Veerle Baetens: “The audience must identify with a character, they have to recognize themselves”

Who is Veerle Baetens, you might think. And you’re right. So far, this 37-year old captivating and very gifted actress is world-famous in her native Flanders, but right now, she’s expanding her horizons abroad at the speed of light. Her international breakthrough film, “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” made only three years ago, was labeled as an intense and powerful melodrama, full of passion and music, about a young couple (played by Johan Heldenbergh and Veerle Baetens) and their daughter who becomes seriously ill. Both the film and Miss Baetens’ performance got rave reviews worldwide, including from American film critic Roger Ebert, The Los Angeles Times or the website from the British newspaper The Guardian. Consequently, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” received an Academy Award nomination in the foreign-language category (Italy’s “La grande bellezza” won), while in France, the film was awarded the César of ‘Meilleur Film Étranger’ (Best Foreign Film).

“The Broken Circle Breakwdown” (2012, trailer)

Along with countless nominations and awards at numerous Film Festivals around the globe for “Breakdown” director Felix van Groeningen and his leading actors, Veerle Baetens won the European Film Award (on the European continent, that’s the equivalent of the Oscar) as Best Actress, surpassing other accomplished nominees such as Keira Knightley (“Anna Karenina”) and Naomi Watts (“Lo impossible,” a.k.a. “The Impossible”) who were also nominated that year. And if all of this still leaves you out there in the dark, other recent recipients in the European Film Award’s same category as Best Actress include Helen Mirren (2007, “The Queen”), Kristin Scott Thomas (2008, “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime,” a.k.a. “I’ve Loved You So Long”), Kate Winslet (2009, “The Reader”), Sylvie Testud (2010, “Lourdes”), Tilda Swinton (2011, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”), Emmanuelle Riva (2012, “Amour”), followed by Miss Baetens in 2013 and last year’s award went to Marion Cotillard for her performance in “The Dark Knight Rises.” Got the picture?

Now Miss Baetens has her latest—and her first French—film out, “Un début prometteur” (a.k.a. “My Men”), co-written and directed by Emma Luchini. In this drama with, at times, a light touch of comedy, sixteen-year-old Gabriel (played by Zacharie Chasseriaud) is infatuated by Mathilde (Veerle Baetens), a mature woman and a character we really don’t know too much about. That’s how the story begins and gradually unfolds, along with the other leading actors, such as Gabriel’s elder brother Martin (portrayed by Manu Payet) and their father, portrayed by French veteran screen actor Fabrice Luchini (he’s actually film director Emma Luchini’s father).

Miss Baetens was at the Ostend Film Festival (Belgium) to introduce “Un début prometteur,” while simultaneously another one of her films, “D’Ardennen,” was screened successfully at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Un début prometteur posterMs. Baetens, what convinced you to play the part of Mathilde in “Un début prometteur”?

I was very easily persuaded. When I first read the screenplay, I thought it was a beautiful and poetic story, both serious and lighthearted—ingredients that can be combined easily, and that really touched me. I thought the character of Mathilde was very touching and colorful, even though you don’t know too much about her. That makes her fascinating and slightly mysterious. Emma [Luchini, the director] had asked me to read her screenplay and talk about it, and being on the same page from the very beginning, we got along very well. So I really didn’t have to be convinced to accept the part of Mathilde.

At times your character has a slight degree of humor, not on the surface, but only if you look a little bit further. Very often, you are associated with the powerful roles you have been playing in dramas recently. Hence the surprise of the subtle humor in your character now.

I understand what you mean. I don’t get screenplays like this very often in Belgium. We tend to be pretty serious; even abroad, we are well known for our dramas. We often go for the opposites: either we go for humor, or we chose drama. Whenever I read screenplays that I get offered, and that includes comedies too, they may be very interesting, but they never really inspire me due to the lack of this subtility. And that’s exactly what I found in “Un début prometteur”—only to a certain degree since it’s not a comedy. There’s this lightness that I enjoy to play because—believe me—for the past few years, I did play quite a few dramatic characters. I recognize that same lightness in “Sara” [Flemish TV series from 2006-2008 with Miss Baetens playing the title role], even though she also had a very difficult time. But on top of that, I was very fortunate to be directed by Emma Luchini: she really pulled the character of Mathilde out of me. After she had seen “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” she wanted to work with me. In the character that I played in that movie, she recognized a certain sensitivity and a strength that she needed for Mathilde. She brought in the lightness herself by really pulling it out of me.

If you look at the film from Gabriel’s point of you, you can consider the film as a coming-of-age story.

