Starring in two films this fall (Smoking Causes Coughing by Quentin Dupieux, and Citoyen d’honneur by Mohamed Hamidi), in extremely different registers that reveal the full extent of her talent, Oulaya Amamra has completed her moult and established herself as one of the leading French actresses of her generation.
French cinema often relegates girls from the banlieues to predetermined roles; when it awards them the ultimate prize, the César for most promising actress, it’s often yet another way to restrict them, to keep them in the same yoke – forever childish, spirited, social-realistic scripts that have the unfortunate consequence of stunting their growth and dissuading them from exploring registers that idle minds have given up expecting from them. The same fate could have befallen Oulaya Amamra after her revelatory role in Divines and the César for most promising actress she was awarded a few months later. And yet, after six years, the actress from Viry-Châtillon has broken loose from the status she might have had. With Philippe Garrel, who was her teacher at the Conservatory in the early years after her coronation, she tried her hand at romance (The Salt of Tears) in its purest and most tragic form for the camera of a master of the genre. In Romain Gavras’s The World Is Yours (Le monde est à toi), she carved out a place for herself in pop, music video-like cinema, far from French standards, by chasing after British action comedies and American gangster movies. In The Little Drummer Girl, she collaborated with her dream director, the world-renown Park Chan-wook. In the fall of 2022, she will appear in Smoking Causes Coughing, a new absurdist fantasy by Quentin Dupieux, one of today’s most sought-after French filmmakers, in which she dons a superhero Spandex outfit; as well as in Citoyen d’honneur (Citizen of Honor, in English), a comedy about being uprooted, in which she tries her hand at rapping for the first time.
ANTIDOTE: You’re still really defined by the role in which you were discovered, that of Dounia in Divines, directed by your older sister, Houda Benyamina. How do you feel about that?
OULAYA AMAMRA: It’s true, when people recognize me in the street it’s mostly because of Divines, even though that was six years ago. At the same time, it’s understandable: it was a lead role, which I haven’t done since, but it’s also a role that stays with you, a story that stays with you. I’m okay with that: I owe a lot to this film. Without Divines my life would not be the same today and we probably wouldn’t be doing this interview.
You’ve said that this character was very different from you, and yet she gradually started to take over. Did this create any confusion?
Yes, especially for me. It took me a long time to reconnect with who I was. We prepared the film for a year and a half and shot it over two months, so it took up nearly two years of my life. Two years of thinking like her, of fully identifying with her. Dounia never completely disappeared. I’ve said this many times: I was kicked out of school, even though I hadn’t had any disciplinary problems before. My mother told me: « I want my daughter back! » Entering the Conservatory allowed me to create some distance from Dounia, to break the character down. But this is a character in which I felt really at ease! She wasn’t afraid of anything, she dreamed big, everything was possible. I envied her, in fact.
Oulaya Amamra: Outfit, Louis Vuitton.
Are there other characters who are still with you today, in that way? I’ve heard about Toinette from Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid…
Yes! I discovered this character at the same time as I discovered theater, at the age of 12 at the Comédie Française, where she was played by Catherine Hiegel. Years later, my sister decided to direct the play. In the three rounds of auditions for the Conservatoire, I acted three of Toinette’s scenes. I didn’t want to pretend to love anything else. She’s a sassy character who’s not afraid of authority and is extremely clever. And she always has several parts to play at once, because she makes asides to the audience while deceiving her master, Argan.
You have a pretty academic background?
Yes, I didn’t really have a choice. I started ballet when I was four because my mother thought it was foundational for all dance. I didn’t have much of a choice either when it came to the private Catholic high school I attended, or to swimming competitions. When I was able to do what I wanted, I quit and went into film. I don’t regret any of it and I’m even grateful to my mother: when I had to do dancehall in Fragile, or when I recently had to play a conductor, this bodily rigor served me well.
As you said, you haven’t played a lead since Divines, but you’ve played supporting roles with great directors: Philippe Garrel, André Téchiné… How come?
There’s no such thing as a small role for me; there are only actors who can make anything big. In Mean Streets, De Niro has a supporting role, and yet he’s all you see. Sometimes there is even more to play in a supporting role than in a lead. In a supporting role, you can often have fun, try things. And I’ve read a lot of main roles that didn’t move me, with things I don’t want to do anymore: a girl from the banlieues, a terrorist… I want to expand my range and these supporting roles allow me to do that.
How did you end up in Quentin Dupieux’s Smoking Causes Coughing?
He sent me his screenplay directly. I found it very funny and original. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a series of sketches connected by a story about a group of vigilantes I am a part of. It’s really an experiment, especially because he’s the one doing the framing and editing, so it really establishes a direct rapport. Everyone wants to work with him right now. You can tell that he has the ability to do really unusual things with people, that actors are changed by him: Anaïs Demoustier in Keep an Eye Out (Au poste!), Adèle Exarchopoulos in Mandibles (Mandibules)…
What were you looking for on set? Pure comedy, or weirdness? The film is very strange and at the same time, on paper, it’s almost like a skit by Les Nuls. When does the strangeness come in?
I think we were really committed to playing something very absurd very sincerely. There wasn’t any irony. We totally became those Power Rangers, we were into it, and it’s funny because we believed in it. If you act them out like idiots, if you make fun of them, it doesn’t work. And yet, there were some scenarios… Falling in love with a drooling rat dubbed by Chabat, honestly, was pretty weird. And Chabat was on the set, he was both the voice and the puppet! It was a real theatrical situation. That’s why it’s believable.
