New Orleans actress plays belle in Django

Laura Cayouette
Laura Cayouette

“Is there an actress who hasn’t dreamed of playing Scarlett O’Hara?” Laura Cayouette asks.

Django Unchained is a long highway from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, but New Orleans actress Cayouette does indeed play a version of Vivien Leigh’s classic Southern belle in Quentin Tarantino’s explosive spaghetti western set in the antebellum South.

Cayouette is Lara Lee, elder sister of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, the ingloriously cruel master of Candyland Plantation.

“I get to wear hoopskirts,” the actress said. “Who would have dreamed that Quentin Tarantino would ever have a hoopskirt in a movie?”

Cayouette is a natural for the role of Lara Lee. Even though the actress was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Maryland and Japan, and lived in New York and Los Angeles, her family has generations of history in Louisiana. Cayouette’s father is from Baton Rouge. Her mother was born in Minden and raised in Houma. They met while attending LSU.

“Lara Lee is a Southern belle after my own heart,” the actress said.

Cayouette’s Django Unchained role marks the fourth time she’s worked with Tarantino, the writer, director and producer whose films include Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill volumes one and two and, his breakthrough, Reservoir Dogs.

Cayouette and Tarantino have known each for about a dozen years. He first directed her in Kill Bill, Volume 2. Tarantino produced Daltry Calhoun, a 2005 film directed by Charles Bronson’s daughter, Katrina Holden Bronson, and featuring Cayouette. He also produced 2008’s Hell Ride, a biker movie featuring Cayouette and co-starring Dennis Hopper, Michael Madsen and David Carradine.

“He is a maestro and this is his masterwork,” the actress said of Tarantino and Django Unchained. “We say that every time he makes a movie, but I think Quentin only makes a movie when he’s sure that he’s the only person who can make it. Django Unchained is dangerous terrain to take on. Bravo for him, that he’s fearless enough to tackle such a dark topic and dare to have fun with it.”

Lara Lee is among the roles Cayouette has played since her move from Los Angeles to New Orleans in 2009. The film’s Candyland interior scenes were shot at Second Line Studio, blocks from her New Orleans home.

“It was amazing to me that the movie came here and that my character was a Southern belle,” she said. “I chose to leave L.A., trusting that the growing film industry in New Orleans will keep me employed enough to keep my insurance and my pension going. And then the splashiest role of my career happens here.”

In Django Unchained, Cayouette shares scenes in the Candyland plantation’s big house with DiCaprio, Oscar winners Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson and Kerry Washington.

The actress used her much earlier encounters with DiCaprio to help her play the part of Candie’s doting sister. In 1992, during her first summer in Los Angeles, she worked as a receptionist at an agency whose most important clients included the then 17-year-old actor.

“Leo and his dad would come in for meetings,” she recalled. “So I remember him as a boy. That helped me picture growing up with him and feeling protective of him.”

Cayouette’s other Louisiana work includes another hoopskirt role in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter as well as Green Lantern and an episode of HBO’s Treme. During Django Unchained’s several months of production, she also shot a scene with Woody Harrelson at CafĂ© Du Monde in the French Quarter for the upcoming Now You See Me.

Cayouette’s other newly released project is a book, Know Small Parts: An Actor’s Guide to Turning Minutes into Moments and Moments into a Career.

“For over 20 years, people have been generous with information and encouragement during my career,” she said. “I learned so much from so many that I felt greedy not to pass it on.”

Her coaching an actress for a Django Unchained audition and being on the movie’s set inspired her to finish the book.

“I’d started writing down little pieces of what would I tell every actor,” the actress said. “And then, on the set, I was surrounded by background people playing slaves on the plantation. So I spent time with them, paying attention to the questions they had and the information they were missing. It’s all in the book.”