Actors Shia LaBeouf and Jean-Marc Barr talk Lars von Trier and real sex on screen before Nymphomaniac's Berlin Film Festival premiere.
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6 Feb 2014 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 6 Feb 2014 - 2:20 PM

Shia LaBeouf is one crazy dude. Yes, dude is a word the 27-year-old likes to use a lot. Talented and raw as an actor, he rarely holds back on what he is thinking and has gotten a little carried away of late. The actor quit the Broadway show Orphans in February due to creative differences with the director Daniel Sullivan and co-star Alec Baldwin (now there's a pairing), while his bizarre series of plagiarised apologies to graphic novelist Daniel Clowes' work for LaBeouf's short film HowardCantour.com made headlines around the world, as did his head-butting a man in a London pub.

Nymphomaniac’s a very specific movie with very specific sex

Now, three weeks after declaring he was retiring from public life, after wrapping the war movie Fury with Brad Pitt, LaBeouf has been cast with another hellraiser Bill Murray (and Bruce Willis) in Barry Levinson's Rock the Kasbah, a comedy about a music manager in Kabul.

I never for one second believed LaBeouf would give up his profession, his life thus far has been “performance art”, he says. Certainly, he throws his heart into everything he does, hook, line and sinker. He is probably the perfect match with provocative Danish director Lars von Trier, who likewise doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut. The pair have teamed up for Nymphomaniac with LaBeouf admitting he was the only actor who had sex for real without donning any genital prosthetics. It's interesting to note that the film's star and on-screen nymphomaniac, Charlotte Gainsbourg, donned a piece of rubber for the shocking masturbation scene in von Trier's Antichrist as well. Though the torture scene where she hammered a steel rod through Willem Dafoe's leg was actually much harder to take.

Whether God figures in Nymphomaniac we shall see. Von Trier has long maintained that his Catholic religion is a kind of rebellious stance against the pervading conservative Protestantism in Denmark. Conservative is certainly never a word to describe von Trier.

The overall feeling so far is that Nymphomaniac is an art film, even if LaBeouf is making more headlines by maintaining he had to audition his old fella for the role and, of course, those nude torsos of the actors in erotic stance made a huge impression on the internet.

The uncensored version of Volume 1 of Nymphomaniac will world premiere in Berlin on Sunday, before the two-part film is rolled out in various forms around the globe. In Australia, Transmission will release Volumes 1 and 2 as one single four-hour version on March 20. A shorter version of the first film, approved by Von Trier, has already opened in some countries and screened in Sundance.

Whether the obtuse-minded director travels to the Berlin Festival in his daggy old campervan as he has done on several occasions in Cannes (and parked it at the Hotel du Cap, one of the world's most expensive hotels) remains to be seen.

In 2013, I met with LaBeouf for The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman, a disappointing film that is coming out here on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital copy on March 19. He had taken drugs for that role because his character was, well, out of it.

Is that method acting, or what?

I do whatever brings me closer to it. Like you can either hang over the water or you can have your stunt double go in there. The job is going to be harder when you've got to conjure it. I don't think I'm the kind of actor who can just conjure shit out of nowhere. I do need to root for feelings. You don't pick your thoughts; you don't pick your emotions. You can only inform them and root for them and that's all I know how to do. I know that when I'm hanging over a fucking bridge I'm not acting and that's my goal all the time is to get closer to not acting. Sometimes you can't, sometimes you have an accent that's constantly putting you back there. Like in Nymphomaniac I'm a British guy. It's a different challenge but I'm still trying to get as visceral as possible and get lost in it.

So you've gone from fake sex in Charlie Countryman to real sex in Nymphomaniac? (Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter after she saw the final cut of Charlie Countryman where parts of a love scene showing LaBeouf's character performing oral sex on her character were missing. Interestingly, Wood's husband Jamie Bell AKA Billy Elliott, who started acting in his childhood like Wood and LaBeouf, also appears in Nymphomaniac. LaBeouf has known Bell since the age of 10 and says they are part of a group of adventurous young actors.)

