As a timid Belgian schoolgirl, Cecile de France was called upon by her teacher to stand in front of the classroom and recite a poem.
"I was a bit shy, and she said, 'OK, Cecile, come on,' " recalled the film star, now 35. She read the poem as her classmates watched her with big eyes.
"And the next week, after the teacher said, 'OK, who wants to tell the poem?' Everyone said, 'Ce-cile! Ce-cile!' And this moment, I felt like, I have my place in the classroom. I have my passion."
Years later, it's the approval of someone a bit more intimidating who has validated De France's ability as a performer: Clint Eastwood. The director picked the actress -- who is virtually unknown to American audiences but has won two Cesar awards, France's version of an Oscar -- to star in his latest film, the supernatural drama "Hereafter," which opens Friday in Los Angeles.
De France plays journalist Marie Lelay, who begins to reevaluate her life -- and her thoughts about what happens after life -- when she returns to her job after nearly dying in a tsunami. She ends up writing a book about her experience, which lands in the hands of a San Francisco psychic, played by Matt Damon.
Because Peter Morgan's script had Marie written as a Frenchwoman, Eastwood felt it was only appropriate he cast a French-speaking actress in the part. De France went in for a filmed audition, then began to wait "impatiently," as she said, to hear if she had landed what could be one of the biggest breaks of her career.
"But it was funny, because all of my friends say, 'We are sure it will be you. We are sure you belong to the Clint Eastwood family of actors,' " De France said in a phone interview from New York, where she was promoting the film. "Perhaps because I've real features -- his characters are more about humans with their weakness and their defects. In France, I know that the directors chose me for the fact that I could be your neighbor, how do you say -- the girl next door?"
Eastwood felt such confidence in De France that he allowed her to translate her lines in the script from English to French so that she could "sell her product as she would in real life," he said.
"At first, you say to yourself, it's a big responsibility and perhaps it's too much for me," De France said. "But it was amazing that he just let me do what I wanted to do. You feel great, you feel strong, you feel important when you have the confidence of Clint Eastwood in your life."
On set, Eastwood threw De France into his signature style of filmmaking: He only did one take for most of her many scenes, despite the fact that she had never before worked that way.
"I just watched her go, and she was so brilliant right off the top that I thought, 'This gal's really got it, and a great tempo,' " Eastwood said. "It wasn't one of those deals where you say 'Pick it up, don't let it drag here.' She just flowed right through it and we were there to capture it. So for the rest of the picture, I knew that I could depend on her. She wasn't a slow starter, she was a fast starter."
Still, De France admits that Eastwood's quick process initially made her anxious.
"It's like Olympic games: You prepared at home and for a period and when it's your turn, it's one shot," she said. "You can ask [for] another take, but it's like a challenge and it's very exciting, like a shot of adrenaline. And it's possible. If Clint is happy with one shot, then you say to yourself, 'OK, it must be OK. It's Clint Eastwood.' "
De France is no stranger to working with film legends. In France, she has co-starred in a number of films with Gerard Depardieu and had been directed by Cedric Klapisch and Claude Chabrol.
Though "Hereafter" is her first major American film debut, she did act in another film in the States before, 2004's "Around the World in 80 Days" with Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan.
As for following in the footsteps of actresses like Marion Cotillard or Juliette Binoche, who move back and forth between French and American films, De France says she is content to act in any movie, regardless of nationality -- as long as it's good.
"I want to work with a good director with a very good script and a very good character," she said. "The most important thing is not working in America."
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Where you've seen her
Cecile de France was deemed a rising star in 2002, when she won a Cesar Award for her role in "L'Auberge Espagnole" (The Spanish Apartment). She won another Cesar for her supporting role in "Les Poupees Russes" (The Russian Dolls) three years later. She acted alongside Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan in the American film "Around the World in 80 Days." Most recently, she appeared in Nicolas Boukhrief's "Gardiens de L'ordre" (Guardians of Order).