At the end of a conversation with French actor Audrey Tautou at the Empire Hotel overlooking Lincoln Center, she asks for a photo. She stands and moves toward me with a camera in her hand, poised to take a snapshot—but not of the two of us, just me.
"Otherwise I will forget who I met in New York," she says with a smile, her almond eyes and brunet curls peeping up from behind the lens. Then the shutter clicks and she waves goodbye.
It is really the only moment in our interaction reminiscent of the role that made Tautou an overnight sensation at 24: the titular character in writer-director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amélie." In the 11 years since, she has matured into one of France's biggest names, starring in such films as "A Very Long Engagement" in 2004, "Priceless" in 2006, and "Coco Before Chanel" in 2009.
In the new romantic comedy "Delicacy," Tautou is Nathalie, a young Parisian whose happy life is turned upside down by her husband's sudden death. Retreating from her friends and her emotions, Nathalie copes with her loss by burying herself in her work—only to succumb to the unlikely charms of an awkward colleague (François Damiens).
"This part was very challenging for me," Tautou says, "this evolution between her youth, and the accident and mourning, and how she's going to rebuild herself."
"Delicacy" is based on a best-selling novel by French author David Foenkinos, who also wrote the screenplay and co-directed the film with Stéphane, his brother. The Foenkinos brothers, who speak about Tautou and their film a few days before Tautou immortalizes me with her camera, say that they immediately agreed Tautou should play Nathalie. They did not, however, expect one of the most popular and bankable actors in France to accept a role in their directorial debut.
"When I started to write the script, it was the first and the only idea we had," David Foenkinos says of casting Tautou. "But an idea like a dream. We really love her and admire her, and it was Audrey on my mind, but I didn't think it would be Audrey for real."
In fact, Tautou specifically wanted to act in a film by first-time directors, after working mostly with established filmmakers. "When you do a first movie, it's another energy," she says. "And I really enjoyed that."
Even after the international success of "Amélie" in 2001 and a starring role opposite Tom Hanks in Ron Howard's 2006 adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code," Tautou had no desire to relocate to Los Angeles. She sees Hollywood as a land defined more by compromises than by opportunities.
"I'm very, very spoiled in French cinema," Tautou says. "I feel that I really have interesting leading parts, who very often have a psychological journey. Of course there's very interesting parts [in American films], but when you are a foreign actress you don't get the same chance as an English-speaking actress. I think if I were to move there, I wouldn't have the same kind of freedom. I don't want to prove anything to anybody. My ego is not located in that area." Tautou understands English very well, but she prefers to respond in French via a translator. She calls herself a "bad student" when it comes to learning—and performing in—a new language.
She also expresses her frustration that to establish herself as an A-list actor in Hollywood, she would feel required to star in big-budget blockbusters before being able to take on more substantial parts in smaller projects. Tautou rarely, if ever, needs to audition for films in France, where her rarefied status means she can afford to be picky about her next job.
"I'm too entitled," she admits. "I can't eat something that I don't like only because after I will have some sugar, you know? I can't work like that."
Rather than strategizing her career, Tautou says that she chooses her projects instinctively, including her 2010 turn as Nora in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House" in Paris. Aside from small roles in amateur productions when she was an acting student at Le Cours Florent, the role was her stage debut.
"I had been kidnapped by movies," she says, laughing. "So it took me some time to find the time to do a play."
When they saw Tautou as Nora, the Foenkinos brothers realized that her character's development from a childlike wife to a more mature and independent woman paralleled that of Nathalie in "Delicacy."
"It was her first professional experience as an actress onstage, and she was amazing," says Stéphane Foenkinos, who works primarily as a casting director. "Once we saw her, it was like, 'Oh my, she's exactly the character, and she could play the part.' We didn't envision the fact that we would be here in New York traveling with her, and ['Delicacy'] being sold in 40 countries."
Tautou may worry about forgetting the people she meets during her travels, but after 10 years of being a movie star, she's in no danger of being forgotten herself.
Tautou is learning to ice-skate for her next film, an adaptation of Boris Vian's novel "The Foam of the Days," directed by Michel Gondry. "I don't want to look like a monster on the ice, so I try to create a little grace," Tautou says, adding with a laugh, "I'm very far away from any good results." She is returning to France for the production, which begins in April. Her co-stars in the film include Omar Sy ("The Intouchables"), Gad Elmaleh ("Priceless"), and Jamel Debbouze ("Amélie").