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Jenna Thiam


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Beauty and the beasts: The Returned's Jenna Thiam has the world at her feet

Jenna Thiam shunned the fashion world to star in hit French TV drama The Returned, which brings the dead back to life. Nick Curtis meets a bewitching young actress destined for success.
There are many reasons to watch the hauntingly atmospheric French drama The Returned on Channel 4, and prime among them is Jenna Thiam. The show gripped audiences in France, Sweden and the UK by asking what it would really be like if the dead came — quietly and discomfitingly — back to life. Thiam, 23, became the show’s breakout star as 19-year-old Léna, a wild and impulsive concoction of red tresses, hurt eyes, porcelain skin and uproarious hormones, who reacts to the reappearance of her dead twin Camille after four years with a combination of rage, guilt and jealousy. Not least because she was shagging the boy her sister loved when Camille died in a coach crash.
‘I think the theme is universal,’ says Thiam, pondering the show’s popularity. ‘Nobody knows how they will deal with grief, and we see each character react in a different way. What was interesting about the part of Léna is that she rejects the situation completely. Having her [Camille] come back is almost humiliating. I think if it happened to me, if I lost someone, I would react in the same way if I hadn’t finished grieving.’ Her voice is a warm purr, her English idiosyncratically good — the influence, presumably, of her English grandmother, augmented by a slight transatlantic curl to her sentences from her brief stint studying in New York.
She thinks the show’s ‘peculiar ambience’ helps make it ‘intriguing’, too. Creator Fabrice Gobert carefully orchestrated the story on an intimate, human level across eight episodes — ‘it wasn’t a huge army of zombies devastating the forest’ — and devised the show’s bleached, cinematic look with his director of photo-graphy Patrick Blossier. ‘We shot every day between 4pm and 9pm because Fabrice wanted it always to be dusk,’ says Thiam. ‘There was such attention to the light, to detail and minutiae. We shot it like a film. That time of day began to feel like an event every day, which added to the tension of the series.’
The show was a revelation in France where ‘we have a history of very, very poor TV series, and the quality is still pretty low’ and a second series is already planned for 2014. She’s not giving anything away about this (‘Fabrice is keeping it to himself’), or about the mysteries of series one. Why is the level of the lake dropping? What is the mysterious lesion on Léna’s back? And will there be repercussions to her impetuous decision to have ill-advised sex with the cannibal serial killer Serge?
Thiam was still studying at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts in her native Paris when she was cast in The Returned. She got the part late in the day, three months before shooting began, and immediately formed a sisterly bond with 18-year-old Yara Pilartz, who had been cast as Camille six months earlier. The two had to convince as twins physically as well as emotionally, and they share fairly exotic looks. Pilartz is French Lebanese. And Thiam? ‘I am a real Parisienne but I was born in Brussels,’ she says. ‘My mother Martine is half Belgian and half Armenian. My father Sydney was born in Dakar: he is half Senegalese, a quarter French and a quarter English.’

Sydney is a percussionist who performed with Les Négresses Vertes and once toured with Nina Simone (‘I am very proud of him for that’), but he also looked after Jenna when her mother was commuting between Brussels and Paris as an agent for small fashion brands. Later, her mother got a job in Paris, where her younger brother Maxim, now 15, was born. Jenna’s English grandmother came to live in their Montmartre apartment, as did Jenna’s cousin, whose mother worked for the UN and was therefore away a lot travelling to trouble hotspots such as Bamako, Chad and the Congo. The Thiam men are dark-skinned: Jenna says her cousin suffered racism at school in Paris and would ‘spend an hour in the shower trying to scrub off his skin’. She, conversely, was the subject of curiosity on family trips to Dakar because she was white: ‘But there, you are part of the family whatever your skin colour and wherever you live.’

The decision to become an actress came at a young age. ‘My father took me on tour with him when I was really little,’ she says. ‘I knew at four years old that I wanted to be on stage, and I am really not a good musician, so I started doing acting classes. At four I also started modelling in Paris for the children’s clothing company Bonpoint, and carried on with that, so there was enough money in my account for me to rent a tiny apartment when I was 18 and I decided I needed to live alone.’ She hated modelling, though: ‘It was really a traumatic, awful experience. I was “a little too fat”, or whatever. You know how they are. It’s like hell. You are considered less than an object.’

She wasn’t overtly bullied or preyed upon, she says, but the constant small humiliations wore her down. At around this time, she planned to spend a year studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in New York. ‘But I only stayed about two months,’ she says. ‘I had been to New York several times, but when it came to living there I suddenly panicked. I really didn’t feel comfortable — maybe I was too young. Suddenly, New York felt like Babylon.’ So she came back to Montmartre and spent a year at the private drama school Cours Florent, supporting herself by waitressing and selling shoes: ‘You got to do what you got to do, right?’ After that, she managed to blag her way into the elite Conservatory because she was ‘too naïve and innocent’ to realise what a big deal the audition was.

Now, thanks to The Returned, it’s all kicking off, and fast. She’s doing three movies before the second series starts filming: ES’s photo shoot took place near the Alpine locations for Claude Lelouch’s Salaud on t’aime (Bastard, I Love You), in which she plays one of four daughters with different mothers gathering at the bedside of their elderly, wastrel dad, played by the veteran pop star Johnny Hallyday. (Thiam’s father once toured with Hallyday, too.) She’d love to work in America or the UK — she thinks our TV drama is better and our film industry ‘less snobbish’. But for now she sees her future in Paris, where she is recognised but not hassled, and where she would like to act on stage.

She only graduated from the Conservatory three weeks ago, and is moving to a new apartment in the 19th arrondissement next month. Her private life has had something of a Léna-style upheaval, too. ‘It is kind of complicated,’ she says sheepishly. ‘I was with someone before for three years and then I fell in love with someone else, so my intimate life is very hectic.’ When did this happen? ‘Errr, a month ago. It’s a long story. So I am rearranging my whole life. He is an actor and a musician, and he writes. His name is Clément Bondu.’ Will they be sharing her new apartment? ‘I don’t know yet...’ Don’t worry, I reassure the very young, very beautiful and very talented Jenna Thiam. In every sense, it’s early days.


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