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TEXT BY RICHARD CHANG, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER; IMAGE COURTESY OF THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY
Penelope Ann Miller plays Doris in Michel Hazanavicius' silent film, "The Artist." Doris is the wife of silent film star George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin.
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Silent movie star talks about ‘The Artist'

THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

One of the films generating significant buzz as awards and Oscar season approaches is "The Artist" – a silent, black-and-white film written and directed by French auteur Michel Hazanavicius.

The movie Рset in late-1920s Hollywood Рfollows the fortunes and decline of silent cinema and one of its principal stars, George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin. As talking pictures begin taking over, Valentin must decide whether to embrace the new technology (and a young dancer named Peppy Miller, played by B̩r̩nice Bejo) or hold onto a medium that is quickly fading into obscurity.

Made on a modest $14.2 million, the film has won critical accolades across Europe and the United States. Earlier this year, Dujardin picked up the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival, and in November, "The Artist" won best picture and best director at the influential New York Film Critics Circle Awards.

While the film is still in limited release in Los Angeles, New York and other major cities, the Orange County Film Society is presenting a special O.C. premiere screening at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Regency Lido Theatre in Newport Beach. Two of the stars from the picture, Penelope Ann Miller and James Cromwell, along with producer Thomas Langgman, will appear at the screening for a question-and-answer session afterward. Only Orange County Film Society members may attend; the society is offering membership for $99 per person, which includes two tickets to "The Artist" screening. Visit orangecountyfilmsociety.com for details.

Actress Miller, who has enjoyed a 26-year career in television and movies, plays the elegant wife of lead character Valentin. The Santa Monica resident reflected on the film and its rise from the margins to critical favorite and possible Oscar contender.

The Orange County Register: Describe the character you play in "The Artist."

Penelope Ann Miller: I play Doris. I'm George Valentin's wife. At the point that you meet my character in the movie, he's at the height of his career, and our marriage is at an impasse. I'm disenchanted and not too happy with where our marriage is at that point. I'm feeling neglected, not getting enough attention.

Q: What was it like to work on a silent, black-and-white film? Did you have to do anything differently?

A: I did the movie "Chaplin" (1992) and I played a silent actress. So I had a little experience with it. (Director Hazanavicius) trusted the actors. We didn't have to really mouth our lines big. It was more about what we're feeling, how we're reacting, and what's going on with our emotions. He played music during the scenes. He wanted to hire actors that looked the period and also "got it." I think we were just acting as we would in any other film. It's set in the '20s, so women held themselves differently. They wore different clothes, had different posture. You're using your face a little bit more. In some ways, you can read the lips and see what they're saying.

Q: How did you get cast for this picture?

A: My agent, who has a relationship with the casting director, called me. I was interested in at least reading it. There were actors who weren't interested. They're probably kicking themselves right now. There are those of us who are willing to take that leap of risk, who had faith. Obviously, it was a very far-fetched notion. In "Chaplin," you could hear the dialogue. With this, this is like a full-blown silent film.

But I love the '20s. I'm an old movie buff. I'm very nostalgic about old Hollywood. I sort of welcomed the opportunity and thought this could be kind of fun. It definitely could be a real hit or a real miss. If it was a miss, oh well, I can move on.

Q: What was it like to work with director Michel Hazanavicius? He isn't that well-known in the U.S.

A: When I met him, I discovered he'd really done his homework. He had a really strong vision. I told him we both shared the passion for the old movies. He knew how he wanted to film it, what he was doing. He really hired the top of the line to work with him. The cinematographer was the guy he's always worked with. The hair and makeup worked with some real big stars. People on the technical side loved the artistic side of the film. How many opportunities do you get to make a movie like this? It wasn't going to be a huge, long schedule. I took it for the art of it.

Q: Audiences and critics are responding very positively to this film. Why do you think that is?

A: I think it's just touching a nerve in people. It's a beautiful movie with touching performances. Maybe people are craving something like this. I think it's sort of a welcome relief. With all the technology in movies these days, we're on sensory overload. This film strips away what we're accustomed to. It's affecting people in a way that really surprises them, excites them. That's the beauty of it – we can go back to the beginning and make something that's exciting, beautiful and effective, and maybe more so than stuff that's out there now.

Q: You're going to the screening on Monday at the Lido and will participate in a Q&A. What's that experience like?

A: I've done a bunch for this movie; we've kind of been on the festival circuit. It's been really great. People are so interested and appreciative. You don't really get a lot of these opportunities. I've never done these kind of things – maybe a couple in my career. This movie needs the word of mouth. It has no (huge) stars in it. It's in black and white. These Q&A's are crucial to getting the word out to help sell the film.

Q: This film has already won some big awards and is being talked about as a potential Oscar nominee. How does that feel?

A: Obviously, we're so happy that we're even at the place we're at now. It's doing well at the box office, people are talking about it. It's all been so rewarding. Then to be acknowledged in that kind of company, and to be discussed as part of the buzz – it's all surprising. We're very grateful for that.

Contact the writer: 714-796-6026 or rchang@ocregister.com


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