French actress Noémie Merlant might have gotten her big break in 2019’s French historical drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire — which recently landed on Sight and Sound’s list of the 100 greatest films of all time — but she’s made waves for her performance in this year’s Tár, in which she plays the personal assistant of Cate Blanchett’s famed conductor Lydia Tár. In fact, Tár is Merlant’s first American production and first English-language film.
Director Todd Field had seen Merlant’s previous films and sent her the script, the actress tells THR. Instantly, Merlant was drawn to Francesca because of her nuanced character. “I needed a couple of times to read it because it’s so complex, even for [English-speaking] people. There are so many details, so I had to read it a couple of times to really understand all of it,” says the actress. “And I loved it. This is so powerful, so intense, because it [forces you to ask] yourself so many questions about things that we all struggle with. And it doesn’t give you a moral answer, but it makes you go through such deep, deep feelings about the dynamic of power and the process of creation.”
Merlant adds: “I fell in love with my character, actually. For me, without saying much or showing much, she’s always in the shadow, and she represents a woman who wants to live from her passion. But right now, she just serves the coffee and she just observes and waits — and maybe waits for nothing.”
While she says she didn’t need to do much preparation for her character because Francesca never actually touches an instrument in the film, creating Francesca as someone who tries to stay in her lane, but also wants to build her career as a conductor, required preparation with Blanchett herself, whom Merlant describes as very forthcoming and helpful in the process.
“She was fantastic,” says Merlant. “We did some rehearsals before shooting. She was really [available to me]. She had a lot of things to do: There was the languages [she had to learn], the orchestra things, the instruments. I don’t know how she did that. But she had time just for our scene to rehearse, to talk about it, to talk about our characters, to find a way to touch each other, because since [our characters have] known each other for a long time in the movie, we needed to find a way to show things like complicity, and at the same time some distance because she doesn’t really want me anymore. And at the same time, there is respect.”
Although the 34-year-old has more than 40 credits to her name, she says that her time working on Tár taught her a lot about the industry — lessons that she says inspired her to write a new screenplay, which she plans to start shooting next year.
“I learned so much seeing Cate’s process, and Todd, as a director, created this environment on set [that’s] really interesting, and I really loved it,” she says, noting that crafting a film about a creative person has inspired her to respect not just her own ambitions, but also the process of collaboration required to achieve them.
“You have to take a moment to be aware of the others or the respect of all this, and sometimes, I guess, you can lose yourself like Lydia does,” says Merlant. “So maybe, in my head, I’m like, ‘We can do something amazing with no tyranny.’ I remember when I started, a lot of directors were like, ‘You need to be really pushy with the actors to [get] that feeling that you’re looking for.’ But in fact it means that you don’t trust the actor. You don’t need that: You don’t need to be disrespectful to get something interesting for the camera.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.