The excitement levels rose early for Passages before its Sundance premiere in January with the release of a single still from the film showing Adèle Exarchopoulos and Franz Rogowski dancing at a club, sharing a moment of joyful serenity. In Ira Sachs’s acclaimed new film, Exarchopoulos plays Agathe, a French schoolteacher who falls for a magnetic German-born filmmaker, Tomas (Rogowski), who in turn drifts away from his husband, Martin (Ben Whishaw). They are passionately in love, but while Agathe is all in on the relationship for the long-term, there are signs of Tomas vacillating, a story that develops with a bracingly mature honesty and intelligence about all the characters.
It’s hard to summarize Exarchopoulos’s career without the starburst that was Blue Is the Warmest Color, which won her, costar Léa Seydoux, and director Abdellatif Kechiche a rare joint Palme d’Or at Cannes. But that was 10 years ago, and Exarchopoulos has steadily been bringing her down-to-earth presence to film after film, primarily in the French industry. At times, her naturalism blurs the notion of a star turn and perfectly scaled ensemble work—whether it’s the volatile family dynamic of Sibyl from recent Palme d’Or winner Justine Triet; the documentary realism of a smaller indie like Zero Fucks Given; or the anarchic absurdity of Quentin Dupieux’s Mandibles.
In conversation on a break from shooting a new film, Exarchopoulos was warm, generous, and enlightening in talking about building her character, Agathe, in Passages; working with her co-star Rogowski; and the way love and life can sometimes go. Passages opens August 4.
This interview took place before the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike began; Exarchopoulos is not a member of SAG.
What drew you to playing Agathe?
I knew Ira’s work, and I love that he talks about simple stuff that can happen to you and overwhelm your world. And that the film’s subject is not about identity, it’s just about love. I loved the fact that the character is really different from me. It was a challenge because I didn’t want people to see her as a victim because she’s falling in love with a person who is already involved [with someone else].
I love movies and characters that help you to just ask questions. I don’t think the character has the answers, but it helps to consider what you should accept and what you have to go through when you fall in love with someone. These kinds of boundaries are hard to find. I also love Agathe’s brave side. I already knew Franz and Ben were on the project, and I really love them. So it was a mix of all of these things!
What were the preparations like for the movie, in terms of rehearsals?
We didn’t do any rehearsals together, but Ira was there during the entire process—meeting the other actors before shooting, doing the costumes. During this road, you have many questions: why did my character choose to become a teacher? What does she think about her family? It’s also a movie about desire, and Ira spoke to me a lot about a movie by Maurice Pialat and all the eye contact in it. That’s how I found their love story was built: Agathe doesn’t know if she’s going to fall in love, or get pregnant, but she knows something is going to happen. Sometimes you’re more in love with what a person makes you feel than the person themselves. But it’s a mix of all of these that makes her feel alive.
Agathe feels grounded and at the same time open to spontaneity. What were some moments that were important to you in terms of bringing out who she is?
I could feel her maturity when she’s leaving her first boyfriend, telling him, “Everything is too perfect, it’s good in many ways but… I can’t.” I can feel her freedom in how she dresses, in her nights in Paris, how she goes out. I remember I was struck by the fact that the first time Tomas tells her, “My husband doesn’t want to dance with me,” she says, “I will dance with you.” I think that’s a statement of someone having no fear and looking for feelings and experience. She has a lot of empathy—I mean, she’s a teacher in France, which can be hard. When Tomas tells her later “I love you,” she knows that he is sincere in the moment, but he will be sincere with someone else in other moments.
Tomas is… a lot—he’s a classic narcissistic personality in many ways.
It’s funny because at Sundance, I realized how much people are able to relate: we all know someone like him who’s going to hurt the feelings of someone we love. But what is strong about the movie is that it’s Franz playing him. He’s never antipathetic, he’s always trying to fight convention. So I think he produces a bit of jealousy—to be him, to be so free. At the same time, you don’t desire someone like this for your loved ones. What I love about Franz is he never makes any excuses in playing Tomas—you learn how to love him.
Your performances always feel so natural, and I remember a sweet moment in Passages that almost felt improvised: you’re with Tomas and you sing part of a song. [Exarchopoulos covers her face with her hands.] You don’t like to sing on screen?
I had never done that before, or only for fun. It wasn’t written like this! I remember my parents listening to this song. But it’s funny because I know she’s not a character who is supposed to give a performance, and she doesn’t sing well—that’s what is cute. For me, it’s the moment where she’s more vulnerable than when she is making love or when she cries. So it was harder to play this [moment] than the sexual ones. We have a word in French, pudeur, which means how you feel inside in front of another person.
What is key to you when you are doing a love scene?
A good talk beforehand, being really clear about your boundaries, what you want to show and what you don’t want to show. And being honest about what you want to be saying doing this sex scene, because sex is like a conversation. We spoke a lot before with Ira and with Franz. I told Ira, I don’t want to get bored doing nudity scenes, and now that I’m a mother, I don’t know if I want to show my body in this movie. It’s even more exciting to reinvent [a sex scene] in a different way.
Looking back at your career, I read some early interviews where you said there were roles that you only wanted to try later because you didn’t feel ready yet. Are there things that you’ve achieved in the past few years that you didn’t think you could do earlier?
A role like Mandibles [Quentin Dupieux’s surreal comedy where her character only speaks through shouting, thanks to a freak skiing accident]. I didn’t know if I was able to do it. But I’m still the same as years ago, where there’s stuff I know I’m not good at. Like les films d’époque—period films.
You don’t like doing those?
I love watching them, but I don’t take a lot of pleasure in doing them. But what I love most about cinema as an actress is the fact that it’s a huge playground—you can do comedy one month, and six months later, have the chance to do something completely different. You never get bored because the approach is different. And every movie, you learn something. What I’ve learned is that, as soon as I do something with a strategy [in mind], I never take pleasure from it. Now, I have to feel what I feel after reading a script.
What are you shooting next?
I’m shooting a movie directed by Gilles Lellouche. It’s a love story, but there is also death, there is violence. It’s hard to put it in a genre. Afterward, when I finish this movie in September, I don’t know what I’m gonna do—qhich is exciting, because it’s been a while since I didn’t know!