Simon Helberg is one of three leading actors in the new movie Annette, which also stars Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard. The movie comes from French director Leos Carax and the minds of the duo Sparks (brothers Ron and Russell Mael.)
The musical heritage of the film is evident from the outset, not only as the film itself is a pop-rock opera, but also as it follows a couple whose miracle child can sing beautifully.
The plot features many twists and turns, making Annette a far cry from the average movie.
Helberg was drawn to this project from the outset due to the company of creators, subject matter and ambition of the script, which saw him learning new skills and playing someone very different from his role on The Big Bang Theory.
In an interview with Newsweek, the actor discussed the story of Annette and shared insights into some of The Conductor’s most important moments.
Ahead are many spoilers for Annette.
Inside The Conductor’s Mind
There are two scenes where viewers get an insight into the mind of Helberg’s character, known as The Conductor or The Accompanist.
The first is when he is the accompanist to Anne (Cotillard), a famous opera singer, and dotes on her from afar.
As the film progresses, his story is not the focus, but soon we meet him again as The Conductor, having moved up in the music world since his accompanying days.
For this scene, Helberg had to study conductors before being thrown in the deep end with an orchestra to direct.
Speaking to Newsweek, Helberg described how the scene on the page did not suggest the magnitude of the task ahead of him when it came to filming.
He said: “That scene always fascinated me, and I didn’t ever really envision what it ultimately became. I’d say on the page, there’s a short soliloquy, and describes my character as conducting an orchestra.
“But you know, then you get to Brussels and you’re in an enormous, three-tier concert hall. And Leos says, ‘We’re going to shoot this all in one shot, and you’re actually going to be conducting, and meet your symphony orchestra.’
“And, you know, you say hello, and you begin.”
The moment is also a hugely important one for the character as it is the first time the audience understand his and Anne’s relationship after he introduces himself at the piano.
Helberg continued: “I found it really exciting to, in some ways, try to speak without speaking, because what that particular scene called for, at least in my mind, which was that it really seems to function as his inner monologue.
“And, you know, it could be that he’s talking to the audience, it could be that he’s talking to himself, it could be that he’s talking to God, or it could be that we are just in his head for a moment.
“In some ways, it’s also what was going on in the first number… that contrast between the scope and the scale of an orchestra and these tiny, tender moments that are so personal, I found that to be just such a brilliant device that Leos and Sparks came up with.”
The Conductor’s Connection With Annette
In the conducting scene, The Conductor first suggests he may be the father of Annette, after having an affair with Anne before she and Henry began their relationship.
He believes he could be the father to the child, and given the incredible musical talents of Annette, it is not so difficult to understand why.
However, forming a connection with the child was no mean feat, especially as Annette is played by a puppet.
In one scene, The Conductor is playing piano with Annette, which created some technical difficulty far beyond playing the role.
Helberg said: “There was a real technical challenge that I would say was always present particularly with the puppet. If you’re playing the piano, and how is she propped up, and then there were scenes where I was actually asked to operate her without the controls, because Leos was shooting from behind. And so you’d have to very discreetly, you know, turn her head.
“If Adam [Driver] says something to us first, I turned my head, and then she turns hers, but I’m the one turning her head, you know, and her eye-line has to be matched up with Adam.
“I can’t look at her to find her eye-line, so there were these really, like, just tedious tasks that you would never even imagine. And they were coming about at the last minute. Just like the orchestra scene, things moved fast to make these moments work. Helberg admits he had to learn to use the puppet promptly after his arrival in a scene.
He said: “You show up to the set, and there are these puppeteers who have devoted their whole life to that craft and spent years developing this puppet, and they speak another language, and they hand it off to you, and in this foreign tongue, try to explain this craft that they have worked their entire lives on.
“And you are then responsible to somehow deliver and in a field that you have no experience. So that was always in some ways, the ask, but I found it to be really invigorating. Because, again, when you’re swinging for the fences, you know, even if you fall short, there tends to be something magical that might come about.”
However, the piano scene was a particularly close moment between Annette and The Conductor, which became one of those magical moments.
Helberg added: “At the same time, you see a scene where I am playing the piano with her, you know, she’s leaning on me. And I thought there was something really profound that ended up happening in that scene.
“And part of it, I think, is just that I am being asked to give life to this puppet, that the man and the woman who literally created her are standing there, they’ve entrusted her to me. And there’s a beautiful kind of parallel there between, you know, [real] life and the scene.”
The Conductor’s Death
The most potentially difficult scene to shoot, from a viewer’s standpoint, would be The Conductor’s death after he finally admits to Henry that he believes he is the true father of Annette.
Seeing the potential end to his income and travel perks, and feeling fury at Anne’s possible betrayal, Henry kills The Conductor, throwing him into a swimming pool and drowning him, before hiding his body.
Helberg, once again, said this moment came like all the other scenes, with a sense of freedom and opportunity to follow their natural instincts.
He said: “Like everything else in the film, it was shocking. And, I guess, a welcome surprise, that’s how I felt every time I showed up to set, it was sort of like, ‘Here’s your mission, should you choose to accept it, and also you have to accept it. And also, it’s impossible.’
“It really was that way, which I think creates a sense of not just terror, but a real need to survive through each scene and each take because you’re being asked to do something that feels somewhat, next to impossible, and you haven’t had a tremendous amount of time to overthink everything.”
There was a stuntman involved in the scene, but no thorough plotting except that his character would end up in the water, with the journey of getting there becoming the scene as a whole.
He added: “There were some kind of big, you know, goalposts along the way: you have got to hit this mark, he pulls the chair out here, you fall into this table, but there was also a lot of freedom between those different points. So really, it was that element of precariousness that I always felt going into a scene that added a lot to the life of the movie because, no pun intended, it was a bit of a sink or swim situation.”
Driver’s “explosive level of energy and truth” also meant that scene, for a viewer, felt even more dangerous, especially due to Driver’s powerful on-screen presence.
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