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Heartbeats: Monia Chokri

Xavier Dolan's muse dishes on the intricacies of working with the 21-year-old Canadian auteur, whose latest is a would-be 20-something love triangle.

Monia Chokri in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats


Digital video cameras and Final Cut Pro have slowly created something of a revolution in how filmmakers are made. Once upon a time, in the Hollywood studio system, directors were people who worked their way up the production ladder; a filmmaker making his or her first picture before age 30 was highly uncommon. In today’s digital environment, with video cameras and high-quality editing software being readily available, the ages of talented first-time filmmakers remarkably keep dropping and dropping.


The defining exemplar of this trend is Xavier Dolan, the Canadian helmer of I Killed My Mother and Heartbeats, his latest feature. At a mere 21 years of age, Dolan has already had his two features premiere at Cannes, and IFC is distributing the newest. A Truffaut-esque comic melodrama about the travails of a would-be love triangle of three early twentysomethings (Dolan plays one point of said triangle), it bursts with a raw energy and formal playfulness that could only come from someone new to the medium.


Monia Chokri in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats


Rounding out the leads alongside Dolan are Niels Schneider and Monia Chokri, both friends of Dolan’s. Chokri’s performance as Marie, Dolan’s best friend who has fallen in love with the same man as Dolan (Schneider), alternates between restrained melancholy and twittering anxiety; constantly thinking, her character is eminently watchable.


Chokri spoke with Tribeca about the process of making Heartbeats and what it’s like to work with this talented young filmmaker. 


Monia Chokri in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats


Tribeca: What is your acting background like? How did you find your way into cinema?


Monia Chokri: I graduated in 2005 from drama school, a big drama school in Montreal. I did a lot of theater, actually. I come from the stage more than cinema. The people who had a big influence on me were people from theater.


And then I did some short movies—I worked for Denys Arcand—and then Xavier wrote me this part for Heartbeats. Since then, I’ve been doing more film work, but I still like to work on the stage. I like both mediums to express myself as an actress.


Tribeca: So many actors talk about the significant differences in performing in theater versus cinema. What was making the transition like for you?


Monia Chokri: For me… creating a character, for example, it’s not that different, I won’t do that differently. The imagination doesn’t have any sense of technique. Marie could have been great for the theater. It’s basic. It’s not really complicated for me. I’m not really sure why actors say that [transition is complicated]—I don’t see it that way. It’s just a matter of technique… details.


Tribeca: How did you first meet Xavier and become involved in the project?


Monia Chokri: We met a few years ago—I was 17 at the time—through a mutual friend. We got along pretty well. Then he shot I Killed My Mother. I read the script, I watched the editing of that. We were friends, and just talked about how we’d love to work together. It happened to be that this project was a great opportunity for that.


Monia Chokri in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats


Tribeca: How does having a personal relationship with the director affect your working relationship? Are there any complications?


Monia Chokri: It was pretty easy for us to work together. We like the same actors, we think the same way about cinema. It wasn’t too complicated. I suppose it was a risk to work together for our friendship, but it was really easy, a funny set. It was one of my best work experiences.


Tribeca: So what were your first thoughts when you read the script?


Monia Chokri: Well actually, I was hearing about the project from the initial idea, so reading the script wasn’t really striking for me. Each time he had a new draft, he’d send it to me.


Tribeca: Did being involved with the drafting process provide you with a certain insight into how to play the character?


Monia Chokri: Yeah. I guess it’s easier if you’re involved in the beginning—it was easy to talk with Xavier and say: “I would love that the characters go this way, what do you think of that?” It helps to create something that works with the way that you think, that works with your creativity.


Tribeca: So what is your process like for creating a character? What kind of work did you do in creating Marie and determining how to play her—between the script being finished and the beginning of shooting?


Monia Chokri: We didn’t have that much time, so I guess it was just that I had a good idea at the right moment. It was clear when he wrote the script that we were—he had an idea of the character. He had this idea that I was just a vintage girl. With those things—the dresses and everything—you know, when you wear a dress like she wears, you have to have a way to walk, to carry yourself. So that made it obvious—it was easy for me to work in that way.


Also, we were talking a lot about Woody Allen at that time—we wanted to make the film a kind of tribute to Husbands and Wives, interviews and so on—and I really enjoyed the work of Judy Davis in that movie. So I had the idea that Marie was kind of a young Judy Davis, and I was inspired by her way of talking and moving. It was funny for Marie, because she has two sides—what she wants to show and what she doesn’t want to show.


Monia Chokri in Xavier Dolan's Heartbeats


Tribeca: Xavier is also one of the leads in the film. What’s it like to be acting with your director in so many scenes?


Monia Chokri: It wasn’t so bad, because he has a stand-in—so when he’s directing, he’s directing. And it’s impressive to do both, but it’s more fluid than you might expect. It’s an organic thing. And it’s kind of a special relationship because we’re always together, always talking about the next scene. We’ll have dinner after the shoot is over for the day and be talking about how to do it tomorrow.


Tribeca: That tension is apparent in a lot of the scenes with the character. It comes out most in the scenes with Niels.


Monia Chokri: I know Niels well as well. They’re kind of like my two little brothers. Xavier knows that in life, things are kind of tragic-comedies, they’re never black or white, always gray. The interesting thing, like in the scene toward the end with Niels, that’s a really dramatic moment in her world. But it’s also a totally absurd, ridiculous moment. I think it’s very much like that in life—you have these dramatic moments, and later on you look back on them and realize how ridiculous they were. That’s what life is about.


Heartbeats opens February 25 at IFC Center in NYC, and on demand on February 23.


Watch the (French) trailer:



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