How actress and writer Noémie Kocher makes it matter
Most particularly, Noémie and I discussed her ambassadorship for the World Organisation Against Torture, the main coalition of international non-governmental organisations (NGO) fighting against torture, summary executions, enforced disappearances and all other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Here is a creative hellbent (in the most graceful of ways) on “giving it mouth”.
I’d like to talk about this issue of being a feminist. You mentioned that you “realised” you were a feminist. Do you recall a specific moment when that realisation occurred?
I think in a way my mother was a feminist. I mean she’s a typical Swiss woman married to a man when she was very young. She wanted to be a dancer, she went to dance school in New York and she decided to come back to Switzerland to get married. She’s the typical married woman. And she gave everything to her children and blah, blah, blah. But I remember her words all the time, “You have to be free, you have to have your own money.” I was raised with that.
Have there been moments in your life when you’ve heard that voice of your mother…and it’s changed a direction you were taking? Because it’s difficult isn’t it; you’re told a social narrative about how to behave and for you there was the influential voice of your mother that said, “No”.
A few days ago I went to a special dinner with women, because I wanted to discuss all of this. In France – not only France – I have the feeling we are going backwards and backwards with rights for women. My mother had a salary. Though she worked for my father, she could earn her own money. And she always told me “You have to be free from men. Be free. Be free.” And in fact I was free all the time. I never had to have a man to pay my rent.
But you chose a difficult profession in terms of paying your way didn’t you?
But that’s how deeply I love my job. I love to act and I can’t live without it. Same with writing, I now can’t live without it. It’s who I am, an actress and a writer. So now I write, and I teach, as well as act. And though I love acting, I don’t want anymore to be only an actress. I cannot. I really want to write more. Maybe why not make my own films. I have a feeling twenty years ago it was possible to dream of being just an actress. But it’s not possible anymore.
Maybe because the world has changed. You know, Ettore Scola has just died and there’s a line from one of his films “We wanted to change the world, but the world has changed us.” And I have the feeling it has become – maybe it’s the 2008 crisis, I don’t know – but it has become much more difficult. Maybe I’m just older and I simply see the reality, which wasn’t the case when I was twenty. My parents wanted me to do something at the university, so I graduated from university. So I never felt as though I was ‘just’ an actress. It’s not negative, it’s positive. I wanted to be something else. Maybe it’s because I am older too, because there are fewer parts for women.
How are you finding that? Has ageing really impacted on your career?
What can I say? I didn’t ask myself the questions in that way because I have the feeling that for the world especially in France and in the TV theatre movie world, the impact of the 2008 crisis is huge, and we all have to fight more and more – women and men. I’m not exactly sure but my view is that there are fewer parts for women, but today if I was twenty, I wouldn’t dream to be an actress. I would be something else. Because something has changed.
So in thinking about writing more, is there any topic or issue you’d be particularly interested in writing about?
I can’t not make political comments so I have to say something about my vision with the world. I realise I’m quite a revolutionary. I cannot accept injustice. I really can’t. I hate that.
You’re so passionate about making a difference to community and society. Have there been moments when you regretted not having become something else?
Yes, sometimes especially when I go to other countries (in my role as ambassador for the World Organisation Against Torture). Because I might think I could have used my energy for the others, not just for myself. So of course, being an actress you give love, you give laughter, you make people cry. But it’s in a way quite selfish to be an actress. Sometimes I think to myself, I have so much energy, I could have been a doctor or a lawyer and I could have helped the women. So I’m trying now to put all this energy into my NGO ambassadorship. And also when I write I can say something about my vision of the world. So it’s not just my face as an actress, it’s what I think as a human.
You’re giving it mouth.
Have you spoken to many victims of torture in your role as ambassador for the World Organisation Against Torture?
In Mexico it was a nightmare. It was awful.
So you were involved with the indigenous people there?
The worst thing is the Syrian situation. I don’t know if you know but about four years ago Human Rights Watch published eighty pages about torture in Syria. So I’ve been in contact with Syrian people in France through a big civic movement in which involved several NGOs. And it was…you can’t listen to that. And I’ve met many girls and daughters and mothers and sisters of the tortured women.
Are they able to easily share their stories or are you in the moment where you both know what you’re there for but they cannot speak it? Because I imagine many of their stories are unspeakable?
