Audiences never hear Berenice Bejo say a word in “The Artist,” but that doesn’t mean she prepared for her role as Peppy Miller, the bit player who becomes a big star, any differently than she normally would.
Filming the movie, though, did involve one notable change.
“I didn’t really care abut the dialogue,” says the Argentinean-born Bejo. “I was talking when doing the scenes, but I didn’t have to care about the lines, just how I felt and how I would look at people and react. I felt a lot more freedom and could focus more on what’s going to happen in the scene. It was eye-opening for me.”
Making the near-silent “The Artist” with her writer-director husband, Michel Hazanavicius, involved a series of pleasurable, singular moments that the actress knew she’d never repeat.
Take the montage of films showing Peppy’s rise to fame, which Bejo calls a “caricature of those movies back in the time.” Or the scene where Peppy put her arms in the jacket of silent film star George Valentin — the man she loves — and pretends that he’s there, holding and caressing her.
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“That was a real moment for an actor,” Bejo says of the coat scene, a nod to a similar move pulled off by Janet Gaynor in the 1927 silent film “7th Heaven.” “It’s one shot, and you have to take your time and accept you’re going to be on screen for two minutes and it’s just going to be about you.”
Rehearsing that scene, Bejo improvised the moment where, her arm in her man’s coat, Peppy grabs her own behind. Hazanavicius loved the touch and told her to include it in the scene. Bejo liked it, too, because she believes it reflects Peppy’s playfulness, a quality she sees as the key to the character.
“Her name is Peppy for a reason,” Bejo says. “I wouldn’t have played her any differently if the movie had sound. She talks and moves and smiles and is just so happy to be wherever she is. She turns everything positive. Peppy is like a ball of fire. She was such a great character to embody.”