interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait TERRY RICHARDSON
style by CARLYN CERF DE DUDZEELE
Who can resist the charm of LAETITIA CASTA She’s France’s most famous top model and sex symbol, and one of the faces of the bust of Marianne — the emblem of the French Republic — alongside Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve. Casta’s undeniable charisma caught the eye and heart of Yves Saint Laurent and she became his final muse. Over the past few years she’s stepped away from the fashion spotlight to become an actress, working with independent directors such as Raoul Ruiz and Tsai Ming-Liang. Her celebrity may sometimes seem to overshadow her talent, but the most interesting phase of her career is just beginning.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do people consider you as a model — or as an actress, as the star that you are in my eyes?
LAETITIA CASTA — I was never under the impression that I was a star in your eyes, Olivier. I’m not just seen as a model anymore, but as an actress whose career is taking shape, slowly but surely. It’s what I always wanted. I’m certainly shown some kind of respect now. But you can’t count on anything. Nothing is set. That’s what keeps me moving forward. Let’s just say that uncertainty is my only certainty.
LAETITIA CASTA — Never. That’s not my style. I constantly need to challenge myself, to put myself in risky situations.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But dissatisfaction doesn’t gnaw at you, does it? You’re not a tortured actress.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was there was a time when you thought you could rest on your laurels?
LAETITIA CASTA — Well, deep down, we’re all neurotic. People see me as a balanced person, even a serene one, which is good. But when they tell me that, I laugh to myself. My balance, if it exists, is undoubtedly what lets me get down really low and up really high. It also lets me get to the core of a character and get lost in her. Balance is so fragile.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What gives you strength?
LAETITIA CASTA — Being on a movie set or a fashion shoot, like the one you and I did with Terry Richardson. That’s what gets my passion going and makes me feel strong. My sense of assurance comes from that pleasure. It’s not so simple elsewhere.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You take on a character easily. I saw you during Terry’s shoot and you transformed yourself from one second to the next. It was the same when you played Brigitte Bardot in Vie Héroïque, Joann Sfar’s biopic of Gainsbourg.
LAETITIA CASTA — Inventing a character for oneself — entering into someone else’s skin — is the only thing that dazzles me. I don’t have to think, I just do it. I’m not sure I can experience that in daily life, or that I’d dare to, at least not so obviously, because in real life I’m shy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The image we have of you is more eroticized. Chris Isaak’s music video, “Baby Did A Bad, Bad Thing,” and the one for Rihanna’s song “Te Amo” didn’t go unnoticed.
LAETITIA CASTA — That’s not sex. Sex is quite a bit stronger for me than the conventional images of myself in someone else’s fantasy. I think the most sexual thing about me is my reserve. But on a set, or in a studio, I can do stripped down, erotic things, because that’s not really sex. It’s just nudity or self-exhibition.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you have the gift for playing a seductive woman, at the same level as Fellini’s or Antonioni’s women. It’s a mix of audacity and mystery, strength and abandonment, but without vulgarity. It can’t be easy to perform this seduction without succumbing to cliché.
LAETITIA CASTA — There are things that totally escape me and things that I absolutely don’t feel like talking about, concerning seduction and sexuality. They’re things that are beyond me, and I would rather they stay that way. Maybe that’s really seductive.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because you’re not aware of the effect you’re producing?
LAETITIA CASTA — No, it’s beyond me; it doesn’t belong to me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe vulgarity starts at that point, when an actress understands the nature of her seduction and repeats or reproduces it.
LAETITIA CASTA — Perhaps the moment when a professional mastery is achieved is when we lose the poetry. Beauty and seduction are things you don’t control. You either have it or you don’t. Bardot had it. Marilyn Monroe had it. They gave everything to the screen organically.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the poetic quality that one senses in you, more than the stereotype of the femme fatale. That’s why the French artist Ange Leccia chose you for his video, La Déraison du Louvre, which features a nighttime stroll through the Louvre. What was working with him like?
LAETITIA CASTA — It was great. I was swept away by his sensibility. I’m walking through the Louvre in the middle of the night and all of a sudden the roles are reversed. All those great painters and great paintings turn toward me and begin photographing me. I’m chased by flashes and it’s very hard for me, this scary aggression. He inverted the rapport the figures in the paintings undergo — of always being photographed. Ange turned them against me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet Ange Leccia? He’s an artist who’s very close to us here at Purple.
