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‘Poor Things’ Standout Suzy Bemba Wants to Rethink the French Industry: ‘It’s Time to Break Stereotypes’

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Recently named as one of Unifrance’s 10 to Watch for 2024, “Poor Things” breakout Suzy Bemba wants to play a more proactive role reshaping and rethinking the French industry. To that end, she co-founded the professional support group The Actors Association (ADA) to fight against harassment, to push for better protections on-set and to claim a seat at the table.

“It’s more of an organic outgrowth of my experiences and values, and those of the people I’ve met,” she tells Variety from this year’s Unifrance Rendez-Vous in Paris.  

How did the ADA come about?

A little over two years ago, Ariane Labed (“The Lobster”), Daphné Patakia (“Benedetta”), Zita Hanrot (“The Hookup Plan”) and I founded the organization after a series of informal dinners during which we realized that we had been isolated from one another by this construct of competition. Getting together allowed us to break that silence, to break out of isolation – to confront our ideas and confront one another. And once you get the word out, you realize that you’re not alone.

[Once word of these dinners began to spread] we realized just how many people had experiences similar to ours. We learned of far too many instances of abuse, aggression, harassment and rape to then sit back and not do anything more. We couldn’t just stand by; that would be like planting a seed and then not watering it anymore. So we decided to get organized so that we could have a seat at the table  [alongside] the producers, agents and casting directors that are in fact organized, that already had their place. We wanted to have a say in the decisions made about our business.

How would you describe your own vision?

I’m prepared to do anything [a role requires] so long as I respect my physical and moral integrity and that of others. I need to know that the vision I serve will not be harmful, that it won’t perpetuate stereotypes or dangers – which can lead to real public health concerns – whether by way of colonialist, racist, patriarchal, or homophobic representations.

There’s also something to be said for being aware of the social and public impact of our profession, because we produce images that linger. The images we produce stay with us, shaping our imaginations, so you can’t plant the wrong seeds. [Co-founding the organization] was less a question of activism than a question of shared responsibility; we needed to think about those images, how we produced them, and their effect on us. And with that came the idea of the association of actors, because that’s exactly what we do together – we deconstruct, reconstruct, and rethink.

Suzy Bemba in “Poor Things”
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One of your big causes is the push for intimacy coordinators.

People often look at us with wide eyes when we talk about intimacy coordinators. They say that’ll never fly in France, where such a position is akin to censorship. So there’s some real fear out there. [Labed, Hanrot, Patakia and I] have all explored sensuality a great deal in our work. So when people accuse us of wanting to censor, I just want to say, look at the films we make. Well, accuse us, but there’s no censorship there!

Last year, you starred in “Homecoming” – a warm and sunny film with a positive message that was eclipsed by the controversies surrounding its production. Could that have been avoided by greater vigilance on set?

Yes, I think so. There was [no great misdoing], more like a pile of little problems, little issues that somehow made a mountain in the end. It all starts with a question of trust. We need a shared trust, a shared consensus in order to run a smooth set, but I don’t think we always succeeded in establishing as much. And so, inevitably, that led to conflict. Again, it’s all about communication. Expressing yourself and voicing your discomforts can sometimes be challenging, but putting those concerns out into the open can then facilitate that consensus. And so, at least from my experience, I really learned the value of always expressing both your likes and dislikes.

“Poor Things” certainly gave you greater international exposure. Are you considering more work abroad?

Look, I’m French, I’m patriotic, and I want to work here. But, at least in terms of the scripts I read, I often feel like I have less access here than I would in England. Someone like me doesn’t always fit into the imaginations of certain screenwriters, who often write Black characters that spring from the banlieues and suffer for their condition. And I don’t want to reproduce those limited views. I’m done, really I’m done. I’m 23 years old and I’ve had enough of seeing, living representing those clichés. Instead I’d rather push against the walls of what’s possible, to push as far as I can. It’s time to break stereotypes.