Annette: Simon Helberg Tapped Into the Dangerous, Sexy, and Horrific for His Most Daring Role Yet
[Editor’s note: The following article contains spoilers for “Annette.”]
There was nothing that could possibly stop actor Simon Helberg from starring in Leos Carax’s daring movie musical “Annette.” Citizenship issues? Fixable. Doesn’t know how to conduct? He can learn. Have to act alongside a puppet? Wonderful. Might get drowned by Adam Driver during a pivotal scene? Bring it on. Not entirely sure about his character’s emotional state? Just refer to a picture of Peter Lorre.
Even now, nearly two years after wrapping production on the ambitious feature and four months after its divisive Cannes premiere, Helberg still slips into something of a fever when talking about the film, which sees him starring alongside Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a lovestruck conductor simply known as “The Accompanist.”
What was it that so captivated him about the film and the role? “Well, some kind of demonic possession or a desire to just torment and self-immolate,” he said during a recent interview with IndieWire. Long before Helberg nabbed the third lead in the film, he had been tracking the project, including in its earliest stages when other producers and stars were attached. But Carax couldn’t let it go, and neither could Helberg.
“Leos making a film is an event,” Helberg explained. “I didn’t really even read a script for a while, because it was under lock and key and everything about the whole project was very cryptic. Of course, once I read it, I was completely fascinated. It’s hard to even really draw any comparison between ‘Annette’ and other films. I’m all about having an experience, and this seemed like a pretty good one to risk my life and liberty for.”
Helberg eventually got hold of the script and filmed an audition to be sent to Carax. The tape came with an additional sweetener: Helberg, knowing that Carax was eager to kit out his production with a majority of European citizens in order to secure EU funding, added a note that he was in the process of becoming a French citizen. That was, mostly, a lie. (Helberg’s wife is a French citizen and their children attend a French school, so while he’s not entirely out of the French milieu, it was still a stretch.)
“I figured if I could win over Leos Carax, I would just become an honorary French citizen,” Helberg said. “In some ways, I think it actually worked. I got a response from this hermitic, enigmatic Frenchman who they thought might live in a cave without electricity somewhere. I didn’t even know if my audition tape could make it to him, but I knew I could at least do my part and play that song and put it out into the ether. He actually got back very quickly and he liked it. Well, put quotes around ‘like,’ but he responded.”
Helberg was overjoyed, even if he was getting a bit ahead of himself. “I ran right off to the consulate and I said, ‘Make me a French citizen!’ And the French don’t have the best sense of humor about that kind of thing,” Helberg said. “I just kind of worked and grinded and simultaneously was trying to get this passport while also trying to get the role. I didn’t even have the part for months on end.”
Eventually, Helberg met with Carax in New York City — “He was stoic and comically unimpressed and unmoved by my presence” — and then, well, just kept meeting with him. “He kept asking for more even though I didn’t feel like he wanted me to be in the film,” Helberg said. “I think ultimately, [he’d like if] he could make a film without actors, maybe that’s why there’s a puppet in the movie.”
Carax, he said, provided him with scant material beyond the script itself. One item that did stand out: a picture of the iconic actor Peter Lorre with the word “melancholy” written on it. Helberg, a self-professed “obsessive,” threw himself into preparation, gathering his own materials and notes and experiences to round out the somewhat enigmatic role. He purchased his own conductor’s baton from Amazon (it’s the same one he uses in the film), and as his dedication to the part grew, the “Annette” team offered him more assistance, including hooking him up with a variety of real-life conductors.
“I went to a dress rehearsal for ‘La Boheme’ and started reading about conducting technique and watching endless hours of different conductors and trying to absorb different styles,” he said. “I went into this sort of rabbit hole of the technique, the style, the aesthetic, and kind of the psychology of conductors. In the script, you just get lyrics and ‘He conducts’ as the stage direction. There’s not any indication about emotion or other action. ‘He conducts.’ Which is very easy to write and very hard to do.”
By the time production of the film began in Belgium in fall 2019, Helberg had steeped himself enough in the world of conducting that he felt somewhat confident in his two big conducting sequences. Carax, of course, had a few more tricks up his sleeve, including asking Helberg to conduct an actual orchestra in an “enormous three-tiered concert hall.” Oh, and that first sequence? He’d like it to be done in a single take.
“I knew at that moment that all that tireless, grueling work of drilling those pieces of music and trying to get my mind wrapped around conducting was really going to ultimately serve me,” Helberg said. “You have to have it somewhere in your back pocket, because by the time you’re on set, the amount that’s being asked of you is ultimately not going to leave room for trying to figure out how to access some kind of technique or how to remember new skills that you’ve acquired. You really have to have it baked into your DNA by that point.”
And yet, even when Helberg reflects on the experience, it’s with awe and reverence. Yes, it sounds hard, it was hard, but that’s also why it felt so damn good.
“I feel like that quality existed throughout the entire shoot, where it was these series of demands that we were being asked to accomplish, and they were next to impossible at times,” Helberg said. “Because of that, there was always a real vulnerability. You see that onscreen. You see that we are walking this high wire and it’s a long way to fall. You end up being very raw. That is a quality that is very compelling to watch and also very thrilling to be a part of.”
