Expats We Love: Mollie Laylin
The Faux Pas-Cast explores the taboo in Paris, but before Mollie’s insightful foray to provocative topics surrounding the City of Light, she was a Chicago actress. As someone who appreciates theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder how the entertainment industry differed between French and American cultures- especially given the current sexual misconduct epidemic. Luckily, Mollie was happy to chat, giving honest and thoughtful answers to some of my tough questions:
Given your musical theater background, what is A) Your favorite all-time musical to watch and B) Your favorite all-time musical to act?
The wonderful thing about musicals are their power to use song and dance to tell a story. The feelings that the music evokes create a sensationally surreal experience that words alone could never do. I remember singing songs from Zanna, Don’t in my car driving on the interstate on the way to community theatre rehearsals with the windows down and the music a loud as possible. In Paris, I’ve traded in my car for the treadmill. My currently playlist? One that makes me run faster and fist pump the air. Even though, I haven’t seen my favorite musical, Hamilton, I’ve belted along with Lin-Manuel Miranda enough times in the shower, that I could say we are pretty intimate. My favorite musical to act would be Reefer Madness. Performing in this musical, based on the exploitation film of the same name, was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
How do the audition and rehearsal processes differ between French and American cultures? Are there aspects of each you prefer over the other?
The biggest difference is the “good job” that I want after I finish rehearsing a scene. In America, as kids even if we fail we still get commended for trying. I still want that, even if I wasn’t flawless, I still want someone to acknowledge that I was just falling to pieces on stage. I need the sticker for finishing my work. The French believe that you do your work well because that is what is expected. You don’t get a good job if it wasn’t a good job. You get a good job it you were fabulous, then again, it’s art so it’ll never be perfect. In America, my ego is stroked. After I perform a scene I get positive feedback immediately. “Wow! That was a great run through!” “Excellent job being memorized!” “I loved the emotion” “Great job trying the southern accent” Even the negative feedback is always spun positively. “You did a great job getting through that long speech, but I really need you to pick up the pace.” “I loved the emotion at the end of act 1, but next time how about trying something softer?” When I know that something went ok in the scene I just performed, I feel powerful when I hear the negative criticism. It makes me feel in control and not like someone being ordered around on stage.
How would you say the French define and evaluate talent, and how does that compare with the United States?
Instead of talent, I would say that culture is very important to the French. They are very proud of their culture and the government encourages everyone to experience it. Many jobs reimburse their employees’ museum or theatre tickets or offer significant discounts on tickets. Also, if you are unemployed, a student, or under 28 theatre tickets are either free or significantly reduced. Additionally, France cares so much about their artists that they have a program called intermittent du spectacle that supports artists when they are between jobs. The acting world, for example, is never a 9-5, Monday through Friday kind of job. An actor could have rehearsals 35 hours a week (the French work week is 35 hours not 40) then three months of performances. That could be the only time that that actor is working that year. Thankfully, the actor could apply for intermittent du spectacle, or artist’s unemployment, and have a monthly salary while auditioning for their next job. In America, actors have day jobs. The actor working in a restaurant isn’t a cliché. Actors must work even when they are rehearsing a play. Most of the time, the acting jobs alone aren’t enough to pay the rent. Actors rehearse all day then work all night and repeat. When they don’t have an acting job, they can’t just apply for unemployment. The unemployment office will laugh in their faces and tell them to go back to Starbucks. The closest program to the intermittent du spectacle would be the actor unions, Actor’s Equity and SAG-AFTRA. As a union member they are guaranteed a “livable” wage. Members are also entitled to health insurance and set working hours. However, some companies and theatres can’t afford to pay their actors their required salary so if given the choice, they may chose non-union actors.
Great acting is universal, but audiences might not be. Does the French audience differ?
From a young age, students are taught to read the classics of French theatre like Racine, Moliere, and other old dead French dudes. I could only name one Shakespeare play until I was 16 and he wasn’t even American. The French understand the powerful subtext of the story. They also have so much patience. Honestly, I can barely make it through a French play. They are usually over an hour and almost never include intermissions. I once sat through a performance of Racine’s Phedre that was almost two hours long. It was agony. It was a whole play of ranting and complaining all in French. The entire time, I was thinking about where we would go afterwards for drinks. Afterwards, my friend was telling me about how wonderful it was. I couldn’t get to the bar fast enough.
What are some of the major differences in set culture? Are there any noticeable differences in work ethic?
I love food! Normally on a film set there is a green room where actors hang out when they aren’t needed. There is always food. In France, there must be a baguette and cheese. Usually a jar of Nutella is hanging around, probably next to the instant coffee.
Some say that the French work ethic lacks in comparison to American’s. We have an entirely different perspective on work. I started working when I was 16 and worked through high school and had two jobs while in college to pay for my tuition and rent. If I didn’t’ work, I couldn’t ask my family to pay my $30,000 yearly tuition or the government to pay for my housing. It was all me. I didn’t have a choice, I had to grow up fast and learn how to be an adult. The same is true for most Americans. Many French students don’t have that same problem. They aren’t allowed to work until they are 18 and college is relatively inexpensive. Like 5,000 euros a year for business school inexpensive. They are strongly discouraged to work while in school because school should be the focus. To help, the government offers stipends and housing reductions to students. It’s not until afterwards that these students start working the “day” job while trying to find the “real” job. Suddenly at 21 they get their first job at Starbucks; a backbreaking job with dumb and demanding customers. Most American’s moved past the “gas money” job when we were still living at home. Many actors and directors know that they have the safety net of the intermittent du spectacle if they are out of work. Additionally, it’s almost impossible to be fired in France so without the motivation of unemployment people become lazy and the project suffers. One thing that is certain is that if you work hard you play hard.
Hollywood continues to be under scrutiny following a barrage of allegations regarding sexual misconduct and abuse. Do you think this is an issue unique to the American entertainment industry?
It’s an every industry situation. Wherever there are cocky men in powerful positions there is this issue. I once was having an informal chat with a director in a noisy coffee shop and he insisted on rehearsing the scene at the table. After doing the best I could do considering it was a coffee shop, he criticized my “performance”. When I stood up for myself he told me to calm down and started questioning my acting credits and education on my resume.
There are a few sexist gestures that are just a part of the culture and I’ve come to accept. When I arrive to rehearsal or a shoot, I must do la bis to everyone. Men on the other hand only need to kiss the women and not the other men. The social rules of la bis are obscure. Sometimes it really is an air kiss on each cheek. Other times, it is the kiss sound while cheeks touch. However, for some men, they like to take the opportunity to leave a slobbery kiss on each cheek while holding on to my shoulders. Then we do it all again when it’s time to leave. This is only one example of the grey area in France. In France, it isn’t frowned upon when co-workers share a bottle of wine at lunch. However, what happens when your boss comes back from lunch so drunk that he passes out on the floor and you have to step over him while you work? Or what happens if he is a mean drunk and tells inappropriate jokes at work? What if you tell HR and she says that it’s probably because your jeans are too tight and you are asking for it? What if he is one of the most powerful men in the wine industry in France? On The Faux Pas-Cast, the podcast I co-host with my friend Jennifer, we interview a woman who endured this and so much more. She took her complaints all the way to the top and won the first ever sexual harassment case against an employer in France.
Notable French actresses, including Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot, have publicly condemned the recent movements against sexual misconduct in the entertainment industry. What are your thoughts on that?
So many thoughts. To me there seems to be an obvious response to the #METOO movement, but it’s so interesting how nuanced this issue has become. I’m tired of women attacking women who choose to speak up. It’s the exact reason why so many women are afraid to say anything. While writing this, I am afraid that someone reading this will disagree with what I’m writing to the point that it took me a week to begin to type out my thoughts. I believe that all these women have their perspective. A perspective that perhaps is stuck in the 60s. Then, what was flirty and fun is now called sexual harassment. Interestingly, like the French sex symbol Bridgette Bardot, Pam Anderson also spoke out against the negative press on Harvey Weinstein. Maybe they were into it, but other women weren’t. Instead of attacking other women for speaking their opinion we should be attacking the guilty men who continue to lead free lives in Paris (I’m talking about you Romain Polanski). Catherine Deneuve has criticized the political correctness of the #METOO movement saying that it could jeopardize the romantic and seductive French culture. Jennifer and I discuss these cultural differences with French friends and experts on each episode of The Faux Pas-Cast to understand their perspective on this movement and other taboo topics.
How does this impact you as an actor?
It’s interesting that acting is one of the only professions that have both a masculine and feminine form as in French. We don’t call female doctors ‘doctressess’ do we? I call myself an actor in English and I embrace the opportunity to explain why. As an actor, I am the product. I am trying to sell myself. And what sells the best? Sex? Desire? Talent? I’ve never been in a casting couch situation, but I have had discussions with my husband about how to address my marital status in a casting situation. We agreed that if the topic comes up that I will tell them I’m single. If the casting director is a man, I will take off my wedding ring. If it’s a woman and she asks me personal questions, I play up the romance in my relationship with my “boyfriend”.
I have a friend who works as an agent in America and she said it was months before finding out that one her actors was a wife with two children. The actor was worried that it could affect her chances of being sent out on auditions or being cast. My friend the agent quickly reassured her that it could never be an issue. It’s her talent that is important not her marital status.
What’s your dream role?
Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. One of the most misunderstood victims in all literature.
Merci beaucoup, Mollie! If you’re not listening already, be sure to tune into The Faux Pas-Cast. This pod-cast is a provocative, witty, and insightful lens into sexuality in France. Génial!
À la prochaine!