still have to dive into the work. Sometimes you have to forget you’re working with such a huge star or you won’t be able to do anything.”
Indeed, the film’s success depends on there being a balance between these two roles. If one dominates, the equilibrium is wrecked.
“It’s like they’re one person,” says Zylberstein. “It touches something universal, I think, some humanity. We both have a special journey and both go to the light, and this discovery takes time. Philippe was such a good director for this. I do believe he filmed our souls. It reminds me of Bergman, at the end. I’m not kidding. There’s a chemistry there.”
Favorite film this year
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”
“Learn to be patient, and always be yourself.”
“As an actress, I think life is my first inspiration — looking at everything around me. If you mean which actresses have inspired me, then I would say Gena Rowlands, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett.”