Julie Delpy Is Fighting Everything That’s Wrong With Movies

“My son is sick right now, covered in zits. It’s not contagious — I mean, it’s contagious, but don’t worry: Grown-ups don’t catch it. It’s called mouth-foot-and-butt disease or something.”

Julie Delpy materializes on the patio of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont on a wave of nervous energy. Hair pinned up away from her makeup-free face, she looks like what she is: a worn-out working mom. She continues without stopping to take a breath: “They get everything from preschool, wherever he meets other kids. They’re dirty little things. So cute, though. When he’s sick, he’s all curled up, and he wants Mommy all the time. It’s, like, my favorite thing. It’s horrible.” She pauses. “I shouldn’t say that; it’s, like, the most dysfunctional thing I could say.”

This is how Delpy talks: in full paragraphs, spat out at run-on speed, her mouth like a scampering toddler that’s always one step ahead of the exhausted caretaker of her rational mind. Which is not to say that the way she presents herself is unconscious. Her paragraphs almost always conclude with a punch line—comic, provocative, insightful or a combination of the three; it just sometimes takes a while to get there.

The daughter of French theater radicals, Delpy, now 42, began acting as a teenager, and by her mid-20s had worked with a roster of European masters (Jean-Luc Godard, Leos Carax, Krzysztof Kieslowski) that could fill a full and admirable career. She says she threatened her status as an all-purpose muse by daring to speak out about casting-couch culture. “In France, when I started talking about the fact that at 13, people would hit on me—which I think is pedophilia—people were like, ‘Who do you think you are?’ ” Delpy says. “It destroyed my career. It destroyed it. The press was against me, saying I was a bitch, basically, a horrible person to dare to accuse these directors of being bad for wanting to have sex with a 12-year-old. That was the time, you know: ’80s France.”

She moved to the States in 1990 and started appearing in American movies: as a lady-in-waiting in the Charlie Sheen–starring Three Musketeers, as a hooker in Roger Avary’s Killing Zoe and, finally, as the introspective, ethereal French student Celine opposite Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.

Sunrise cemented her in ’90s pop culture as a kind of hot foreign exchange student imparting Eurocred to the American indie scene—every photograph of her from this time is a study in sex as a dialogue between death and eternal youth, all gap-toothed pout and cigarettes. Its 2004 sequel, Before Sunset, earned her a shared Oscar nomination for co-writing the screenplay and kick-started her own filmmaking career.

Delpy skewers her reputation for speaking the truth to the point of self-sabotage in 2 Days in New York. Opening Aug. 31 at the Harvard Exit, it’s her third effort as writer-director-star, a sequel to her 2007 indie hit directorial debut, 2 Days in Paris, and the reason she has left her sick kid to have lunch with me.

Delpy’s character, Marion, a former Village Voice photographer whose art career is riding on a major gallery show, is introduced at the opening to an important critic. Over the course of about two minutes, what begins and should end as an exchange of bullshit pleasantries is pushed by Marion into a self-defeating outburst. The artist tries to goad the critic to go beyond passive-aggressive quasi-praise into stating his honest, unvarnished opinion, only to go way too far with her own “honesty,” which increasingly manifests itself as childish hostility. “You can just say it—you hate my show,” Marion says. Before he can take her up on the offer, she spits, “And it’s good because I want to tell you something: Everyone hates you!”

Though Delpy’s stridency has sometimes seemed to be her kryptonite, her tendency to insistently, sometimes foolishly, push any given dialogue just past the point of politesse also has been her secret weapon. Few people in the film industry get to play by their own rules; most of them are men, and pretty much all of them have proven themselves capable of making money for someone else. None of them are beautiful French actresses who have never starred in a mainstream hit film. Yet Delpy has learned, with savvy, how to do exactly what she wants to, under the guise of doing what’s expected of her.

The next step is breaking free of those expectations.

In 1994, when she was 24, Delpy told GQ that she was writing a film to direct and star in, featuring a heroine who was “not evil, not slave, not bitch, not mistress. I can do better than be naked on top of somebody.”

This quote appeared in a spread whose raison d’être was to dress actresses in menswear.

Years would pass before she’d direct a feature. “No one wanted to finance my films,” she says simply. At one point, “before I was an actual director,” she sent a producer a script with a man’s name on it, just to see what would happen. “That’s what Colette did,” she shrugs. “But that was, like, 120 years ago!”

She hates being lumped in with “women filmmakers,” she says. “By making it obvious that it’s rare, you also minimize my work.”

