We speak to Kristin Scott Thomas about the making of SARAH’S KEY, why she chose to discover moments as her character, and working with such a talented cast!
What made you want to take part in this adventure?
I met Gilles in New York, where I was in a play, on the night Obama won the election. I’d read the script and found it extremely interesting because it tackles head-on the complex issue of how to live with the past and keep moving forward as an aware, responsible human being confronted with upsetting stories that provoke feelings of guilt or shame. I also liked the fact that SARAH’S KEY dealt with the 1942 roundup of the Jews in Paris, which is kind of taboo, from a different angle. At the time, France was divided between heroes and collaborators, on the one hand, and the vast majority who simply wanted to save their skins, on the other. I think it’s good, and liberating, to raise these issues.
Was it a complicated road to reach your character – an American journalist married to a Frenchman, covering the commemoration of the roundup?
Not really, because the character is very close to me socially. Many of my friends are journalists, like Julia. She could easily be me, so it as easy for me to identify with her. I also read Tatiana de Rosnay’s book before the shoot, which helped me pin down the character. But it’s important to keep in mind that a writer’s approach to a character is not the same as an actor’s.
Did you do any research into this troubled period of French history?
No, because I chose to confront those events in the same way as my character does. Obviously, I knew something about that period because I feel that what happened to Jews in the Second World War concerns me too, but I’d never visited the Holocaust Memorial, for example, and I decided not to go there before the shoot so I would experience that situation as Julia. I didn’t want to impose my preconceptions on the character, but build from nothing to some extent. I wanted to share the journey of this woman who is swept away by her emotions when she realizes that events in the past are influencing her private life and the very personal decisions she must make. Of course, the desire to experience all that during the shoot also encouraged me to accept this project.
What memory do you have of that scene at the Holocaust Memorial?
I’m not unfamiliar with these issues because my mother-in-law actively participated in ensuring that this tragedy is not forgotten. She was part of the committee which organized for plaques to be put up outside schools with the names of the deported Jewish children. When you see those, or when you enter the Holocaust Memorial and are directly confronted with all of those faces, you immediately get a different sense of things. As my character says in the film, when you delve into it, you can really imagine what it’s like to have your own children deported and to feel powerless to protect them. So my reaction in the Holocaust Memorial was that of a mother. It was very intense.
That scene – and your whole performance – is marked by great restraint. Was steering the movie away from sentimentality your biggest challenge?
It was the trap we had to avoid, at least ‘the bleeding hearts syndrome.’ Don’t forget what the film really shows – that life goes on, that human beings have this kind of resilience, so that even in the face of the worst tragedies we keep going. Even after everything she has been through, Sarah leaves children behind her. It was important not to be drawn into futile emotion, even if, personally, I was deeply moved by many of the things we shot. My character has to overcome those emotions. Remember that Julia is an investigative journalist and considers events from a professional point of view. Only when she starts looking for Sarah does she begin to feel deeply affected and helpless. Especially as she find out, after giving up all hope, that she’s pregnant. But her husband wants her to have an abortion. All these elements undermine her and leave her vulnerable to those emotions. I had to be careful not to overplay that because the 1942 part of the movie is sufficiently overwhelming that it’s counter-productive to emphasize the emotion in the modern-day action. Actually, comparing the periods shows that while human beings were able to withstand the horrors of World War Two, Julia feels almost like it’s the end of the world confronting situations that are much easier to deal with.
You have a very moving encounter with Aidan Quinn. What did you like about him as an actor?
His simplicity. As a moviegoer, I’ve been a fan of Aidan’s for a long time, so it was no surprise to see how totally professional he is, never acting the big Hollywood star. Working with him was a sheer delight because everything just comes naturally.
Did you enjoy being reunited with Frédéric Pierrot, your co-star in I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG, who here plays Julia’s husband?
Again, he was absolutely delightful. Actually, I was the one who suggested him for the part. Frédéric is so gifted. It’s fascinating to watch how easily he slips into such a multi-faceted, complex character – family man, so tangled up in murky affairs from the past, husband and businessman.
The first time you saw the movie, how did it feel?
I was blown away! Making it, I don’t think I ever got a sense of the full force of the film. What you couldn’t see reading the script, and what Gilles achieves brilliantly, is the editing, switching smoothly back and forth between 1942 and the present day. Gilles establishes a clear, strong bond between the two periods, which means that in the end, we’re as tied up in Julia’s investigation as in Sarah’s escape. That was a real challenge.
SARAH’S KEY IS IN THEATERS JULY 22ND. For more info, please go to sarahskeymovie.com.