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By Alice Butterlin

She has starred in Yann Gonzalez’s films since her first appearance in By the Kiss, claimed the lead in the latest version of the opera Einstein on the Beach, and played the object of Vincent Macaigne’s unrequited love in Armel Hostiou’s Stubborn. Kate Moran is the American actor who has mesmerized French independent cinema with her grace, magnetism and unique movement on screen. As comfortable on stage as on set, she inspires theater and film directors alike, as they craft bespoke role tailored to her extraordinary personality. Here, she looks back on her childhood as a classical dancer, her five years with Philip Glass and Bob Wilson and her special relationship with Yann Gonzalez.

You did classical dance until you were fourteen/fifteen years old, right?

Yes, I started when I was three years old. There was a children’s show on TV where Baryshnikov was dancing and I told my mom that’s what I wanted to do. She figured that if I was so sure of myself at just three years old, then she had to let me dance. I fell in love with it right away, and then around ten I started taking drama class for kids. Theater is very expressive and I enjoyed it. In classical dance we learn everything about our bodies. It’s a magnificent discipline, but the goal is to erase individuality and emotions.

And it was all in New York?

No, Massachusetts. I left when I was sixteen.

Did classical dance give you a sense of rigor, or perfectionism, that stuck with you throughout your career?

Yes, dancing certainly demands enormous discipline because there are so many things you have to deal with, including physical pain. You have to go beyond what you think you can do with your body at a fairly young age. Theater takes a strong mind and body connection and classical dance helped me achieve it.

I also imagine that it prepared you for all the castings that are part of the acting business.

(laughs) I don’t know if you really get comfortable with castings, judgment and everyone looking at you. But they both have the same competitive side, the drive to push yourself to the next level, the desire to be the best in relation to others and to oneself… I remember when I was little and I couldn’t do a pirouette or a jeté. I stayed after school an extra hour alone to get to what I thought was perfection – which is very subjective of course. (laughs)

Has that drive for perfection ever been a hindrance in your life?

Yes, for sure. As is often the case, the things that bring us a lot can also do us a disservice. It’s hard to strike that perfect balance. There is a type of perfectionism that applies to things like pirouettes. But when I’m on set with people watching, it’s a communal experience that forces you to let to in a way. You can’t be too rigid and read your part exactly as you rehearsed it. If you already know how it’s going to go before you start acting, then it starts to hold you back. Orson Welles said the best cinema was made from accidents. I try to remember that a lot. Obviously, in acting, one of the most important things is listening. You can have a lot of theories about a character or the course of the scene. But if you make sure to be present with the other person and listen to them, then something good will happen.  

Has any specific interaction with another actor left a mark on you?

I feel like we mostly remember when things don’t go well. (laughs) Right now I’m shooting with actress Suzanne Clement and she’s marvelous. I just love working with her. We can talk and share because she’s so easy to be around. I’ve worked a lot with Yann Gonzalez and I think he’s especially gifted at casting. We always work as a cohesive group on all his films, and that’s not so easy to pull off. It’s harder than on stage anyway, where we rehearse for a month so that we all work as a unit. In film, most things happen in the present moment. But when I work with Yann, I always feel like I’ve known my acting partners for years. In Knife + Heart, I was in a relationship with Vanessa Paradis and it was easy for us to find the right chemistry. We also became great friends – which doesn’t happen on every project.

Yann Gonzalez seems to have united a small family of actors around him. You’ve been shooting with him since his very first short film and continued working with him through his latest film, which was screened to high acclaim at Cannes.

I appeared in his first three short films, and then I was in his two feature films. He did other short films without me, which is good so that we don’t get sick of working together. (laughs) I’m so proud of Yann. He’s become part of my family. To see him continue to make the kinds of movies he wants to make without ever giving up… I think that is remarkable. Beyond that, we even ended up on the red carpet at Cannes. I was huge! It’s so touching when they play the music from your movie and announce everyone’s names. We had the whole team behind us, and some of them paid their own way to the festival. It was a real show of strength and emotion. I was looking at Yann and I couldn’t believe it. I still felt like we were teenagers, just a bunch of punks strutting down the red carpet. (laughs)

It was an important moment for Yann Gonzalez’s style of filmmaking to achieve such wide recognition. It was a victory for directors who take artistic risks.

