Stacy Martin on sex, politics and starring alongside Robert Pattinson
She made her name in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Now she’s starring alongside Robert Pattinson and modelling for Miu Miu. Stacy Martin talks to Hermione Eyre about sex, double standards and why she hates the red carpet
We need to get real about sex,’ exclaims Stacy Martin, tearing apart her croissant in the breakfast room of the Mandarin Oriental hotel. ‘We need to unromanticise sex a little bit. Culturally we’re shown an impossible fantasy of how women should present themselves, how they should behave with men.’
This, she explains, was why she accepted her career-making role in Lars von Tier’s Nymphomaniac — widely considered one of the most sexually explicit films ever made. ‘I think as women, we have a responsibility towards young girls growing up to say, for example: “Look, losing your virginity will suck, but it’s going to be OK, keep at it!”’
Martin may look like she is made of porcelain but she is full of fire. Today, the 25-year-old actress took a taxi from her home in Stoke Newington, though she usually gets around town on her vintage Honda motorbike. In a navy-and-white striped cowl neck, high-waisted Topshop jeans, and Converse trainers, she’s dressed like your average east London cool girl, except for an achingly smart Miu Miu ‘Dahlia’ bag swinging from her shoulder.
As it happens, sex isn’t the only subject on which Martin has strong opinions. There’s Brexit, for one thing (she is, she tells mevery worried’ about the outcome) and then there’s the red carpet. Appearing at premieres, I note, she is often pictured giving a trademark stare, full of chic froideur. ‘OK, I don’t love the red carpet… You arrive and all the photographers are shouting at you “Smile!”. I’m like: what, you want me to lift my leg and twirl? No.’
I suspect, like it or not, she may need to get used to the attention. Having made her big-screen debut in Nymphomaniac in 2013, she has steadily racked up thought-provoking roles in critically acclaimed productions: playing top quattrocento totty in Matteo Garrone’s recently-released Tale of Tales, which starred Salma Hayek, and appearing as the cashier Faye opposite Tom Hiddleston in High-Rise. Last year she was named the face of Miu Miu’s first-ever fragrance campaign. It’s not hard to see why; sitting opposite, I’m struck by her off-kilter beauty, from her high Medieval forehead to her Modigliani-like features.
Her latest film, The Childhood of a Leader, is set during the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and won Best Director at Venice for its 27-year-old author, Brady Corbet, whom Martin describes as ‘like Braveheart’ in the way he galvanised cast and crew. ‘He never makes it feel like “work”… It’s more creating something, collaborating.’ She plays a sympathetic teacher who attempts to stop a disturbed child from becoming a future dictator alongside Robert Pattinson, though the pair have no scenes together (‘What, you’re not lovers?’ asked all her friends). In fact, she has never met him, apart from when she accosted him once, post-wrap, on the Eurostar, but praises how he has traversed entertainment and art house cinema: ‘It’s so exciting to see actors like him support films like Brady’s and then go on to do things that are unexpected, like working with Werner Herzog.’
Martin’s words are uttered in a delicate lilt that is the last vestige of a French accent; she was born in Paris where her father, Rene, was a hair stylist and her mother, Annette, a housewife. An only child, she was uprooted at seven when the family moved to Tokyo where her father was opening a salon: ‘It’s a beautiful country but a complex country and as Westerners you know you will never fit in. The Japanese I met were obsessed with Westerners and with pale skin and brunette hair.’ She was a magnet for petting and cooing. ‘After a while, I was like, “I am NOT a teddy bear!”’
Moving back to the French capital aged 13 felt, to her, retrogressive. ‘Things were too rigid there; I didn’t have time to think or explore.’ At 19, she arrived in London to make her way as an actress. Having begun modelling in her mid teens she was, she says ‘financially independent in a way that’s rare for a 19-year-old: I didn’t have to work in a bar or a café’ (though she did, briefly, work at the now defunct antique bookshop Ripping Yarns in Highgate).
Her first lodging was in student accommodation in a tower block on the Elephant and Castle roundabout; later she lived with friends in Camden ‘but regretted it. I was always stepping over drunk people on a Monday morning’. Still she fell in love with the capital: ‘When you’re 18 just going “Hello, London!” is a beautiful thing… London gives you that freedom to… be you.’
Three years later, after taking classes at the Actors’ Temple and graduating from the London College of Communication with a degree in culture and media studies, she auditioned for Von Trier. Nymphomaniac: Volume 1 was full of, shall we say, challenging material (her contract ensured she had a porn double and a prosthetic vagina). It was her first ever professional role. ‘It was a difficult film to do but for me… it’s a necessary film.’
Her character, Joe, played in later life by Charlotte Gainsbourg, is alienated and vastly promiscuous. Stacy entered completely into the taboo-breaking spirit of the film. ‘I’ve said some things about female sexuality that people don’t want to hear,’ she shrugs, referring, I assume, to an interview at the time of Nymphomaniac’s release when she complained that ‘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.’ Now, she says: ‘For me [it] is surreal, because you hear a lot of things said about male sexuality and violence and then, what? Women aren’t allowed to say sex sometimes isn’t that great?’
Five years ago at Madame Jojo’s in Soho she met her fiancé, Daniel Blumberg, 25, a musician formerly of Yuck and Cajun Dance Party, now working under the stage name Hebronix. Stacy enjoys how their disciplines are ‘separate worlds’. He proposed last year, in Paris, although they are too ‘disorganised’ to have planned a wedding yet. ‘I was very worried about publicly sharing my relationship because it’s a private thing, but also I’m not going to take my ring off because I’m doing an interview and a photoshoot — that would be weird.’ They are committed to living in London. ‘It’s especially important to me because my job involves travelling. I love having a proper base here; that feeling “I’m home”.’
Indeed, she describes her ‘Mecca’ as Tate Modern. ‘I was really worried when I heard about the new extension. I thought it might be too big, like MOMA, where it can feel a bit corporate and mechanical because they need to make sure there’s a return. But I went the other day and they’ve done something absolutely great.’ Her favourite restaurants are Koya Bar in Soho (‘brilliant’) and Raw Duck in Hackney, followed by cocktails at 69 Colebrooke Row in Islington.
Although clearly more at home in what she calls ‘the European art-house conversation’, would she be averse to doing a Hollywood number? ‘I used to be very… not anti-, but closed-minded about it. But actually in American cinema there are people working within the studio system and fighting it and trying to do something which is really challenging. For me, there’s cinema, which I love and would fight for, and then there’s also entertainment, and I see them as very, very different. But sure, I’d love to do a blockbuster. I can’t wait for someone to tell me, “explosion, run!”’
Her strong sense of style is apparent as she rifles through the rails of clothes for the ES photoshoot. ‘As a girl, the pressure on you to look a certain way is very high. I try to resist that scrutiny.’ Prada, she feels, is her best defence. ‘In Prada I never feel I’m oozing a particular look, I’m just myself but a better version.’ Does she really dislike the red carpet so much? ‘Look, my job is making films. Being an actress is not about waddling around grinning on demand.’ Magnificent. Martin is ready for her close-up.
The Childhood of a Leader is in cinemas 19th August