LAETITIA CASTA — In a Paris boulangerie. He asked me to sign an autograph for his daughter, who was with him, and two years later he called me for this project. And there you go. We shot it all in one night at the museum. I love that universe. It touches me. It’s no small thing that I like to work with filmmakers who have an artistic sensibility, like Raoul Ruiz (Les Ames fortes) or the Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang, for whom I played an actress incarnating Salomé in his film, Face, which also takes place in the Louvre. We got along marvelously. He didn’t need to talk me into it. I would have followed him anywhere.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tsai Ming-Liang is a poet of cinema. He draws out time so enigmatically. Do you know why he cast you in his latest film?
LAETITIA CASTA — He saw pictures of me. What interested him was my past as a model — the fashion image, the dream, the constructed image of me. I’m an actress who plays Salomé, but a Salomé reinvented by Tsai Ming-Liang: an actress completely terrified by light, who tapes up all the windows, who can no longer tolerate outside aggression or people looking at her. I end up singing in Chinese in the basement of the Louvre, with water up to my neck. It’s very strange. I loved it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did he direct you?
LAETITIA CASTA — Basically, he told me to let myself go. Not to be the good student. It was mind-boggling. We began to work very well together very quickly. All I had to do was enter his dreams and let myself be swept away, like in analysis.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was there a script or was it improvised?
LAETITIA CASTA — It was improvised.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you feel that destiny carries you along?
LAETITIA CASTA — It’s funny. I won the title of Miss Lumio, which is the name of the Corsican village my grandparents live in. My great-grandmother forced me to compete in the town’s beauty contest, against my will. She said, “If you don’t do it, we’ll be the disgrace of this village.” All the girls in the village had to participate. My brother signed me up behind my back. They dragged me there by my hair. A photographer spotted me on the beach with my Miss Lumio sash. That’s destiny. [Laughs] I was 15. He approached my parents and introduced me to the Madison agency in Paris. Everything went very quickly after that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you want to be an actress when you were a teenager?
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, but when you’re 12 years old, you don’t really know what you want to do. I didn’t want a profession. I didn’t want to take the normal schooling path. I felt different. But I didn’t seek it out. Things came to me. When I entered the fashion world, it was a revelation. I saw that world as a means of expression, of extraordinary freedom.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I noticed during the shoot with Terry that you don’t pose. You’re not static in front of the camera. You’re constantly moving, in a kind of slow choreography.
LAETITIA CASTA — It’s something I’ve done since I started doing fashion photos. I told myself that the moment I struck a pose and stopped, I’d die — that everything would freeze, and I’d be screwed, because I’d have settled into something that was very conventional, a repertoire of poses, with pose number one, number two, etc. It’s the continuous movement that leads me to unforeseen things. It allows me to live in front of the camera, to feel free, to not feel locked in.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I also felt during the shoot with Terry that you really love modeling.
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, I love it. I was a model, so I feel comfortable with the camera and a photographer. I’m not one of those actresses who dislike shoots because they feel captured, or superficial, or unnatural. That’s totally wrong. Even in fashion, you play a character when you’re in front of the photographer’s lens.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you embrace your career as a model because you thought it would lead to a career in film?
LAETITIA CASTA — It wasn’t a conscious decision. The world of fashion opened up to me. There was an immediate interest in me. You arrive at the shoot. Everyone is there. And you wait. The hairdresser, the stylist, and the photographer look at you, and when everything is ready they say, “Go! Give it to me!” It was the first time anyone took interest in me in a way that I could express something. I’ve always loved fashion and fashion people. It’s only the people who turn it into caricature that annoy me. You take what you want from life. Fashion saved my life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t come from a family of artists, then?
LAETITIA CASTA — Not at all. There were books in my house, but none of them interested me. We didn’t go to the movies enough for my taste. The fashion scene opened up a creative world for me. I needed to go towards beauty, because it wasn’t a priority at home. There was no time for that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did your family feel about it all?
LAETITIA CASTA — At first my family completely flipped out, especially by seeing me so comfortable in the role of a star model. I understood why. I was a 15-year-old girl from Normandy. It wasn’t easy. My father would take me to the studio and then wait out in the car for hours. So annoying!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was your father really that worried about it?
