“Are you ready to be a part of the sexual revolution?” actresses Stacy Martin and Sophie Kennedy Clark were asked by the photographer when they shot the controversial poster campaign for Lars von Trier’s latest cinematic revelation, Nymphomaniac. To promote the four-hour epic, in which Charlotte Gainsbourg recounts her life’s erotic adventures to aging bachelor Stellan Skarsgård, each cast member – from Uma Thurman to Shia LaBeouf – was required to give their best orgasm face. The graphic film was a baptism of fire for both 22-year-old French newcomer and current face of Rag & Bone Martin and Scottish 23-year-old Clark, marking their feature debuts. We met the talented pair in London to discuss female sexuality and power politics – and to get a peek into what it was really like working with von Trier.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: The problem with calling Nymphomaniac provocative is that it’s about sex addiction. It’s not sexy. No addiction is.
Stacy Martin: The journalists I’ve talked to said they had to redo their questions, because they expected something sexy but they got the opposite. It’s quite ugly and disgusting.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: There’s definitely an ugly side to sex.
Stacy Martin: I’m expecting mixed reviews, because that’s what Lars’ films provoke. He’s an auteur, an artist. Working with someone like that is quite a privilege. To have his trust – Nymphomaniac was my first film – was quite bonkers.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: It’s difficult, because I don’t want to feed the hype that Lars is this really uncomfortable man to be around. Because he’s not. It’s so liberating working with him: he gives his actors a creative licence I’ve never experienced.
Stacy Martin: He won’t tell you what to do. He wants you to actually come up with something so you are creating with him, rather than him saying, ‘Do this, do that.’ Also, the way he casts people – he’s worked with Charlotte Gainsbourg three times – means he knows he’s going to get what he wants. Because he’s looking for an essence instead of a product. It could be in one take.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Which was quite unsettling, in a way. I remember vividly when Lars gave me this monologue from the original Nymphomaniac script. I did it, and then he came up to me and said in my ear, ‘That was really good, but now do it in your own words.’ And I was like, ‘What, the whole monologue?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Then he was like, ‘Action!’ And I thought, well, this is fucking go-time, isn’t it? Jesus!
Stacy Martin: I think the UK’s reaction will be completely different to what they expect.
“Video games are so violent, and people buy them for their children. And yet they won’t talk about sex" - Sophie Kennedy Clark
Sophie Kennedy Clark: In Italy, the country of love, they’re having real issues with the film. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
Stacy Martin: It’s very dense as well. The whole hype is around the sex scenes, but they’re small compared to the rest of the film.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: The sex isn’t there as a shock factor but because it needs to be there to tell the story in its truest form. It makes me feel uncomfortable that everyone’s talking about this being shocking. We’re more than happy to read Fifty Shades of Grey, but the moment it’s on a screen people throw their arms up in the air.
Stacy Martin: You can film people killing each other, and people are fine with that. But when there’s sex, which we all do...
Sophie Kennedy Clark: The arms go up! Video games are so violent, and people buy them for their children. And yet they won’t talk about sex.
Stacy Martin: You can put a lady in a tiny bikini on the cover of a magazine and that’s absolutely fine. But as soon as you say she’s a nymphomaniac, it sparks controversy. We’re hypocrites. People are threatened by female sexuality. We almost never see women strong and determined. It’s amazing that women are finally standing up for themselves.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: We’re still ruled by tradition, whether we see it or not. Women have always found social confirmation in standing behind a man, in a supporting role.
Stacy Martin: What gets me is that Macbeth has a really difficult female role but no one gave Shakespeare any trouble. Why can’t you have really difficult female parts today?
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Because all of the actors back then were men. The other day, someone asked me ‘Do you prefer “actor” or “actress”?’, and I was like, ‘Actress!’
Stacy Martin: There’s something about the word ‘actor’ that’s supposed to mean you’re more serious.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: To hell with it! That’s the man version. You can be a serious actress, you know? I think ‘feminism’ is still a dirty word. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to describe myself as feminist. Women had to really fight their corner a couple of decades ago, with brute force. It got us where we are. As a result, feminism still has a bit of a stigma. But now we have leeway to behave in different ways and still get heard.
