Meet the French Artist-Actress Using Her Disability as Inspiration

Brittle bones haven't kept Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes from successes any other 24 year old can envy.

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May 30 2015, 2:49pm

Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes. Photo courtesy of Ethan James Green

At 24, Leopoldine Huyghues Despointes has already achieved what many people hope to accomplish in lifetime: a Best Actress award for her first film, and a Sundance debut for her second. The actress, writer, and producer was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (brittle bones), but rather than disabling her, the disease has served as a catalyst and inspiration for her promising career.

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Despointes produced and starred in her first film, Atlantic Avenue (2013). She played a troubled teenager who finds love with an antisocial male prostitute (Brady Corbet). In her next project, Despointes acted as an associate producer for 2014's Rabbit, which premiered at Sundance this year. She's also worked on projects like the feature film Yosemite, which was directed by Gabrielle Demeestere and stars James Franco. This year, she's gone on to star in Jean Emmanuel Godart's Big House opposite Gérard Depardieu.

Despointes is also making waves outside of films as an activist. Her latest effort, [dis]ABLED Inside Out, is a collaboration with French photographer JR that aims to create a large public art project to help normalize disability. The project, inspired by JR's large-format street "pastings," gives every participant the opportunity to have their portrait and tell their story. These images will be used to create a larger whole when they are printed and pasted onto the streets of New York. Despointes and JR hope to gather over 3,000 portraits, and the official installations will start in October, Disability Awareness Month, with exact locations currently under wraps. VICE spoke with Despointes about her early success, her advocacy, and her life as a young disabled woman and activist in New York City.

VICE: You've accomplished some incredible things for someone so young—what drives you?
Despointes: I want to awaken minds and engender a positive change in the social representation of people with disabilities. I'm very fortunate. I grew up surrounded by an amazing multi-cultural family who raised me as a normal child, not telling me that I was disabled or that I couldn't do something because of my condition. I would go scuba diving, horse back riding... As a result, I'm ambitious and always want to do more, learn more, and grow, both personally and professionally. But I'm aware that not everyone has had the same chance.

Today, people with disabilities represent one in five people in the world. I felt the need to take action and help change the portrayal of this undervalued and underrepresented community, myself being an actress on wheels! I want to create a movement that empowers disabled individuals—within themselves, as well as within their communities.

There's an energy in New York, a vibrant undercurrent that you just don't get anywhere else. I fit in well in New York, as it never stops.

For [dis]ABLED Inside Out you've collaborated with the photographer JR. What drew you to his photography?
I have always been inspired by his work. His images are incredibly arresting, and he has an extraordinary ability to tell stories, especially those that often go untold. I watched his TED talk in 2011 and was taken by his call to action. The idea of a global participatory art project as a means to change the world really spoke to me. I realized that we had a few friends in common, so I approached him last December in New York. That was the start of [dis]ABLED InsideOut.

Who or what inspires you?
Not to sound cheesy, but my mother is my greatest inspiration. Both my sister and I have the same condition, Osteogenesis Imperfecta. My mother fought for us to be treated like everyone else and to have the same opportunities. The reason I am where I am today is testament to her strength, courage, and resilience in the face of adversity. Thank you, Maman.

You're French, but you live in New York. Has the city has influenced the way you approach work and art?
Absolutely. There's an energy in New York, a vibrant undercurrent that you just don't get anywhere else. I fit in well in New York, as it never stops. I'm surrounded by creative entrepreneurs and we all fuel each other's interests. It's an inspiring environment

Which other artists do you admire or would you like to collaborate with?
Filmmaking is my biggest passion, so I hope to produce and act in more films. I would love to work with directors such as Jacques Audiard, Xavier Dolan, and Olivier Assayas.

What would you say to anyone who was contemplating coming out to have their portrait taken?
Be seen, be heard, be counted. Only through the power of collective action will we be able to engender change. We are trying to create a movement, so whether you have a disability, support someone who does, or simply believe that everyone deserves the same opportunities, come to Brookfield Place in New York on Saturday on May 30 and get your portrait taken. Together through art and unity, we can change the world.

What's the best advice you've been given?
My step dad always says: Proper planning prevents piss poor performance. I try my best to keep that in mind!

What do you want people to take away from the project?
I want everyone to remember the movement we are creating, and what it feels like to be part of something bigger than you. Most importantly, I want people to come away understanding that just because someone may look different, we are all the same, and that people with disabilities deserve to be valued and treated with the same respect you would anyone else.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?
Atlantic Avenue, my first film. I knew nothing about filmmaking and had only acted on stage before that. We went to the Tribeca Film Festival and other film festivals around the world. It was really well received and earned me a Best Actress Award at the Milwaukee Film Festival. I will always love that project, as it brought me to filmmaking. Playing opposite Gerard Depardieu in my first feature film, Big House, is also a highlight. [The film is currently in post-production.]

What are your hopes for the future?
I hope that I will be able to continue working on influential art projects and powerful films, whether as an actress or producer. As I gain experiences, I hope that my ability to tell stories through art will grow.

New Yorkers can head to Brookfield Park this Saturday, May 30, to have their portraits taken as part of [dis]ABLED InsideOut.

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