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes. He flipped out. When you don’t know the fashion world, you can get the wrong impression. I had a hard time explaining it to him. In the end my parents let me do what I had to do. In any case, they couldn’t control what was going on. It was beyond them. It was beyond me. It was beyond all of us. But I found an adoptive family. Fashion people became my second family. I met incredible people, like Yves Saint Laurent.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yves Saint Laurent fell in love with you. You were the star of his last runway show, in 2002, which was a kind of retrospective fashion show. What happened between you and Saint Laurent?
LAETITIA CASTA — It was like a love story. We found each other. The first time I went to his studio I was extremely shy. I bowed my head. But the funniest thing is that he did, too. The clothes they gave me didn’t work at all. I was too small, too round, and not slender enough to be a Saint Laurent model. It just didn’t work. While he was putting a jacket on me the stylist, who didn’t know I spoke French, said, “What can we do with her?” I was terrified. He ended up putting a black skirt and sweater on me, with a little bun, and I found myself in front of Monsieur Saint Laurent. I didn’t know where to stand, and he didn’t either. I was so moved to meet him. And I think he was moved to meet me, too. He declared his love for me on the spot. He said, “You’re very beautiful.” He lowered his head, as if to say to me, “I love you.” Everyone was uncomfortable.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You did several of his last runway shows.
LAETITIA CASTA — He wanted me to do them. He asked me, “What kind of dress do you want to wear?” I was really young and I answered in any old way, like, “I want a dress with flowers.” I feel that Yves Saint Laurent was the one who allowed me to become aware of my femininity. He brought it out. He was the first person to say, “You’re beautiful.” No one had ever said that to me ever before.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Photographers must have told you that. Or lovers…
LAETITIA CASTA — Not in such a convincing way. When Yves Saint Laurent said, “You’re beautiful,” or when he’d whisper, “I don’t like models,” when he was surrounded by the most beautiful women in the world, I believed him. He made me understand that he could see something else in me other than my appearance. What he was saying was that he loved real women, women with heart, women with character. He took me somewhere else.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He convinced you that you were beautiful. How old were you then — not even twenty, right?
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At that age, it must be very hard to accept that you’re beautiful.
LAETITIA CASTA — I denied it for a long time, and perhaps I still do.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why do so many actresses and models have doubts about their beauty? I mean, it’s why they’re sought out.
LAETITIA CASTA — I’ll try to answer as honestly as I can. It’s because I only exist through another person’s desire. When I play a part, I feel desired within the role that I’ve been given. I feel beautiful. It’s what lifts me up. But it’s like a light that’s turned on — and then turned back off when the filming is over.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You mean that on a day-to-day basis you’re not certain about your beauty?
LAETITIA CASTA — No, not at all. I’d really like to have a bit more confidence. But it’s that insecurity that pushes me toward others.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What attracts you to a man?
LAETITIA CASTA — I don’t know. A man’s beauty is so vast. The things that attract me to a man are countless. I’m lucky — I can love almost anyone! As long as they touch me poetically. Don’t you think that’s extraordinarily lucky? I’m not like one of those women who say, “I want a guy like this or that.” I’m lucky to be able to see someone for who they are.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s get back to your story with Yves Saint Laurent. You were more than just one of his favorite models. You were the last great female passion of a designer in decline.
LAETITIA CASTA — He especially liked it when I visited the YSL House. I lost my shyness with him. I walked barefoot through the halls. I would arrive and stir things up, asking how everyone was doing. This was a fashion house filled with seamstresses and assistants wearing white blouses, with Loulou de la Falaise dressed to the nines. With me, all of a sudden there was some life, and he needed that. I made him laugh. I’d crack up because his dog would be snoring. I’d break out laughing when everyone else would be talking in hushed voices, like in church.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You inspired him.
LAETITIA CASTA — All I know is that he was happy when I was there. Suddenly he would want to draw again, and everyone would say, “Oh, this is great!” Even though they didn’t believe it for a second! It was just that he wanted to get going again. I knew it was the end. I knew that I was experiencing something special. In his shows I always wore a wedding dress. I always ended the shows.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In a way, you became his last wife.
LAETITIA CASTA — Maybe, yes. In any case, he expected more from me than he did from other models. He did a drawing for me, in which he depicted me with a hat, lifting a leg and kissing him. He said to me, “I want this as the image at the end of the show. I want you to act. You’re not a model, you’re an actress.” He knew it. He would say, “I’ll put on the music for you and you can do what you want. If you want to dance, dance.” I was incredibly shy, but as soon as he put on the music I felt comfortable. I often came out at the end of the shows and did whatever I wanted to do. I could dance. It was great. He wanted me to act.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He saw that in you.