Stacy Martin: Feminism is so subjective. Because of the generational divide, and because we’re living in a completely different world than someone in Africa or even Scotland. People like to think of feminists as angry.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Like women who run topless on to catwalks, or Pussy Riot – that’s the feminism that gets into the news. The media rules, and is still very male-dominated. For me, Tilda Swinton flies the flag. Yeah, she’s got an androgynous look, but in her roles she’s very feminine, and she’s so clever with the roles she chooses. I think she’s everything.
“You can put a lady in a tiny bikini on the cover of a magazine and that’s absolutely fine. But as soon as you say she’s a nymphomaniac, it sparks controversy. We’re hypocrites" - Stacy Martin
Stacy Martin: When I met Charlotte I fell in love with her, because she’s so strong and kind of demure, but in an amazing French way. She doesn’t feel the need to justify anything and does what she believes in. She has that power and confidence.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: I think it’s great that people have started getting more into ‘best actress’ awards rather than ‘best actor’, because women get the slightly more glamorous side of things as well as more meaty roles. The women who get nominated now are unbelievable! It’s these older, stronger, more lived-in women – your Judi Denches, your Meryl Streeps, your Cate Blanchetts. It’s so exciting to be a young actress and think that one day you could be doing what they’re doing.
Stacy Martin: Speaking of actresses, it sucks that Rachel Evan Wood’s cunnilingus scene got cut out of Charlie Countryman.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Yeah, women have so much power when they’re the ones calling the shots sexually. Today, we have more of a choice. So deciding when and with who we have sex, as well as being leaders, directors and whatever else women were once not allowed to become – it puts us in quite an intimidating position of strength.
Stacy Martin: But it shouldn’t be intimidating – it should be normal.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: It’s new. It’s really funny, because I still remember doing posters for Nymphomaniac. During the shoot, I thought, ‘My poor parents, my poor parents...’ It’s one of those things when you walk into a room and remove your top, and they say ‘would you like 15 minutes?’ to try and get in that headspace of having an orgasm. It’s that moment of ecstasy they were after.
Stacy Martin: The loss of control and pure pleasure.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: It’s that ugly/pretty combination. No one looks like a supermodel when they’re coming. It’s so removed from anything I’ve done, because in a typical photo shoot you’re trying to look lovely. It’s a face that only a few very lucky men have seen.
Stacy Martin: Not any more! The shoot was really crazy, I just did the most ridiculous faces. Some of them actually worked. I was giggling the whole time, because I thought the only way I would survive it was to have fun.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Mine wasn’t so playful. I thought, if my friends could see me now! Mid-orgasm is not how we’re used to seeing people.
Stacy Martin: I’m not really ready to see my orgasm plastered all over stations, billboards and buses...
Sophie Kennedy Clark: I’ll be standing on the tube with my head down.Someone asked me the other day if I was actually coming in the poster. And I was like, ‘No, mate.’ He said, ‘Oh my God, I actually thought you were!’ And I thought, wait, this is not the first time a woman has faked an orgasm. Are you kidding?
Stacy Martin: The sex scenes were the hardest to shoot because they were so technical. They have to merge your body with the porn double’s body, and sometimes because of the angle and CGI machine I needed to hit all these points precisely. I had all these black dots on my body as reference points. I literally felt like a machine.
“The orgasm faces in the Nymphomaniac poster campaign are an ugly/pretty combination. No one looks like a supermodel when they’re coming” - Sophie Kennedy Clark
Sophie Kennedy Clark: My parents had absolutely no idea who Lars was. They were like, you’re doing what? But I had a fairly easy time compared to you – I’m just a mischievous character in the film.
Stacy Martin: What about the outfits?
Sophie Kennedy Clark: I don’t get to wear little outfits like you. Although one was hilarious. I was wearing this synthetic material as a ripaway skirt. I don’t think I’ll be reaching for it again soon.
Stacy Martin: I had Latex pants that squeaked whenever I moved.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: I think what Lars does is create movements. He’s a trailblazer. He isn’t controversial for the hell of it. Everything has a reason.
Stacy Martin: The film is very intelligent, witty, and there’s a lot of debate that comes out of it. Not just because it’s about sex.
Sophie Kennedy Clark: Looking at it now, in the new year, Nymphomaniac really is like the beginning of a sexual revolution. From Lovelace to Blue Is the Warmest Colour – these new kinds of films are being acknowledged and winning major awards. It’s fantastic.
This article is taken from the February issue of Dazed & Confused. In the print version, the quotes were mis-attributed.
Follow Christine Jun on Twitter here @ChristineCocoJ