Stacy Martin in Lars von Trier's “Nymphomaniac: Volume I'

Stacy Martin is at the center of one of this year's most discussed, debated, and anticipated films, directed by one of the biggest “bad boys” of the filmmaking world. Lars von Trier declared he was planning a “porno movie” during his now-infamous 2011 Cannes Film Festival press conference for Melancholia. The comment might have made headlines had a slip of his tongue veering into a short but even more headline-grabbing diatribe about Hitler not stolen the show. But the off-handed “porno” remark was true—so to speak. Von Trier followed-up his end-of-the-world drama Melancholia with two volumes of carnal addiction, Nymphomaniac: Volume I and Nymphomaniac: Volume II. The first installment finally opens this weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, following what seems like months of teasers, trailers, and rumors. Martin and returning von Trier muse Charlotte Gainsbourg play, respectively, the younger and adult Joe, a self-diagnosed sex addict (who prefers “nymphomaniac”).

[Nymphomaniac: Volume I screening details can be found here.]

Von Trier is famous for his opening scenes and this is no exception. Volume I begins with the adult Joe (Gainsbourg) lying injured in a rainy alleyway. Against the industrial heavy-metal tunes of German band Rammstein, which provides some of the film's score, she is helped by a kindly man (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes her home and provides her with a comfortable bed. Sullen, Joe begins to tell her story, recalling life with her father (Christian Slater), as well as her early dabbles in sexual adventurism and, soon after, addiction. Stacy Martin plays the emotionally gaunt young Joe, told through older Joe's recollections. The movie is both both humorous and dark, and only rarely edges on titillation (though it depends what one is into). Skarsgård half-jokingly said at a press conference in Berlin: “This is not a wanking movie.” As the young Joe, Martin is virtually in every frame of Nymphomaniac: Volume I. A model turned aspiring actress, she is perhaps an unlikely candidate to carry a film by one of the world's foremost auteurs. But von Trier has consistently cast both famous actors (like Nicole Kidman in Dogville) and those new to the craft (Björk in Dancer in the Dark).

FilmLinc Daily spoke with Stacy Martin in New York last week. Like her fellow Nymphomaniac actors, von Trier was very much at the center of the conversation, though the filmmaker was not actually there (fallout from that Cannes press conference caused him to stop speaking to the press, at least for now). She told FilmLinc that she was both surprised and empowered as an actress, landing the role of Joe, which she noted is in fact embodied by four people: Gainsbourg and herself as well as their porn doubles. All of them, as well as the other characters who appear in the two films (played by Shia LaBeouf, Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, and others), hint at aspects of Lars von Trier's own psyche. And it is one they want to protect.

FilmLinc: This is your first role—and what a role to have going into acting. How did you meet Lars von Trier and get involved, and why did want to take on Joe and Nymphomaniac?

Stacy Martin: The first thing I heard about it was that Lars von Trier was doing a movie called Nymphomaniac, that Charlotte Gainsbourg was attached, and that there will be porn doubles. Immediately, you just question, “What?” But I've always been a fan of von Trier and to just read a scene that he's written and worked on… I thought, “Great!” Once I read the script and saw the universe he created—it was [kind of] like reading War and Peace. You put it down and you're in awe. He's really incorporated so many things that he loves in it. And I was offered the part… I auditioned in London and I did a screen test later and we improvised.

Lars can work with some of the world's greatest actresses and I wondered why he would choose a complete unknown. I thought at the time, he doesn't even know if I'm good or not. But I think he's a very intelligent man and he sees things. As with Charlotte, Stellan, and the others, he knows they can bring the essence of their characters out and that [gave me] confidence.

FL: Both you and Charlotte Gainsbourg have doubles for the heavily sexual scenes, but at the same time this is still a very demanding role, especially for a first-timer. That must have been quite a trip…

SM: Oh yeah, this is the kind of role you think of when you're still in training as an actor to maybe do, perhaps if possible, one day way down the line. To have the opportunity to do this as my first job was an incredible one I just have to take. And Lars giving me the part, and the trust that I could do it, gave me confidence, as I said.

As actors we know how this thing usually works—you take roles and you build up. But I was lucky that my first role wasn't [like that]. I went into something that is very difficult and I hope that that is something others will see that I did. I took on something very challenging. I think that is also what “acting” means. You go beyond yourself…

FL: Describe what working on a Lars von Trier set is like. What did you expect or imagine you were getting into that first day?

SM: I didn't have much expectation. I was just very curious as to how this all would go. He's really great because he builds a unit and builds what he believes in. Most of his team are Danish. His costume designer Manon Rasmussen has worked with him since Breaking the Waves and [Production Designer] Simone Grau has been around for about as long. They are all there because they love and support him and love his work.
You enter into this incredibly intimate, crazy family and you find yourself wanting to be protective and be a part of it. On set, everyone is there to work for Lars and there's a lot of respect for everyone that's there. It doesn't matter if you're a runner, a second AD, or an actor. He'd just say: “You're an actor. You know what to do…” [laughs]

FL: You and the other cast members have talked about feeling protective toward von Trier. He has taken you into this imaginary world he's created in Nymphomaniac. What ways do you perhaps feel protective toward your character, Joe? People undoubtedly will have all sorts of ideas about her even before seeing the film.

SM: I feel very protective of Lars [smiles]… It should be the opposite maybe. But he writes about himself and so maybe that mirrors into it. But it is interesting to see how people respond to Joe. Not everyone likes her, not everyone understands her… But there are moments people will have that they can relate to. All human beings have [conflicting sides]. We're not all good or all evil, of course. All human beings are neither completely bad nor completely saintly and she's exactly the same. She stands up for being a woman and having desire. But she also stands up and says, “I have an addiction.” She doesn't shy away from that which is extremely brave and empowering.

FL: There are some scenes, of course, that are extremely outrageous. I couldn't imagine what it was like building up to doing some of those. The tension or just the craziness of it all must have been powerful at times.

SM: Yeah, there were moments when we read the script and then would actually execute the scene and we'd realize just how funny it all was. And then you would hear the giggles in the background and then you we'd even start laughing and it would get louder.

But Lars likes those moments and he knows he's written scenes that are very funny or outrageous. He goes with it and everyone is there with him. I mean, when are you going to be in this situation where you have people starting the day saying, “Okay, Stacy, this is your scene and then you're going to have your porn double coming in…” Also what was great was in the morning there would be a producer explaining the day, saying, “You're going to do this and we'll do this scene and then we're going to have lunch and then this in the afternoon, then we'll have drinks at the end…”

FL: Did you and your double ever talk about your Joe?

SM: No, not really.

FL: But there really are four Joes right?

SM: Yes, there are four Joes. I think Lars wanted to represent womanhood. Yes, she's a particular woman in a particular situation, but that's why I think seeing so many Joes works. We're never the same person, especially at different ages, we all evolve.

FL: It's just now coming out in the U.S., but so much has already been written about the film leading up to its release. Now that audiences in this country will get a chance to see it in theaters, how do you hope they will approach it going in?

SM: For me it becomes much more than a film about a nymphomaniac. It becomes this crazy tale about love, and even religion, painting and music. There's so much humor in it as well. I hope they can get out of it every little thing Lars has worked so hard to give and see it for what it is as well. I think it's a real masterpiece. I think it's one of the most dense films he's ever made.

[FilmLinc will feature an interview with Charlotte Gainsbourg prior to the release of Nymphomaniac: Volume II.]