By any metric, Simon Helberg is a showbusiness veteran. The son of actor Sandy Helberg and Hollywood casting director Harriet Helberg, Simon was chums with Nathan Hamill (son of Mark) and future movie producer Jason Ritter at school. He studied at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, trained with the Atlantic Theatre Company, and toured as one half of the comedy duo Derek & Simon before finding international fame with The Big Bang Theory, a TV series that, in 2018, made him one of the world’s highest-paid performers.
As an actor, he has been directed by the Coen Brothers, Judd Apatow and George Clooney. In 2016, he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his work alongside Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins. None of these experiences, however, could have prepared him for working on Leos Carax’s extraordinary new film, Annette.
“I turned up one day and there was a stunt man standing there who told me that he was Jean Claude Van Damme’s stunt man,” laughs Helberg. “You know, I’ve always thought I had a very similar physique to the Muscles from Brussels. I was waiting for somebody to point that out. So I thought the stunt man could stand in for me. But no, he was just there to advise and to kind of give me lots of padding, lots of things to cover the pointy parts of my body so that I didn’t break them.”
Annette was the starry, ravishing opening film at this year’s Cannes film festival. The raucous rock opera has its detractors, but few of these spoilsports were present at the wildly enthused press screenings on the Croisette, where the film was hailed for its remarkable “formal intensity” (Vanity Fair), its “artistic complexity” (the Playlist), and as “an exhilarating collision of cinema, live concerts, stage shows and celebrity culture shaken up and let loose with abandon” (the Polygon).
“I feel like part of what is maybe – hopefully – so electrifying about what you see on screen is that the entire process was so invigorating,” says Helberg. “It was constantly a surprise. The demand was always the impossible. And you had to put all your weight into it and trust you get something magical. It was always an adventure. You turn up thinking a scene is going to be shot in the livingroom, but then it’s shot in the forest, and you’re running around Belgium in the middle of the night. It’s finding out that you’re going to have to sing underwater or operate a puppet and play the piano with no hands.
“Leos saw it so clearly in his head. He knew what he wanted. And you just had to help facilitate that vision. I found that actually very inspiring. Leos is a genius. Who doesn’t want to be on one of his canvases?”
Annette, a musical written by the cult duo Sparks, was inspired by a meeting between Carax and band members Ron and Russell Mael at the 2012 Cannes premiere for Carax’s previous feature, Holy Motors.
Carax had used one of Sparks’ songs (How Are You Getting Home?) in the film. Returning from the Riviera, the prolific Mael brothers – who were recently profiled in Edgar Wright’s hugely likeable new documentary – shared Annette, a conceptual album intended for release in 2013, with the filmmaker. Two weeks and many listens later and Carax asked the brothers if Annette could be his next movie.
It’s a great fit. Carax has been one of cinema’s most intriguing and enigmatic talents since he became a cult sensation 30 years ago with The Lovers of Pont Neuf. During the expensive shoot, the director built a costly replica of the Pont Neuf bridge and insisted his stars hung around with homeless Parisians. Actor Denis Lavant was badly injured on the set; Lavant’s co-star and Carax’s ex-girlfriend Juliette Binoche decried the director’s methods as sadistic.
Adam Driver, who signed on to play the lead role in Annette pre-Star Wars, has long been a fan. “Leos is one of the greatest directors of all time,” he told France 24 last July. “To work with him on this was an instant yes.”
Driver’s screen wife in Annette has, over the years, had Rooney Mara, Rihanna and Michelle Williams attached before Marion Cotillard finally landed the role. Helberg, meanwhile, went all out to get cast in the project.
“I ended up actually becoming a French citizen in order just to be considered for the part,” he says. “I knew about Leos, but I didn’t become very familiar with him, honestly, until I heard about Annette. I had the same experience with Sparks. I wasn’t overly familiar with them. But I knew enough to know that I loved them. And I knew once I dipped a toe into Leos’s work and Sparks’ work, I would become completely obsessed. And that is what happened. I kind of went on the tear with all of Leos’s films and Sparks’ albums. I went absolutely bonkers. I was willing to do anything and everything to be there with Adam and Marion and Leos and Sparks. So I became a French citizen in case they wouldn’t be welcoming anyone into the cast that wasn’t a European citizen. It’s off-kilter, I know. I was probably clinically insane at that point. But, you know, Leos makes a movie every seven years, so an opportunity like this just doesn’t happen often. So I just went completely nuts.”
Helberg’s enthusiasm is understandable. Annette is certainly sui generis. The film stars Driver as Henry McHenry, a successful and shocking stand-up comedian who performs as The Ape of God. As the film opens, Henry has fallen in love with Cotillard’s Ann Defrasnoux, an opera singer. Helberg plays The Conductor, her adoring accompanist. Ann and Henry marry and have a child, a daughter named Annette. who – in keeping with the rest of this wild fantasia – is depicted by a wooden marionette. Family life and Ann’s soaring career – mock TMZ celebrity newsreels double as a Greek chorus – soon sours the relationship.
Henry’s very toxic masculinity takes centre stage as the film transforms into a post-MeToo reimagining of Bluebeard, belted out as catchy pop songs, against maximalist performances and gorgeous tableaux.
“The script was effectively a libretto,” recalls Helberg. “It was just the lyrics. There were some pictures that Leos had added – references to other films or just things in his life – to give an idea of the kind of story that he was hoping to tell. There was no music. There wasn’t a lot of stage direction, it was mainly lyrics. And so I had to do a lot of guessing in terms of how it was going to feel, or really what it was even going to look like. I had some sense of the kind of story it was. I knew it was going to be singular, I knew it was going to be just madness and spectacle. And I knew it had the potential to be profound and hilarious, and timely. But you kind of don’t know whatever really what movie you’re making until you’re making it. Particularly with something like this. But as soon as I got there, and I met the puppet, and as soon as I saw what Adam was doing and what Caroline Champetier, the cinematographer, was doing, I mean, I was in heaven, I really was. I think it is just one of the most stunningly beautiful pieces of film that I’ve seen. I feel so fortunate to have been a part of it.”
The first movie musical to feature a duet performed mid-cunnilingus, Annette required the three leading actors to sing live during production. That wasn’t ever easy, says Helberg.
“I’m not a trained singer. And the songs that I perform are not incredibly demanding. But when I was singing and doing the scene with Adam and he was pushing me around, that was a challenge. Getting pushed around by Adam is challenging in and of itself. I did work with a vocal coach. So I could try to do things like singing underwater. But if I’m conducting an orchestra and I’m singing or delivering a soliloquy at the same time, I just can’t be thinking about all of these things. One of the luxuries of having a million challenging things that you’re doing at once is that it does kind of take you out of your head. You’re unable to get in your own way. You’re just forced to be present.”
Another skill Helberg was required to pick up was puppeteering. Speaking after the film’s glamorous opening night premiere at this year’s Cannes film festival, Carax revealed that Driver, Cotillard and Helberg operated the puppet of the title when there was nowhere on set for the technicians to hide.
“In some ways, it was a little metaphor for the experience as a whole,” says Helberg. “There was always something totally impossible to do. Leos didn’t want to do a lot of CGI. So when the puppeteers couldn’t be in the shot, we had to operate the puppet. And that gave this really interesting kind of tender, precarious feeling to all of these moments – which I, I feel, is not totally unlike what it is like to care for a child. I’m operating this creature while, you know, playing a piano or singing or doing both. And I’m also trying to do justice to the two puppeteers who are standing behind the camera, and to their work and their livelihood. They’ve pioneered all of these mechanisms that we used to make her neck work. They are brilliant artists and here they are just handing off their work to an actor who has no idea how to do any of the things that they’ve spent their life doing. And they’re trying to explain to me in French, which is a language I don’t speak. So there was that.”
Annette opens September 3rd