Elsa Zylberstein, one of the most famous – and bankable — faces of French cinema, known for her Cesar-winning performance in “I’ve Loved You For So Long,” is preparing to emerge as a major film producer.
Having recently set up banners in France and the U.S., Zylberstein is actively developing a raft of films and series, working with the likes of Oscar-winning Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad (“The Cave”), Ted Braun (Darfur Now”) and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher Hampton (“The Father”), among others. These include “Kingdom of Hope,” a movie about Elise Boghossian, a French acupuncturist and humanitarian worker in a war zone who has healed children victims of ISIS . The movie will be directed by Fayyad, who is based in Berlin, and is being penned by Braun, based on Boghossian’s autobiographical book “Au royaume de l’espoir, il n’y a pas d’hiver.”
Zylberstein, who stands out from the typical nonchalant Gallic actor with her childlike enthusiasm and elaborately glamorous style, has starred in dozens of movies over the last three decades. Her recent film “Simone,” in which starred as Simone Veil, an Auschwitz survivor who became health minister of France and championed the 1975 law that legalized abortion, was the second biggest French production at the country’s box office (with 2.5 million tickets sold) in 2022.
Over a tea date in Paris ahead of the Berlinale, Zylberstein explained her move into producing was prompted by her experience playing Veil, whom she knew personally and admired. Although she wasn’t credited as a producer on the movie, she was a driving force behind it, finding partners and convincing Olivier Dahan (“La Vie en Rose”) to direct. She first met Veil when she gave a speech in her honor at the Shoah Memorial at the University in Jerusalem and the two stayed in touch.
“When I made ‘Simone,’ I felt that I was fulfilling my duty of transmitting something precious about our history to the younger generations. That’s what I want to do going forward,” says Zylberstein.
“After this pandemic, and seeing how successful ‘Simone’ was, I think people want to go to the cinemas to see films that have a meaning, or at least some truth and some sincerity,” says Zylberstein, who admits that she’s been inspired by American actors such as Reese Witherspoon and Cate Blanchett. “Seeing what these women have accomplished is so empowering, and makes me wonder, ‘why couldn’t we do that in France as well?’” she says.
The actor-turned-producer said she met Fayyad at Venice and approached him with the project after seeing his two documentaries, “The Cave” and “Last Men in Aleppo.”
“I had Elise’s book translated and paid with my own money and sent it to him. And he said O.K., let’s do it,” Zylberstein says. She then enlisted Braun, whom she said had already penned “22 outstanding pages.”
As with all these first projects, Zylberstein will headline “Kingdom of Hope.” She’s producing through her U.S. banner Lili Films – named after her mother, who died abruptly during the shoot of “Simone.” The actor also launched Sonia Films, a production banner based in Paris.
“Simone Veil was a warrior and being her in that film gave me such strength. That’s why everything I’m developing now is about women who are fearless, no matter if they’re famous or unknown,” says Zylberstein, who will be traveling to Los Angeles next week.
Through Sonia Films, Zylberstein is also co-developing a TV series with Gaumont about Esther Perel, the intimacy therapist and New York Times bestselling author of “The State of Affairs” and “Mating in Captivity.”
“I met Esther about 12 years ago in L.A. and optioned her book, ‘Mating in Captivity.’ She’s the biggest sex therapist in the U.S. She’s been a guest on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show,” says Zylberstein. Anne Berest, who previously collaborated to the script of Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” and created the series “Mythomaniac,” has already penned the series.
“I want this series to give a snapshot of today’s world when it comes to sex and love. I’d like it be what life is: funny and moving, with some depth to it,” says Zylberstein, who will play the part of Esther, whose parents are Holocaust survivor like hers.
Zylberstein has also optioned “Happy People Read and Drink Coffee,” a bestseller by Agnes Martin-Lugand. Book rights were previously held by Harvey Weinstein. She’s in discussion with Mediawan to co-produce. Other projects include a film that she’s producing with Philippe Carcassone, set to be directed by Anne Fontaine and penned by Hampton.
Although she hasn’t yet broken into Hollywood, Zylberstein is one of the best connected French actors. A testament to her resourcefulness, she notoriously got Quentin Tarantino to attend the screening of Claude Lelouch’s “Un plus une” at COLCOA (now called the American French Film Festival) in Los Angeles in 2015. Her movie “I’ve Loved You for So Long” was also a critical success that helped her gain international recognition, including in the U.S.
Aside from the projects that she’s developing as a producer, Zylberstein has also been approached to play Sarah Bernhardt, the revered stage actress, in a long-gestating project called “The Rivals.” The script, penned by Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), revolves around the relationship between Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse.
“It’s such a brilliant project, about the rivalry between these two stage icons. But it’s typically the kind of project that’s becoming difficult to finance in Hollywood these days,” says Zylberstein. And this is where she thinks she may have a card to play, bringing together European and American talent and resources, the “best of both worlds.”