It's not a commitment thing, it's what are you allowed to do kind of thing.

Nymphomaniac's a very specific movie with very specific sex. It's not like enjoyable sex, which is a wild thing to get your head around. I know I'm the only actor who doesn't have a stunt double, and I know it's something that I needed. It's part of my character. Sex is a character in the movie and we all talked about it. Everybody did what they were comfortable with. It was a good squad. You had a bunch of actors who were really committed to Lars and his vision. It never felt strange like, “Ooh, we're getting into some weird stuff now.” It was a beautiful set and everything was handled really professionally. It wasn't just a free-for-all; we weren't making a porno. You're still talking about honesty and commitment as an actor. It's sex—but I'm also not a 15-year-old. Sex is as real to me as violence or drugs or emotion or happiness or joy or laughter.

Jean-Marc Barr

Jean-Marc Barr is a regular of von Trier's movies, including Dogville starring Nicole Kidman, and he now appears in Nymphomaniac too. He's actually had a broader experience at being risqué than LaBeouf.

What do you think of real sex on screen?

Well, it's a different time, you know. I recently did a film called Sexual Chronicles of a French Family where the actors really made love and it was a beautiful comedy. When you're living in an age where kids of any age, all the way to old people, can watch pornography whenever they want, then why can't we offer an alternative, a philosophical alternative to think about sex or an aesthetic way of looking at sex without having to say that it's bad or good? In the past two years there's been a concentration of it in the cinema.

You also made Paolo Franchi's And They Call It Summer, an erotic Italian film, about a man unable to have sex with the woman he loves but who harbours a passion for prostitutes which strains the couple's relationship to breaking point.

It won two prizes at the Rome Film Festival. It was a scandal. The Berlusconi press had never seen anything like it. (Jury member Australian director P.J. Hogan called it “brave filmmaking, obsessive filmmaking, uncompromising. It will be hated and loved.”) For the younger generation, making love and putting it on the internet is not a problem, so it's a much different time now. I don't know if it's better or worse. So why not in the cinema?

Maybe for the new generation sex is not so related to love?

Maybe they separate the two, maybe there is a confusion.

The problem for these kinds of films is that our cinemas are so controlled. So that if you try and show alternatives to looking at sex which are not in the grammar of pornography—which is a spectacle of sex and has nothing to do with real life—if you start bringing it towards real life then you start getting into emotions and that's much different. They don't want to communicate that. You know, pornography is the world's third biggest industry after armaments and beauty products. They're making a hell of a lot of money with a certain attitude of degradation. I think kids should have an alternative and we should be able to look at sex without judging it. I mean, maybe the Muslims still have a long way to go.

Did you have sex in Nymphomaniac?

No, I just got my willie played with, ha ha ha.

So von Trier's coming back without any apology after his anti-Semitic comments, supposedly dark humour, in Cannes?

Fuck, what happened in Cannes, that was all politics, that was Gilles Jacob. What was done against Lars was just as condemnable as what he said. He even had to go and be interviewed by the Danish police.

He doesn't think before he speaks.

He's a true artist. I mean Cannes is a video geek show, so he's at least bringing something a bit different. He was really hurt by the whole thing.

What role do you play in his new film?

I play a gentleman who the nymphomaniac wants to get money from. I don't want to say what happens to the character, only that the film is a philosophical comedy on sex.

Some people thought Melancholia was a comedy.

Yeah. There's a huge sense of humour in von Trier that people don't realise. A lot of Americans are dying to work with him and they take him very seriously. But he's not serious at all.

One of my funniest von Trier moments was at Dogville's Cannes press conference when he asked Nicole Kidman if she would do the sequel and she blew cigarette smoke in his face rather than answer his question.

She got paid scale for six weeks. You know, she understands now. Ha ha ha.