Elisa

Humble, hard-working and taking on Hollywood: Rising actor Elisa Lasowski talks to Pip Usher.

Elisa wears a top by Rejina Pyo, dress by Jil Sander and earrings by Sophie Bille Brahe.

She wears a dress by Loewe, earrings by Sophie Bille Brahe and shoes by Mansur Gavriel.

Elisa Lasowski is not your average up-and-coming actor. Last summer, the star of salacious new period drama Versailles—which is, rather fittingly, the most expensive TV show that France has ever produced—found herself in Los Angeles. Instead of hanging around Hollywood, she rented a car and drove into the desert, alone, for six days. “I found a radio channel that was playing all the road trip classics like Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC and Nirvana,” she recalls. There were no paparazzi-friendly nightclubs, no deluge of Instagram selfies. It was just Elisa, her car and some rock songs on the radio.

Chasing fame seems to rank low on Elisa’s list of priorities. She has a private Instagram account, her Twitter presence is sporadic and she’s partial to a board game in her spare time. This is a woman who may tick all the boxes for tabloid fodder—she’s French, she’s beautiful and she dated Charlotte Rampling’s son, magician David Jarre, for years—but is carving out a career that follows her own rules.

“I don’t want that kind of exposure and I think there are ways to control it,” she says as she contemplates the pressures of modern-day celebrity. “There are a lot of very successful actors who are well-known, but whose private lives are intact. I don’t think you’d recognize someone like Daniel Day-Lewis if he walked down the street because he’s not in the media. He gets an Oscar, and then he goes home.”

For someone so beautiful—and she really is beautiful: sorrowful gaze, full lips, sharp cheekbones slicing her face—Elisa is remarkably modest. There has been no quick route to fame and fortune for her, no starry-eyed chance encounter with an agent to be mythologized forever in Hollywood folklore. Instead, she has spent years as a working actor, graduating from Drama Studio London before grinding through the gauntlet of auditions, rejections and side jobs. Her first appearance as a prostitute in David Cronenberg’s 2007 film Eastern Promises led to small roles in Game of Thrones, gritty British teenage drama Skins and police thriller Hyena. Now, in her current role as Queen Marie-Thérèse in Versailles, the up-hill slog finally seems to be paying off.

“I’ve chosen to take an unusual path. It’s definitely challenging being in a profession that’s not straightforward, where you’ve got to hang in there for a long time before things start to flow,” she reflects. “But it’s amazing to do what I want to do.”

Elisa’s upbringing in a household that prioritized critical thinking helped shape her stance against the more superficial aspects of her trade. Born in the Netherlands to French parents, Elisa lived for several years in Algeria before returning to Holland for her formative years. As a result, she speaks English, French, Spanish and Dutch, with some Italian and German thrown in. “My parents were looking for different experiences and to go elsewhere at a time when it was not really done,” she says of her “anti-establishment” high-school-teacher mother and French-literature-lecturer father. “They didn’t have to seek out the international experience, but they went looking for something else.

This pursuit of the unorthodox left its imprint on Elisa and her older brother, an artist in the Netherlands. Add to that a ballet-dancing, Polish paternal grand-father (“All the men on my father’s side of the family were very huge, flamboyant figures”) and a Basque politician grandfather on her mother’s side. Laughing, she admits that “every family has its madness and we’re definitely one of the madder.”

But that mesh of creative influences and cultural backgrounds is what drew Elisa toward acting. With her mother’s encouragement, she acted in childhood theater productions. Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling adventures as Indiana Jones cemented that aspiration, providing daydreaming material for a young imagination that thought it would be “kind of cool” to do something similar. Uma Thurman’s turn as a vengeful, jumpsuit-clad assassin in the Kill Bill films was another dream role for a while. “It was the appeal of not only the big American movie but the kick-ass woman,” Elisa remembers.

These days, her approach to her trade is rooted more in the realm of the intellectual. Each part is viewed as an opportunity to delve into a new subject matter. Sometimes, that can be rooted in practical skills, like the time she had to learn how to change a tire for a short film. “I was like, ‘Yes! Now I know how to change a tire!’” she recalls gleefully.

Other times, it’s weightier. Several years ago, Elisa played an Albanian sex worker caught up in a human trafficking ring. As she researched the plight of real women trapped in such circumstances, it sparked an interest that stays with her today. “Having been an actress for a few years now, what interests me about it is getting to discover a lot of new subjects that I wouldn’t necessarily have delved into if I wasn’t confronted by them,” she says, adding, “[Human trafficking] is such a heartbreaking thing that happens in the world… I was sensitized to the subject through acting.”

Elisa is quick to point out that she doesn’t intentionally seek out the heavy-hitting scripts. “I work best if I can connect to a subject, connect to a director and connect to the values that the story is transmitting,” she says. “But the values can be light and comedic, or dark and socially engaged.”

Despite her easy smile and gentle self-deprecation, she’s yet to land a part in a comedy. This could be, in part, due to her looks. While Elisa rails against the industry’s desire to box its actors into neat little categories, she acknowledges that her own appearance can evoke certain sentiments. After all, there are those dark features, the pale and serious gaze. “I’d say I’d be more often typecast as melancholy because I have bags under my eyes,” she says after a long pause. “I’m aware that there’s a bit of soulfulness or sadness in my eyes.”

