Charlotte Gainsbourg is the daughter of musician Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she recorded the hit single “Lemon Incest” when she was 13. Lars Von Trier has nothing on him. The actress — and sometime-musician herself, whose last album, “IRM,” came out in 2009 — has starred in all three parts of the director’s “Depression Trilogy,” including “Antichrist,” “Melancholia” and the new, two-part “Nymphomaniac.” Though she spends most of the film talking in a room with Stellan Skarsgard’s recluse — and Stacy Martin handles the younger scenes — she still had to do some of the film’s notorious (though sanitized) rough stuff.
You had already done two films with Von Trier before this. Were you even shocked when he asked you to do his sex film?
He told me, in his provocative way, “It’s a porn film, but you’ve never talked as much as you’ll talk in my next film.” That was the whole summary of the film. He said, “I want the two actors I love the most to be those two characters.” So I’m very flattered to be part of his “family troupe.”
Was any part of you reluctant?
I was nervous because of the subject, because of the extremeness of it — the extremeness of what’s being said, also. I couldn’t agree with the character [all the time] and that was a difficulty. But I admire [Von Trier] too much to be too cautious. Just before the film started I was losing someone very dear to me, so I said to Lars, “I can’t do your film.” It was one week before it started. And he said, “You can’t do this to me.” And then he was so sweet, because he knew how much it was costing me. I was going back and forth to Paris and it was really a hard time. He was holding my hand throughout the shoot and he was generous and it was very sweet.
Stacy Martin gets the bulk of the heavy stuff in “Volume I,” but you take over in “Volume II,” when things get bad for your character, Joe. What was that like?
The masochistic part was the most intense for me because it was humiliating — but at the same time exhilarating. That was puzzling for me, to want to be there but at the same time feel so embarrassed. He does put you in bad positions, but he’s accompanying you and he’s not just observing and making you do stuff and enjoying himself. He’s there with you. Sometimes I felt that if I were suffering or going through something painful he was experiencing it with me.
Some of it looks pretty unpleasant.
It’s just a film. Of course it’s so intense and you believe you’re there, in a bad state that lasts for a few minutes. That’s why I enjoy it so much. There is a little masochism on my part, I’m sure. I think every actor has it more or less. I’ve done a comedy and I thought, “What a pleasure, to just have fun.” In every film when you have to go through emotional scenes it’s suffering. It’s part of the deal.
Was getting to the present day scenes, where you’re just talking to Skarsgard, a relief?
Once I had done all the action stuff I thought, “I’ve done the hardest part, now it’s going to be talk, talk.” But the talking part was the most difficult. We couldn’t use [Von Trier’s] usual method. We couldn’t shoot in the way he usually shoots [his films], going in all kinds of directions and exploring the dialogue and putting our words into it. We had to get information in, we had to use his words, and it had to be very specific. [Von Trier] also had a hard time with it.
Was it strange essentially doing an entire other movie with just one other actor in a room?
[Skarsgard] was the most wonderful companion to have this complicity with. We were really on the same wavelength and the same difficulties of, very stupidly, remembering lines. It was like being in school — just memorizing. By the end I had the words under the covers trying to hide them everywhere.
It’s shocking how pleasant and warm this is, both for a sex movie and especially for a Lars Von Trier movie. Up to a point, that is.
I think he lifts you up with the first volume and then crashes you — or the character anyway — in the second volume. There’s something very exhilarating once “Volume I” ends, and for me that’s the beauty of it. And then her whole sex life comes crashing down. So I have more to do in the second volume. I had the impression that I took on the character once its really going down the gutter.
This can easily be read as feminist, even if Von Trier seems to be admitting he could never fully portray the feminine side of this story.
In the end, Joe says that, “If I had been a man talking about my sex life, people would have reacted very differently.” Society accepts male addiction to sex. It’s part of man’s nature. Whereas with women its very shocking to many that you can explore sex in that way and that you can be addicted. So in that sense I think its very feminist and I’m proud of that. I enjoy his exploration, but I can’t really say that it’s a feminine point of view or a male point of view, because I do believe that I’m portraying him and that he puts himself in to such degree in both characters [Seligman and Joe]. The suffering is his.
This is the last of Von Trier’s “Depression Trilogy.” Is he better these days?
When I met [Von Trier] on “Antichrist,” he was saying, “I’m in such a bad state, I might not come tomorrow. You’ll have to continue the film without me.” And I thought, “How can we do it without him?” But I didn’t know him very well. I could also see how honest he was with himself, because I had to play this depressed character with anxiety attacks. There was a lot of mimicking [of me] and observing him. It is hard to shoot with someone who is in a bad state. But in “Melancholia” he was much better, much happier, so it was different. But he’s never cruel.
You have a cover of “Hey Joe” at the end of “Volume II.” Are you working on a new album?
I am. But I’m focused on films and for the first time I did four films in a row. So now I just want to focus on music.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge