Gessica Géneus: The Actress on Her Craft, Her Career and Haitian Cinema’s Future
Sagine Palmier, Nina, Jessica Gentil are all roles that have contributed to the success of actress Gessica Géneus, considered as one of the most talented thespians of Haitian cinema. In the beginning of her career, Géneus could be likened to a being thrown in a new planet, but who by cleverly using her instincts, survives. She brought fire to the role of Sagine Palmier in Richard Sénécal’s first feature film Barikad, spicing up the part of the spoiled, ruthless teenager of a middle-class Haitian family, into the role of a lifetime. In 2005, she was in Cousines, playing Jessica Gentil—a schoolgirl, whose life turns upside down when her father—and sole benefactor—living abroad dies, leaving her to fend for herself on the streets. The difference between Barikad and Cousineswas that in the latter film, the role was crafted by Sénécal with Géneus in mind. “I knew upfront that she had the talent and ability to emphasize both the character’s weaknesses and strengths—Which she did wonderfully”, the director recalls. Many observers have noted that in addition to reflecting the tough realities for many young Haitian girls in Haiti, Cousines pushed the envelope on the realism aspect of Haiti’s cinema and brought renewed hope that more realistic stories would be told.
Géneus has gone on to do several movies after Cousines, including Le President a t-il Le Sida, a film about HIV and AIDS in Haiti. But Cousines is the movie some will more than likely will associate with her. The film was about the important economic link between Haitians living in Haiti and those abroad. But it was also about friendship, sacrifice and personal survival.
In 2009, Géneus had the opportunity to play a role in Moloch Tropical—Raoul Peck’s first feature film in years to be shot in Haiti. Less than two years later, the actress—wanting to broaden her horizons beyond Haiti and wanting to seriously study acting—left her homeland for France, where she currently lives.
In three separate conversations, we chatted about everything from acting methods, to fame, and her life beyond the cameras.
How did you get started in the Haitian film industry? I was 16 years-old when I started modeling. I met Richard Sénécal during a casting for a commercial. Then he invited me to come to another casting for Barikad.
The commercial was for what? A cellphone.
How did the casting go? Going in, did you think you had a chance of being cast? First, I didn’t even take it seriously, because I didn’t know there was a movie industry in Haiti. So, it was more like a game for me. I followed all the directions he gave me and I got the part.
Were you given the script prior to the casting audition? Or did you just improvise? They gave me a scene and a few minutes to know it quickly. Then, I played with another girl who was also there for the casting.
Do you remember which scene? Yes! The one when I wanted my friend to introduce me to a guy. In exchange, she asked me to bring Thierry over to the party.
Once you got the part, did you do any sort of preparation to flesh out the character? No, not at all…because I didn’t see it as a—it wasn’t that important for me at this time. I wanted to do well of course, but as I told you before, it was more like something fun—that I’m gonna get paid for—on top of it.
Once the movie wrapped up, and premiered, what was the reaction of your friends and family? I think it was a bit confusing for them, because they said that I was too good [in playing the role], so maybe I was that kind of person, but my close family was really happy to see that I could become an actress.
So at this point, you felt that it was no longer a game. You started taking it seriously? Not yet, but I felt like I wanted to go further with it.
So you went from being a typical teenager to a movie star. How was that? Suddenly, your friend circle increased by a thousand fold I’m sure. Well, I think it was too much for me because Haiti is very small. I had a movie in the theater, but I didn’t even have a car. I had the same life but people’s [perception of] me changed.
Changed…how? Well, I was kind of popular, so everybody thought that they could have an opinion on my life…and also a lot of them couldn’t [discern] the difference between the movie and real life. So sometimes, people would say that I hated the housekeeper. They would hate me for things that I did in the movie. So it was hard for me to accept that fact [being confused with the character].
You were kinda popular…as in prior to the movie, in your own personal life? No way. It was the complete opposite.
In other words, the movie made you popular? Well, I guess that’s one of the things that came along with it.
Did you find yourself feeling really afraid, suspicious even, when somebody tried to befriend you? Sometimes yes—especially when I first started. First, but now I just make sure that I do the right choices when I can.
Do you have a role model in mind in terms of who you carve your career after? Well, it’s hard to say. In Haiti, it’s an industry that is still growing. I really loved Toto Bissainte in L’homme sur les Quais by Raoul Peck. I love her as a singer and as an actress. It’s impossible for me to say that I have a role model because I’ve learned from so many people in my life.
You saw Bissainthe in starring roles before you starred in Barikad or after? After.
You have a starring role in We Love You Anne, the sequel to the movie I Love You Anne. Edner Jean, the movie producer asked me to play the part. I accepted because I wanted to play a comedy—especially with Tonton Bicha [who] I really like.
And the character you play? It’s one of Pè Déméran’s daugthers. She is like an older Sagine. [Laughter]
You currently live in France. How is life in Europe different from life in Haiti? I love Paris, but Haiti is something else. I have a special connection with it. A mother is a mother and will always be.
You’re receiving actor training. What are you learning about your craft? I just finished with [the] school.
What are some of the biggest things you learned while at the school? That there are so many different methods in acting. I’m glad that I know most of them now and I can use them whenever needed. I’m wayyyyyyyyyy more comfortable because I have tools. This is something that really gives you confidence in your work—from my point of view.
Knowing what you know of acting now, do you think that you unconsciously applied some techniques in the past without realizing it? Yes, but I don’t think that it was a good idea that I used the method Stanislavsky when I was playing Cousines.
You don’t think it was a good idea? What do you mean? Because, it’s a method that tells you bottom line to use your past experiences to play any emotional scene. Today, I realize that it can be really dangerous to get out of the mess that you gonna create in yourself and difficult to get out.
In other words, you plunge into those emotions of the past, and after you’re done playing the role, it’s hard to shake things off? Exactly. It became too personal and it can be hard to [discern the] difference between you and the character.
Now, that you are finished with your acting school in France, do you envision yourself returning to Haiti to star in more Haitian movies? What are your plans? I’m currently living between Paris and Haiti. I have an agent and project that I’m working on in Paris. It’s been two years since I have been working on a script. I’m now translating it in English.
At this point, would you change anything about the way you played Sagine, Nina, and Jessica? Yes, for sure. Definitely, but I’m happy with what I did without any kind of training or learning. As an actor an artist and a human, I will be in a learning process until the end of my life on Earth. What do you think about the current state of the Haitian movie industry? I think it’s just a bad period. Because a lot of people are working to restart the movie industry in Haiti, so I don’t have the right to say that it doesn’t exist anymore.
What do you think can be done to help things along? Well, first we need [movie] theaters in Haiti. It’s a must. And then there is a lot to do. Protect the movies. If you have people ready to invest in rebuilding the theaters in Haiti, the rest will come because I know a lot of professionals who are ready to produce movies, but you need a real market.
You made your debut in the Haitian movie industry at 16, and your career has flourished ever since. What is the difference between you and other young actresses who made promising debuts only never to be heard from again? I don’t like to talk for other people. I also know that it is really hard for any person to be “just” an artist if you are living in Haiti. It was also very hard for me. I had to fight against the society and all the prejudices. But I found my strength in the fact that [film] is a deep passion. It’s in my bones, my veins…it’s everywhere. I didn’t only want to be an actress. I love every single part of the movie industry. I’m talking about the artistic part. I’m alive every time I’m on a movie set, and I know that I will fight against anything or anybody who wants to take me away from that happiness.
“I had to fight against the society and all the prejudices”. In what sense? First, when you are a woman in Haiti and you want to have an artistic career, people will give you all the bad names that you know [of]. It’s a long debate. And a complicated subject. Eighty percent of the population of Haiti is not educated, so it’s hard for them to understand that when you play a role, it’s not necessary who you are. Even for those who are “educated”. But I had a lot of support from people who believed in me. Slowly, I started to clean my environment and only kept real people around me.
Out of all the movies you’ve starred in, do you have a particular favorite? So far, Cousines. It’s a very profound story, but I was also happy to be in a historical movie such as Toussaint Louverture. Not only happy, but proud. Very proud.
How was it working on that movie? I just arrived at the right moment in Paris. Jimmy Jean-Louis was already cast for Toussaint, so he introduced me to the producers. Then I did the casting two months later. My character’s name is Vertueuse. She is always with Biassou [a fighter and leader in the Haitian Revolution of 1791] in the movie. She is very spiritual. I only worked in Paris. It was a very cool adventure. They created a whole decor outside of Paris. This Vertueuse person was not a historical figure of the Haitian Revolution, correct? As you know, they only talk about the heroes in Haitian history, but not the women. It’s a sickness because it’s not only in Haitian history, but that’s another subject. So, I won’t say that she didn’t exist; I will say that nobody knew about her. And I’m happy that they brought her alive in that movie.
So in playing her, you basically combined all your ideas about what a woman from that revolutionary period would be like? Like a composite? Exactly. And also what I’ve heard from Bahina Belot. She is a historian. She never talked about Vertueuse herself but she is fighting a lot to keep people informed about the women in Haitian history. You mentioned that the Stavlinsky method is too emotionally draining for an actor. Which method do you feel is the best, and the most conducive to putting on a great performance, that at the same time, will not be mentally detrimental to an actor—or actress? It’s still early for me to make any kind of deduction because I need to experiment [with] more than one to make a conclusion that will surely only engage myself. But I can tell you about a method that they teach me at school. It’s called spatialization. It’s a way of studying your text while visualizing every object in the real world. You situate them like they really exist: persons, objects, houses, everything. You recreate the world that is the script. The more precise you are, the more you’ll feel like it’s really true.
In the movie Barikad, there is a scene when your character Sagine barges in the maid Odenie’s room. For some reason, this scene stands out in the minds of many who’ve seen the film. How did you prepare for it? Did you have to go through a lot of takes to achieve the scene? No. It was a one take. I improvised. Richard told me what he wanted, and I did my best. But, it’s easy to do it with the team that I was working with: Haendel Dorfeuille, Handy Tibert, Fabienne [Colas]. They are all very good.
You mentioned criteria. When you’re offered a movie role, or given a movie script, what factors do you usually use to decide whether to accept the role or not? I only have this privilege in Haiti, because usually when somebody asks me to play in a movie it’s because he knows that I will be good in the part. In France, I can’t really choose for now. It has to be first [of all] well-written. Then it depends on what is it about. The story.
Imagine an actress of about 18 years of age, who has been cast in a movie. Filming has concluded and everyone who has seen the movie is sure it’s going to be a sensation. Now, before the public premiere, you have the chance to sit down with this actress. What would you tell her, what advice would you give to her, in terms of how to handle fame, about how to handle media, how to map out a career, and what other counsel would you give her on the road that lies ahead? I think if she wants to hear any advice [in the] first [place], I would tell her the exact same thing I say to my little sister every day…to make sure that she always has a clear idea about what she wants to do with her life. And once you know, you’ve got to be sure that it is something that you could die for. That being said, you have to fight for it ’til the end because the only gift we have from life is that we can choose the way we want to live it. Everything like fame or money or anything else is a bonus. The joy is in the journey. People you meet. Fights you lose. Fights you win. Pain, suffering, laughs, cries. You have to be aware of the journey because success’ sensation only lasts for a few seconds. What will be left is a lifetime that you shared with amazing people doing something that you loved. [Long pause] Are you done with your thought? No, but yes.
Please continue if you have more to add. No, no it’s okay. It’s just emotional—too much for me because I know what it is to be 18 years-old in this world. They are showing so many things that are keeping you so far away from the real beauty of life. I think when I was 17, I was so lost. I wish I had symbols that could actually be some kind of guide for me. I just want them to really look for who they really are; to clean their mind and to make sure that every time they take a decision that it is what they really want to do and not what somebody else makes them think that would be good for them ’cause he wants to take advantage of their lack of information or naiveté.
In terms of fame? And the media? In general; they are showing so many things that are keeping you so far away from the real beauty of life.
Who is “they” in this case? Society; the star system. When you see famous people [that’s no] reason to be [in awe]…it’s not that it’s bad but a lot of young people decide to do the same because they think that they will have the same success. But they don’t realize that we are all different; so are our lives. The result you have doesn’t guarantee that I will have the same one if I do what you did. It’s just that you don’t have to be embarrassed in front of somebody that you see as someone one that is famous and think that it is the right thing to do to have a beautiful life. Each of us has [a gift]. And even if everybody doesn’t know about it, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is if you feel like it’s what makes you happy. If you feel like it was the right thing to do—because we are all different and our mission in life is also different so we are not all here to do the same thing.
You say “success’ sensation only lasts for a few seconds. That may be the case in some other countries of the world where so many movies come out at a time. The impression that I’ve gotten about Haiti is that once someone is in a movie, or better yet a string of 2-3 films, they’re able to sustain their fame for life based on that. I was talking in general. I don’t want to talk about fame in my case. I don’t wanna talk about fame at all. But you can’t deny that once people see you on TV or theater, if you had an impact they will remember you for the rest of their lives. I don’t think that is fame or anything. It’s just that they recognize you.
KREYOLICIOUSLY YOURS…GESSICA Three words that describe me…No words can describe me or you or anybody else. We are not stereotypes. I don’t think humans will ever be able to create words to describe another human. We are too complex and simple at the same time. If there’s one thing I can’t tolerate, it’s…extremists. I think this is what is killing us slowly. Everybody thinks—they all believe that the truth is held by them. We are now right in the middle of a conflict that proves it. The last time I cried...I’m always crying. I have so many reasons to do it. Most of the time, I do it when I feel useless, and it’s a feeling that I usually have when I go to Haiti, because its seems like it’s always worse than the last time I came. My biggest regret in life so far…that they didn’t ask me if I wanted to come on Earth or not. In my spare time, I like to…be productive. Among members of my family, I am closest to…I’m just doing my best to be there for any of them. If I could give instructions to my future husband, I would say…I’ll never do something like that. I can’t ask someone to take me as I am and not do the same. To me, friendship means…another way of saying family member. The book that I read that has made the biggest impression on me has got to be... I have to mention two books so far. One, Nan Dòmi by Manzè Beaubrun. Two, 100 Ans de Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. To me, beauty is…invisible