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes. Jean-Paul Gaultier did too, to be honest. They taught me the profession of acting.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you take acting classes?
LAETITIA CASTA — No, but I worked with people and felt that I understood the acting profession. You have to explore, to seek out.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What happens when you walk out onto a set or stage? Do you let yourself be carried away by the interaction with other actors?
LAETITIA CASTA — It’s something that’s instinctive with me. All of a sudden I’ll know a story or a character. It’ll touch something deep inside me that I’ve experienced — or that I haven’t experienced — and intrigue me, for thousands of reasons. I draw something from that resonance. I can throw myself into any situation when I understand my connection to the character.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you enter into a character?
LAETITIA CASTA — By loving the person, by dreaming of being her. It’s like when you admire someone. A character is like my best friend. I can describe her, I know what has happened to her, what her biggest secrets are, what her unconscious mechanisms are all about, as though I’ve spent a lot of time talking to her. My characters never leave me. They’re part of my circle of friends. I have a lot of friends, all very different!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do directors ask you to just play certain kinds of role, or is it all very open?
LAETITIA CASTA — It’s very open, because they have a hard time defining me. My past in fashion bothers some directors a bit. At the same time, it appeals to them. When they come to see me, I feel that it’s like they’re going to a hooker for the first time. They’re attracted, but at the same time they feel a bit guilty. But some directors, like Tsai Ming-Liang, tell me, “I love your whole story, your whole past.” They don’t reject anything I’ve built. It’s part of who I am.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Many of the roles you’ve played have conveyed a utopian optimism.
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, that’s true. But now I’m gravitating toward things that are different from my life. Hélène Fillières’s movie, for example.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I know her as a model and an actress.
LAETITIA CASTA — She’s asked me to be in her adaptation of Regis Jauffret’s novel, Sévère, which was directly inspired by the S&M murder of the Swiss banker, Édouard Stern. He was killed by his mistress, Cécile Brossart, the former escort. She’s just been released from prison, after spending five years there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I loved that crime-love story. I collected articles on it.
LAETITIA CASTA — Hélène Fillières is great. She wants me to play the part of the mistress, who starts out being submissive and eventually becomes a criminal.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But how can Hélène Fillières make this movie? The book’s author, Régis Jauffret, is being sued by Édouard Stern’s family for invasion of privacy.
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, the family sued Régis Jauffret. But Hélène Fillières acquired the film rights for the book.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a sordid tale, and very shady from the point of view of male-female submission.
LAETITIA CASTA — Cécile Brossart interests me a lot. In spite of what happened, there was love there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The reality of love is crazier than any screenplay. Is this Hélène Filières’s first film? Do you think she can handle such a complex, disturbing story, with all its psychological, political, and financial ramifications, all set in the upper echelons of the business world?
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, of course. She’s very open, and she’s not a moralist. Her screenplay is very well written. She’s strong, she has a vision, and she doesn’t give a damn about what other people think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Well, she survived the cancer she had three or four years ago. I really hope you do make this movie.
LAETITIA CASTA — So do I. Cécile Brossart is the most beautiful character I’ve ever been offered.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I want to talk about a story that fascinates me. You were the model for a bust of Marianne, the allegorical figure of the French Republic, following in the steps of Brigitte Bardot in 1970, Catherine Deneuve in 1985, and Inès de la Fressange in 1989.
LAETITIA CASTA — I was very proud of that. I’m actually one of the common people, Olivier.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Walking through Paris with you, it was obvious that people really love you. It’s so touching! An actress is a symbol of femininity, as imagined by the filmmakers who cast them. But to become a symbol, the face of a nation, especially of this divided, disturbed, and depressed nation — that really impressed me.
LAETITIA CASTA — I became a revolutionary symbol. Gainsbourg sang the Marseillaise in his own way, and in my own way I became the face of the Republic in town halls across the country. I took it very seriously. I almost had the feeling I was leading the revolutionary troops to combat — storming the Bastille! It makes me laugh.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s so chic that you’re the bust of Marianne — a political symbol, a symbol of femininity — and a fashion icon. And this at a time when France doesn’t know what its identity is, at a time when it’s gone so far as to throw out foreigners. It’s wonderful to embody Marianne, the feminized image of hope and revolution in France. It’s something you can be proud of your whole life.
