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Journalist's memoir portrays Maria Schneider's life beyond 'Last Tango in Paris'


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: French actress Maria Schneider was launched into the spotlight at age 19, when she co-starred with Marlon Brando in the erotic drama "Last Tango in Paris." The film and in particular, one rape scene made her famous but it also haunted her the rest of her life.

To cousin, Vanessa Schneider, she was more than just that one film. She tells her that story in her memoir, my cousin Maria Schneider, I spoke with Vanessa and with actor and writer Molly Ringwald, who translated the book into English. I asked them what drew them to this project.

Vanessa, I would like to start with you. You write in the book that as a small girl, you collected articles and photos of your cousin in a red folder. Why did you do that? What -- why was she important to you? What did she represent to you were when you were growing up?

Vanessa Schneider, Author, "My Cousin Maria Schneider: A Memoir" (through translator): When I was a child, I was fascinated by this cousin, Maria Schneider, who was very famous in France and in the world at the time, not necessarily for good reasons. But for the scandalous film "Last Tango in Paris."

So she was my cousin, but she was also a bit of a star. I admired her a lot. And at the same time, I felt she was very fragile. And I had a desire and a need to protect her.

John Yang: Tell me why you decided to write the book, why you decided to tell her story?

Vanessa Schneider (through translator): Maria was older than I am a journalist, but I had already written novels. And Maria told me one day that she'd like to tell her version of things, since she had already said in interviews that she had been abused in a famous scene in "Last Tango in Paris," this scene of sodomy, which had not been written in the script. She wanted to say what kind of woman she was, what kind of actress she was beyond the scene in "Last Tango." And she wanted me to write a book with her.

But in the end, she was a little afraid to do the book. And when she died in 2011, I said to myself, it's my turn to tell this story, which isn't the book she would have written alone, necessarily. It's my perspective, too. It's the perspective I had as a child. I also wanted to tell the story of the woman she was, the cousin she was to me, the girl she was in private, very funny, sometimes difficult, and who had a very adventurous life.

It's also about our family. The Schneider family was not an ordinary family. And she suffered a lot because she wasn't protected by her parents. So I wanted to tell the story of who she was as a whole.

John Yang: She burst onto the scene and became famous because of that notorious scene, as you describe, in "Last Tango in Paris." How much did that overshadow her there the rest of her life, the rest of her career?

Vanessa Schneider (through translator): The film made her well known. But at the same time, it was a real curse for her. It was a curse because she felt raped and abused. And at the same time, she was seen as dirty by the public. The film was banned in many countries. And she was never able to shake that image. And after the film release, and a scandal that followed, she fell into drugs, heroin in a very bad way. And those years were terrible for her. I think she had a lot of trouble coming back from that.

John Yang: Molly, how did you get involved in the project?

Molly Ringwald, Translator, "My Cousin Maria Schneider: A Memoir": I had been asked to translate a book written by a French author named Philippe Besson. And it was nothing that I ever considered doing. You know, I'm first an actor, but I'm also a writer. But I discovered that I kind of liked it. It was really difficult. It was really challenging a bit like, what people like about puzzles, you know, I can spend hours doing it.

It's -- I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. And then they came back to me to do Vanessa's book. And I was really intrigued, but I told my husband if I ever said that I wanted to translate a book again to kill me to not let me do it. So, I said no at first and then I couldn't get it out of my head because I'd always been really interested by Maria Schneider.

John Yang: Did working out the book resonate with you? Did it make you think about your career, your experiences when you were a young actress?

Molly Ringwald: Yes, absolutely. I mean I was never in a situation that was as traumatic as what Maria had gone through. But I certainly have been through, you know, situations where I didn't feel protected, you know. But I did have a very protective family. But, you know, show businesses is not for the faint of heart. I mean, you have to be, you know, Maria says that in an interview where she said, you really have to be right in the head for this business. Otherwise, it'll just eat you up. And I feel like she really didn't have that protection. It's really hard to go through that and to flourish.

John Yang: Vanessa, do you feel that if she had never made "Last Tango in Paris," if her first starring role had been a different role, that her life would have been different?

Vanessa Schneider (through translator): I think Maria would have done cinema anyway. Would she have had personal difficulties? Maybe yes, because she had her fragile points. She was someone who had a very complicated childhood with a mother who was not loving. And with a father, she only met at the age of 16 or 17, who took her to nightclubs and introduced her to drugs, and didn't take care of her like a father. So she was someone who maybe wasn't strong enough for the world of cinema as it was at that time.

John Yang: Vanessa, I'm interested because you wrote this in the second person, you wrote this as if you're speaking to Maria. And you saying you did this, and you were doing that? Why did you make that choice?

Vanessa Schneider (through translator): There are moments in the book where I talk about her in the third person. And there are moments when I say you because it felt necessary to me. Even though I was with her when she was sick, there are things I didn't tell her. So it was also like a letter, a long letter to my cousin.

John Yang: So in a sense, do you feel like you've gotten something off your shoulders that you wanted to say to Maria before she died, but never had the chance to?

Vanessa Schneider (through translator): Yes. And I think there are things I wouldn't have dared say to her. There were subjects that were a bit taboo, painful topics you'd be afraid to stirrup. She was sober. So she didn't want to talk about the drugs. She didn't want to talk about "The Last Tango" period. So I knew I could only bring it up once she was gone. But at the same time, I knew that she had given me permission. And she knew that I would be the one to do it. She had entrusted me with this mission.

John Yang: Molly, clearly this wasn't as personal for you, as it was for Vanessa. But how did you find yourself being affected by working on this project? And what do you take away from the project?

Molly Ringwald: For me, just like when I'm playing a role, I feel completely a part of it. You know, I felt very affected by it. I felt like I knew Maria. I felt like I knew Vanessa. I mean, it was, I worked on it for such a long time that it really, I felt like I was a part of that story. Vanessa talks about drugs a lot, because even though Maria didn't want to talk about drugs, when she had finished with that story, it was still a big part of her life. And consequently, a big part of Vanessa's life, you know.

And I think there's not many of us who haven't been affected by drugs in some way, that don't know somebody who hasn't struggled, you know, with addiction. And there's a scene that Vanessa wrote of being in line, and watching a young man, probably about the same age as her going through withdrawal. And she's -- the young boys with his parents and she can see that the parents are trying to, you know, sort of have a semblance of a normal life. And the boy can't do it, and he takes. And the father lets him take his wallet out of his jacket.

And they know that he's going to go off and, you know, and do drugs and they don't know when they're going to see him again. And that scene every time I would work on it, it would make me cry because I know what that's like to love someone and to not know if they're going to come back or how they're going to get through it. And that was very emotional. So it wasn't, it's not -- the book for me is not just the story of Maria, but it is also the story of Vanessa and watching somebody that she admires and that she loves, struggle with drugs. And so that was something that was that was really good. That was really important for me to get right.

John Yang: Vanessa Schneider and Molly Ringwald, thank you both very much.

Vanessa Schneider: Thank you.

Molly Ringwald: Thank you.

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