Laetitia Casta

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The first thing you have to understand is that Laetitia Casta is simultaneously the most and least French of French actresses. The brown-haired beauty, who appears in this month’s Sundance-pedigreed Arbitrage alongside Richard Gere, Tim Roth, Susan Sarandon and Brit Marling, grew up in Normandy (and famously referred to her bounteous curves as “made in Normandy of butter and crème fraiche”). But her father— and a large part of her personality—comes from the island of Corsica, which is about as French as Hawaii is American. Which is to say, politically yes, but culturally, only in small part.

“I don’t feel myself as French,” she agrees. “When you come from Corsica, you don’t really feel yourself that way. It’s more Mediterranean. I feel more close to, I would say, Italian.”

Her zest for life does indeed have a distinctly Italian quality to it, but those words are still a bit jarring coming from Casta. She’s one of the most recognizable French faces of her generation, thanks in large part to her ubiquity in fashion campaigns by Guess and Victoria’s Secret in the 1990s and 2000s. And there are aspects of the French personality that she does seem to embody particularly well—a casual elegance and striking beauty, an easy confidence and calmness.

In fact, she embodies those and other French qualities so well that, in 1999, she was chosen to be the model for Marianne, the mythical character who is the very spirit of France. “It was such an honor,” Casta says. “At the time, I was traveling all over the world, and it was wonderful to be recognized by French people as the symbol of the nation. Marianne is wrapped in the flag and fighting the revolution. The idea is that she is a free woman.”

Buoyed by her fame and ubiquity, she began transitioning from her modeling career into acting. Although she’s appeared in 14 movies since her screen debut in 1999’s Asterix et Obelisk, Arbitrage is her first American film. “When I came to New York,” she remembers, “I thought, ‘Oh, how fun this is going to be, this big film, big crew, everything.’ But actually I felt like I was home with my family. I thought it was really an artisanal way to do it. Nick [Jarecki, the director] was really open to everything. He listened to the actors. He loves actors; he’s not scared of them. And Richard [Gere] was so generous and open. It was really fun.”

Casta hopes Arbitrage will be only the beginning of her American screen career, but she’s not pushing it. “It’s not about doing American movies,” she explains. “It’s about doing interesting projects. And they are everywhere actually; you have really interesting directors everywhere in the world. I’ve worked with Ming-liang Tsai, the Taiwanese director. I’m looking for good projects with interesting people attached. But of course to come here, in America, of course it’s a dream of any actor. In my humble way, I’m happy I’m starting with something small, and I hope to do more.”

This is not the answer you’d expect if you only know Casta as a model-turned actor. But she thinks about these things more deeply than many of her contemporaries: “It’s about taking risks. For me, actually, even it could look like a cliche to go into acting. Especially here in America, where they don’t know me as an actress; they just know that I used to be a model. In France it’s different—for 10 years I’ve been doing movies. But the thing is, even for a small character, trying to make something special. Trying to share something with the audience.”

That determination extends into very personal territory for Casta. “Like with a love scene,” she explains. “If it’s nothing special and nothing real, people don’t give a shit, excuse my language. If there’s something real from your own life, something that happened to you, like the way you’re going to kiss the man, like with ‘I love him. I want him. Why won’t he leave his wife?’ And you’re trying to remember something personal. And someone watching the movie would say, ‘Oh, something happened to her. I don’t know what it is, but I can feel it.’ This is really important for actors, to try to really share their feelings and emotions.”

And all that work comes in service to a higher purpose for her as well. “I think acting can make you more noble,” she says. “If you do it for the right reasons. To try to push yourself, and to try to understand humanity more, in a way. You know the funny thing about writers? This writer said to me, ‘I love the actors, because they understand I am writing. Sometimes it’s only when they play it that I understand what I’ve written.’ So I think the most important thing is to become more noble when you’re trying to do a project.”

It’s difficult to imagine those words coming from the lips of many American actors at all, much less models-turned-actors. But with Casta, there’s an offhandedness about her delivery. Not that she doesn’t find the topic important—it’s clear she does—but that she clearly sees how crucial and difficult the task is and calmly faces it. And that’s quintessentially French, whatever her sort-of-Italian-and-Mediterranean Corsican roots might be.