Why playing a prostitute is never black and white.
The star of French television series Maison Close and the latest teen fantasy saga The Mortal Instruments:City of Bones, Jemima West tells Jennifer O'Mahony about her journey from Sorbonne to playing a sex worker.
It is not the typical career choice of a history of art graduate from the elite Sorbonne.
But Jemima West has made her name playing the character of Rose, a young prostitute working in a high-class brothel in 1871, against the backdrop of a Paris still dealing with the aftermath of revolution.
For the past three years, she has filmed two series of the drama, the first of which is now out on DVD, and her performance, along with appearances in The Borgias, has now caught the eye of Hollywood.
Four years after graduating, West is on the road to very big things indeed, appearing in the forthcoming film of the first of million-selling Canadian author Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series of books for young adults, as a ‘shadowhunter’.
West’s father, an accountant, and her mother, a business interpreter, settled in the French capital, where she later attended the Sorbonne to read History of Art, taking acting classes in the evening.
“I’m completely English, but I grew up in Paris, and went to school here. My parents moved when I was five,” she tells me.
Isabelle Lightwood, her character in The Mortal Instruments, turns out to be a feisty demon-slayer. “They are warriors, fighters, and they live in their own world,” she explains, admitting, “I had no idea that the fan base was so enormous for the books.” She will now be fully aware that the legions of teenage girls obsessed by what Publisher’s Weekly describe as Clare’s “smart/chic horror” will expect an authentic performance from her ink-haired demon-killer.
The ongoing shoot in Toronto, Canada, will also feature Lily Collins (Snow White), Jamie Campbell (Twilight) and Rob Sheehan (Killing Bono), and all involved with be hoping for Twilight's stratospheric success for the films.
It is a world away from the high-class brothel of 19th century Paris, the setting of Maison Close, where West has made her name in France and now in the UK on Sky Arts as Rose, a young paysanne (country girl) tricked into acquiring a debt she must pay for her freedom, searching for her mother and abandoned by her fiancé.
Maison Close, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri, is brutal, stylish and unflinching in its liberal scenes of orgies and drug abuse in the house of madam (and Madame) Hortense Gaillac (Valerie Karsenti).
Rose arrives a virgin, but the third episode sees her brutally raped by Charles Blondin (Antoine Chappey), on his second attempt at deflowering her, the first cut short when she threatens to kill him.
“I warned my Dad and he didn’t watch that, and after I told him he stopped watching the whole show, but my Mum has the capacity to watch the scene with me as a character,” West says. “And my Mum’s friends heard that the language was very coarse,” she laughs.
“What I like is that all the characters are so diverse and complex, that there are no black and white characters.”
There are certain scenes in Maison Close that approach parody (or pornography), such as when Véra (Anne Charrier), the star of the brothel, pops out of a birthday cake naked in a pink wig, smears herself with cream, and then participates in an orgy.
West’s character Rose sits stunned at the dinner table, then asks Véra if she knows Marie-Jeanne, her mother, while she is in the middle of receiving oral sex from a client at the same table.
“Véra was pretty tough on Anne [Charrier], lying on a table in front of 15 actors and 40 crew, completely naked, but that scene is about her as really proud of her performance, of performance being her job,” West says. Does it perhaps sensationalise a profession that degrades women? “I don’t think so. Their background stories are really tragic, the spectator needs some relief and comedy as the series is pretty dark already,” she says.
It is true that the violence and cruelty the women suffer is hardly ignored. One prostitute has acid thrown in her face by an accomplice of a vengeful debtor, and the women turn to opium when they are kept inside for “security reasons”, during which time we observe extensive scenes of intravenous drug use.
West has just wrapped the second series of Maison Close but is now glad to be working in English, because “It’s my mother tongue; that’s always easier”, and is enjoying a break from French that is now looking more permanent.
“I love working in both languages, but I’m happy to be working in English at the moment, I found working on The Borgias amazing, as it’s slightly easier for me [as bilingual] to jump on board, rather than a French girl working in an English showcase.”
That said, Paris is still her home. “There is lots of culture everywhere, so I love to do the expos (exhibitions), I love to travel, and of course there’s the cinema: there are so many here. For me, Scorsese, recent British independent directors and Italian classics are what I end up watching.
“I remember being a student and I would go every Friday to the Louvre and stay for ages, just walking around.”
How did she find the Sorbonne, which has such a rarefied reputation? “It isn’t that difficult to access, if you have a Baccalaureate, which is A-level equivalent. I didn’t need to pass an exam or anything; it’s general entry if you have the grades. I don’t think I realised how lucky I was though, the teaching was incredible.”
Great film taste, articulate, and modest as well. I ask West if there is anything else we should know about her. “I never know what to say to that!” Will that change when she is hyper-famous? “What will I talk about then? How brilliant I am?” One suspects that is unlikely.