Yes, absolutely.

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Veerle Baetens and her co-stars Manu Payet and Zacharie Chasseriaud who play the two brothers in “Un début prometteur”

How about looking at it from Mathilde’s point of view? Gabriel’s infatuation with her is just something that happens to her? Because we don’t really know her, who she is, where she comes from, we don’t know anything about her background,…

That’s right. It’s just something that happens to her. It does something to her, but you won’t notice it. I even get goosebumps as I am saying this right now because it really touches me—the character of Mathilde is on the move. At one point in the film, she talks to Martin [played by Manu Payet] on a terrace, and she says to him, ‘Je cours vite, sinon je tombe, je perds l’équilibre.’ That’s basically the essence of who Mathilde really is. I think she has been through so much, and she had to face so many setbacks that this is only an episode in her life. When she’s older, I think—alone, because she will wind up all alone since there will be nobody else in her life—she will reflect on it tenderly and probably say, ‘It’s a moment that taught me something, and I let it go at a time when I was not ready to actually let it go.’ At least, that’s how I look at it. On the other hand, you could also compare her with the good fairy or a phantom that happens to come along—is this really happening?—like an oasis in the desert. But to me, she’s an unhappy person.

About a century ago, Charlie Chaplin became one of the very first screen actors who showed the audience what a wide range of feelings an actor could express, just by using his face and his eyes as his ultimate working tools. There are some pretty powerful scenes in “Un début prometteur,” like the scene right before the dog race, when the characters of Martin and Pierre are talking to each other. You’re standing in the middle, between the two of them, and follow the conversation, you hardly say a word, yet you manage to attract most of the attention while they’re talking.

It’s very funny that you say that because right now, I’m in the process of rediscovering Chaplin.

Because you’re co-starring now with his daughter Geraldine Chaplin in the TV series “Au delà des murs”?

Exactly. I recently saw “The Great Dictator” [1940] again, as well as “The Kid” [1921]; they are incredibly beautiful. And as you point out: the eyes of an actor can tell you a whole story, and you do realize that as an actor, but very often, dialogue becomes pretty dominant in most of the scenes you do.

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Manu Payet who plays the eldest son of Fabrice Luchini in “Un début prometteur”

Do you think “Un début prometteur” could be a turning point in your career? A leading role in an interesting French film, accessible to a broad an international audience, it certainly can open new doors?

It’s interesting to talk about that but you have to very careful when and if you take that step. Some internationally accomplished actors also went from dramatic roles to playing lighthearted characters and looking at it in retrospect, it hasn’t always been a wise choice. On the other hand, I can imagine that they can only play so many dramatic roles, you know what I mean? There comes a time when you need some room to breathe that you need to take a break after playing in dramas time and time again. But I haven’t reached that point yet [laughs]. If I were able to do this once in a while, that would be perfect.

Along with other Flemish actors, including Johan Leysen and Matthias Schoenaerts, and directors such as Michaël R. Roskam and Felix van Groeningen, you are one of the most important film ambassadors of Flanders. That’s a big responsibility?

No, not really. For me, it all began with “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” so I haven’t been involved in working abroad that long. I also see there’s this tendency that more Flemish actors start working abroad, but most people are not aware of it. You got Sam Louwyck, Johan Heldenbergh, Jan Bijvoet, Wim Willaert, Peter Van den Begin… so many of them are going in all different directions geographically; it’s just amazing. So there’s something moving, and I am so lucky to be a part of it. But I don’t feel any responsibility on my shoulders because we all share it. Matthias [Schoenaerts] has reached the U.S., in Flanders we’re all very much aware of that, and the two successful Flemish TV series I was fortunate to do, “Sarah” [2006-2008] and “Code 37” [2009-2012], allowed me to become a sort of a household name in Flanders, and that’s probably one of the reasons why people down here know that I am working abroad now. So that certainly helped me. In France, however, I got page blanche. For them, “The Broken Circle Breakdown” was my screen debut.

What are the criteria or standards that you use to accept a role?

No matter which screenplay I get offered, it has to move me; there’s got to be a connection. Like I had with “Un début prometteur” which is not really a comedy, it’s a drama with at times a light touch. That’s very interesting, and as far as the characters are concerned, I’d still prefer a wide range of characters. I played roles from Sara to [police detective] Hannah Maes [her character in the police TV series “Code 37”]. That was very gratifying and rewarding because you get the opportunity to look for other nuances in your character. There should also be a candid and professional collaboration with the screenwriter or the director to discover all the possibilities your character can offer. Sometimes I think, ‘Well, this screenplay looks great, but the dramatic curve of my character can be much better.’ By going through the script and discuss what a character really can do, you can make sure one thing: the audience must identify with a character, they have to recognize themselves. That’s why it’s so important that the actors and the screenwriter or director can thoroughly unravel the full potential of a character.

