This piece originally appeared in print in So It Goes, Issue 6, Autumn 2015.
Stacy Martin was still in acting classes when she won the role of Young Joe in LarsVon Trier’s uncompromising Nymphomaniac (2013). Having paid her bills as a model it formed a rather surreal introduction to the industry. Her upcoming films show this might be the shape of things to come: High-Rise, a dystopian Ballard adaption opposite Jeremy Irons and Tom Hiddleston, and Tale of Tales, an avant-garde fantasy that by its trailer resembles a fusion of Gilliam and Fellini.Whether in fashion or film, for Ben Wheatley or Miuccia Prada, in French or in English, Martin has started her career working for visionaries at the top of their game. Watch this space.
So It Goes: You’ve wrapped numerous films this year, but obviously we’re duty bound to ask about Nymphomaniac. You’ve spoken about your very first meeting with Lars Von Trier to read for the lead of Young Joe,and that the thing that struck you above all else was his calmness. He’s obviously widely known for being outspoken and controversial, but given the length of the shoot, were there particular sides of his character that came to surprise you over time?
Stacy Martin: What I find most interesting about Lars is that he creates worlds you have no choice but to enter, whether you like it or not. I’ve always loved his films and never bothered much about his reputation because it’s not something I think is representative of someone’s work. The most surprising element was how gentle and protective he was.We both agreed before the first day of filming that we had to be honest with each other and make sure that if anything felt wrong or uncomfortable, we could talk about it and find a solution. It was something I didn’t expect from a director.And I didn’t really know what to expect from directors because it was my first film! But the great thing about Lars is that he brings actors together for his films because he knows they have a certain sensibility towards the character, and all the actors want to tell the same story.There’s a strong sense of community on his films and the bond between everyone in the crew is also very strong.
SIG: I’m sure that you are almost sick to death of answering questions about the sexual nature of the film – an aspect that has been well documented – so we wanted to find out about your mindset when the concept and role were put to you: did you have an immediate understanding about what would be required of you during production?
SM: Yes, there were no untold elements. I knew most of the requirements for the part even before getting it.The production and Lars were aware that they had to be very careful about how they approached every actor they wanted to be involved in the film. In another sense, I was very naïve about the way a production worked, as it was my first real acting job so I didn’t have many expectations. I learnt all the boring technical jargon and set things. The only thing I required of myself was to tell the story of Joe as well as I could, avoiding clichés on sexuality, but also in terms of how women are perceived. Lars depicts women who are under extreme circumstances and sometimes situations people have difficulty dealing with. The strength and determination of his women is something you don’t see enough of in film.
SIG: From the script and your early conversations with Lars, did you have some sense of the kind of critical and public controversy the film might cause?
SM: I think Lars’ films create conversations and open debate, so I knew there would be a mixed public response. Also it was interesting because the reaction prior to the film coming out and the reaction after the film came out were very different. A lot of journalists told me they had to change their questions entirely after having seen the film.
SIG: The narrative of Nymphomaniac is based around tracing the course of a life and examining the causes and effects of various events. Did you find that you became self-reflective at all and started to think about your own personal history? Not necessarily in the same specifically sexual sphere as Nymphomaniac charts, but in trying to act the ages of fifteen to thirty-one years old did you become aware of your own development as an individual?
SM: With every role I’ve taken there has been an element of reflection, but it’s not what I find interesting.When I started acting I wanted to go further away from my own personal history.And I’m not saying that because I had a bad past, not at all.What I mean is that art should go beyond the autobiographical even though you yourself as an artist are the starting point, there is so much more about ourselves than we create through our ‘identity’. When I played the later stages of Joe’s life, it was almost liberating not to have been that age. I didn’t have any pre-conceived ideas and could really explore without thinking about age and what it meant to reach certain stages of life.
SIG: You’re half-British and half-French, and have lived in both Paris and London, by way of Japan. Did your time in Tokyo in any way fuel your decision to become an actress?
SM: I doubt it. I was young when I was in Japan and didn’t think of what my future plans were. I had vague ideas of jobs that I aspired to, but that changed constantly. It didn’t feel like those were anchored in reality, if that makes sense. I think it’s crazy that we are asked at such a young age through various educationional structures and systems what job we want to do. I never knew until I found acting.
SIG: You took up modelling to furnish your acting education, and from what we’ ve read were perhaps a bit ambivalent towards the profession, or at least very matter of fact about its true use in helping you pay for acting school.Yet, with high- profile campaigns for rag & bone and Miu Miu under your belt, it looks like the two industries now run parallel for you.Where do you stand in terms of balancing modelling and acting? Are they fully compatible jobs for you at the moment, or is there – on some level – a practical or even philosophical tussle?