LAETITIA CASTA — With a touch of amusement and irony, that is. It’s still an idealized image, a promoted cliché. To tell you the truth, I didn’t really succeed in embodying her, and I don’t really like it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you have a bust of yourself as her at home?
LAETITIA CASTA — I had one in bronze. I gave it to my parents. Sorry to disappoint you, but I’m no longer Marianne. There’s another one now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Yes, but any town hall in France can choose your bust from among all the Marianne incarnations.
LAETITIA CASTA — That’s true, they can ask for mine. People get married in front of me all the time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In August you filmed The Island, the second film of Kamen Kalev, the young Bulgarian director. What drew you to this experimental filmmaker?
LAETITIA CASTA — I don’t know — instinct, I suppose. It was strange. I read the screenplay and found it twisted and very complicated. I didn’t think I was going to do it, but I agreed to a meeting. Kamen said to me, “I always wanted you to play the part, but I know it won’t be possible. I don’t have the budget, and the film has to be made right away, in August, in Bulgaria.” I told him I didn’t understand the character at all and he gave me an unbelievable explanation. When he was done, I said, “OK, I’ll do it. And we’ll film in August!” And I went to the meeting ready to tell him that I wasn’t going to do his film!
OLIVIER ZAHM — Where did you film it?
LAETITIA CASTA — On St. Anastasia, a tiny island in the Black Sea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What is the film about?
LAETITIA CASTA — It’s the story of a couple, who are a little too robotic. They have their life, their work, and their family. The woman is a child therapist. The man works for a big company. She surprises him with tickets for a vacation together and they end up in Bulgaria, on this small island. After they get there, the husband gradually goes crazy. He starts speaking Bulgarian, and develops a paranoia-induced tic. He’s convinced that humans don’t realize that they’re all being manipulated, robotized, and controlled. She loses him completely to his madness. Then she becomes pregnant, and becomes scared of him. He tries to destroy her. But, in fact, he’s only trying to make her realize to what extent everyone is being manipulated.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was he just simulating madness, so that his wife would realize there was some kind of global manipulation going on?
LAETITIA CASTA — Kamen was inspired by the story of a doctor who treated people, but then all of a sudden lost it. He went to McDonalds every day and asked for sushi. They told him again and again, “Sir, we don’t have sushi.” Actually, it was just a provocation. He was waiting for the employees to react so that they would step out of their roles and stop being robots.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He confronted people with absurd things, to see if they would change their behavior?
LAETITIA CASTA — Right. I liked the story. It interested me. Kamen is pretty similar to the character. He drove me to paranoiac madness during the filming, so that I’d react. I loved making that movie.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did you need to be brave to do it?
LAETITIA CASTA — I don’t know if it was bravery. I was inspired by it and I let myself go. Like when you go far out at sea. It’s not bad, but you have to know how to get back to solid ground.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Knowing how and when to let go is very important. This story reminds me of Liza (La Cagna), the wonderful film that Marco Ferreri made in 1972. Catherine Deneuve plays Liza, a snobby blonde who meets a man, played by Marcello Mastroianni, who has decided to live on a rocky little island with his dog, in order to escape from his family and Parisian bourgeoisie. Liza becomes jealous of Mastroianni’s character’s dog. She ends up killing it and taking its place, and then enters into a very strange, submissive relationship with the man.
LAETITIA CASTA — Deneuve knew how to get herself out of a tight spot. She fell in love with Mastroianni.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re able to work on experimental films that have next to no budget and then on big commercial projects.
LAETITIA CASTA — I go where I please. I go where there are things to explore.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you ever choose to be in a film because of its screenplay?
LAETITIA CASTA — No, that’s not enough. It’s very important to meet the director. Sometimes the screenplay is just so-so, but you feel there will be something there to experience. It doesn’t matter if the part is big or small.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you mean that you sense that you’ll be able to bring something to the part?
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, but sometimes I’m wrong.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are screenplays often not all that well-written?
LAETITIA CASTA — Yes, that’s often the case. But you can stumble on a screenplay that’s sublime and still be very disappointed in the end. The text may be excellent, the director superb, the casting genius, but you don’t have control over it, and you don’t know what will happen. I think it’s what you do with a role that’s important, not whether it’s a small or a big part.
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