But she also talks at length about gender discrimination in the film industry. “Sometimes I go to meetings, and people will ask me if I know what a dolly is,” she says.In a roundabout way, Hollywood’s ingrained assumptions pushed Delpy into the director’s chair. Before Sunset began as a series of conversations among Linklater, Delpy and Hawke, which Delpy then worked into a 40-page first draft. While she was writing it, she remembers: “My agent called, and he was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And I’m like, ‘Well, I’m writing a screenplay with Ethan and Richard for a sequel.’

“And he was like, ‘Why are you doing that?’

“And then he called me back an hour later, and he’s like, ‘Well, we had a meeting, and you know, we think you’re not focusing enough on your acting career.’ I mean, he asked me to play a sexy Latina in Rush Hour 3, or whatever.”

The agent, she says, would send her to read for parts that were already cast, just to keep her busy.

“And I’m like, ‘You guys have sent me on one audition in six months, and you’re saying that because I’m writing, I’m not a dedicated actress?'”

The agent responded, “I think the film will never be made, and even if it’s made, no one’s gonna go see it.”

Delpy says, “A year later, I was an Oscar nominee for writing the screenplay.”

The nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, which she shared with Hawke, Linklater and Sunrise co-writer Kim Krizan (they lost to Sideways), made “people take me seriously,” Delpy says. “Which is crazy.”

She knew she had to take advantage of that craziness, and fast, so she quickly wrote the screenplay for 2 Days in Paris. Her pitch? A man, a woman, Paris. “I went to European financiers, kind of selling it as Before Sunset, but then I wrote something very different in tone. So I kind of tricked them.”

Starring Delpy and her real-life ex-boyfriend Adam Goldberg as a New York–based couple on a bad European vacation, 2 Days in Paris uses the classic romantic travelogue form (Delpy’s opening voice-over implicitly references Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy) as a container for an equal-opportunity inspection of the fault lines in a long-term adult relationship. Delpy’s actor parents, Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy, co-star as Marion’s parents, their long-term happiness contrasted with their daughter’s self-admitted difficulty with “deciding to be with one man for good.”

Goldberg’s character initially seems like a toxic jerk, but over its running time, the film’s point of view flips, and boyfriend and girlfriend switch roles. Ultimately, Paris plays like a referendum on the idealized version of a captivating Frenchwoman put forth in the Before films.

“I hate that men’s fantasy of how women—especially French women—should be cute, sweet,” Delpy says, noting that she created the character of Celine “with two guys, so I had to be a little more in the male point of view. Obviously, with Marion, that fantasy is out of the way. She’s not an unbearable person, but she’s real.”

In a 2004 Sunday New York Times profile, writer Christopher Goodwin expressed his exasperation with how Delpy’s character in Before Sunset had changed from an angelic, unformed girl in the earlier film into a “just too good to be true” woman and sniped, “Celine seems to have become the kind of person who would insist on telling you how great she is at sex while you’re doing it.”

2 Days in New York owns that kind of criticism by almost literalizing it. Before they’re even dating, when they’re just co-workers gossiping in a cubicle, Marion tells Mingus (played by Chris Rock) how good she is at fellatio: “My specialty!”

Like Paris‘, New York‘s setup is heavy with voice-over; Delpy puts us deep inside the psyche of her character before she shows the character behaving badly. The sequel is at once less emotionally resonant than the first film and more radical a bait-and-switch. In the movie, the equilibrium of the blended household she has built with boyfriend Mingus is disrupted by the arrival of Marion’s father, sister and ex-boyfriend, visiting from Paris for the art show. Paris used romantic-movie tropes to call bullshit on certain types of romanticism, but New York puts more into the Trojan horse, smuggling into a cheerfully vulgar domestic farce a utopian model of post-racial relationships, a rumination on selfhood as a commodity and a study of a 40-something working mother’s emotional life within a culture obsessed with flattening work-life balance into binary “can we have it all” reductions.

Rock’s Mingus is a public intellectual whose conversations with the cardboard cutout of Barack Obama he keeps in his home office constitute New York’s only real nods to race as an issue in contemporary American life. It’s a movie in which a white woman and a black man are raising a family together, without ever suggesting that racial difference is an issue in their home or in their relationship. Its very nonchalance could be considered a step forward.

“One of the reasons Chris said yes was that the screenplay was not about, like, this dramatic issue about black and white,” Delpy says.