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Zacharie Chasseriaud, Manu Payet and Veerle Baetens at a wedding ceremony in “Un début prometteur”

Did you manage to have an input of your own in the character of Mathilde?

Absolutely. You get to know your character much better when you collaborate with the screenwriter and the director. Emma and I talked an awful lot about who Mathilde really is, and eventually, there were quite a bit of changes in the screenplay. Early on, she had a lot of dialogue, but since I had to get used to playing a French-speaking character, I also thought she was the type of person who should make herself perfectly clear with a minimum of dialogue. That’s something we worked on very closely, very thoroughly, and I think, the way it looks now, it’s the best way to bring all the necessary ingredients of the character across to the audience.

Film Festival Oostende, Ostend (Belgium)
September 14, 2015

“Un début prometteur” (2015, trailer)


MISSTOESTANDEN (2000) DIR Renaat Coppens SCR Merho CAM Lucas Jodigne ED Joris Brouwers MUS Bo Spaenc CAST Luk Wyns, Ingrid De Vos, Veerle Baetens (Fanny Kiekeboe / Lien), Jonas Wyns, Annie Geeraerts, Karel Deruwe, Wim Opbrouck, Filip Peeters

ALIAS (2002) DIR Jan Verheyen PROD Jan Verheyen, Christophe Van Rompaey SCR Jan Verheyen, Paul Koeck, Christophe Dirickx CAM Philippe Van Volsem ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Bo Spaenc CAST Hilde De Baerdemaeker, Geert Hunaerts, Veerle Dobbelaere, Hilde Van Mieghem, Pol Goossen, Michael Pas, Ilse Van Hoecke, Matthias Coppens, Veerle Baetens (Girl at Car Rental), Ron Cornet

DE ZUSJES KRIEGEL (2004) DIR Dirk Beliën PROD Eric Caroen SCR Johan Verschueren (book by Marc de Bel) CAM Philippe Van Volsem ED Manu Van Hove MUS Hans Helewaut CAST Katleen Apers, Evelien Apers, Dorien Janssens, Victor Löw, Liesbeth Kamerling, Veerle Baetens (Anne), Gilda De Bal

DE KUS (2004) DIR – SCR Hilde Van Mieghem PROD Hilde Van Mieghem, Michel Houdmont CAM Jan Vancaillie ED Eric DeVos MUS Bert Joris, Stef Kamil Carlens CAST Marie Vinck, Fedja van Huêt, Hilde Van Mieghem, Jan Decleir, Veerle Baetens (Rita), Josse De Pauw

VERLENGD WEEKEND (2005) DIR Hans Herbots PROD Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem SCR Pieter De Clercq CAM Danny Elsen ED Nico Leunen MUS Fonny De Wulf CAST Koen De Bouw, Wouter Hendrickx, Veerle Baetens (Lisa), Jan Decleir, Klaas Nachtergaele, Peter Bastiaensen, Herman Boets

DENNIS VAN RITA (2006) DIR Hilde Van Mieghem PROD Frank Van Passel, Bert Hamelinck SCR Hugo Van Laere CAM Jan Vancaillie ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Bert Joris, Helmut Lotti CAST Els Dottermans, Matthias Schoenaerts, Veerle Baetens (Barbara), Damiaan De Schrijver, Tom Van Dyck, June Voeten, Reinhilde Decleir, Guido De Craene

WINDKRACHT 10: KOKSIJDE RESCUE (2006) DIR Hans Herbots PROD Hilde De Laere, Erwin Provoost SCR Peter De Clercq CAM Danny Elsen ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Matt Dunkley CAST Kevin Janssens, Veerle Baetens (Alex Breynaert), Axel Daeseleire, Koen De Bouw, Stan Van Samang, Ludu Busschots, Jelle Cleymans, Warre Borgmans, Vic De Wachter, Gert Winckelmans

LOFT (2008) DIR Erik Van Looy PROD Hilde De Laere SCR Bart De Pauw CAM Danny Elsen ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Wolfram de Marco CAST Koen De Bouw, Filip Peeters, Matthias Schoenaerts, Bruno Vanden Broucke, Koen De Graeve, Veerle Baetens (Ann Marai), Tine Reymer, An Miller, Charlotte Vandermeersch, Maaike Cafmeyer, Marie Vinck, Jan Decleir, Gene Bervoets, Ruth Beeckmans

