Léa Drucker, View From the Top

Léa Drucker, star of the new Baptiste Debraux film 'A Man on the Run', went through years of suburban theater, discouraging auditions and small roles on her long road to stardom.

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Léa Drucker’s career is proof that there’s no recipe for making it in the world of cinema, no formula for obtaining the strong, diverse roles that attracted you to the profession in the first place but that may seem unattainable when they take so long to arrive.

Drucker made her big-screen debut in 1991 and in the following years worked for Mathieu Kassovitz, Michel Hazanavicius, Cédric Klapisch, Coline Serreau and Édouard Baer. She had to wait, however, until 2006 to land her first leading role, in Zabou Breitman’s L’Homme de sa vie (The Man of My Life).

She continued her rise to stardom by playing Coluche’s wife for director Antoine de Caunes in Coluche: L’Histoire d’un mec and working with Mathieu Amalric (La Chambre bleue/The Blue Room) and Dominik Moll (Des nouvelles de la planète Mars/News from Planet Mars), but she had to wait another 11 years before playing the unforgettable role of a woman trying to protect her children from their violent father, from whom she has had the strength to separate, in Xavier Legrand’s Jusqu’à la garde (Custody). The role, which won her the César for Best Actress in 2019, was a turning point in her career, a clear affirmation of her already recognized talent for precision, commitment and quiet power.

Today, Drucker seems fulfilled and happy to be living out her professional dreams. In 2023, she was equally impressive in Catherine Breillat’s sultry L’été dernier (Last Summer) playing a lawyer living a forbidden passion with her partner’s underage son (the role won her a Best Actress nomination for a 2024 César); in the hilarious Arte TV series Sous contrôle as the director of an N.G.O. suddenly propelled into the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs; and in one of last year’s best animated films, Jérémie Périn’s Mars express, as the voice of Aline Ruby.

In the following interview, Drucker rewinds the story of her unusual career.

Career-wise, 2023 had all the makings of a perfect year for you. How did you experience it?

LD With immense joy! Basically, it represented the way I’ve always seen this profession, as being eclectic and offering ways to go in as many different directions as possible.

Is it difficult for you to choose between projects?

LD It certainly involves taking risks. For example, by accepting a supporting role in Close by Lukas Dhont, I had to give up a leading role in a film made by a director I adore. Obviously, I didn’t regret it. Each phase of a career has its own issues and questions. The most important thing to me is that I find the script deeply moving, even if it might be scary, as in Close. And that’s what excited me about Catherine Breillat’s film.

What was it like working with her?

LD It was an exhilarating experience. I was really taken by the role and the chance to work on such a complex character, and also to be able to talk about it afterward. For this film, the promotion was really an extension of its making. You always wonder how to talk about a character who acts the way she does, especially in a film by Catherine Breillat, a freethinker who has always fearlessly explored the complexity and heights of female intimacy. All her films, beginning with the first, Une vraie jeune fille (A Real Young Girl) in 1976, are about that, and they have always created a sensation. Working with her is fascinating, even though she’s not always easy to work with because – as she herself admits – she can be very tyrannical on the set in order to live up to the demands she makes of herself. She took me to a place I’d never been before.

What struck you most about the reactions to this film?

LD The very definite opinions people have of my character. For some, she’s a predator. For others, she’s a great lover. It sets off a debate, but it’s never been a violent debate.

What did you think of her?

LD I never judged her.

Because you couldn’t play the role if you thought of her as a predator?

LD No, because in order to play her, I first had to find personal reasons to help me understand why a lawyer who defended abused girls and had everything she ever wanted would commit such a transgression. I managed to do it by imagining her past, which is barely hinted at in the film: the fact that she herself had been the victim of violence. Her meeting with the son of the man with whom she shares her life tears this strong woman apart. She sees it as a way of repairing herself, even if it means destroying everything in her path, both the 17-year-old and her family. Some may find it horrible, amoral, but that’s for the audience to say, not me.

This role will remain a landmark in your career as an actor. Did you dream of doing something else when you were growing up, or was this the only profession you ever considered?

LD I may have dreamed of skating as a child, but I wasn’t good enough. And I didn’t have the will to persist. I got discouraged quite quickly because of the competition.

There’s also lots of competition in the acting profession, but that didn’t stop you.

LD The big difference is that in sports, you have to finish on the podium at all costs. But I think that in film or theater, you can do the job differently, all the more so because the idea of the podium is still vague. What ranking? On the basis of what results? Who does the rating?

What made you want to become an actor in the first place?

LD Films, concerts and shows I’ve seen. I lived in the United States for a few years with my parents, and I was lucky enough to see Raiders of the Lost Ark on the day it was released. It was as if we’d discovered a whole new world! But I could also talk about the shock of seeing Prince’s concert at the Zénith in Paris, in 1986, for the release of his album Parade. I must have been 15. I found tickets and begged my parents to let me go. Seeing the commitment of those artists and the level of work and joy involved in creating art certainly contributed to my desire to perform.

