In Marisha Pessl’s début novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the narrator, the overeducated and metaphor-happy Blue van Meer, describes a fellow classmate’s eyes as “the color of a kiddy pool (blue, green, suspicious hints of yellow),” a strikingly precise approximation that applies equally well to Astrid Bergès-Frisbey, star of the new film I Origins. The Spanish actress’ unique pigmentation comes thanks to sectoral heterochromia, a rare genetic mutation that writer and director Mike Cahill, in a stunning coincidence, had already assigned to her character Sofi before ever meeting her.
Such twists of fate also form the basis of the plot of I Origins, a film that falls under the genre of science fiction, but offers a much subtler, more nuanced take on questions of existence, belief, and spirituality than the usual alien-ridden summer blockbuster. Michael Pitt plays Ian, a molecular biologist whose research attempts to trace the evolution of the eye in an effort to disprove the existence of God. He meets Bergès-Frisbey’s Sofi one drunken night at a Halloween party, and finds himself unable to forget her unique eyes, the only part of her face visible behind her mask. Brought together again by chance—or, perhaps, destiny—the two fall into a passionate love affair, with her belief in the unexplained coming into conflict with his scientific rationalism.
For Bergès-Frisbey, that dichotomy is one that she grew up with herself. “I have always been passionate about biology and science,” she says, “but I’ve also always been very sensitive to spiritual things. Not necessarily that I am a very spiritual person, but I think the world needs both of these.”
Raised in Catalonia, Bergès-Frisbey moved to Paris on her own when she was seventeen, eventually finding her way to drama school after a few turns. “There was a moment that I just felt that I had this thing deep inside me for a long time that I was refusing,” she explains. “I had a very crazy, important year when I was seventeen, and so many things happened to me that I just realized I was following the wrong life. It took me a year to figure it out, because I was not at all a person who likes to be in the middle of everybody or likes to talk for hours or likes to be the center of attention, but the need was so powerful.”
She focused on her studies to the exclusion of all else, a dedication that has paid off in the years since, as she has worked steadily in the French film industry, appearing with Isabelle Huppert and Gaspard Ulliel in the 2009 adaptation of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Sea Wall. She has since taken on roles in Spanish, Catalan, and Italian as well, and learned English after being selected to play the mermaid Syrena in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a role she jokes she took on to please her little sister. “I have not done two consecutive films in the same language in six or seven years now,” she says. “I don’t do it on purpose. There is something very exhausting about it, it takes so much energy, but it permits you to start from zero every time and not repeat yourself. My voice changes when I talk in a different language. My energy changes.”
Bergès-Frisbey says her accent and the difficulty of expressing herself in English formed key paths into the character of Sofi. “I was very, very scared because I hadn’t spoken English for years before this movie, and my part had these big monologues,” she says. “Finding the way that Sofi talks was a very important clue for me. I was playing with the words and making mistakes, but then I was telling something different. It takes so much more energy, but it’s very interesting for an actor, because you have to find different ways to enjoy the moment, because if you pass it through your brain too much, the idea is gone. It was good for this part because she’s completely organic, and it matches very well with that process.”
Before reading the script for I Origins, Bergès-Frisbey knew little of the work of Cahill, whose previous film Another Earth also used the guise of science fiction to get at the heart of a piercing drama. “We met the day after I read the script, and I thought we would just be on Skype for ten minutes, but it turned out we stayed for two hours, which is crazy,” she says of what was effectively her audition for the director. “He believes so much in what he’s talking about that you just believe his story, and you just want to defend it, and you work hard to defend it as much as you can.”
A beautiful film that is dense without being difficult, I Origins is also, in Bergès-Frisbey’s luminous, glowing eyes, a uniquely communal cinematic experience, one that is being slowly lost as we turn away from the big screen to our own personal handheld ones. “Everybody that I’ve talked to has experienced something different and has different questions after,” she says. “What I love about the film is it’s not about morals. It invites you to see life from a different angle and invites you to ask different things. There is an emotional experience, but more than anything it leaves you with questions. That’s what is magical about cinema, something that is disappearing today because you can watch so many movies at home. It’s playing with this idea that things should not be explained.”
I Origins is out now from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
Styling by Akari Endo-Gaut. Makeup by Luna Frisbey. Hair by Andre Gunn at Brydges Mackinney. Stylist’s assistant: Jessica Roberts.
Jonathan Shia is the editor of The Last Magazine.