Julie Delpy spends ’2 Days in New York’ and declares her independence – and that the French aren’t just baguettes and berets

Thelma Adams
The Reel Breakdown

People tend to remember Delpy as that French chick Celine opposite Ethan Hawke's Jesse in "Before Sunset" and "Before Sunrise," the funky Franco-American romantic bookends directed by Richard Linklater. But the Paris-born, L.A.-based, NYU-educated mother of a toddler also contributed to those screenplays. Then she went on to write and direct a parallel comedy, "2 Days in Paris," in which she brings her American boyfriend (Adam Goldberg) to meet her crazy French family. In "2 Days in New York," writer, director, and star Delpy continues the unsentimental journey, gaining maturity as a character and as an artist. She plays a French photographer named Marion, whose father (her real-life dad, Albert Delpy) and sister (Alexia Landeau) visit the Manhattan love nest she's set up with Mingus (Chris Rock) and their kids from previous marriages. It's one of those dysfunctional-family comedies where everything unfolds in two short days, and the preconceptions of Americans and the French, men and women, a father and a daughter, all get tossed in a cultural Cuisinart.

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Thelma Adams: How are you like Marion — and how do you differ?

Julie Delpy: My screen character is a bit more out of control than me. I'm more grounded and less crazy. I have my neuroses, but she's more confused, and more self-centered. I'm a very pragmatic person basically. It's fun to have this kind of alter ego. I did that a bit when I wrote "Before Sunset," a different part of me that isn't just like me. I'm fascinated by crazy people because I'm so not crazy: I know what's reality, what's me, and what's not me.

TA: How much of this movie was improvised?

JD: The film is actually very scripted. All my films are. Sometimes, I let people, like Adam Goldberg in "Two Days in Paris," improvise, like when he ordered that burger. Or when Chris is doing this conversation with a cardboard cutout of Obama — it's 80 percent written, and 20 percent improvised. But the best acting is when you feel like people are not acting.

TA: When the acting is transparent, and the writing seems natural?

JD: Yes. I just presented a film "Le Skylab," that film could not be more scripted. It's an affectation to seem like you just turn on the camera. I love feeling that if people watch my movie, they have the feeling that they are part of the scene, to give people the sense that they actually spent one hour and a half with these people. My goal is to make it feel like people are improvising and not acting. I love to feel like it's hyper real, like the camera just turned on.

TA: What directors influenced your style?

JD: Robert Altman had this naturalistic thing, and John Cassavetes, and Woody Allen in a more comedic way like "Husbands and Wives."

TA: Don't you find Allen misogynistic?

JD: I think Allen is more Pygmalion-obsessed than misogynistic. His body of work is just amazing. If I could get to a tenth of his career! When I think of people like Altman, there is a certain freedom to his movies. He was underrated at his time. His films are so naturalistic. People love to give prizes where you see the acting, the directing, the makeup — what movies are really about, for me, is capturing moments as well as entertainment.

Julie Delpy
Julie Delpy

TA: You capture quite a few moments that are relatively rare. Like the opening scene when your character Marion is doing Kegel exercises for incontinence while talking a mile a minute to her newsroom coworker Mingus, played by Chris Rock. Marion has a baby at home, and she talks about squeezing and pumping, and Mingus is both charmed and, OK, a little grossed out. It's so TMI.

JD: It's a women's point-of-view. It's funny to include it in the film. The kind of intimacy, friendship to a guy, who she would date later, unaware, she's not premeditating the move to date. She's not trying to seduce the guy. She's not a nasty bimbo that wants to get laid. She's literally sharing the stress of not knowing with a friend, who ends up in a relationship with her, which is endearing for both of them. Neither is superficial. It's a small moment to set up what kind of a relationship they have. Those characters don't meet cute; they meet down and dirty. It's not the obvious thing.

TA: I've known women like Marion. After being pregnant twice while working in a newsroom, I may even have been a woman like Marion in more ways than most. But it's rare to see her on the screen.

JD: I hate the idea of objectifying the woman. She's not flirting with Mingus with miniskirts. Do you want to be playing sexy bimbo at 40 when you meet someone? The truth is, down the road they're going to know who you are. You can't hide. You don't want to be a bimbo all your life. The reality is that people are imperfect. First, I'm not attracted to beauty or cuteness in men. In the long run for men, it's not their thing either. I have so many men who've dated really beautiful women. It lasts two months. For me, beautiful men, it lasts two weeks. It actually becomes annoying after a while. If they're good people, then you love them; if they're bad people, it doesn't matter if they're beautiful.

