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ORMOND, JULIA: Barber of Siberia

Julia Ormond talks to our UK correspondent NICK RODDICK in Cannes, where her latest film, The Barber of Siberia opened the Cannes Film Festival.

"I wish!" says Julia Ormond."I wish I could clone myself and say, 'Julia Number Two step up!'" It's the day before the start of the Festival and we're discussing the gathering storm. As we do so, Julia Number One is having the line round her lips redone by Jean-Pierre, who was her make-up man on The Barber of Siberia. Jean-Max (chief hair stylist) deftly detaches a strand of hair from the corner of her mouth.

".... people presume you have a great deal of confidence"

It's going to be a tough couple of days. Not only, as we speak, is the Nikita Mikhalkov-directed Barber about to open Cannes: it is also about to open commercially across France. In the two days following our relatively calm chat in a room in the Carlton, Ormond will be put through the mill.

It is, she admits, her first time here, not counting a visit in 1983, when she was still at school. She didn't come for the 1993 Competition screening of Peter Greenaway's The Baby of Maçon, her film debut, but she was told a few horror stories about it, like the fact that the projector broke down and the French press thought the film was called The Baby of Bacon.

No, her first exposure to festival madness was when Smilla's Sense of Snow (in which she played the title role) opened Berlin in 1996, but Berlin is not quite the same ballgame, madness-wise. Ormond's starring roles with Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall and with Harrison Ford in Sabrina taught her a thing or two about the Hollywood celebrity mill, however. One of which was that it was you who went out there and did it, not some usefully invented stand-in.

"... when you're stuck in front of the press as yourself."

"It's weird, but it is you," she says. "I mean, I think you compartmentalise to a certain extent, but it's terrifying all the same. One of the things about actors is, people presume you have a great deal of confidence, so that stuff is easy. And it's not: having the confidence to act in front of the camera is a completely different thing, and I think it's pretty much the same, whether you're in theatre, television or film. The different side of it is when you're stuck in front of the press as yourself.

"But," she adds, "now that I've got over the kind of roller-coaster that happened earlier in my career - and nobody can teach you how to deal with all that - I think I'm much more secure in how I handle it all."

Working with Barber director Nikita Mikhalkov helped a lot in that respect. "I love this film, and I'm very proud of the work that I've done here," she says "It was a great honour for me to work with Nikita, and I think it does change your attitude in terms of your own confidence in stepping out there and meeting that."

It was certainly a long drawn-out process: from the day Ormond first arrived in Moscow to do hair and make-up tests until the day Barber wrapped in Portugal was exactly a year. In between, the company shot in various parts of Russia, then moved to Prague's Barrandov Studios to recreate the Moscow of 1885 (when most of the action is set) before ending up in Portugal. The whole thing started, however, in a Paris restaurant.

"... we all went out to dinner and got drunk"

"Nikita had been seeing people in LA, and I'd been at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival," recalls Ormond, "so we met in Paris. I'd read the script and, basically, we all went out to dinner and got drunk. Nikita was really drunk. At the time he offered me the part, I said to him, 'I have to talk to other people, because I'm attached to something they're putting the money together for which may go (to shoot) at possibly the same time'.

"The casting director knew this, but Nikita had forgotten it. And he said, 'You've got two hours', or maybe it was even less: half an hour or something. Anyway, he wanted an answer that night, so I said, 'No'.

'I think you're in real shit!'

"Now, Nikita's someone who looks you straight in the eye and holds it and he'd been doing that all evening. But, after I'd said 'No', he didn't look at me for about half an hour. The interpreter got up - she said she wanted to go to the toilet - and she whispered in my ear, 'I think you're in real shit!'. But there was literally nothing else I could do. I gave him my answer the next morning."

Working with Mikhalkov was, says the actress, an experience that was initially unnerving but subsequently exhilarating. "He talks and talks and talks and talks about the character and about the piece and how he envisages them," she says, recalling that first day as she sat in make-up with Mikhalkov rattling on in her ear. "He drowns you in information about how he sees it. It's a little bit daunting, because you're sitting there thinking, 'I'm never going to retain all this'. But in the end you soak it up and, whether or not you've got it all right doesn't really matter: it's more that you're playing something very full."

What the premiere of Barber didn't create, however, was the political furore expected by certain western observers. "Going to see Barber of Siberia and trying to work out a political message is, I think, a bit like going to see Titanic to find out about shipping," she says with the quiet resignation of someone who expects to be asked about political messages quite a few times in the next few days. "It's a love story"

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Julia Ormond - Cannes 99 (Pic: David Morgan)

... in Barber of Siberia

... in Barber of Siberia

... in Smilla's Sense of Snow

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