The Chinese-French actor talks jealousy, love scenes, and her debut role in Jacques Audiard’s new drama
When Lucie Zhang cries in her hometown of Paris, her brain switches language. “If I’ve got too many emotions, I automatically say everything in Chinese,” the 21-year-old French-Chinese actor tells me in English. “Chinese is my intimate language, and French is my intellectual language.”
Playing the frustrated singleton Émilie, Zhang is the captivating star of Jacques Audiard’s hookup drama Paris, 13th District. Quick-witted and impulsive, Émilie will act first, then worry later. She unwisely sleeps with her flatmate, Camille (Makita Samba), and is sacked at a call centre for rudeness. Beneath the screwball antics, though, Émilie exhibits signs of existential despair. Lonely in Paris, she swipes through Tinder during long, exhausting hours as a waitress; meanwhile, she has a grandmother in a care home whom she adores but cannot bear to visit. Remarkably, it’s Zhang’s first movie role.
I meet Zhang at the Londoner Hotel during the London Film Festival, the afternoon before a gala screening. Now and then, she requires Google Translate (“oh, the word I meant is ‘cotton’”), eventually questioning why I’m not more fluent in Chinese. I shrug: if she grew up in Paris, why did she learn it? “When I was younger, I didn’t have many friends,” she says. “I wasn’t really integrated into French society, at school, etc. I spent most of my time watching Chinese TV series and speaking to my parents. We’d watch Chinese, talk Chinese, sing Chinese, eat Chinese, hear Chinese. My family life was really rich.”
From the age of 13 onwards, Zhang dreamed of acting, even while starting an undergraduate degree in Management at Paris-Dauphine. In her second year of university, at the start of the pandemic, she auditioned for projects online. “None of the castings would answer me,” Zhang laments. “Maybe they were looking for white people.” Then Zhang spotted an Instagram casting call for a Parisian who could speak Mandarin. “I told myself: oh my God, you have to do this, otherwise you’ll die.”
Audiard (Rust and Bone, A Prophet) adapted Paris, 13th District’s script with Céline Sciamma and Léa Mysius from three graphic novels by Adrian Tomine. In the ensemble story, Émilie stumbles into a love triangle with Camille and his work colleague, Nora (Noémie Merlant); further complications arise when Nora is mistaken for a camgirl, Amber Sweet (Jehnny Beth). Zhang, funnily enough, shares her name with another Lucie Zhang, a former Vogue employee and current Netflix bigwig who’s verified on social media. “When I tried looking for ‘Lucie Zhang’ on the internet, I was only seeing information about her.”
The algorithm will surely switch the priorities, though – sorry to the other Lucie Zhang – with Zhang, the actor, winning the Best Actress prize at Seville Film Festival, as well as receiving nominations at France’s prestigious César and Lumière Awards. Paris, 13th District, too, boasts appeal as an arty, elegant, Palme d’Or-competing drama, the kind of black-and-white, subtitled release that cinephiles flock to on opening day. It’s also, as the Guardian more bluntly put it, “a sexy film about sexiness”.
Lovemaking scenes as a first-time actor during COVID-19 sounds stressful, I note. “The pandemic helped a little,” Zhang counters. “It made us closer. Every week, we had two PCR tests. We were all stressed – sometimes more stressed than having a scene to play. Sometimes we cried.” Faking sex for a camera, she continues, also wasn’t that big a deal. “Bed scenes are less scary than a really simple scene where you’re just the character and you have to be extremely focused. Whereas with a sex scene, it’s something you’re used to doing, and there’s a switch inside your brain. You say, ‘It’s not me, it’s her.’ We both forget. It’s us, in another space and time. There’s no blocking, there’s no ambiguity.”
However, she adds, “when I saw the film for the first time, I was a little confused about the realness of it.” Because the sex looks so real? “Yeah. I even felt jealous – not as Lucie, but as Émilie – seeing Camille with this other girl. It would’ve been helpful if I saw their scenes during the shoot, because the jealousy within me would’ve been stronger and stronger.”
Onscreen, Zhang is so kinetic and light-footed, she glides through scenes – like a ballet star, in one fantasy sequence. To workshop their chemistry, she and Samba took dancing lessons, upon which a coach advised her to move like water. Zhang frets about the translation, but we conclude there’s no other word for water. “She told me, ‘Lucie, I want to see that you have water inside your body.’ For the rest of my life, whenever I feel disconnected with myself, I will be water, and it will help a lot.”
Before Zhang became water, Audiard worried in rehearsals that she was “too heavy”. He asked her to watch When Harry Met Sally, a few French comedies, and another movie she can’t remember the name of. After describing what sounds like a deep, dark plunge into the depths of humanity, I realise she’s referring to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. “Maybe it’s because of the Chinese series I watch that I tend to dramatise and make it too sad,” she says. “He told me, ‘Lucie, I can see in your eyes that you’re melancholic.’ He told me I need to abandon myself if I want to reach and meet the character.”
At Cannes, Zhang suffered acute pain from wearing heels, but it was all worth it when she reached the auditorium. “With the lights and music, it was magical, like a dream,” she recalls. “Because in a dream, you can’t really see, and you can’t figure out what’s happening. My feet weren’t important at that time.” She was like water? “I was like water.”
Still, Zhang’s IMDb page has to be paused until she finishes university – she’s skipping classes to attend the London Film Festival. Rather than become a lawyer like Camille or Nora, though, Zhang plans to continue acting and has a goal: “A Chinese action film with flying and beautiful costumes.” So like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? She shakes her head. “What I mean is: they are heroes, they are flying, they’ve got powers. It’s a bit cheesy, but really not cheesy. It’s really magic. Or if it’s not fantastical, it can be Chinese and ancient but inside a palace, with a king and queen. Or if it’s not ancient or Chinese, it can be set now, but be very dramatic and sad and melancholic.” She laughs. “Something that tears your heart!”
So a bit like her original depiction of Émilie, the one that Audiard deemed too heavy? “I think when I watch the film, I can still see some of my melancholy in Émilie,” she offers as a correction. “I didn’t abandon myself totally.”
Paris, 13th District is out in cinemas and exclusively on Curzon Home Cinema from 18 March