Of course, of course, but in Mexico many of the women need to speak about and they know we’re there to listen to them. And I had the feeling it was catharsis. The Syrian case was different because there were many people and…I have a friend who’s a famous reporter. Through her I have more stories. But I have been protected. In Paris I wasn’t in Syria, I was protected. So they were only words. It was very different.
Yes, in Mexico it was a nightmare. In Mexico, it was more than words. I was there. I was in the city. it was different.
Were there moments in Mexico that changed the way you thought about torture?
In fact it was I went to see the people from the government. It was the worst when I knew the people in power were lying and I perfectly knew it. It’s (makes choking sound with her voice). And you know you have to stay calm and kind and polite. It’s awful.
So you managed to do that – stay polite? Because I don’t think I’d be able to.
I had to. It was my duty to behave like an ambassador. But it was very difficult.
Have you ever said no to a role because of the politics of the screenplay or script?
Yes, I had to have real sex scenes part for example. Once I had to play a normal part from a married women with children, but she was in such polite submission, you know? Such polite submission. It was not a script about submission, it was the vision of the producers and everyone about what is a woman. I couldn’t do it. Because I’m not their slave. No. So twice.
I’ve certainly felt the shift in favour of conservative politics in Australia, and you mentioned its presence in France as well. And do you think those roles for women are going to be increasing as a consequence of this shift?
I hope not. But if you see what comes from the north of Europe, Sweden, Norway and such, if you see the parts they give to women, they are free, they are powerful, I think you have both.
They’ve been less touched by the financial crises too, haven’t they?
That’s true. That’s true.
Has any actress inspired you? Who do you draw from?
Romy Schneider, Louise Brooks, Meryl Streep.
What about Audrey hepburn? She really stands out as that Hollywood actress who used her fame to make social impacts doesn’t she?
Yes, that’s true.
And what is it about those women that inspires you? How have they changed the way you perform or see your profession?
Romy Schneider because I was seven and I saw her in ‘Sissy’ and I decided to become an actress. I think I’ve seen all of her films and she was an amazing actress. Meryl Streep – I admire her a lot, the way she is as a woman and she is just a wonderful actress. And Louise Brooks, she had quite a sad life, I think she died quite lonely. But she was a very free woman, she was very intelligent. Of course, I have been dreaming of a part like Lulu (Pandora’s Box, 1929). I don’t know, something about her touches me quite a lot.
Let’s talk about your audiences. Have there been any moments when someone has said to you that you’ve changed the way they think or feel because of your work?
Without thinking, I did a play five years ago called ‘I Loved Her’ and it was a very nice love story between three characters. I was the mistress of a man and he didn’t have the courage to leave his wife for me. Many times after the play people were coming to us and saying, “I was her, I was him, I did that.”
It sounds like the moment when the audience recognises their own experience reflected back to them. Surely there’s something comforting in that for audiences, to be told it’s okay, this has happened to someone else too?
It’s not only that, I love to do theatre and especially to tour around the country, because then you have the real contact with the people. And that’s so nice, it’s a very nice moment, because as an actress I want to give to give. I want to share something. And if they come to you after and say, “I could feel it, I could have it.” You say, “Okay.” It’s like that with the NGO work, I need to give.
And sometimes I have the feeling actors all have to be alone with ourselves, we are selling ourselves. I don’t like the competition in a way. I don’t know how to put that but…I don’t think I’m so important. I’m not so important it’s just one life. I like to share. And probably I needed to be an actor when I was younger because I needed to say things I couldn’t say in my life so I used the words of the other to say it, to show my emotion. And then I realised our world forces you to be so narcissistic and there’s all the social media and so on and I don’t feel like this. But if I can use it to share and give something…I’m a bit confused maybe? I’ve lost myself now?
No, no it’s wonderful listening to you speak about your work. I’ve spoken to a few actors about this and they say they need these other moments where they are able to almost transcend what they do, and to find meaning in it, or else….I think it was Philippe Maymat who said they will “eat themselves”. I thought that was a good description
That’s true, yeah.
Can cinema change the world…and should it?
I think it can change the world for one hour, but it’s not enough. It can make thoughts, dreams, but it’s not enough because it’s too passive. It’s the beginning of course, but it’s not enough. But it can make the world more beautiful, of course, and this is a power.
And that‘s a charmed way to finish the interview. Thank you.
Photographer: Charlotte Schoeboe