'This film changed my life," Cecile de France states of her experience working on Hereafter. It's a convenient statement given that in the film De France plays a chic Parisian television presenter who undergoes a life-changing experience.
But this is not some PR spin to portray what a wonderful character De France has played. In fact, it's the experience of working with Clint Eastwood that has the Belgian-born star of European cinema so excited. The seemingly tireless octogenarian directed De France in the movie -- which focuses on three very different characters and their equally varying experiences of life after death -- and the 35-year-old hasn't looked back since.
"I have received in my life the trust of Clint Eastwood, the absolute trust. It's like you have wings. You are free, like him. Perhaps it's a mistake to feel that but you say to yourself 'I did it and he was happy', so that's cool. I really love him."
De France herself emanates the sort of cool you expect from her adopted hometown of Paris. In person, she almost embodies the difference between European and American cinema. Dressed in a grey woollen dress, her short, spiky hair gives her something of a tomboy look. She's wearing minimal make-up and, in short, she looks like a real person, rather than some Hollywood vision of the perfect woman.
That's also something that made her an attractive proposition for Eastwood when he was trying to cast the character of Marie LeLay in the film. "I know that he was asked why he chose me and he said, 'when I was looking at her on the tape she was looking like a person, not like an actress'," she says proudly.
Marie is a presenter of a current affairs show whose work has engulfed her life to the extent that she has lost connection with the real world. The film opens with her on holiday in a plush Southeast Asian resort, moments before the idyllic surroundings are hit by the kind of tsunami that tore through the region in 2004.
Marie is lucky to survive, and afterwards her life unravels as she struggles to process the things she feels she experienced while she was on the verge of death. Elsewhere, Matt Damon plays a San Francisco-based psychic trying to escape his ability to connect to an afterlife, while in London a young boy develops a morbid fascination with what happens after you die, when he loses someone closest to him.
It's another masterclass from Eastwood in the simplicity of filmmaking. Take a good story (the script was written by The Queen writer Peter Morgan), good actors and crew and let them all do their jobs.
De France says she "was the happiest actress in the world" when Eastwood cut through the usual guff and gave her the role having never seen any of her previous films and only one audition tape.
She didn't even meet the 80-year-old until the day before shooting commenced. "I only realised it was real when we really first began," she says. So, once the legend of Eastwood is left aside, what makes him so incredible to work with that your life will never be the same again?
"Very quickly you realise that he only does one take," De France explains in her breathless manner. "You understand that he offers you his confidence and his total trust -- it's unbelievable. You realise you don't have to be embarrassed by feeling impressed or shy. Very quickly he lets you know he has chosen you, you belong to the crew and you're very important and he trusts you and offers you the freedom to express as you want.
"You have to be very ready because some times he'll say 'can we mix the two scenes together?' One of those might be a scene you are not meant to do for another week, but he will want to do it fluently so you do it then. You can do five scenes in one day. The day passes very quickly and at the end of the day you drink a beer with him. He's very cool and very warm and friendly. He makes a lot of jokes on the set. He sees the funny side of life and he's very simple. He's never aggressive or in a bad mood. He emanates love and he transmits that so you feel happy and you feel comfortable."
On top of all that De France clearly revelled in the opportunity to play a character who undergoes such an experience. "It's a real journey of self- discovery," she says. "It wasn't just to be the French girl in a love story."
Many actors will say that when reading a script they look for ways in which they identify with the character they are going to play, but evidently this is not an approach De France favours. "Never, never, never," she says. "For me the character is the character and Cecile is Cecile."
She says that the idea that there is some sort of afterlife is not something that she ever gave much consideration to prior to the film, but the research process threw up many fascinating stories.
"It was a great pleasure to jump into the subject matter," she says. "I read a lot of books; I spoke with people who have had a near-death experience. I also spoke with very cynical and very rational doctors who have had another explanation and it was very, very interesting."
So what are her views now? Have they changed? "The film doesn't give an answer and it's the same for me. I didn't find any answers in my research because nothing is proven. There is no satisfactory answer.
"It opened the door, but the door wasn't closed before, because I love mystery. It's not a question of believing or not, but just accepting that there are mysteries, and everywhere there are mysteries there is a duty of listening without judgement. I just live the present day and death is part of life, so getting older doesn't scare me so much. But it's very interesting that people have had this kind of experience, and, to read and to learn that, it looks very pleasant to die."
Born and raised in Namur, 85 kilometres from Brussels, De France moved to Paris at the age of 17 to study drama and subsequently earned a place at the prestigious Parisian acting school Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts et Techniques du Theatre.
Roles in L'art (delicat) de la Seduction and Switchblade Romance earned her notoriety in France and beyond, and she made her first foray into Hollywood with a part alongside Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan in Around the World in 80 Days. She had continued making largely French and Belgian movies until Eastwood came calling.
De France is also now mother to a three-year-old boy, Lino, who she says is already displaying signs that he is a natural performer, an unsurprising development seeing that his father is French actor Guillaume Malandrin.
The balancing act between parenthood and a career that can demand moving to all kinds of far-flung locations (Hereafter required De France to shoot in Paris, London and Hawaii) is not one that has caused De France much difficulty.
"I can balance very easily because when I choose a project it's one that I really want. I never choose a project where I'm not sure. So it's not painful to leave my son. I do something like two films a year so it's four months and I try to go home as much as possible. And the rest of the time I'm completely home with him.
"He's used to managing like that. I speak to him a lot and I explain to him and he knows what I'm doing. I bring him sometimes so he understands. He's happy. He says 'work well Mummy'. He's happy because he has his own life."
So would she be pleased to see her son follow in the footsteps of his mother and father? "Yeah I don't know," she shrugs. "I don't care. If he's happy, I'm happy."
Right now the entire clan is happy, thanks largely to Mr Eastwood.
Hereafter is in cinemas from Friday
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