“I went to great lengths to get this part, including ultimately changing my nationality, becoming a French citizen, and just doing everything I could to win the role in this thing. Something like this comes around once in a lifetime,” explained Simon Helberg as we chatted about the standing ovation-inducing, Annette.
Director Leos Carax’s vision is a musical romantic drama and the brainchild of Sparks. Adam Driver plays a stand-up comedian, Henry McHenry, who marries an opera singer, Ann Desfranoux, played by Marion Cotillard, and the pair have a daughter, the titular Annette. Their turbulent relationship also brings tragedy, jealousy, and secrets. Simon Helberg plays Ann’s accompanist-turned-conductor, The Accompanist.
I caught up with Helberg to discuss the movie, which is earning him awards buzz, and made a high school friend threaten to never talk to him again if the actor didn’t get the role.
Simon Thompson: When you saw the final version of Annette, was it what you expected?
Simon Helberg: It was more difficult to explain it to friends and loved ones than it was to imagine once I was there. That was when I had my moment of, ‘Okay, I see now, what Leos, the director, is doing here and what Caroline Champetier, the cinematographer, is doing.’ It was showing up on the set where it kind of all coalesced. Leos and Sparks are these visionary artists who don’t repeat themselves, and they defy being categorized into genres, so it’s hard to know which one we’re in. You do want to know what movie you’re in when you’re making it, and at that point, I was clear. I will say that from the script, to what we shot, to what you see, it’s virtually identical. Part of the reason I had a clear idea, too, was because we were shooting so much of it in scenes that were all one shot. Of course, you start to sweat a little bit because they were enormous undertakings to do. For example, doing a scene where you’re singing and drowning simultaneously, there are so many things that could go wrong. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it, and I still have difficulty describing it. I hope that doesn’t inhibit us.
Thompson: I can only imagine that when you were trying to explain it to people, say who the director was and that it was the brainchild of Sparks that some people might have said, ‘Simon, are you sure this is a good idea?’
Helberg: (Laughs) One of my best friends from high school, who has seen every movie under the sun, is a real cinephile. He’s been talking to me about Leos for years. I hadn’t gone down that road with Leos or Sparks. I knew of them, and I was familiar with some of their work, but until I had heard about this project, that was it. I was sold. My friend basically said to me, ‘I will never speak to you again if you don’t get the role in this movie.’ I went to great lengths to get this, including ultimately changing my nationality, becoming a French citizen, and just doing everything I could to win the role in this thing because something like this comes around once in a lifetime. Leos makes a movie every seven years or so, and Sparks keep making albums, and they are never the same. All of those elements coming together, plus Marion and Adam, made this something I really wanted. I was also so attracted to this character and trying to find him, which was very appealing to me.
Thompson: You talk about finding your character, so what was on your creative mood board going into Annette? I was getting hints of everything from Phantom of the Paradise to La La Land to American Psycho.
Helberg: I heard Leos talking about the Phantom of the Paradise the other night, and he mentioned that as an influence. For me, as an actor, my mood board was slightly different from Leos’. There were films that I was trying to watch that I thought might be in a similar kind of world, tonally. I watched things like Talk to Her, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and I watched True Stories, the movie that David Byrne made. For me, I just went down the road of first learning how to conduct, which was a technical challenge but incredibly exciting. I studied with the assistant conductor of the LA Opera a little bit, and I just watched endless amounts of Gustavo Dudamel and Herbert von Karajan and Teodor Currentzis, who is this amazing, wild, eccentric conductor. I watched a lot of him. He was an inspiration for the character, and so was, of course, the hair of every conductor. Reading about what these guys are, who they are, and what would attract somebody to become a conductor. It’s a pretty fascinating world, the life of a conductor. It was all about that prep because Leos is saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to shoot this all in one, and you’re in Belgium, in a forest, or you’re holding a puppet, or you’re underwater.’ By that point, you’d better have the work deeply ingrained in your body, or you’re not going to know which way is up. You’ve got to be committed, or it’s going to fall apart.
Thompson: It’s good that you mention the puppet because I wanted to ask about your reactions when you saw Annette for the first time and the reality of working with her.
Helberg: I’m always magnetically pulled towards the silly in things. I think it’s kind of like a defense mechanism or something. You know, you’re standing there, and you can make a million jokes. The first time I met her, I was deeply moved, to be honest. I knew they would be using a puppet, so that wasn’t shocking to me, but I had not seen her. I went into this kind of dank back room, and these two puppeteers came out, and there she was. We did a rehearsal where I played a song to her and lulling her as she sat on my lap, and I was swept away immediately. First of all, it’s a brilliant-looking puppet, and there is something haunting about her. These puppeteers spent years doing what they do, and then they had to hand her off at times to these actors in the film because we had to operate her in some of the scenes. They did most of the heavy lifting, but there were scenes where if Leos wanted to shoot it from a certain angle, not only did we have to operate it, but sometimes we couldn’t even use the controls because they would be on camera. They would teach you how to hold the puppet with your hand behind your head, and if you gently move your hand, it will look like she’s turning it. You could use your pinky to bounce her leg, and it’ll give her some movement, and they’re speaking to you in French to try to convey this. It was kind of madness. There was a responsibility that comes with taking care of this creation and doing justice to the art form. I think it lends itself to bring some reality to it. We’re all just pretending in so many ways anyhow, so how do you find the reality in that? That is the question.
Thompson: Annette went down a storm at Cannes, and this is your second film role in five years that has also generated awards buzz for your performance. Is this a new career plan?
Helberg: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a niche market. Any film about opera or accompaniment, please send it my way. It’s kind of a coincidence, and it’s a strange one because there are many parallels even on a surface level with opera motifs; he’s an accompanist; there’s this trio of a woman and these two guys. However, Annette and Florence Foster Jenkins couldn’t be more polar opposite in terms of what you see on the screen. I love music and acting, and I love the idea of getting to do both when I can, but I guess you don’t want to wear out that that kind of party trick either. I’ll see what comes along, and I’m lucky to get to have these two parts that presented that opportunity. I will always, in my mind, probably try to find ways to incorporate music into a role, but it’s not a prerequisite.
Annette is in select theaters and on Amazon Prime Video.