Veerle Baetens has spent much of the past four years playing tough vice cop Hannah Maes in Code 37, first a successful Flemish TV series and then a movie. 'Hannah is very aggressive and very emotional, but completely blocked,' she explains. 'She has a lot of hate and she wants revenge.' Her new role, Elise in Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown (pictured on the set with director Felix van Groeningen), is much more open, encompassing great pain but also great love. 'She goes through so many things during the movie,' Baetens says. 'Pure happiness, pure passion for a guy, the birth of her child. She is so wrapped up in emotions. I really bonded with her.'
Text Ian Mundell
That connection was already apparent when Baetens saw the play on which the film is based, the tale of a perfect couple torn apart by grief. 'It was funny and tear-jerking,' she recalls. 'It reminded me a little of how I felt when I saw Dancer in the Dark. Some people really hate the film because it is so emotional, but I love it when people get to that point.'
Her admiration for the play, and for the performance of its co-writer Mieke Dobbels as Elise, made her think twice before accepting the invitation to try out for the film. 'I was such a fan of how she played the part, at first I said I wouldn't do the audition. I found it a little bit rude. But then people told me: this is another director, and it's normal for the director to choose his actors.'
She also realised that the change in medium would transform the play. Instead of telling their stories on stage, Elise and her partner Didier would live them out on the screen. 'I could do things my way without going back to the play all the time,' she says.
But first she had to get through the audition with director Felix van Groeningen and Johan Heldenbergh, already cast to reprise his stage role as Didier. 'Felix was very severe,' she recalls. 'He wanted to see more and for me to go further, but I thought: I'm going so far! In the end I was hitting Johan. That was an experience on its own, but I didn't think I had the role.'
If van Groeningen had reservations, it was that her aggression in the audition would spill over into their professional relationship. He had also heard she was a combative presence on the set of Code 37. 'I explained that I had been on Code 37 from the beginning and I'd brought a lot to Hannah's character,' she says, 'so it's normal that you fight more over things. I wouldn't do that in an auteur piece.' And she got the part.
Before shooting began there was a one-month rehearsal period. 'That's really a luxury for actors and directors in Belgium,' she says. This allowed her to work with Heldenbergh on her version of the character. 'We were searching for an Elise that fitted with him as well, instead of Mieke.'
One of the reference points that van Groeningen gave her was Kate Winslett's performance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. 'He wanted a character with a little twist. She had to be a little bit crazy or very impulsive, but also very emotional.' And since the story revolves around a band of bluegrass musicians, Baetens could also draw on her musical training. 'I was happy to be able to use that,' she says. 'I sing, of course, and I learned the guitar for the movie.'
Bluegrass music was new to her, but she was soon hooked. 'It's almost always the same three chords and the same rhythm, but the lyrics tell a story, and you're in this story about loss or about dying. In combination with the plot, that was intense.'
Once the shooting started, she had to meet the emotional intensity of the story head-on. 'The film is about the loss of a child, which is a very sad moment, but it goes beyond that because it is the loss of the relationship, the loss of the past,' she explains. This affected everyone involved in the production. 'I remember Ruben, the cameraman, coming out of the house where we were shooting a scene about the couple blaming each other for the death of their child, and just staring into space. I asked whether something was wrong, and he just said: 'Wow, this is heavy!' I also had to cry afterwards, just to ventilate.'
But the shoot also involved lighter moments. 'Felix has an image in his mind and he persuades you to do it,' she says, laughing. 'At one point he put me nude, on a horse, with Johan also nude running after me, with the sun going down. I remember these moments and they are very funny.'
'Felix knows what he needs and he pushes you. Sometimes you hate him for that, but it's good'
She found van Groeningen both open and demanding as a director. ‘That's what I really liked about working with him. And he goes for it. I've never experienced that before,' she says. 'Felix knows what he needs and he pushes you. Sometimes you hate him for that, but it's good.'
The creative atmosphere on set was also new to her. 'With this movie I really felt we were under a glass dome, and that I wanted to be there 24-hours-a-day just to experience it. That's the first time I've had that feeling,' she says. 'At the end I felt: wow, that was heavy and intense... and it's going to be beautiful.'
With roles ranging from action to romantic comedy, Veerle Baetens has worked with a wide variety of Flemish directors over the past decade.
Most recently she has been immersed in the Code 37 universe (pictured still from Code 37 The Movie) with rising director Jakob Verbruggen. 'He's very young and very energetic,' she says. 'He goes at 2,000 miles an hour and everyone has to follow. He's always positive and it's never boring.'
Verbruggen's strength is the attention he pays to the look and feel of the drama. 'He's very good at putting people together, making a group that serves the story and which works equally well in humorous and dramatic scenes,' Baetens says. 'As a creative director he does really good work.'
She's also had a long partnership with Geoffrey Enthoven, beginning with Sara, the Flemish TV remake of Ugly Betty, in which Baetens had the lead role. 'With Geoffrey everything is the story, everything is the characters,' she says. 'He's original and creative with actors, and he is like an actor himself.'
So far she hasn't appeared in one of his feature films, apart from cameos as a nurse in The Over The Hill Band and Come As You Are (Hasta la vista). 'It's a joke and we're going to keep on doing it,' she says.
Another actor's director is Hilde van Mieghem, with whom she worked on The Kiss and Love Belongs To Everyone. 'She's very tough,' Baetens recalls. 'I was impressed by the way she directs, but it was very early in my career and I was a little bit scared of her. Still she’s great and really focused. She also drove me to the point in a scene where I had to be shaky, angry and scared, almost hysterical. She really pushed me into the feeling and she is able to do so.'
Working with Erik Van Looy on Loft was different again. His approach is gentler, but no less firm. 'If you want to do something differently he will head you off, because it's not his vision, but he does that very diplomatically,' she says.