Actress Pom Klementieff has led a life studded with sadness. She shares it readily, breezing by the suicide, schizophrenia, and death that shrouded her childhood. It’s a frankness rarely heard from the mouth of an American actor, but Klementieff is French and tends not to give a fuck. Tomorrow, American audiences will get their first look at the rising star in Oldboy, Spike Lee’s remake of the twisty South Korean revenge classic. Klementieff, who graduated from the same French drama school as Marion Cotillard, plays a small but pivotal role in the story of a man (Josh Brolin) who, after being mysteriously imprisoned for two decades, seeks answers and vengeance. Here, she recounts Spike Lee’s gruelling audition process that finally led to her casting.
What can you tell me about your role in Oldboy?
I just can tell you that I’m never really far from the villain. It’s a mysterious part. Spike says I’m one of the leads, but I don’t agree. It’s a key role for the main character, but at the same time it’s not. I don’t think people are gonna say, “Oh my god did you see her, she’s amazing.”
I think you’re being more negative than you should be.
I’m not negative. I’m French! [Laughs]
What was the audition process like? Spike Lee is known to be a rigorous director.
A month before the actual audition I was obsessed with this role. I knew I would have to be tough for the role, so I trained boxing with a coach and stunt coordinators in Paris. After the first audition, they asked me back later that day. I was waiting for an hour freaking out when finally, I was led into the room and Spike was there. He asked me to do my reading, and after the martial arts movements, but it wasn’t really good. I’m so much better now.
I had known Spike was a huge sports fan. So he said, Okay, I know you did some boxing, but I can’t really see it. He started testing me. He said, Do you want the part? And I said, Of course I want the part. He said, Show me. And so I was kicking and boxing in the air. I was shadow boxing. And he screamed, Stronger! Give me some kicks! I started losing my breath, turning red. If he said do that for two hours, I’d do it. He finally said, Stop and started asking me about my life. Where do you come from? What’s your story? So I answered all his questions. My family story was pretty complicated. A lot of people died. There’s schizophrenia, and my brother committed suicide. He had died a few months before, but I was just answering his questions. I was smiling like a weirdo.
So he said, We asked you to come with a training outfit to audition for the martial arts scene, but the role has to be feminine and sexy, so I’d like to see you in another outfit. Please go home and change your outfit, make-up, and hair, and come back. He could have said, please go to France and come back instantly and I’d be like, Of course! Yeah!
Was that its own epic trek?
Definitely. When I called my roommate for apartment keys, I got her voicemail. So I said, Okay, I’m going to buy some shoes and some makeup. I don’t care how much this costs. I have to do this as fast as possible. Spike Lee is waiting for me. The casting director gave me high heels in her trunk. So I wore really LA girl shoes, black and funky. I got a dress from a store in Larchmont. When I walked in there I said, I need a dress—too sexy with cleavage, short, tight, black. Not the kind of dress I could wear in the day time.
When I walked back into the room Spike said, Oh, you look like a different person. And I said thank you, I look like a whore. He got my humor. I did the audition again, and then the it was over. The next day Spike called me back and asked me to meet him for tea to talk about a lot of different things, about the movie, and New Orleans, where the movie was shot.
It was weird because he didn’t say Okay, you have the part or not. I was becoming less and less confident. At the end he walked me to the Walk of Fame and I left. He sent me a text later that said, Thank you, it was great to meet you. And I thought maybe he told me I had the part, but I didn’t hear it because I was so worked up. But I flew back to Paris without an offer and one week later, I got an email from the casting director saying I got the part.
How do you manage all that vulnerability?
Sometimes an audition is so bad I think maybe I should stop. But then there’s something magical like this, where something starts happening in the audition room and goes through the making of the film that I remember why I do the job and why I will keep going.
What were you thinking the first day on set?
I was really happy to be part of the adventure, but really stressed out too because I wanted Spike to be really proud of his choice. I had to train martial arts three hours a day every day for two months. It’s not just about being strong and a badass. It’s about being in control and not hurting the people you have to work with.
When did you know that you wanted to act?
I started taking theater classes when I was 19. But it really connected with my story and family story, because I didn’t have a father anymore. My father died when I was 5 and my mother’s schizophrenic. My aunt and uncle raised me and I had a beautiful childhood in the countryside, one hour away from Paris. Then my uncle who was my second father died on my 18th birthday. And it was hard and really symbolic, because when you’re 18 in France you become an adult. It was weird, but at the same time I knew everyone could die, and life is short, and I should do whatever I wanted to do. No one could say you shouldn’t do that.
Photo by Gilles Toucas.