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TA: In this movie, Chris Rock comes across as beautiful from the inside out — not the first thing we'd normally say about Rock.

JD: He's real. He has a lot of funny moments but it's not boom boom boom ta da.

TA: There's no obvious laugh track.

JD: Which I would hate. He wanted to do the part because it wasn't written like a typical comedy gag. When I started writing the screenplay, he was the first person that came to mind. I blindly called his agent and said, "I did this film 'Two Days in Paris.' Does Chris know my work?" And then he said "yes."

TA: I think it's Rock's best scripted work.

JD: I love the look on Chris's face at moments with my dad…

TA: …played by your real dad, the actor Albert Delpy…

JD: …Yes, where Chris has no clue about my dad, and it's beyond acting. He doesn't know what my father will do, and he's totally in the moment, where my dad's talking about me being like Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider," the confusion, the look on Chris's face in that moment! Obviously some is very acted and very well done and some is an angst beyond the acting…

TA: Like the scene in which Marion's sister is alone in the apartment with Mingus, and she's walking around naked, and they've only met in the last hour.

JD: Yes. Mingus is terrified: What the hell is she doing naked in my apartment? I'm alone with a naked woman. There's this uncomfortable moment. What if Marion comes in, and her sister's naked, and he's thinking of the consequences. It's beyond his understanding.

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TA: Like Woody Allen, with gentiles and Jews, men and women, you're playing with our expectations of black and whites, male and female, American and French…

JD: Mingus stumbles into this French family…

TA: Really, they invade the loft he shares with Marion…

JD: …And Americans think that the French are classy.

TA: You mean they're not?

JD: I showed this film at this festival, and Americans got shocked by the French family. This is the real France. Twenty percent voted for the right, fascist, racist, and anti-Semitic. What do they think the French are — "La Vie en Rose"? That they're all singing Edith Piaf on the streets of Paris? Edith was a prostitute when she started out. It's a total myth. France can be really rough.

TA: And yet the father, who tries to smuggle sausages into the U.S. as a gift and arrives smelling of meat, is hugely endearing.

JD: The father is kind of friendly. My father is very free-spirited, more of a 1968, sexual revolution type. Actually my dad's generation is much freer than the current generation.

TA: What's it like working with your father — and being the director in charge?

JD: It was a lot of fun because I know what he's capable of. Also I have to push him. It's not easy as a daughter to push my dad. Sometimes he rebels. He would also doubt me. When I looked at the rushes with the editor, we laughed at the moments between me and my dad arguing after the take when the cameras were still rolling. I'd say: "Dad, you want to kill me? Is that it?" Ninety percent of the time it worked; 10 percent WTF -- What am I doing directing my dad who's driving me crazy? He's my dad, and he would say, "I worked with great directors that didn't bug me as much as you do." I'd say, "OK, fine, call them. Go work with them." Overall, we had a wonderful time.

TA: What's next?

JD: "Le Skylab" is coming out in Europe. It's about the real French people, but Americans want the French with baguettes and berets.

TA: So it's not opening in America?

JD: It's coming out all over the world everywhere. The film is too true to France for Americans to accept what France really is. The way French people handle sexuality is too controversial for American audiences. Children play doctor. I stopped walking around topless with my three-year-old, Leo, because his eyes light up. He does a double take, and he's super excited to see my breasts. The minute there's a pretty girl, Leo gets super-excited.

TA: I don't think I've seen a movie like that yet in the United States — that's a bigger taboo than showing a woman doing her Kegel exercises while talking to a male coworker. Americans have a puritanical streak — and, as a group, we're unsettled by the potential of sexual predators and inappropriate behavior.

JD: Obviously there are huge problems, and you need to address pedophilia, but when kids are interested in sex between each other, when it's innocent and no one's getting hurt, that's healthy. I feel like it's very normal. The only danger is when adults involved. As a kid, I grew up playing doctor with all my cousins. It was never weird. Nowadays people can click on something on the net and be exposed on the net pornography and that's more dangerous. Sexuality is only bad because society has said it is bad. That's why we're here because it's not that bad. There's the whole animal kingdom, so how bad can it be?