It has been 18 years since Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke premiered their romantic, European-set indie Before Sunrise. This Friday, nine years after the charming sequel, Before Sunset, the trio reunites with Before Midnight, an exquisitely composed installment to the conversational series. Thankfully, Julie’s character, Celine, and Ethan’s Jesse are still together—with three children between them and a relationship that continues to sparkle, even if it has been complicated by the realistic concerns that accompany long-term relationships, middle age, and parenthood. As in the previous two films, there is plenty of witty banter and philosophical debate, this time delivered while the pair wind themselves through picturesque streets in Greece.
After a long day of press earlier this week, Delpy sunk into a couch at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills and told us about filming Before Midnight, why she would have beaten Lena Dunham to the punch if she were her age, and what she really thought of Ethan Hawke the first time they met.
Julie Miller: This is the most romantic film I’ve ever seen with this much fighting.
Julie Delpy: [Laughs.] “The most romantic film about fighting!” “The art and seduction of arguing!”
The conversations and arguments are so wonderfully choreographed during those long takes. How did you go about finding that realistic pattern when writing?
We did spend 10 weeks working on this screenplay and months working on the outline, but the [biggest] fight in itself is, like, 30 minutes. It is like a film in itself—a first act, second act, third act, resolution. So we had to work on that, and it has so many touches of color. It is like an Impressionist painting, almost. It starts off one way, gets worse, gets worse, gets better, it’s almost over, and then it starts again. It was fun, but it was really challenging to write and to act in.
How long did you and Ethan spend filming that scene?
Four days, which is not a tremendous amount considering how many pages there were. It was very, very intense, but we did rehearse for many days before that.
At one point, you also argue topless for an extended period. Whose idea was that?
It was a common idea. I thought that they are starting to make out and stuff, she is taking off her clothes. Realistically—would she put her clothes back on if the phone rings? No, probably not. I wouldn’t, especially in Greece where it is very hot. You just do it. And it’s not easy or natural. You’re doing it in front of a crew, but you have to pretend it is. For me, it was more of a “fuck you” thing. And I thought of my mother burning her bras in the 60s. But it was unexpected, and I think it is hard to argue with a woman who is naked and exposed but also totally comfortable starting a fight with her breasts out.
Were you surprised by how much attention that scene has gotten?
It’s funny because it’s gotten attention here, but I know that in France, no one will ask me that question. The film is very tame and sweet. It is not a hardcore sexy movie. So I don’t think it will be as shocking. And also, I’m 43, and maybe it’s more shocking for a woman my age to be . . . you know, if I was a pretty, young, 22-year-old, maybe it would be O.K. But you know what? I don’t care. That’s the reality. I’m fine with it. I’m fine with not being in perfect shape. Either you become one of those people that spends their life in the gym doing all sorts of weird diets or no carbs. . . I do the full-carb diet. The truth is, I’m a woman that works, I have no time to take care of myself, I have a kid, I don’t have much help—I have a little help, otherwise I couldn’t be doing this interview now. The reality of a person is what we are trying to describe in this film. We are not trying to make something up and trick people into believing something that is fake.
You’ve always been an outspoken feminist, but when you moved to Los Angeles as a young actress, where there is such an emphasis on looks, did you struggle with your identity at all?
You know, I think that because I was clear about my feminist ideas and I’ve always lived my life in tune with those feminist ideas, I’ve never used the fact that I am a woman or the fact that I was pretty when I was young to seduce people in any way to get work. I have so much integrity about those things it is almost scary. I think that it scared a few people away from me. Because I think they thought, “We can’t do too much of what we want to her.” [Laughs.]
But the truth is, at work I am very easygoing. When I work with Richard, he is the director. He asked me to help with the screenplay, and I do. But I never impose myself on set. When I am directing, it is a different story. Those are my films. But I have great respect for directors. I’m not a crazy person and a feminist. I’m just a feminist. I just believe that women should be treated equally as men. And we’re getting closer in our countries, but that’s not the case in 90 percent of the world. Do you feel empowered by, or proud of, the success that young female filmmakers, like Lena Dunham, have had recently?
You know, I was making movies before she made her film. The truth is, coming from France, there are many, many women directors. If it were other times, I would have directed movies at 17 because I had written many screenplays by then. I wrote a screenplay when I was 20, I wrote a screenplay when I was 21, 22, 23, 24. I wrote screenplays non-stop, but no one would finance them. The times have changed and now women can become directors, thank God. I was right at the cusp before it really happened. So I was able to do it in my 30s, not in my 20s, even though I had many screenplays in my 20s.
But it’s great that young woman like Lena can do it in her 20s. I wish that I could have done that. People would just look at me like I was insane when I said that I wanted to direct movies. Even when I started writing Before Sunset, my agent fired me at the time. He thought I was wasting my time writing. You have no idea. Early on, when I went to film school and I was 21 or 22, it became extremely complicated. My life became hell. People did not want me to be [a writer and director]. Where did you find the confidence to keep going?
When we wrote Before Sunset, realizing that my writing was attractive to people made me realize, “O.K., I can persevere in this.” But I was put down so many times. My first film ended up being a romantic comedy because as a woman, I was kind of expected to do a comedy about a couple. I had written sci-fi, thrillers before that. But no one would even look at them because no one wanted a woman to write a thriller. I'd love to hear about your sci-fi ideas.
Right now, I am probably going to end up doing my sci-fi as a graphic novel. I have many [ideas]. They are not all written, but they are mapped out. I love that medium, and I think it’s kind of fun anyway. I wouldn’t do the drawing, but I would write the screenplay of it. You mentioned that you are 43. Growing up, how did you envision yourself at this age?
I didn’t envision much. I wasn’t having great hopes for myself as a kid. I didn’t have anything going for me. I was pretty but not making an effort. I was always wearing glasses and baggy clothes because I was extremely insecure. I was writing a lot already around 9 and 10. But I was very introverted, like you have no idea. I was a nerd. I was reading books, wearing glasses, loving mathematics. I was in my corner. I didn’t have any friends. Then it started changing when I was a teenager. I was like a gang member [laughs].
In what ways?
Like, the equivalent of a gang member in France, which is much less than what it is in the U.S. We didn’t have guns. But I was sort of a gang member. I was mean and a gang member.
Pretty close to a bully, but I never really bullied people because I was always protecting the ones that needed protection. I was mean to the ones that were bullying others. I was kind of the good guy.
Are you surprised that these films have resonated so much with people?
Yes, but I always think, I wrote a lot of the stuff in Before Sunrise, the first film, and I really tried to reach something as deep as I possibly could about relationships and love that I think ended up resonating with people. About the meaning of love and connecting and not being alone in this world.
Looking back on your first meeting with Ethan, what were your initial thoughts about him?
Oh, I remember that I thought he was so cute. That’s what I remember thinking when I first met him. Then I got to know him and got to become friends with him. He was cockier at the time. He was a little bit more annoying. He was irritating me a lot more. I wanted to slap him around. And I did, in a creative way.
It seems as though your character has transformed so much more than Ethan’s. Why do you think that is?
Because men stay little boys. [Laughs.] I think a lot of men stay younger. I notice that. They have a littleboy quality. I don’t know what it is. I have a little-girl quality too. But as a woman, I think, if you want to achieve something with your life, you really have to be a very strong person. I talk about it in the film. It’s hard for men, too. It’s hard to achieve anything that you are proud of in this life. But as a woman, to fight to get to where I am and to keep your integrity, it’s just very, very hard work. You have to be tough. And have tough skin.