Vanessa Paradis is destined to live in the shadow of her famous husband but the actress/singer certainly does not rest on her laurels, writes Kaleem Aftab.
It's easy to understand why one would be jealous of Vanessa Paradis. The 37-year-old looks stunning, has just put in one of her finest acting turns in new romantic comedy Heartbreaker, she's been touring France promoting her greatest hits album and is, of course, Mrs Johnny Depp. Could life be any better?
In fact, in many ways her life seems to mirror that of Juliette Van Der Becq, her character in Heartbreaker. Juliette is the girl who seems to have it all, riches that enable her to stay in plush hotels in Monaco, the perfect man (in the shape of Brit Andrew Lincoln) and a sweet, demure personality.
So it's surprising when Paradis, holed up in a Paris hotel to talk about the movie, says that she found the character boring. "My character was not the most attractive thing of the project," she says in that alluring French accent that sent teenagers and some grown men wild when she sang Joe le taxi as a 14-year-old in 1987.
"She is the most normal person, the most normal, it's not like I have to play this role absolutely. The reason I did the film was not the character, it was the genre, the script, the director and of course my co-star. It's true to act with Romain Duris was something, it was reassuring to know that he was signed on to do the film."
The set-up to the film is pretty ridiculous. Duris plays a man who is employed to break up couples. So, along with his sister and her bumbling husband they work out ways to woo their target. The enigmatic Duris never fails to love 'em and leave 'em until he meets Paradis. It's an unashamedly Hollywood love story, which is why the film is a romp and great fun despite all the cheesiness. A highlight is when it's revealed that Juliette's favourite movie is Dirty Dancing, and Duris then tries to mimic the late Patrick Swayze.
Yet when I ask Paradis if she herself has a guilty viewing pleasure, she seems stumped. "Like a film I should be ashamed of liking? I don't know what to say." How about with music, I wonder, without admitting that one of my own guilty pleasures is Paradis's 1992 album produced by Lenny Kravitz, Vanessa Paradis. It's full of pop ditties, as well as her most famous tune, Be My Baby, and the last song, Gotta Have It, is a hilarious track about Kravitz. But with music she's adamant, "The thing is that they're not guilty, that's the thing." Having no luck with this tack, I ask if she's guilty about anything, and in a beat she replies, "I could never say that."
She's pretty good at stonewalling. When a pretty innocuous question comparing the fact that both her character and she seem to have perfect lives from the perspective of those on the outside is asked, it's met with a warning statement: "Oh I don't do interviews about my life. I don't sell my life. I don't have to talk publicly about my life. I don't want to comment on my life." But she did recently describe her relationship with Johnny Depp in Harper's Bazaar as the "mutual taming of two kindred rebel spirits. We tamed each other." She continued: "Johnny is a very special guy, he has so many talents. He is a wonderful father and does so many different things so well."
She is working with her famous partner on screen for the first time in the forthcoming My American Lover, the story of Simone de Beauvoir's love affair with the writer Nelson Algren. "I'm really nervous of acting in front of Johnny. I don't know how capable I'll be," she has said.
She began seeing the actor in 1998. They have an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old-son together. Her 2000 album Bliss is dedicated to Depp and her daughter, and they have houses around the world, including in Timsbury in Somerset, close by director Tim Burton.
So, with the focus firmly on her career, talk moves to the one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back nature of hers.
She appeared on a French TV show as a 9-year-old and became famous in Britain when Joe le taxi reached number three in the charts. She was the belle de jour and Serge Gainsbourg set about writing an album for her, Variations sur le meme t'aime, which was released in 1990 but failed to make waves. Indeed her only album that has threatened the charts outside France was her self-titled English language debut in 1992. She has released five studio albums in total.
Running parallel has been her acting career. In 1989 she won a starring role in Jean Claude Brisseau's Noce blanche playing a moody 17-year-old who has an affair with an older married man. She won a Cesar (a French Academy Award) for most promising actress, yet if truth be told her acting career has been rather fitful. It was always doomed to be in the shadow of her husband and her only real success before Heartbreaker was 1999's wistful Patrice Leconte movie Girl on the Bridge.
Nonetheless, the multi-talented artist beats down any suggestion that her career has been stop-start.
"Well that may have been the case a few years ago, but lately I haven't stopped a bit. I don't think it's the case to say that. Probably it seems like that from the English standpoint, but in France I've made a record, I'm about to do another tour and then this fall star in another movie, so I can't say that I've had a slow pace lately."
It's possible that the essence of the question has been lost in translation. On the occasion where Paradis struggles to find the right word in English, she endearingly swears in French before finding a word she can use. When she uses the bizarre phrase "lighten the brain" to describe the breezy nature of some of the roles she has played she ends by admitting that the statement, "wasn't really English or French". But it doesn't really matter as her middle language is charming.
When asked which vocation she favours, Paradis says, "I can't say I prefer one to the other."
"Music is more of a project that is your own and you completely embrace, but movies, at least in the way that I do movies, is more about letting myself play a character for a director and not being responsible for the final result in the same way that you are with music. So it's a different attitude to work.
"Music is something that is more personal to me."
The lack of responsibility about acting is a major appeal: "When I do an album it takes four, five years out of your life, it is really intense. Yet on a movie everything is in a bubble for a couple of months."
Increasingly, Paradis has taken more control over her own music. The sound and the lyrics have matured over the years. But can we learn something about the changes in the woman from her songs? "I don't know," comes the reply. "There is an evolution and some of it depends on the people you are working with and your own inclination to work. I am more involved and obviously the music changes and it grows with you."
The greatest hits album has forced her to delve into her back catalogue, but she says that she can do this without too much cringing: "In general I don't listen to my own songs unless I'm about to make them, or if I'm going to go on tour and we need to rearrange the songs and everything. Some are easy to listen to and some are not, and I have perspective enough in any case to listen to them and think that they were made at a certain time in my life or when a musical style was dominant. But I don't listen to them for my own pleasure but for work purposes."
Who: Vanessa Paradis, singer, French film star and Mrs Johnny Depp
When: Opens at cinemas on April 21
- TimeOut / Independent, additional reporting Observer