Oulaya Amamra: Outfit, Louis Vuitton. Bag Dauphine Garden, Louis Vuitton.
Can you talk about your role in Citoyen d’honneur?
Despite my admiration for Mohamed Hamidi, whose films One Man and His Cow (La Vache) and Homeland (Né quelque part) I liked a lot, I didn’t accept right away because I wasn’t sure I understood why he wanted me. Ultimately, it’s rapping that made me want to accept. I’ve listened to a lot of rap music; I’ve been a fan of Diam’s since I was a little girl. During the shoot, my sister Houda Benyamina was filming a documentary with her (Salam) and I would send her videos of my rehearsals so that she could give me directions. I was very inspired by her most recent song, « If it was the last » (Si c’était le dernier). We worked with the trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf and I started rapping to it.
The film tells the story of a writer who returns to his village in Algeria to be honored after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. Is this something that’s important to you, origins, roots?
It feels very far from me. I used to go to Morocco on vacation in the summer when I was little, now I don’t go so often. It’s not my home. I grew up here. My father lived through the Algerian War, so there’s obviously a lot of history for me there, but I don’t think I’ve really come to terms with it. I haven’t really dug into this past yet. I’m interested, but I’m afraid of discovering horrible things! I know that one day I will do it. Acting in this film was a way to start this process.
Can you talk about Toutes pour unes, the female version of The Three Musketeers currently being directed by your sister, Houda Benyamina?
It’s still very early stages. The film will get made. I think it’s very different from what others are doing [Martin Bourboulon’s diptych of The Three Musketeers, a more faithful and high production value adaptation of Dumas’s novel with François Civil, Vincent Cassel, Romain Duris, and Pio Marmaï, Editor’s note]. But it’s very difficult to talk about it at this stage…
You are part of a generation of actors who give off an impression of great solidarity, great camaraderie, as if the time of murderous rivalries between artists was a thing of the past. Do you feel this collective goodwill?
My sister founded the organization 1000 Visages, which helps young people from the banlieues and from rural areas access these professions. That’s how I got started, and there was already a lot of mutual support. I still teach there; I find young people to introduce them to agents. With all my actor friends, we call each other when there is a casting, and when someone isn’t available, they recommend someone else. There isn’t any competition. But that’s also because there are so many projects! With Netflix, Amazon, Apple… there are 15 launching every month. There’s no need to pull each other’s punches. On a personal level, I’m less afraid of not working. We’re in a different ecosystem, one that is abundant, very generous, and where the boundaries have been totally broken down: everyone is moving from movies to television and streaming services.
Oulaya Amamra: Outfit, Louis Vuitton. Bag Hobo loop monogram, Louis Vuitton.
When you were a child or a teenager, was there an actress or actor you dreamed of becoming?
They were mostly men, actually, especially Robert De Niro. I was fascinated by his acting, specifically by his choice of roles. Al Pacino too, which was confirmed when he came to teach a masterclass at the Conservatoire, during which he spoke to us a lot about theater, about the fact that it was important not to give up theater. What inspires me a lot in these guys is also the energy, the energy to create one’s destiny. Like Depardieu, who used to read the Pléiades riding the subway from one end of the line to the other to catch up on all the literary knowledge he didn’t have on one go, and then beg directors to take him on. They say no, you keep trying, you push. That’s what inspires me.
You’ve mentioned in several interviews your preference for extremes, filmmakers who deal with the body, with pain, like Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke… Do you find it difficult to fulfill that desire in France?
Totally. The projects I read are often very polished. We’re still stuck in that culture of the happy ending! Not always, obviously – there are projects like Divines. But I’m still waiting for the second Divines of my career. Of course, I’m not denigrating my other films, which all have their own specific identity – Quentin Dupieux or Romain Gavras (Le monde est à toi) are obviously not conventional directors. But the register Divines operated in is something I haven’t gone back to, ultimately. There is an actress, I won’t mention her name, who recently told me: « I’m tired of whispering in movies. » It’s a cliché, but it’s true that we whisper a lot. And we don’t yell enough.
Oulaya Amamra : « We’re in a different ecosystem, one that is abundant, and where the boundaries have been totally broken down. Everyone is moving from movies to television and streaming services. »
Who would most satisfy this need for extremes?
In France, Julia Ducournau, for example. She’s changed a lot of things. She took gender out of its ghetto. When I saw Raw (Grave), it was a real slap in the face. And I was very surprised that she didn’t receive many awards, even though something very special was happening there. But this is probably because of the snobbish attitude of the French. My desire for cinema is very much directed toward foreign countries. Jordan Peele (Get Out), for example, I love. I would love to work with him, even though he mostly works with Black actors. I was lucky enough to work with Park Chan-wook very briefly for The Little Drummer Girl, where I played a quasi-shadow role. But he embodies that too, in my mind.
It’s been five years since your life changed when you won the César for Most Promising Actress for Divines. Where is the statuette today?
At my mother’s house, in her hallway. But now I have a plan for it, I don’t know if it’s okay to talk about it… Actually, right now I’m obsessed with Klein blue, and I found a guy who is willing to paint it blue for me. It’s shocking to say!
Oulaya Amamra: Outfit, Louis Vuitton.
Why? Kechiche melted his Palme to sell the gold and finance the post-production of Mektoub My Love…
Yes, but that was for art… I should really own up to it, because, ultimately, it’s mine. It’s probably a way to make it even more mine, really unique. That blue is a color that makes me feel really good. I think I’ll see the statuette more that way.
Were there any negative aspects to having been Césarized?
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