From an Interview with Jean Seberg
You've been considered the Midwest's Muse so tell us about the town where you're from.
Don't think you can escape Marshalltown was the unsaid caution. When you swim in the forbidden sandpits the hydra growth invades and later the town watches my white foot ease into hundreds of mouths. Marshalltown had the landlocked foursquare light of smoldering hymnals. It shone from the red maples and elms, the green dripping emeralds from branches. I left the town trees. I eloped from tractor chug and roads of no where to go. Everything was thirst. Everyone knows your nightgown's color when you arrive in the funeral parlor. You want Marshalltown. I buried my daughter there. Go find the graves of my parents and brother, and you'll see she's with them. Nina. I flew her from Paris in a glass coffin. Trinket-thing. Mourning doves nest and ditch lilies spring from her. Orange petals that shiver from human touch. Night swims. The waning town drowses. I've drunk myself sober on darkness. Each year on the anniversary of my baby's stillbirth I attempt suicide. Have I any flesh left? Seven months pregnant I swallowed barbiturates thinking we'd both die, but then I survived.
Will you elaborate about your first screen test and the legendary Otto Preminger?
What's to say about auditioning for the role of a saint? You want to inhabit Joan of Arc, but there are thousands of you's breathing the same lines. Can you be the daughter of salmon-colored booths and milk shakes and be the girl who God told to lead armies? The she who wore soldier pants laced together by dozens of knots, who feared rape more than flames at the stake. Preminger could see I'd come swaddled by the sleep-asphyxiated trees and yellowed fields. And I could not look at him. None of the girls could. 18,000 auditioned for Preminger's Saint Joan. I was the one chosen. He could see me burning more than the others—a Swedish daughter of Iowa, two generations removed from fjords. Transplanted to black dirt country that belonged to the Mesquaki, who'd been corralled tired and forsaken to powwows. Drums chanted on broken legs. Magic gone can't be danced back. I borrowed their power. He told me I was short. What made me think I could act? White armor and gold fleurs-de-lis? He handed me a cross and bound me to the stake. Mechanical error caused the gas tanks to explode. Nothingness. Stars hissing and whirling through space. My blue demons attacking. Not her face I hear them cry.
You've been termed a naïf, that is a cross between the naïve and the waif, with a self-destructive bent. Could you talk about that?
Because the heroes of movies I watched in the Orpheus, smoked cigarettes I started to burn my fingers, striking matches with my thumbnail. I watched myself inhale. Brando muttered and talked from the side of his face like a saint. Dean leather jacketed himself and shrugged. From him I learned the shoulder-scrunch. Maybe I was the first actress who returned the hard stare of the camera. I was known for the blank look. The empty actress. Magnificent neck. Masochistic. Listen. A Midwestern girl is a good girl. She does what she's told. Am I the drum majorette who played Sabrina in a high school production or the bitch who bankrolled the Black Panthers? Am I even a biological being? I learned four languages and I wasn't smart or witty. I married three times. My second husband, only a year younger than my father, all bottle rockets and jigger chasers, black widows and exploding flame balls. He directed me in the worst film ever made. Birds Come to Peru to Die. I fuck a bordello madam and her clients before meeting a young artist. Later I drown myself. Soon real life intruded. I was belting down pills, tumbling over the falls into the white water. I learned the meaning of the word venal. Insouciant. I darted before the camera like a minnow. Thin and stilted, said the critics. Like the Viking girl tied to the ship's prow by hanks of her hair, only I was red rosebuds stitched to black bras. A gamine. My acting style derided.
Indeed it seems you've ever been a stranger to Iowa but sprang wildly up from the streets of Paris.
Paris has a willowness where old and new glide effortlessly through. Paris is the photograph you're in that forgets you, that adds you before subtracting. There are fields too in France, the weeping of vineyards. After ten films I wanted to be a passive cow staring into the green distance, content. But my husbands executed peace. Paris taught me how to act. Acting is a congealed grease. The bacon and blood you paint yourself with, but then you get it licked off before the mirror. I fled the sin-scoured earth to eat the dirty plankton at the bottom of the Eurotrash soul. There was a red barn in my lower lip and my mother's buffet weighing down my eyelid. I pretended to be demure. Acting is the cloudy glass of the stopper ball and what perfume is left—all brown musk dried to a fragrant scab must be picked and made to bleed. Again, then again.
Why did you always marry in Paris?
I craved becoming midnight or dawn. I wanted to rise like smoke from a burning cause. I would be pure banner. But it was a misogynist flag my husbands thrust into my hand. I tried to fit in, to become the sleek club girl standing half naked on the cobblestone street. To reek of the undersea of Sartre and Flaubert, of Duras and Collette. Everywhere the damselfish swam, their long-finned legs in lemon-colored dresses and filmy neon-blue stripes. The fish girls didn't see me, and then they did. Even with my nostrils full of cigarette smoke I smelled them sniff me and their noses curled. Iowa. Stink of a clodhopper. 16 Arrondissement. An old Chinese woman kept muttering, "Best food in changhbai zhen yan. Deer antler. Bear. Snow toad. Eat me. Rare. I am best food." I married an old man, then a young one, both wanted to chew me like I was the edible world. In the end I took Marshalltown back. Creaking hardwood floors cracked their reins and stretched me length-to-length. The galloping yank of bit between my teeth. Sundays, the rock of ages. I listened to the July peonies boiling scent through the screen, fanning myself as gospel clacked.