An interview with Vanessa Paradis: Seeing the funny side

Actress and singer Vanessa Paradis tells Pierre de Villiers about her role in a new American comedy and how she handles the pressures of fame

Vanessa Paradis should, by rights, be a bit moody at the moment. After all, Johnny Depp, who was her partner for 14 years, recently announced his engagement to new girlfriend Amber Heard, inevitably raising questions over why the French actress never married her Hollywood leading man. For a more insecure star the speculation would be enough to cause a tantrum, but Paradis is as radiant and confident as ever.

“Celebrity gives you a lot of advantage and has to give you some disadvantage. It has to be sort of fair in that way,” the actress says, shrugging off the media’s interest in her private life. “What matters most is the work you do, the people you meet and the work you share.”

Paradis is certainly letting her work do the talking. This month she stars in the much-anticipated comedy Fading Gigolo, about a cash-strapped florist called Fioravante (John Turturro, who also directs) who starts working as a gigolo in New York, with his friend Murray (Woody Allen in a rare acting-only role) as his manager. Paradis plays Avigal, a lonely Jewish Orthodox woman who becomes friends with Fioravante (pictured above).

“You see this woman who has been a widow for a couple of years and is also fading away,” the actress explains. “And he wants to bring a little happiness to this woman’s life. He can sense that there’s something going on. She comes from the Hasidic Orthodox community, which is the strictest one, where women don’t have much communication with the outside world.

So for the first time, she gets listened to. This woman suddenly gets a little life into her and starts to radiate, and it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

Adding to Avigal’s mystery is her accent, which in the movie is difficult to place. Being French was good for the role, Paradis says, because Turturro didn’t want audiences to know where the character came from. “Was she from Europe? Was she born in New York? You don’t know. I didn’t have to fake an accent; I just pushed my French accent a little bit. I’ve listened to a woman from Israel and picked some of her accent and mixed it in there.”

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Despite being an experienced actress with 20 screen credits, Paradis still found herself battling butterflies the first time she stepped on to set as she anticipated working with a certain bespectacled co-star.

“Acting in a movie in front of Woody Allen in Manhattan was surreal,” she says. “He was so easy and so much fun, and he brought a lot to the movie because he improvised all the time. I’d pinch myself sometimes thinking, ‘I am acting with him, I have to stop listening and watching him.’ Because it’s an independent film, it didn’t look so different from the ones I do in France. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by too many people so you didn’t get to know their names or anything. It wasn’t like that.”

For Paradis, starring opposite Allen is a highlight in a career that started at the age of 14 when, as a pop singer, she had a huge hit with Joe le Taxi. She handled the pressure of being thrust into the spotlight as a teenager, but points out that the world was a different place in 1987. “We didn’t even have mobile phones,” she says. “It is a whole different time now in terms of what you can see and what you can show of yourself with the internet.”

While it’s more difficult being a young star now, Paradis won’t stand in the way of her children, Lily-Rose, 15, and Jack, 12, if they choose to follow her and Depp into the entertainment industry. “I think they would be pretty awesome,” she says. “I’m waiting for them to tell me what they want to do. I’m not pushing anything. I want them to be kids while they can.”

Paradis is well aware that there is extra pressure on the children because they have famous parents. Like their mother, though, Lily-Rose and Jack will be ready to take the rough with the smooth if they do become actors. “It adds pressure when people are looking at you because of your parents,” she says. “At the same time, it’s because of what their parents do that we have this incredible life. It’s a harsh balance, but there’s a balance in there. It’s not easy every day, but we talk a lot about it and they manage really well.”