Jehnny Beth on Music, Sex Work and Her New Film Paris, 13th District

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Paris, 13th District, 2022
Paris, 13th District, 2022(Film still)

As Jacques Audiard’s Paris, 13th District is released, Jehnny Beth talks about juggling acting and music, and the importance of releasing sex workers from negative stereotypes on screen

Jehnny Beth has had a busy few years. Since hitting pause on her twice Mercury-nominated post-punk band Savages, she’s released her debut solo album, To Love Is to Live, a collaboration record, Utopian Ashes, with Primal Scream’s Bobby Gillespie; and scored XY Chelsea, a documentary about Chelsea Manning, with her partner Johnny Hostile. She also created Crimes Against Love Memories, a collection of erotic short stories she wrote that were accompanied by Hostile’s photography.

On top of all of this, she has restarted her acting career, starring in Catherine Corsini’s 2018 An Impossible Love and now Jacques Audiard’s (A Prophet, Dheepan, Rust and Bone) Paris, 13th District. The film, shot in black and white and loosely based on comics by Adrian Tomine, follows the lives of four young people as they navigate, life, love and sex within the 13th arrondissement of Paris. “The way Jacques describes it is a film about love discourse,” Beth says. “The fact that in our times we sleep with people on the first night and if there is a conversation it happens after. This asks, what does that conversation say?”

Beth plays Amber Sweet, a cam girl who strikes up a uniquely intimate relationship with Nora Ligier, played by Noémie Merlant (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), after a doppelganger incident finds their worlds unexpectedly colliding. Beth spoke with AnOther about, Paris, 13th District, her longstanding relationship to acting, and embracing collaboration in order to evade ego.

Daniel Dylan Wray: You started in films back in 2005 with Through the Forest and then seemed to have a decade or so more focussed on music. What is your relationship to acting?

Jehnny Beth: I grew up in the French theatre world because my father was a theatre director. We went on tour in Russia when I was four and I was acting in his plays. There were always people at home – writers, actors, directors – and so that was fed to me as a kid. I did that movie [Through the Forest] at 17 which went to the New York Film Festival and I got an agent in Paris but she died of cancer. Music was really important [to me] as a teenager and I always wanted to be a performer but at 20, when I moved to London, I was conscious that I couldn’t do everything.

I realised if I started to disperse myself, then I would not be able to focus, do one thing, try to master the craft of making music and do records and navigate that industry. But when I moved to Paris four years ago, there was a really strange moment of synchronicity. It was a turning point in my life when I stopped Savages, so I made a list of things I had stopped that I wanted to do again and acting was on that list. Two days later, a friend of a friend called and asked if I would be interested in acting because they thought I’d be really good for this part (An Impossible Love). I got the part and that’s how it started again. I guess it’s quite unconventional to start a movie career at 33 but here I am.

DDW: Is there a link between being in a band and acting?

JB: My performance as a singer is very influenced by theatre. In Savages it was always what I had in mind, I was always conscious of the lighting, the entrance, to get people on a journey and to tell a story. The sense of drama is something I feel connected to.

DDW: Were you always intended for the part of Amber in Paris, 13th District?

JB: Yes. We did the casting in confinement in 2020 when we were all at home and I had to tape myself for it. I did the first taping just wearing a simple T-shirt and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s boring,’ so I really pimped myself up as a cam girl. I went full-on with fake eyelashes and fishnets and taped myself like that. It’s funny how some things work out because it turns out Jacques really loves when actors propose something and go out on a bit out of a limb, and so that worked in my favour.

“I guess it’s quite unconventional to start a movie career at 33 but here I am“ – Jehnny Beth

DDW: You play a sex worker free from the negative stereotypes that often accompany these characters in films. Was this an attraction in taking on the role?

JB: It was a massive attraction. It was why I loved the character straight away. I made sure there was nothing there in that manner – no sign of trauma, even in the words I would use. I tried to be very careful with that, because that was the first feeling I had from the character and I really wanted to make sure it was there. I haven’t seen a character like that many times in movies.

There’s always this element of the lost child or an aggressive parent or something they escaped from, but actually the way the story is told between those four people is that she [Amber] is the only one who isn’t lost. She has found herself; she is confident with herself. She earns a living, she loves what she does and there’s this sort of stability about her. The others are often wrong about themselves or are looking for answers. They don’t really know who they are yet, so it’s definitely not a cliché. In the same way, the lead is a Chinese-French woman [Émilie Wong, played by Lucie Zhang] but the story is not about that. I think it’s quite a modern film.

DDW: You’re behind a screen for a lot of your scenes. How did that work in terms of practically shooting it?

JB: They rented a flat over two floors, and I was upstairs while Noémie was downstairs. Jacques wanted us to do everything in real-time. I was upstairs by myself on a bed and Noémie was downstairs with the whole camera team. I think it helped being alone so that I could just be myself.

DDW: Collaboration seems to have been a big component of your musical life and film is an inherently collaborative process. What do you get out of that?

JB: It helps me get out of the ego system. It makes me include other people more and not be too self-centred, which I think is a trap as an artist because you can find yourself auto-analysing everything and going in circles and not having anything interesting to say. In collaborations I feel like there’s a door there for other people’s experiences that don’t necessarily match with yours. I’m genuinely really curious about how people work and being an actor part of the joy of it is to just watch your director work. It’s like being at the forefront of someone being at the top of their art, standing next to a painter when he’s painting. Who wouldn’t want to be there?

Paris, 13th District is in cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema now