Playing Dad: Charlotte Gainsbourg on the Role of Her Life

Why the French singer/actress skipped portraying her famous father Serge onscreen and how she's prepping for her next big Lars von Trier film

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Charlotte Gainsbourg had no problem acting out the genital mutilation scenes in Lars von Trier's Antichrist. She didn't flinch at singing about incest with her father, Serge Gainsbourg on 1984's "Lemon Incest," when she was 13 years old. But when it came to the idea of portraying her late father on the big screen, she was taken aback.

"They asked me to play him [in the French biopic Gainsbourg Je T'aime… Moi Non Plus ]," the singer/actress says. "But I was incapable of doing this." Wondering if the role could be therapeutic, she considered it for a month. She'd never been able to look at footage of her father, who died in 1991 of a heart attack, and playing him would require far more than that. "I thought maybe with the film, I could really stick my nose in it and face my fear," she says. "I'd be able to finally look at images of him and listen to him. But I wasn't ready. It's just so raw to me."

So Gainsbourg turned down playing Gainsbourg, decided not to see the finished film, and opted to conquer another fear instead: touring. "I was really nervous," she says. "I didn't know what it would be like." She turned to Beck, who produced her third album, IRM, and got some moral support, as well as some practical advice on which musicians to select as her backing band and how to put together a road show. With that in hand, she kicked off a small American tour in April, and this week, she starts a month of dates in Europe.

"I can't say that now I understand how a tour should go, because I haven't understood a thing. But that's what I enjoy about it, being surprised every night," she says. "I still have a lot of fear about it, and I don't think that will ever go away, but maybe that's a good thing. It's good to be nervous. It means I have adrenaline."

After her tour ends in July, she starts on another Lars von Trier film, the much-kept-under-wraps Melancholia ("Should I be terrified?" she jokes). After she wrapped Antichrist, she "felt so weird" because she'd been in a state of crisis for two months straight, where "being hysterical and screaming became the norm" — recovering from that experience led her to shift musical gears on IRM. Gainsbourg has been assured, however, that this time around, her character will commit no sexual violence, and there will be "no screaming."

Explaining her character is panicked because Earth is being threatened by another planet, she says this film is different. "Although the script is being changed since he's still working on it, so I won't know until I get there what my character will be like. So of course, I'm still nervous. I don't know what to expect!"

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