Yann is a researcher. Remember that this was only his second feature film. Getting into competition with only your second film is moving pretty fast. It’s not like he’s sixty and never selected before. Cannes is even more important for independent filmmakers, because it’s the festivals that bring these films to life. With all the films coming out, you need a platform for yours to be seen. Beyond that, I don’t know if being in competition is the most important thing. What matters most is to make a good film that moves people, not just critics, festival juries and cinephiles. When the film came out in Paris, I was waiting for the metro at Montparnasse and a young boy of about fourteen or fifteen came up to ask me if I was indeed Kate Moran from Knife + Heart. I didn’t expect it at all. I’m not Vanessa Paradis or someone famous who gets recognized all the time. (laughs) He nervously said to me, “I love Yann’s movies, thank you very much for what you do.” For me, those are the kinds of people that we want to reach.

People often say that you’re Yann Gonzalez’s muse. What do you think of that term?

The word muse always sounds strange to me. There are days when I think that a muse is someone who inspires, but other times I think that I’m not just an object to be thrown around! I’m also someone who collaborates on projects and speaks her mind. Yann is someone who’s easy for me to work with, since we speak the same language. It’s not his style to say, “Oh, you’re beautiful, so I’ll make you my muse.” Not at all! I don’t know if he writes for me or with my voice and my physique in mind. There is probably something about me that inspires him, but the term “muse” is a bit much, just like “face”. You can be the face of a perfume, but not of a director. (laughs)

I get the impression that directors often want to make room for you to collaborate on their projects, in addition to acting.

Yes, it all depends on the project. With Yann, he writes his screenplay and nothing is improvised. You learn your lines by heart because you have to stick to his particular style of writing. And his directing style is also fairly choreographed. I’ve also worked on other plays where I was asked to contribute much more. With people like Yves-Noël Genod or Thierry de Peretti in theater, there is a lot more collaboration and exchanging ideas, gestures and vocabulary than with Bob Wilson on Einstein on the Beach. In that case, there is a partition to follow, a style to respect and movements that must be reproduced with precision. But even in those cases, we’re not machines so we bring our own stylings to the role.  

I actually wanted to talk to you about Einstein on the Beach, a play you performed in 2012.

I actually performed in it for almost five years, since the play went on a world tour. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

Was it a triumph for you to work on that project?

It’s always strange to work with our masters. I studied Philip Glass and Bob Wilson at university. I had seen a video of Einstein on the Beach from 1976. When the project came up, just taking part in the casting was already something huge. Then to get the part and have Lucinda Childs, Philip Glass and Bob Wilson with us on set was crazy. I pinched myself every day just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. I thought I was going to mess something up and get fired. It was just too perfect. (laughs) When we did the first tour, there were sixty-eight people traveling with us including the technicians and everyone on set. That’s huge. It’s hard for anyone to produce the show; it’s a huge chunk of the season for a theater. We got a lot of support from Montpellier, the Paris Autumn Festival, BAM in New York, as well as Barbican in London. This first little tour sold out in no time; there was a lot of demand to see the show again. So we kept getting offers right and left to continue the tour: Berkeley in California, Hong Kong, Melbourne… That’s why it ended up lasting five years.

What memories do you have of that period in your career?

It’s an opera that lasts four and a half hours, and by the end of each show it always felt like one less chance to perform it. So I never took a single show for granted: each night was precious. With the audience it was also a different experience every time. It’s a play where the audience can come and go as they please, while we just keep performing like a train. It was special to feel all the movement in the room, the tension and excitement. It’s an emotional experience. When you start out in the theater, everyone is dreaming about living out of your suitcase, going from one hotel to the next, discovering new cities and countries. I had gotten a little taste of that life on other tours, but this was such a big production on the move.

Were you interested in minimalist and repetitive music before?

Yes, I love it. It’s a style of music that I had worked with before on several plays in New York, with the drone music of La Monte Young. Then there’s Steve Reich, Philip Glass and a lot of other composers who inspire me. And John Cage, of course, for his connection to contemporary dance.

You mentioned the running time of four and a half hours for Einstein on the Beach. Was it physically demanding?

No, because we were so invested in the play. Bob Wilson and Philip Glass are so strong that we follow them in whatever they want to do without flinching. Even if there were moments of fatigue… For example, there’s a moment where I sit stock still for over half an hour, with my feet dangling from a seventy-seven-meter chair. Of course, all your blood runs down to your feet. (laughs) Physically, your body wants to give out sometimes, but the simple act of listening to music works like meditation. There’s an energy, an adrenaline rush when I get on stage. I always get a lot of stage fright, thinking “I have to quit. Why am I doing this to myself? I’m never going to make it.”

Do you still get stage fright?

Yes, excruciating stage fright. But as soon as I get back on stage, it all melts away. And when it’s over, I can’t wait to do it all over again. I feel the same anxiety with all my projects. Even when I’m shooting a movie, I never sleep well the night before. It’s bad if it keeps you from doing things, but in general it’s a good thing to get a little nervous from time to time.

Among all your projects, you seem to prefer films and plays that leave a lot of room for dreams and audience interpretation.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have artists pick me to work on “atypical” projects. I can’t say that it’s all a question of my own choice. When you look at the world live in, I think it’s vital for us to make art that asks the viewer to think. It’s important for people to do their own part, to think for themselves, not just hand out information like a big cake and tell people, “This is sad, so cry now.” I want people to wonder why they like something or why they hate it. When I first saw Pina Bausch, I felt like I was seeing a mixture of theater and dance. I was already eighteen years old when I discovered her in New York. It was like a huge breath of fresh air for me, simply extraordinary. That connection between dance, movement and theater was just what I was looking for. Just by chance I discovered that it was possible to achieve that perfect blend. I hope my own work communicates that same feeling.

Have you had any similar epiphanies recently during a film or play?

It’s not that recent but Jim Jarmusch’s Patterson was very moving for me. It was like filmed poetry that I found quite breathtaking. Beyond that, I’m respond more to older movies, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda. It came out in 1975 but it has a very modern perspective. It was filmed with almost nothing. It’s just a glimpse into a woman’s life. Books speak to me, too. I just finished a book about Cookie Mueller, the muse – or friend – of John Waters and Nan Goldin. I knew of her as an actress but had not followed her life as an artist. Her writing and poetry are wild! I’m devouring her poems right now.

You have a small part in Rebecca Zlotowski’s An Easy Girl.

Yes, I did a tiny bit part just to please her. She often asks her friends to be extras. In this case it’s a dinner scene with all her friends. But I saw the film and it’s very beautiful. Rebecca is incredibly talented.

She’s someone you’ve been working with for a long time, right?

I met her when we were both on the jury of the Bordeaux International Independent Film Festival and it was love at first sight. We immediately wanted to do a project together. We talked about it until very late in the night. Eventually I was invited to the Avignon Festival to present a play in their mini festival called Sujet à Vif. They ask the performers to create a play with someone they have never worked with before. I remembered that Rebecca had never done theater before, so we wrote a small thirty-minute play together, called Contre-Champs. As a complement, I also did a play with Bertrand Bonello based on Rose Poussière by Jean-Jacques Schuhl. The two plays had nothing in common; I was the link between them.  

What are your plans for the future?

Right now, I’m shooting a series for Netflix called Vampires with Vladimir de Fontenay and Marie Monge, who are the co-directors. It’s based on a book by Thierry Jonquet and it’s really funny. I don’t know if the project is going to be funny to watch, but it’s definitely funny to make. I’m working on the show with Suzanne Clément and many other great actors. Jonathan Gene was on set yesterday; he played the killer in Knife + Heart and it was so nice to see him again. I’m also in a film coming out called L’état sauvage, directed by David Perrault. It’s kind of a Western with French women at the American border fighting to go home to France… and I threaten them. (laughs)

Interview by Alice Butterlin.

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Photographer: Elise Toïdé
Stylist: Armelle Leturcq
Hair: Massanori Yahiro
Make up: Mickael Noiselet @calliste
Stylist assistant: Pauline Grosjean

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