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When the actors in an award-winning film are normal people, you can meet them for coffee.
PARIS — Unpretentious, a bit self-conscious and ever the jokester, Esmeralda Ouertani is still navigating her way through sudden fame — and enjoying the ride.
Following the success of “The Class” (Entre les Murs), an Oscar-nominated documentary-style drama, life has returned to normal for the 16-year-old — more or less.
“Normal” now includes international travel, local publicity junkets to promote the film — which won the highest honor at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival — and strangers approaching to ask for autographs. She has been to Munich, New York, Vienna and Amsterdam, and soon will travel to Lithuania. What hasn’t changed: keeping up with schoolwork, drama classes, an active social life and running errands for her mother on the weekends.
“What we kept saying throughout is that we’re ordinary people having an extraordinary experience,” said Ouertani, who was plucked from obscurity to join the ensemble cast of other non-professional actors, namely her classmates and the teacher-writer, Francois Begaudeau. Playing a version of himself as the teacher, Begaudeau wrote the book on which the film, a gritty look inside a diverse Parisian junior high school, is based.
Our rendezvous point was a Starbucks coffee shop inside a bustling mall in central Paris. Wearing a grey hooded sweatshirt, Ouertani arrived promptly with her best friend in tow. The young women ordered raspberry frappuccinos and added extra sugar. “I’m not a star, I’m a cloud,” she quipped before bursting into laughter.
The film version of Ouertani was only a slight exaggeration of her real life self.
In person, she seemed full of nervous energy and alternated between moments of seriousness and intense giggles. When her friend, Mariam Jraied, accidentally used the French word for “disturbed” to try to explain the acronym ZEP, a label for the kind of school the movie portrayed, Ouertani burst into hysterical giggles. ZEP schools, located in “priority education zones,” were created beginning in the 1980s to address the needs of disadvantaged, at-risk youth and to stem high dropout and failure rates.
“She’s always a clown,” said Jraied, 16, adding that Ouertani was the sociable one who spoke to everyone, made friends easily and always tried to cheer people up on set. “We’re proud of her, especially her parents,” Jraied said.