Michele Laroque enjoys being a pioneer.
About 30 films into a career that began with appearances on French television in the late '80s, the 41-year-old actress is exploring new territory, both for herself and for actresses as a whole.
As the not-so-easily fooled Mlle. Bertrand in director Francis Veber's sexual-orientation comedy, The Closet, Laroque plays that rarest of creatures, a female lead in a Veber film.
Granted, Mereille Darc played the lead in 1973's La Valise, for which Veber wrote the script. But The Closet certainly is unusual, especially in films Veber both wrote and directed.
It's not like the guy's only been making films for a few years. He's been directing since 1976 (Le jouet; Les comperes), and his writing career dates back to 1969. He's the pen behind such classic French farces as The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe and La Cage Aux Folles. Each is dominated by male stars. Laroque even made the poster for The Closet, alongside stars Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu.
"I'm very proud," she says over salad at the City Cafe. "And as the only girl on the set, I've been very spoiled."
Rail thin, wearing a black Snoopy and Woodstock T-shirt rolled up at the sleeves, Laroque enjoys the relative anonymity afforded her in Baltimore. In France, she's well-known enough to be approached frequently by autograph-seekers. Here, she's just another woman having lunch.
Getting cast in The Closet was simple, she says with a laugh. "We had a friend, Gerard Lauzier, who directed me in The Best Job in the World. He told Francis I was all right on the set, I think. Francis told me he was afraid to write for a woman in a comedy film, because he didn't want her to be clueless or ridiculous. But in this story, he found a way."
Indeed, her Mlle. Bertrand may be the most clear-headed character in The Closet. She alone is not taken in by the newly uncovered homosexuality of co-worker Francois Pignon (Auteuil), who in fact is pretending to be gay to save his job at a condom-manufacturing plant.
One of the joys of The Closet is watching how people's perceptions of Pignon change when they think he's gay. Even Bertrand pays renewed attention to her co-worker. "She starts seeing him in a good way," Laroque says. "The others are all seeing him in a wrong way, but not her."
The actress says she understands how perceptions of people can change, through no fault of their own. All it takes is a simple change of circumstances. "There was a technician on one of my early plays, and then he turned up later with a really important job," she says. "I didn't recognize him."
Born in the French Riviera city of Nice, the daughter of a French father and Romanian mother, Laroque has enjoyed a rich career in French cinema, even if she was nearly 30 before she started. Being in The Closet, with its all-star cast that includes not only Auteuil and Depardieu, but also Thierry Lhermitte and Michel Aumont, has been a highlight. "Francis is the only one in France to be able to assemble such a cast," she says.
With her promotional tour for The Closet behind her (she was chosen to hobnob with the American press, she explains, "because I speak English and I like the States very much. And I was free."), Laroque is off to Los Angeles. There, she'll be reunited with her 6-year-old daughter, Oriane, for a few weeks of rest. Then it's back to Paris for a play, They Still Love Each Other. Her next film will be an action movie with two female leads.
It doesn't bother Laroque that she remains largely unknown in this country. But she says she'd love to act in a Hollywood film someday. "For me, it's very pleasant to be acting in English," she says. "It's kind of exciting. You can't cheat."
Just like you can't cheat when you're a rare featured actress in a Francis Veber film.