SM: When I was modelling I never thought I was very good at it, so it always felt a bit wrong saying I was a model.That probably comes from not fully investing myself in it, and, as you say, being very matter of fact about it. My job and passion is acting.But the relationship with fashion houses and designers is something that is these days inevitably linked to actors and the film industry.There seems to be a very specific interaction between the two worlds.The way I worked with rag & bone and currently with Miu Miu is so different from the modelling I used to do whilst studying. With my involvement in fashion now, it’s more in line with creating a character and working within a certain storyline.You end up nurturing great new friendships and colleagues as a result.
SIG: Nymphomaniac is obviously a huge first film, but you have now wrapped five films in the last year. How have you found the transition from working on such an involved and singular role as Young Joe in Nymphomaniac to working on a few different roles under different directors in different environments? Have you found it challenging to adapt to the workload and expectation on high- profile films such as Tale of Tales and High- Rise as someone who is relatively inexperienced?
SM: It’s interesting because Nymphomaniac was the first film set I’d been on, so it became a sort of blueprint in my mind of how sets are. But actually, every set is different because the director is different and that influences everything else. The directors I’ve worked with have completely different processes and styles, so I’ve learnt that there isn’t such a thing as adapting, because you’re constantly changing.I’ve been very excited by each role I’ve taken and the people I’ve worked with, so expectation and workload are things that become invisible to me when I’m working. It takes me by surprise sometimes that I’ve been able to work with some of my contemporaries so quickly in my ‘career’, but it also makes me want to continue my work even more and challenge myself in a creative and collaborative sphere.
SIG: Do you think there is space in the construction of your screen character to incorporate personal references and reactions?
SM: Not necessarily, as I don’t really construct a character for the screen specifically so there is no final result. It’s a much more organic process that also involves a lot of pre-preparation so that when we’re filming, the character just has to live and react to the current situation. In terms of personal references and reactions I don’t think that comes into consideration on a conscious level. I think it’s important to keep what’s important and necessary for the character and the film.Obviously,as an actor your body is your instrument,so you are limited by the mere physicality of it, but I see myself more as a starting point rather than a contributor or partner for the character.
SIG: We can’t remember being as intrigued by a trailer as when we first saw Tale of Tales, which seems to be some kind of fabular baroque fantasy that brings together various different strains of the European literary tradition, from Ovid to Perrault. Literary adaptations are notoriously tricky because of the internal visuals that readers create for themselves; that is to say a film, to some, will always struggle to live up to a book.
SM: Absolutely! And I’m very weary myself of films that have adapted books that I’ve read and liked.There will always be that struggle, because imagination is so much stronger than reality for the simple reason that our imagination evolves and changes whereas reality is definite and static. When a filmmaker adapts a book, it comes from his perspective and his vision; it’s something that’s personal to him. But the great thing about the different stories in Tale of Tales is that they are not very well known and also very short.The fable and fantasy of the film allows a greater connection with the audience, as it’s a world that we have no tangible reference to or experience of.So, filmically, it actually brings all the imaginative elements to life.
SIG: From the off, during potentially the most formative stage of your career, you have thrown your lot in with artists and directors who are renowned for their clear and unyielding artistic visions: Ben Wheatley, Miuccia Prada, Lars Von Trier to name but a few. Over time, have you become conscious of their precise impact on your development as both an actor and person,in terms of how their particular way of working and their world of ideas have influenced you?
SM: To varying degrees, yes. I’ve wanted to work with them because of something in their process. What they create and how they go about it engages and inspires me.They were all more experienced than me in their own respective fields, so learning how I want to navigate the film and fashion worlds has definitely been influenced by people like Lars, Ben and Miuccia. They’ve all, whether they know it or not, helped me to trust myself and my choices. Collaboration is very important to me and that’s something I’ve only recently discovered.
Words: James Wright & Lewis Carpenter
Photographer: Tom Craig
Photographer’s Assistants: Hugo Grimwood, Jodie Herbage, Alex Webb
Creative Director: James Wright
Producers: Joshua Bullock & Lewis Carpenter
Production Assistant: Frances Davison
Stylist: Bay Garnett @ CLM
Stylist’s Assistant: Lori Peake
Hair: Roi @ George Northwood Studio
Make-up: Celia Burton @ CLM