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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

Algerian award-winner

Romane Bohringer, Elodie Bouchez, Audrey Tautou, Ludivine Sagnier -- next on the list of hot young French actresses will surely be Rachida Brakni. A Parisian of Algerian descent, the 26-year-old actress won a Cesar award for Most Promising Actress in 2002 for her performance as Noemie in Coline Serreau's "Chaos," the first Algerian actress to take France's top film award. Her film career in France is set to take off -- she's in no less than three films opening this year -- and rumor has it that she might be able to pull a Penelope Cruz and land her own role in the Hollywood remake of "Chaos" that's in the works.

News photo
Rachida Brakni

When did you decide to pursue acting?

I was interested in theater when I was in high school, but what I really wanted was to be a lawyer. I thought that acting would help me as a lawyer, because they're similar in a way, you have to perform in front of people. But I got hooked on theater and soon forgot about law!

Who were the actors who inspired you?

So many names come to mind, but most of them are actresses, not actors. Catherine Deneuve, Julia Roberts, Romi Schneider . . .

Is it difficult to find roles working as an Algerian actress in France? Other than stereotypical "ethnic" ones . . .

Well, it was like that at first, I think. The roles available in movies were quite limited, but fortunately all sorts of parts were on offer in theater. But thanks to my manager, I've played all sorts of people -- French, Italian, Jewish, and of course North African too.

That's good to hear, because I know work is quite limited for, say, Asians in Hollywood . . .

Maybe Americans don't feel so close to Asian culture, but in France a good deal of time has passed since Algeria and the rest of North Africa were French colonies, and I think French culture has absorbed those influences. Especially in the past few years, I think there's been a change in perception: People don't view an Algerian as someone different, but rather as part of what makes up France. So I think my opportunities have increased due to that.

What kind of preparation did you do for your role as Noemie?

I worked really hard on that with Coline [Serreau]. In the morning we'd go over the dialogue, and in the afternoon I'd go to the hospital and visit coma victims. I'd study how they came out of a coma, or how their paralysis affected them. Then in the evening, I'd hit the streets and observe the prostitutes. It was really hard to talk to them, and a lot of times I was told to f**k off, but I was able to kind of interview a few of them. But there were always some Russian or Asian mafia types lurking around, so I couldn't talk completely freely with them. But I got a good feeling for their backgrounds, and the reality they face. So I was able to give Coline a few details on how we should play certain scenes.

Actually, the whole reason Coline wanted to make this film was because there was a prostitute who lived near her, who she'd see all the time -- one day she was murdered with 17 slashes all over her body. They found her corpse three days later. Coline saw her photo in the paper and was really shocked. She really felt like she had to say something about this reality.

You know they don't have laws against human trafficking in Japan . . .

They actually don't have a law regulating prostitution as a form of slavery in France either. In France, they take the view that prostitution has existed throughout human history, so it isn't a problem. But I want to say, wait a minute, what about pedophilia? There has been sex with children since long ago, but now it's prohibited by law, isn't it? How come only prostitution is left as it is?

Now you're sounding like a lawyer . . .

(Laughs.) Yeah, but the problem is, if prostitutes were free to decide they want to sell their bodies, I wouldn't mind. But nowadays they're all under the control of the mafia. These guys will take girls from the countryside in Eastern Europe, for example, 15 or 16-year-olds, and virtually make them slaves, force them into prostitution. But if they're in one place for too long, they'll get caught, so they move them around, from Milan to Turin to Paris . . . and to keep track of them, they brand these girls with a mark, literally treating them like animals.

What was it like working with Serreau, and on set?

In all Coline's films, there's a perfect balance between comedy and tragedy; she's very talented at entertaining an audience. The atmosphere on set was great, except for when we were shooting the hooker scenes on the street. We were using a tiny DV camera, so no one would know we were shooting. All the girls behind me were real prostitutes, and I was in the leather mini-skirt and everything. So people thought I was a real hooker. The Russian mafia showed up, and other people would shout "whore!" and drive off. I had a really hard time.

I bet Julia Roberts never went through that on "Pretty Woman."

Probably not! (Laughs.)

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