The inclusion of a puppet in the film — the eponymous Annette, a being that Helberg’s character needed to intensely bond with — was one of the few surprises the actor felt comfortable with from the start. She was in the very first script, he said, including appearing in a variety of pictures. That, Helberg thought, he could handle.
“Again, kind of a dangerous, risky choice, but just, yeah, go for it,” he said. “And so by the time I got to Brussels, there were some preliminary meetings, kind of figuring out hair and wardrobe and then there was, ‘Oh, the puppet would like to meet you.’ So I went into this dark corner room that was in the studio, and I met Annette and I actually was really surprisingly moved the first time.”
There were other surprises, too: Helberg was going to have to operate her during a few key scenes, and her French-speaking puppeteers (Romuald Collinet and Estelle Charlier) were eager to teach him how to do it. “There was something very striking and haunting and emotional about them handing her off to me, and not really being able to communicate with them in any language that I know and taking their baby and giving life to it and being somewhat responsible for it,” he said. “The tenderness and the precariousness of that was an incredible parallel for the dynamic and the relationship that I had with Annette in the movie.”
While The Accompanist is initially in (secret) love with Cotillard’s captivating opera star Ann Desfranoux, when tragedy strikes, much of his affection is transferred to the baby she’s left behind. Their bond puts him in direct opposition with Ann’s mercurial husband and Annette’s father, the outlandish standup comedian Henry McHenry (Driver). As Annette becomes a global star, The Accompanist fights to preserve her innocence, while an increasingly unhinged Henry becomes further divorced from reality.
Eventually, the pair face off in a shocking physical altercation, a single-take tour de force of choreography, action, and even singing (“Annette” is, after all, a musical). As with many of Carax’s other big demands, Helberg said the sequence was the product of ambitious dreaming, an experienced crew, and a generous amount of derring-do.
Behind the scenes on “Annette” with director Leos Carax
Courtesy Amazon Studios
“It was all, again, just a surprise a minute,” Helberg said, reeling off the expectations for the sequence. “We were going to shoot it in one shot. There was a stunt man there who was handing me different pads for different parts of my body. We looked everywhere for an earwig that would go underwater. Well, we couldn’t find any that go underwater, which I can tell you why, it’s because nobody can sing underwater. This is not possible from a human standpoint. But they literally wanted me to be able to sing underwater or at least hear the music. And so then it became, ‘Well, can you get the earwig out of your ear in the middle of right before Adam throws you in the pool while we’re shooting a scene in one shot?’”
The results speak for themselves, and Helberg again only recalls the experience with exhilaration. What else is “Annette” but this kind of well-regulated madness?
“I think by that point, I had just come to expect and actually kind of welcome it, because it was very exhilarating and it becomes this amazingly primal kind of dance,” he said. “I felt the terror that I think was appropriate for that scene, even though I felt very safe, because Adam is very professional. When he pushes me or when he picks me up, it’s like he smothers me, almost like the way a boa constrictor would smother a rabbit or something. It had that electricity and it had that kind of fear and it had that sense of the unknown and it also had a real morbid playfulness to it, too. There’s something dangerous and sexy and horrific about the whole thing.”
That seems to be what gets Helberg going these days, and after more than a decade spent on the smash hit CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” — which ended its run in 2019, after catapulting all of its stars into some of the highest pay grades in television series history — he’s absolutely looking to keep stretching his acting muscles.
“If ‘The Big Bang Theory’ gave me anything that I truly cherish, aside from the wonderful relationships and experiences throughout, it really is freedom, artistically and creatively,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade any of the time I spent on that show for anything. But for me, one of the best benefits is getting to spend months knocking on the door at the French consulate, trying to get in the next Leos Carax movie. The things I’ve gotten to do outside the show have all been, stylistically and creatively, the types of projects that I just gravitate towards more in my own, just in my own taste.”
“Annette” photocall at Cannes 2021
Cannes Film Festival
Funnily enough, Helberg said, some of his most beloved big screen gigs came from directors — including the Coen brothers, Stephen Frears, and Carax — who had never even seen the series (Helberg suspects Carax had never even heard of it). “There isn’t even a hint of some kind of preconceived idea of who I am,” he said. “What’s fortunate about getting to then work with them and do those kinds of films is that afterwards, I think more people also might start to go, ‘Oh! Oh, yeah, he’s an actor who plays different characters.’”
So, what’s next? Helberg professes to have a soft spot for biopics, anything with a role he can really slip inside of. And while he admitted it would be “hard to top” the wild freedom of “Annette,” he thinks there can be more of that in his future.
“It’s exciting filmmakers, unusual stories, those are things that really appeal to me,” he said. “I’m interested in trying to show and access different parts of me that I haven’t been able to, that I haven’t had the opportunity to do yet. It’s really exciting to bite off something that you’re not really sure if you’re going to ultimately be able to succeed at, which is the way I have really felt, very much so, with the last couple movies, partially because I lied to get in the door. I didn’t know if I was actually going to be able to play the 10 pieces of opera and classical music for ‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get a French passport for ‘Annette.’”
He paused for a moment, and then added with a chuckle, “And so maybe I should keep lying. I think ‘always lie’ is the message.”
“Annette” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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