How did you first enter the world of acting?

LD In 10th grade, at the Lycée Molière in Paris, I discovered the drama club and its excellent teacher, Monsieur Steinmetz, who was a key figure in my career. He was extremely rigorous and helped me understand very quickly that theater was something serious, not just a form of entertainment. I liked that right away. And I was all the more convinced that I wanted to make a career of it because he gave me so much encouragement! He even called my father. I ended up doing a bit of studying first because at home, acting was seen as something wonderful but not really serious! [Laughs] But once I’d done my duty on that front, I signed up with Véra Gregh, a brilliant woman. I was the youngest in her class and had the chance to watch established actors like Karin Viard and Juliette Binoche work on a regular basis.

What did you learn there?

LD It was magical. I was 17, and she would give us Actor’s Studio-type work scenes that were emotionally intense. In the kissing scenes, people were really kissing. At that age, I hadn’t experienced much. It took me a long time to overcome my shyness, but it helped me grow up.

I wanted to go into theater first because cinema seemed too difficult to break into – too many variables that can escape you. Léa Drucker

You first appeared in the cinema in 1991 in La Thune, but you had to wait a little over 10 years for leading roles. Did you think it was never going to happen?

LD I was always going to casting calls. It didn’t work very well, but I did get a few roles in unlikely things like Histoires d’amour, a sitcom that aired on TV in the middle of the night, built around 18-minute sequences with far-fetched texts! [Laughs] But it didn’t work well enough to get me a place in the cinema.

You first made your mark as an actor in the theater…

LD I was lucky to have a teacher who got me work in his theater in Stains [a suburb of Paris], where I was his assistant for a few years. It gave me an income, but more importantly, I performed there during those years. We put on shows for schoolchildren from Garches, Garges-lès-Gonesse, Sarcelles and Stains, so I learned my profession by performing for audiences that weren’t made up of the usual theatrical patrons. It was very lively! [Laughs] If you were bad, you knew it right away! The challenge was to capture their attention. In addition to that, I earned my living doing odd jobs. Then one day, Cédric Klapisch hired me for Peut-être (Maybe). Being chosen by a director I admired was a euphoric moment in my career as a young actor, which was sometimes humiliating. You have to learn not to get discouraged when you spend two weeks preparing for an audition, during which no one even looks at you! All actors go through that.

Who were the decisive people in your career?

LD Édouard Baer, who helped me when he was on Radio Nova. Serge Hazanavicius, who convinced the management of the Théâtre de l’Atelier to hire me to act with him in 2003 in 84 Charing Cross Road, even though I wasn’t at all a star. It lasted nine months and led to some decisive encounters with people who saw me in it, like Zabou Breitman, who offered me my first leading film role in L’Homme de sa vie. That’s when you know you were right to stick with it!

It was also through the theater that you met Xavier Legrand, the director of Jusqu’à la garde, wasn’t it?

LD Yes, he and his producer Alexandre Gavras waited for me after a play I was doing to give me the script for his short film, Avant que de tout perdre (Just Before Losing Everything). The story touched me deeply, as did his way of writing without overemphasizing anything. I said yes right away.

Was he already planning to make a feature film of it?

LD Not at all! It was the success of the short subject that led to Jusqu’à la garde. I was lucky because Xavier kept the same cast for it, which isn’t always true. In any case, I still think it’s important to take part in short films today as a way of bringing new talent to light. When you’re lucky enough to have a choice, you have to be responsible, and I feel a deep sense of responsibility to help discover new talent through first films and shorts. That’s how Xavier Legrand was able to make his name.

The most important thing to me is that I find the script deeply moving even if it might be scary. Léa Drucker

What has the César award for Jusqu’à la garde changed for you?

LD More offers are coming in, but basically, it’s a continuation of what happened right after the film’s release, and in parallel with the series Le Bureau des légendes (The Bureau). Then there was the fact that I was chosen by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri for the film Place publique and, in the theater, Un air de famille (Family Resemblances) and Cuisine et Dépendances (Kitchen with Apartment), directed by Agnès. I never expected that, even in my wildest dreams! It’s a mixture of events that at some point makes you feel that things are coming to a head and taking you to a new level.

How do you feel about your career now, compared with what you imagined it would be at the outset?

LD I have the feeling that what I’m experiencing today is very similar to what I dreamed of when I was 15. Even though, to get to where I am today, I’ve had times when that wasn’t at all the case. I wanted to go into theater first because cinema seemed too difficult to break into – too many variables that can escape you. And then, little by little, I was able to take on all kinds of roles, with no typecasting. I know that makes my career look a bit unusual from the outside, but that’s what I like about it.

This feature was originally published in Mastermind 15 – buy it here.

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