In the summer of 2010, Kylie Minogue suggested we meet for Sunday brunch at Supercore, a Japanese restaurant and laptop-lit coffeehouse in Williamsburg. It was one of the last places I’d expected to interview one of this generation’s most famous and beloved pop stars. But then, the 44-year-old Australian showgirl has always thumbed her nose at convention, defying expectation through a giddy embrace of reinvention that cuts much deeper than wardrobe changes and Day-Glo wigs. Her most recent creative detour—Holy Motors, a surreal cinematic joyride courtesy of French auteur Leos Carax—has taken her down what is, quite possibly, the most bizarre path she’s ever trod.
Denis Lavant stars in the film as an Odysseus-like actor whose day consists of embodying all manner of otherworldly characters in a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes: a homeless woman begging for change; a beastly sewer-dweller who kidnaps a supermodel (Eva Mendes) and fashions her designer gown into a burka; and a gangster out for blood. Holy Motors’ most emotional scene centers on a chance encounter between Lavant and the mysterious Jean (Minogue), who sings about lost love before changing into a flight attendant uniform and jumping to her death from the roof of a dusty, abandoned department store. The episodic narratives, inspired in turn by various film genres, are circuitous, dreamlike, and breathtaking, and they come together to create a masterwork of dissonant but surprisingly holistic pastiche.
In celebration of the film’s October 17 release, I visited Minogue at the Soho Grand Hotel to discuss rebirth, reinvention, and the single greatest obstacle to her own artistic freedom: herself.
When you told me, two years ago from that patio in Williamsburg, that you were getting back into acting, I never imagined you meant something like Holy Motors.
Right? [Laughter.] Here’s the thing: there were reasons to do it and no reasons not to do it. I know it’s an unlikely pairing but throughout my career I’ve always been attracted to left-field independent stuff. I’ve done plenty of incidental things that by their very nature people just don’t know about.
You’ve always seemed to me like an outsider who’s been able to thrive in the mainstream, so, in a way, a Leos Carax movie makes sense.
Exactly, and it was like a gift from heaven. I was and I wasn’t looking for roles, but the entire time I was hoping to find the film equivalent of my collaboration with Nick Cave [1995’s “Where the Wild Roses Grow”]. Actually, the only thing that Leos knew of me was my work with Nick Cave. So I think the energies all went to the right places. I read the script and then I met with Leos and I thought he was either a crazy fool or some kind of genius. Anyway, I explained to him over lunch how I started out acting and blah, blah, blah. But it was a real blessing that he’s one of the few people who know very little about me, so he wasn’t clouded by all that other stuff.
He took me at face value without seeing Kylie.
That must feel so liberating.
You’ve hit the nail on the head. It was extremely liberating to be part of a team where things don’t fall entirely on my shoulders. It’s not my name carrying it. It allowed me to go back to what I started out doing, and that gave me a very warm feeling. As much as it was a challenge to do the film, and as much as anxiety it gave me, it felt good to be on set.
In what other ways were you able to shed the trappings of Kylie the pop star?
Everything came from living. I wasn’t thinking about what it looked like—I was thinking about what it felt like. That’s not to say that during concerts I’m only considering how things look, but presentation is a big part of it, and here there was none of that.
You’re adding layers during your live shows, and in this case you’re stripping those layers away. Was that frightening?
Actually, it was great. The only frightening part of it was if I could do it. I didn’t know if I would be successful—that’s what I was scared about. I was scared it would reach the point in the film where I first appear, and people would be like, “What’s Kylie Minogue doing in there?” But I hardly recognize myself in the movie. We were able to leave Kylie Minogue behind, which was great because I wanted to feel like I did when I was not much more than a kid, just starting out, and no one could spell or even say my name.
The film feels like a loving pastiche to the art of cinema.
But then Leos says in his interviews that it’s not about cinema! I’m trying to sort out how that works. He says that cinema is his language, that it’s his island. So I guess if he’s telling a story about what it is to be alive and his language is cinema, then that’s why all those references to different movie genres are in there. From what I’ve heard him say, he never set out to reference this and this and this. It’s all just within him.
When preparing for your part, did Leos give you any genre or character to look at for inspiration?
My character’s name was initially Elle, but we later settled on Jean because Leos kept bringing up Jean Seberg and Gene Tierney as references. My character can only really explain her past through song, and I kept wondering how I would go from speaking into singing about something in one fell swoop. He said to think about it as if it were just too painful to say—there are no words. Nothing is going to make it better and it’s almost like the song is coming out of her. The biggest challenge was to deliver the song but not to perform the song.
It couldn’t be further from “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” which appears as one of the character’s ringtones in the film.
That was cheeky. Holy Motors is an independent film, and songs cost a lot of money to use, so I tried to put in a good word… I was thinking they wouldn’t get it, but they did.
You’ve seen the film three times now. Do you get something new from it with each viewing?
As the great Homer Simpson once said, “It works on so many levels.”
Has your experience on Holy Motors reinvigorated your passion for acting?
Yeah, I’m doomed. [Laughs.] My life is busy enough already! I want more of this experience of expansion. I want to broaden my experience as opposed to always running on the same road. That’s not going to come to a grinding halt—I’ve got an album coming out next month, and I’ve got another album I’ll be working on next year—but it’s nice to wander and explore.
Leading up to Holy Motors, as well as your work in Bradley Rust Gray’s Jack and Diane, were you turning down a lot of offers?
I don’t know about a lot, but they’ve definitely rolled in from time to time. And it’s normally like, “So we’ve got a character for you: She’s Australian and she’s a singer…” Oddly, I was put in touch with Leos through [filmmaker] Claire Denis, who I met because we share the same hairdresser in Paris. That’s basically how all of it happened. Everything goes down at the hairdressers. It’s the epicenter of the universe.
Do you have any other films lined up?
[Whispers.] There are a couple things in the pipeline but I know better than to jinx them, and I think it’s a small miracle that any film ever gets made. But, yes, there are a couple of sparks out there and we’ll see which embers manage to burn.