French actress-singer Soko calls it "straight-up method acting" — the way she dove into her role as the eponymous, seizure-prone kitchen maid in director Alice Winocour's docudrama "Augustine," set in Belle Epoque Paris. To achieve the partial-paralysis effect in the first half of the film — as she becomes the celebrity patient of neurologist Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, who tries to cure her "hysteria" — her right eye was glued shut in makeup every morning. In the second half, the affliction switches sides. She clenched her left fist, clawlike, for every shot, and smashed her twitching body into so many walls and floors, she needed anti-anxiety medication after filming. Musically, Soko is finally releasing her gothic-folk debut — "I Thought I Was an Alien," in the U.S.
So shooting "Augustine" actually forced you into therapy? Yes. I can't do things halfway. I'm always 1,000 percent into things, fully invested in everything I choose to do. So "Augustine" was seriously the best thing I've done in my life, even though every day you come back home covered in bruises. And somehow, halfway through the movie, I felt like my character was getting emotionally slapped in the face, nonstop, so I started hitting myself in the face. Like, really hard. Everything I did to myself in the film — kicking myself and having convulsions, bruising, hyperventilating, hurting myself physically? Your body still lives it and has a memory that it happened, for real. So getting off that and telling your body it was just a joke just didn't really happen.
You live in Los Angeles now. How do you audition for French films? I have an agent over there. But I'm at a pretty nice place in France, where usually people think about me for their films, so it's not very often that I have to go and audition. But "Augustine," for instance — I fought for that for eight months. I just wanted to get in the room with them, so I went with tradition. And they saw 800 girls, and after seeing 800 girls they finally said, "All right, fine. We'll see her." It was a really intense experience. For eight months I was calling my agent, crying, going, "Did they find a girl yet?" Because they wanted someone that didn't have any actress routines or tricks, someone totally natural.
You're a triple threat — you paint, too? I do! I do watercolors, and they're actually super-bright, in turquoise and yellow and pink and purple. Those are the only colors I use, and I've done around 50 so far. And when I'm doing those paintings, it feels awesome. Like Daniel Johnston doing his album "Fun" at the most miserable point in his life!
Starring Soko, Chiara Mastroianni, Vincent Lindon
Written and directed by Alice Winocour
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes
Note: The film opens Friday at the Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco.