Who is Deborah Lucumuena, the actress who explodes the codes of representation in cinema?

Currently acting in two films – Strong, with Gerard Depardieu and between the waves, with Suheila Yacoub – 27-year-old actress Deborah Loukumuena doesn’t know where to turn. While she is busy filming the next film, her good mood, however, outweighs her fatigue. She has been bringing her bestial energy to film and theater since the success of her first film. divine (2016), for which she received the César Award. Quantity met a passionate and workaholic actress.


Deborah Loukumuena, photo: Charlotte Abramow

Deborah Loukumuena, photo: Charlotte Abramow

Number: How did you become an actress?

Deborah Lucumuena: I was 19 years old and I was going to be a high school literature teacher. Also, I went to art college, but I was bored… I started watching the series Tudors, with actor Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who tells the story of King Henry VIII of England. He was tall, fat, and red-haired, while the actor was short, swarthy, and athletic, and didn’t look like him at all. However, I thought it was him, I was so obsessed with his magnetism. And that’s when this profession began to fascinate me. At first I memorized the scenes, acted them out in front of a mirror. I started watching commercials to start small. In my family, no one is engaged in art, and even more so cinema. I did the auditions in secret, because I didn’t want to alert my mother. And one day I came across an ad that changed my life, a movie divine. I hid this from my mother for nine months, and one day I got the role that I told her about. She was very surprised, but also amused: I often imitated the neighbor’s dog, and this made her very amused. She told me that when I see you imitate the neighbor’s dog, I understand that you have talent.

In 2016, you received a Cesar for Best Supporting Actress for divine. Apart from this award, how has this film changed your life?

During filming, there was nothing that would portend such a success. I was really immersed, I got to know what it’s like to be on set. I was like a child, I had flaws, and at the same time I liked to study. There was no pressure on me because they didn’t know me. When there were Cannes, and people liked the film so much, it was then that they began to look after me, criticize, but at the same time recognize me. Here is the head spinning. But I am very proud of this film, it participated in the disclosure of my desire to become an actress.

Are you currently filming Strong with Gerard Depardieu. How did you prepare for this role?

I never wrestled, I played rugby, and only later did I realize that it fed wrestling. But for this film, I had to take intensive classes with a coach who was a former champion. I also did fitness and bodybuilding. All this preparation was followed by discussions about the attitude to the body, because this is not a film about wrestling, this is a film that includes it. But this is the journey of a character who finds a certain shelter and reveals himself in the struggle. Shooting with Gerard Depardieu was very intense. He may be 72 years old, he is full of energy that captures and knocks you down. I was afraid he was a little scary, but he was generous, he gave me advice and made me feel better about many things, like having a body that was substandard. He did not fit into the mold, even when he was younger, and eventually got rid of his complexes. Obviously, he has his own mood, and you need to be able to manage it, but it was a wonderful experience.

You talk about non-standard bodies and recently explained in an interview that playing when you have a physique like yours is a political act. What do you mean?

I don’t exist in the collective unconscious. This body does not exist, except for some very closed narratives, such as a fat woman who eats too much and is notorious. There is no desire for such a body. So, being on the cinema screen, I put myself on public display. I also reveal myself by choosing roles: I choose stories where you don’t necessarily expect physical types like mine. This is what makes it political. IN Strong, for example, a lot of sensuality. This is a real choice – to put non-standard bodies in positions of sensuality. IN between the waves I almost have the role of the first, handsome, who succeeded. And with my physique, it’s not necessarily what we expect. I have already been the victim of criticism and attacks on my body because I am very open in my work. These are risks worth taking. The problem is that I don’t show myself in the way that is expected of me: without hiding either myself or my body.

Is anything changing in terms of representation in cinema?

Slowly, I could not name a single actor or actress that would make me say that a big step forward has been made. I won’t quote myself because there is still work to be done. I am offered a wide range of roles, but almost exclusive. I still resent three-quarters of what I see in French cinema. This annoys me, because the latter should be beautiful, wide and bold. I think we need a cinema for everyone. As myself, being in the position of someone who wants to succeed with a body that doesn’t fit, I still have the openness to tell myself that there are people who aren’t ready to see people like me on screen yet. We need a movie for these people, and a movie for people like me: multiple narratives can coexist.

When you started, did you feel locked into the roles you were offered?

They tried to give me very limited roles, very bad versions of my character in divine. But it was with my demonstrations in the press, as well as my refusal of roles, that I sent a message. And most importantly, I went to the conservatory right after I got the Cesar, it changed people’s perception of me. I was doing theatre, it changed my way of acting… Today for me the role offers are much more varied and Strong as well as between the waves show it well.

What did you like about this scenario?between the waves ?

I was so struck by the fury of the lives of two heroines, and at least for me, for my journey on this earth, I had to play it, go through this story. I also recognized myself in the image of Alma, although I find her taller and bolder than me. We have the same thirst for life and victories and an appetite for life in which we are similar to each other. This time, and it happens all too rarely, these are women who, for some reason, have fallen into competition, but do not strengthen their buns. Constant competition with women, whether for work or for a man, is a macho stereotype that needs to be destroyed. When I see scripts that reproduce this pattern, it confuses me, I stop reading altogether. This is inherent in me, these are automatisms.

The theater is featured prominently in the film. What is your attitude towards boards, you who played the single on stage for three years at the Gerard Philippe Theatre?

The difference in the perception of live performances is something that makes me very nervous, but at the same time it insanely strengthens me, which hyper-forms. In the cinema, there is a different space-time, a little more comfort. But I really like the theater, I decided to do it alone on the stage, and I did it at the same time as the conservatory. I trained myself and at the same time applied what I had learned. Now I’m taking a break from the theater because it was a rather heavy play: a very strong story called something suspicious and told the story of a woman who ended up in the Indian Ocean and told her story right before sinking.

We feel a strong commitment to your work and your choice of films. Do you choose them based on this?

I choose them because they affect me. I don’t necessarily tell myself that I’m going to make a purposeful film, but I also want to learn and educate myself by acting, and that was the case with the series. mental. It was a chance to portray the image of a black and round woman who fully embraces her sexuality and faces mental and eating disorders. These are topics that I would like to be educated on: playing them is an opportunity to be.

You were the first black woman to win a Cesar. Has anything changed since then?

Things are slowly changing. Motion “black is not my job”, started by Aissa Maiga, caused a great resonance, people were pushed, and the conscience woke up. But I think I’m a little out of place because I have a trampoline, which is my reward, and I think it’s a little easier for me. Even if I have something to say about what we have to offer my colleagues, I feel relieved by my award. My agent would say it’s my Caesar, but also my job, but I think it’s just my reward.

Do you have a dream to play with certain actors or directors?

I would like to play under Steve McQueen. [récemment anobli par la reine d’Angleterre], Jordan Peele or Sofia Coppola. These are directors whose aesthetics and the chemistry that goes on with some of their actors really makes me want to. In the United States, the attitude towards the body has absolutely nothing to do with the attitude in France. It’s much calmer. Bodies do not have the same range. People keep telling me that I will be much happier there. But be careful, even if it’s so uninhibited, there are many other things that aren’t. Racism is much stronger there, much more dangerous there, and not everything can be thrown away in France.

between the waves (2022), Anais Volpe, indoors. Strong (2022) Constance Meyer, in theaters.

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