MEISJES (20009) DIR Geoffrey Enthoven PROD Dries Phlypo SCR Jean-Claude Van Rijckegem, Chris Craps CAM Gerd Schelfhout ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Olaf Janssens, Tom Kestens CAST Greg Timmermans, Barbara Sarafian, Marilou Mermans, Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Lucas Van den Eynde, Jan Van Looveren, Veerle Baetens (Nurse, uncredited)

ZOT VAN A. (2010) DIR Jan Verheyen PROD Peter Bouckaert SCR (adaptation) Jan Verheyen, Peter Lories, Rik D’Hiet CAM Stijn Van der Veken ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Steve Willaert CAST Kevin Janssens, Lotte Heytenis, Kurt Rogiers, Barbara Sarafian, Joke Devynck, Mathijs Scheepers, Matteo Simoni, Mathias Sercu, Jan Van Looveren, Veerle Baetens (Anna Reynders), Koen De Graeve, Michel van Dousselaere, Herwig Ilegems, Warre Borgmans, Axel Daeseleire, Chris Lomme, Jaak Van Assche, Carry Goossens, Kim Hertogs

HASTA LA VISTA, a.k.a. COME AS YOU ARE (2011) DIR Geoffrey Enthoven PROD Mariano Vanhoof SCR Pierre De Clercq (story by Mariano Vanhoof, original idea by Asta Philpot) CAM Gerd Schelfhout ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Meuris Papermouth CAST Gilles De Schryver, Robrecht Vanden Thoren, Tom Audenaert, Isabelle de Hertogh, Karlijn Sileghem, Johan Heldenbergh, Marilou Mermans, Tuur De Weert, Veerle Baetens (Nurse)

CODE 37: DE NACHTWACHT (2011) DIR Jakob Verbruggen PROD Dirk Impens CAM Ruben Impens MUS Piet De Ridder CAST Veerle Baetens (Hannah Maes), Michael Pas, Marc Lauwrys, Gilles De Schryver, Geert Van Rampelberg, Jurgen Delnaet, Nathalie Meskens, Carry Goosens, Ben Segers, Manou Kersting

THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN (2012) DIR Felix van Groeningen PROD Dirk Impens SCR (adaptation) Carl Joos, Felix van Groeningen, Charlotte Vandermeersch (play ‘The Broken Circle Breakdown Featuring the Cover-Ups of Alabama’ by Johan Heldenbergh, Mieke Dobbels) CAM Ruben Impens ED Nico Leunen MUS Bjorn Eriksson CAST Johan Heldenbergh, Veerle Baetens (Elisa / Alabama), Nell Cattrysse, Geert Van Rampelberg, Nils De Caster, Bert Huysentruyt, Jan Bijvoet, Ruth Beeckmans

HET VONNIS (2013) DIR Jan Verheyen PROD Peter Bouckaert SCR Frank Van den Eeden CAM ED Philippe Ravoet MUS Steve Willaert CAST Koen De Bouw, Johan Leysen, Veerle Baetens (Meester Teugels), Jappe Claes, Jo De Meyere, Chris Lomme, Hendrick Aerts, Viviane De Muynck, Wouter Hendrickx, Joke Devynck

HALFWEG (2014) DIR Geoffrey Enthoven PROD Mariano Vanhoof SCR Pierre De Clercq CAM Gerd Schelfhout ED Stijn Deconinck, Dieter Diependaele CAST Jurgen Delnaet, Koen De Graeve, Evelien Bosmans, Gilles De Schryver, Veerle Baetens (Natalie), Ella Leyers, Tiny Bertels, Tom Audenaert, Herwig Ilegems

UN DÉBUT PROMETTEUR, a.k.a. MY MEN (2015) DIR Emma Luchini PROD Albane de Jourdan, Maxime Delauney, Romain Rousseau SCR Emma Luchini, Nicolas Rey, Vanessa David (novel by Nicolas Rey) CAM Jérôme Alméras ED Benjamin Favreul CAST Manu Payet, Veerle Baetens (Mathilde), Zacharie Chasseriaud, Fabrice Luchini, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Romane Barron

D’ARDENNEN (2015) DIR Robin Pront PROD Bart Van Langendonck SCR Robin Pront, Jeroen Perceval CAM Robrecht Heyvaert ED Alain Dessauvage CAST Veerle Baetens (Sylvie), Eric Gordon, Jeroen Perceval, Jan Bijvoet, Sam Louwyck, Peter Van den Begin, Kevin Janssens, Viviane De Muynck