Delpy insists the only aspect of the film that’s autobiographical is that Marion, like Julie, has since the first film had to live through the death of her mom. “I included it because she was in the first film, and I didn’t know how to exclude her without telling the truth,” she says. But Marion also struggles with asserting an identity as an artist, as a domestic partner and as a mom, and this is a conflict that’s a part of Delpy’s own life since she gave birth in 2009 to a son with her boyfriend of five years, film composer Marc Streitenfeld (Prometheus).”It’s very complicated to be a mother and a creative woman at the same time,” Delpy says. “But the minute I started writing again, three months after my son was born, it was like breathing again. It was like being a fish out of water put back in.”

Delpy, who edited New York from her L.A. home “with my son coming in and out,” says part of her conception of being a good mom is making sure motherhood doesn’t completely subsume her identity.

“It’s not the kid’s fault, but the position of being a mother can destroy you creatively,” she says. “If you go and write, you feel guilty. So you have to get over that.”

Delpy is startlingly straightforward in admitting that she has very recently stood in her own way, even internalizing the external prejudices that she suggests have held her back. She was initially on board to direct The Right Profile, a micro-biopic about Joe Strummer’s calculated disappearance to France in 1982 before the release of the final original-lineup Clash album, Combat Rock. But she tells me she’s no longer involved, for fear that the company wouldn’t want a French woman directing male-driven, British subject matter.

“To fight a company to prove I’m the right person—I’ve done that too many times, and too many times it turns out negative,” she says, “and then they’re not behind me, and they kind of contradict everything I want to do during the film.”

This is what happened on The Countess, which Delpy wrote, directed and starred in between Paris and New York. The movie, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival but had no significant theatrical exposure in the States, is based on the story of Elizabeth Báthory, a 17th-century noblewoman who allegedly believed the secret to eternal youth lay in bathing in virgin’s blood. It’s definitely a mixed bag but worth Netflixing for its often darkly funny counterpoint to Delpy’s ’90s image of near-vampiric sexuality. Delpy admits the film was compromised by behind-the-scenes drama—the financiers, she says, didn’t believe in her.

“It’s very hard because you make a film that’s OK, but it’s not exactly what you wanted to do because you’ve been fighting every day. It’s much easier when everyone’s on the same side.”

Getting everyone on the same side—or at least the same page—remains a hurdle holding up another announced Delpy project, the long-rumored follow-up to Before Sunset. Hawke claimed in June that the third film in the series would shoot this summer, but at our lunch a couple of weeks later, Delpy suggests the production is not a done deal.

“We’re in the process of talking about it, but we’re not sure 100 percent. It depends on—um, I don’t know what it depends on. On everything, on the weather … ” She trails off. “The problem is getting the three of us in a room to work, to write and then shoot it.”

Delpy sighs. “My life is really stressful, actually, because I don’t know anything, and it’s stressing me out like crazy.”

We’re interrupted by a male executive from a distributor, a competitor of Magnolia Pictures, which is releasing New York in theaters and has already made it available on cable video-on-demand.

Delpy and the executive kiss hello. “What’s going on, darling?” he asks.

“I’m OK. My film’s coming out in August,” Delpy says.

“Who bought your movie?”

“Magnolia. You guys didn’t buy it.” She smiles. “You’ll regret it!”

“I want to see it! Why didn’t we buy it? It’s not me. I would have been all for it.”

Delpy says, deadpan, “Because there’s a black man with a white woman.”

She’s joking—sort of—but maybe there’s a kernel of truth to the accusation, because instead of quipping back, the exec gets slightly defensive. “No, we did, we did, um … .” He names a Chris Rock film his company distributed, in which there is no interracial relationship.

“Why, then, didn’t you do me?” Delpy asks.

I realize she’s doing something kind of incredible, in playfully nudging this mundane kiss-kiss Hollywood run-in into the realm of interrogation. The exec is smiling tightly, trying to keep the encounter light, clearly frustrated that she’s pressing the issue. It’s almost turning into an echo of Marion’s conflict with the critic in Delpy’s movie: Confronted with an opportunity to help herself via schmoozing, Delpy can’t resist a potentially damaging confrontation.

“I don’t know, I didn’t see, because you didn’t … when did you show it? In Sundance? I wasn’t there,” the executive says.

“In Sundance,” Delpy confirms. “It was the day Bingham Ray died, so basically no one showed up. And Magnolia was so happy, they bought the film right away. But I’m happy it’s Magnolia, actually. I’m very happy. We’ll see. Inshallah, like they say in Algeria.”The exec repairs to his table, and Delpy turns back to her vegetarian couscous. “Inshallah, like they say in all those countries that hate Jews.”