Born identity

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Melvil Poupaud might be an unfamiliar name in Hong Kong but, in France, the 39-year old has long been known as a regular on the screen. At the tender age of 10, Poupaud debuted in his first acting role in the film, City of Pirates. Ever since then he has worked with A-list French directors, from Jacques Doillon to Eric Rohmer. His most recent work last year is with renowned 23-year-old French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan, in what could be a career-transforming role in Laurence Anyways.

Poupaud plays Laurence Alia, a literature professor who realises he can only continue living by making the ultimate change: by becoming a woman. His girlfriend and family aren’t too pleased with this decision and the pent-up emotions between the characters in the story escalate into an explosive conflict.

Time Out sits down with the seasoned actor at the Broadway Cinematheque to find out how he felt to undergo these emotional and physical transformations.

You weren’t apprehensive at all about taking on a transgender role?
No, I was too excited to be apprehensive. I knew this was the kind of part I’d been waiting for – like a bigger role with lots of emotional scenes, lots of changing. I knew I could do it.

Did you have to wax?
Yes. All of that is crazy. I am not too hairy but I am more hairy than the usual lady. [Laughs]

How did you psyche yourself up, mentally?
With a lot of concentration. The makeup artist did research on how your body changes when you take hormones, so that was very helpful for the preparation to see myself changing. I was becoming somebody else. It’s not like a drag queen putting on a show – it’s something deeper. I had to keep a masculine attitude because I had to be attractive to the female character, Fred, who is not gay. She is not into women – she likes the man behind the costume. I had to balance my masculine and feminine side, which was intense.

There is a strong dynamic between your character, Fred, your mother and your friends in the film.
Absolutely. Sometimes I had the impression I was doing four movies at the same time, with four different characters. The Laurence at the beginning is very different from the Laurence at the end of the movie. It was a range of different characters and different emotions.

In that way, do you think that this role has given you a new perspective into the different facets of your own life and your own relationships?
Exactly, it did. I felt every relationship in the movie to be true.
It also affected me because some girls on set forgot I was a man dressed up as a woman. They started talking very naturally in front of me. They would not have done so if I were the way I am normally.There is a bad side too. People on the streets thought I might be a prostitute and gave me aggressive looks that made me very uncomfortable. I felt that a lot of people had questioning looks. Some very macho guys in the crew – they looked at me and they felt uncomfortable. Sometimes they would look at me and find me attractive, even though they are not gay. It had them questioning some issues they had. Even for some women who are straight – they were questioning if they could try it with a lady. Everybody was questioning themselves because of Laurence.

So it was a big sexuality-driven thought process for everyone who was on set?
It was, but when you watch the movie, it’s not about sexuality; it’s more about the tolerance and the acceptance of difference.

Do you think you have a better understanding of what someone who is transgender has to go through now?
Yes, I do: the courage that it takes to come out of the closet.

Do you think there is still a very big issue regarding transgender rights?
Of course there is. [Laurence] is very hopeful at the end of the movie, but there is still a lot of intolerance and judgement. I hope the movie will help people understand that.

That’s what you want the audience to take away from the movie?
I think so, but it’s not a political movie. The heart of the movie is the love story between two people. I think while the audience – whether you are gay, straight, girl or man – identify with Laurence and what he is going through. We all have issues and we all have problems associated with [our own] long and beautiful love story.

How would you describe yourself as an actor?
I am curious and I like having those kinds of roles that allow you to go in directions that you wouldn’t go in your real life. I never dressed up as a woman before Xavier’s movie. I might not do it again, because it’s not my thing, but I was happy to have the opportunity to do it and see how it feels to put on stockings, to walk with a skirt or high heels. Experimenting – that’s what I like. Interview by Arthur Tam

Laurence Anyways opens on Thur Jan 31

 

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