This melancholia has been aptly channeled into her Versailles role as Spanish Queen Marie-Thérèse, a pious figure amid the rampant misconduct of King Louis XIV’s court. The queen was an enigmatic and lonely figure in a court filled with gossips, social climbers and ne’er-do-wells. Commentators at the time tended to dismiss her, more intrigued by the king’s numerous mistresses than a queen who liked to sip hot chocolate in her room and pray. But Elisa’s research uncovered a more sympathetic portrayal from later historians—and she’s applied this nuanced stance to her own interpretation of the queen as a complementary shadow to the ‘Sun King’s’ blinding power. “[Marie-Thérèse] had a really deep understanding of royalty and what her position was,” she says. “The king had a lot of respect for her as the queen—not necessarily as a woman, but as the queen.”

Elisa wears a top and trousers by Studio Nicholson and shoes by Mansur Gavriel.

She wears a dress and top by Joseph.

No stranger to performing arts, Elisa studied both dance and acrobatics in her youth. Here, she wears a top and trousers by Barbara Casasola and a coat by Lemaire.

Since Versailles aired on Canal+ in France in November 2015, the show has provoked an outpouring of media over its brazen portrayal of the sexual practices in Louis XIV’s court. The Telegraph referred to the show as a “carnival of bacchanalia” and The Daily Mail declared that it was “the most lavishly rancid television ever screened.” For Elisa, the fuss is all part of the fun: “People like to be outraged,” she noted in an interview with The Gentlemen’s Journal.

“It’s a very contemporary show,” she explains. “It’s violent, it’s sexy. It has all the elements that flourish in television. And it’s a period drama, which always gets a huge following. In a sense, it has the right formula to be a successful enterprise.”

In fact, the show feels so contemporary that, when Elisa first read the script, she anticipated a very different kind of drama. “I thought we were going to be doing this version of Louis XIV in jeans and T-shirts, like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet,” she recalls. “The way we had stage directions was like, ‘All of the girls are looking into mirrors as if they were taking a selfie with an iPhone.’”

Alas, there wasn’t a pair of skinny jeans in sight. Instead, the cast wakes at 4:30 a.m. to begin an arduous two-hour stint in hair and makeup, after which they film all day in lavish, not to mention heavy, costumes. “There’s a literal weight to what we’re wearing,” Elisa points out. “Women, back in the day, used to only wear corsets for a few hours each day. We get to wear them for 14 hours.”

It’s not just bodices and bouffant hairpieces that Elisa has to contend with on set. In the first episode of Versailles, Marie-Thérèse lies writhing on a bed in the midst of labor, as a roomful of courtiers look on with idle curiosity (a custom amongst French royalty that was abandoned after Marie Antoinette was nearly killed by the rush of spectators that swarmed her chamber). To prepare for the scene, Elisa asked her best friend to reenact the birth of her daughter in her living room. Next, she went online and watched birthing videos on YouTube. By the time filming rolled around, she was so well equipped that she ended up pulling a muscle in her neck as she acted out the contractions.

In the same year that Versailles aired, Elisa was featured in David Bowie’s final music video for “Blackstar.” Clad in a shabby frock with a mouse-like tail trailing out from her dress, Elisa wanders through a jagged lunar landscape until she reaches a supine astronaut, a jeweled skull inside his helmet. When Bowie died of cancer, the surreal video and its meditations on mortality suddenly took on moving significance.

Elisa’s attitude toward beauty is decidedly European. She eschews the cartoonish glamor of Hollywood in favor of “looking real and looking yourself.” While she admits to occasional pangs of envy over someone else’s appearance, she deals with those moments with a brisk reality check.

Elisa wears a suit by Céline.

She wears a dress by Yohji Yamamoto, coat by Filippa K and shoes by Mansur Gavriel.

Elisa wears a dress, top and shoes by Joseph.

She wears a dress by Yohji Yamamoto.

“There are so many complexities in the human psychology,” says Elisa. “There are so many options, so many things we can be.” Here, she wears earrings by Sophie Bille Brahe.

“You must remember that you have something to offer that no one else has and that’s the end of it,” she says, tucking a dark strand of hair behind her ear. “That person might have bigger boobs or a better this or a more beautiful that…” she laughs ruefully. “But that’s just how it is.”

Like those moody shadows under Elisa’s eyes. It’s those shadows, and the sense of gravitas they convey, that have attracted the attention of casting agents. “I have quite big bags under my eyes that can sometimes be too heavy in photographs,” she says. “But I get really upset when things are too retouched. I find it so ugly in general.”

Even as she takes on more prestigious acting roles, Elisa’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground. Dryly, she notes that she’s seen others “eating strawberries and smoking cigarettes in the middle of rehearsal” but that’s not really her thing: She’d rather keep a low profile and concentrate on her lines. There is no outlandish thespian act, no noise or drama. No look-at-me, look-at-me. “When I came out of school, I was working in a bar in Amsterdam that was underneath the theater school,” she says. “I remember the students coming down for lunch and they’d stand up on the tables and start singing. I was always like, ‘Is that really what I want to do with my life? Get me away from these people!’”

Unconventional and unconcerned by it, Elisa brings this quiet confidence to her roles. As Versailles progresses, Queen Marie-Thérèse becomes more self-assured in her isolation at court. “That’s the space that she has,” muses Elisa. She could almost be talking about herself: “She’s her own person, in her own world, with her own objectives, and it doesn’t matter who’s around.”

Photography Assistant Simon Wellington
Photography Assistant Jacob Muller Meernach

ISSUE 52

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