We’ve all seen those videos online of famous auditions where an actor reveals themselves and offers up a vulnerable performance in front of a dingy handheld camera. More often than not they show a moment of pure talent in its rawest state and give us, the audience, an insight into what led them to be selected for a renowned role. What we don’t see is the countless other auditions that are being taped every day where actors have to expose themselves for opportunities that may or may not be worth it. Hugo De Sousa captures the strange, exploitative nature of these scenarios in his latest short Je Ne Suis Pas Une Star De Cinéma, which sees an actor audition for an undisclosed project. It’s a tense, difficult watch but raises some fascinating questions about the nature of the entertainment industry and how much you should (or shouldn’t) be willing to endure for your shot at a break. DN caught up with De Sousa once again, after speaking with him for The Event (which makes for an excellent showbiz-based cringe-fest of a double bill with this short), to talk over the challenge of rendering the uneasy atmosphere of an audition for his darkly comedic short film.
On paper, Je Ne Suis Pas Une Star De Cinéma is a simple premise – an actor being exploited during an audition – but the execution is so unsettling and evocative. Where did the idea for this short begin for you?
I didn’t really sit down with the intent of writing a satire about the film industry. Every short film I make is an exercise in simplicity and this film is literally a camcorder pointing at an actor in an empty room. I definitely think I can’t go any simpler than this. I’d been wanting to make a found footage film for a really long time when I finally came up with the idea for Je Ne Suis Pas Une Star De Cinéma. I fell in love with the idea of an actor getting asked to play an improv game where the casting director basically wants him to affirm “I am a movie star” in front of the camera and the way they prompt him to do so is by telling him he is not a movie star. I came up with it while dozing off at a late screening of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, one of my favorites. Sorry Luis Buñuel.
Every short film I make is an exercise in simplicity and this film is literally a camcorder pointing at an actor in an empty room.
I wrote the script pretty fast after that and I emailed it to some of my favourite actors and luckily they all said yes. I definitely wouldn’t have made the short if Hugo Armstrong had not agreed to be in it. I really needed someone with his power and presence to play Vanya, so I was definitely nervous to hear back from him. Luckily, he said yes.
Why did you opt for a French version of the main line from the film as a title?
The juxtaposition between a French title and the reality of a guy auditioning in Studio City just felt irresistible to me.
How did you set out to capture the essence of an audition space?
What happens in the film is a very literal manifestation of the metaphysical reality of an audition. It’s not based on something that has happened or could happen, I hope not anyway, but also every audition is exactly like that. You’re trying to prove that you belong in front of the camera while your limits and personal boundaries as a performer are being tested and exposed.
You mentioned there that the short isn’t based off of any real account but I’m curious to know if you spoke with actors about some of their past auditions or experiences when you were fleshing out the script.
Last year a friend of mine was cast in a small role in one of the biggest movies of the year which I won’t name for obvious reasons. In the audition he was given dummy sides, which is an industry term that means that the scene given to him in the audition was written solely for the audition because the original script needed to be kept confidential. Fast forward, he gets the part in an undisclosed studio film, shows up on set, goes through wardrobe and make-up and the production only reveals to him the name of the project literally seconds before he walks onto set. They waited till the very last second to give him any information about the project or the scene. And do you know why? Because they can. How perverse is that? The movie went on to gross close to a billion dollars and my friend was paid $700 for the day. Je Ne Suis Pas Une Star De Cinéma is definitely very loosely inspired by my friend’s experience and the growing trend of actors auditioning for projects that are completely kept under wraps until you’re literally waiting in your trailer.
It feels like there’s definite overlap with the recent strikes too.
I made the short months before the strikes so I guess it’s safe to say that the writing has been on the wall for a very long time. But I definitely did not anticipate the entire industry turning into my short.
Was it difficult recreating the aesthetic of an audition? The dimmed lighting and the fuzzy camerawork, for example.
We shot the film in one day using a Sony HDR-CX405 which costs $200. If you look at famous actors’ auditions on YouTube, the lighting is always terrible and super unflattering so we didn’t want to break that reality. I really didn’t want to wink at the audience. It was really important to balance the absurdity in the script with a very grounded look and performances. Ryan Thomas did a great job of lighting the room just enough as not to interfere with the overall stripped down aesthetic.
It was really important to balance the absurdity in the script with a very grounded look and performances.
The ending is so striking. Was that always the destination or did it take some work getting there?
It took me months to figure out the ending. I tried a lot of different ideas. At one point I shot an apology video, thinking that maybe Sebastian went home and regretted his actions so he decided to record an apology video using the camera before returning it to the office. I filmed it a few times but it simply wasn’t playing. It felt forced. And, then, out of desperation, I was filming myself in my office in front of a mirror, searching for an ending, and I felt an overwhelming need to strip down and get as vulnerable as possible… on Sebastian’s terms. It felt like the right ending for Sebastian. Someone told me the ending feels strangely comforting. I really like that.
Were you always thinking of playing Sebastian?
I definitely didn’t think of myself while writing Sebastian but I quickly realized I couldn’t really ask an actor friend to do it because they would be mortified. So, I did it, and guess what? It wasn’t that bad. The final version is very uncomfortable and tense and that’s exactly what I was going for, but in the room everyone was cracking up after every take which really helped me get through it.
What have your fellow actors made of the film? Have any producers or casting directors seen it and given their thoughts?
The reaction to the film has been really varied. Some actor friends and musicians are really triggered by it, some think it’s a silly movie and love that I named one of the characters ‘Joshua Brolin’.
And to wrap up, what are you working on next?
I am working on a screenplay that I am hoping to film next year in the spring. It will be my first feature length film. Je Ne Suis Pas Une Star De Cinéma does feel like a culmination of the work I’ve done in the past two years, and I am finally much more interested in going in the opposite direction and playing with longer formats, bigger stories and with, hopefully, more resources.