Julie Delpy wrote 2 Days In New York because it struck her, looking around, that most Hollywood romcoms were hilariously awful in their depictions of women her age. That is, women in their late 30s and early 40s. The Anistons and Barrymores who, on screen at least, are still "having the problems of a 25-year-old. Like, should I date him, should I not date him? Should I have sex with him but tell him I don't like him? OK. I mean, I have friends who are still single, but even they don't ask themselves those kind of questions. They've evolved into something else."
Delpy is 42. She has a three-year-old son with her boyfriend, Marc Streitenfeld, a composer. They live in LA, where we meet. She is scatty today, from errands, preoccupied by the size of a zit in the middle of her forehead and, after a brave stab at it, too full of vertigo to do the interview on the terrace at Chateau Marmont, with its steep drop over the balcony. We take a seat inside. Two minutes into our conversation she pulls off her boot to inspect her sock. "Sorry, my sock's dirty because I stepped in cat poo this morning, I didn't have time to change – or some other animal's poo, or my son's." She smiles. "My life is really exciting."
Delpy's appeal has always turned on this kind of whimsy, magnified by a French accent and set against the overproduced, over-chaperoned Hollywood norm. She has never been Hollywood, of course. Her breakthrough role was in Before Sunrise, still beloved by those who came of age in the 90s as the ur-indie movie. She and Ethan Hawke made a follow-up 10 years later, but Delpy has spent most of her time since then writing and directing. As an actor, she says, she has been fired by "every agency in town".
Which is hard to believe when you watch her latest film. It's a sequel to 2 Days In Paris and, like the first, it is written, directed by and stars Delpy. In the first movie, she and Adam Goldberg bickered their way around Paris, by turns appalled and charmed by each other's cultural differences. In the follow-up, she is back in New York, a single mother who starts dating a single dad played by Chris Rock. Both films are shrewd, unusual – her racist French relatives in this movie are spot on and just the right side of grotesque – and very funny.
I have one small quibble. In one scene, Marion, played by Delpy in a pair of huge, hipster glasses, goes on a weepy jag about how old and unattractive she is, and how no one will ever want her. I can't imagine anyone in the audience not thinking, give me a break, you're still Julie Delpy.
She looks astonished. "Really?"
"Are you kidding?"
You're a movie star, come on.
"Oh, you have no idea – the insecurity I felt after the birth of my son. I felt fat and unattractive, and I still feel that way. I still feel I'd better stick with my boyfriend, because no one else is going to want me.
"I'm not kidding. When I had my kid, I gained a lot of weight – 60 pounds. And you feel somehow not pretty any more. You feel that your tits are to feed – I mean, it's a physical thing. I felt so insecure. Super duper insecure. When I wrote the screenplay, that scene totally resonated. I've never felt worse. I mean, it's great to be a mum, but I felt devoid of my femininity. I felt like a cow. You feel that no one finds you attractive and you get very depressed. Very common. Even a year after the baby."
LA is not the most nurturing town for a woman in this state of mind, but Delpy was in Paris for most of it. She'd start crying on the bus and telling strangers she was having the worst time. "I'd pick old ladies who probably didn't recognise me. Or maybe they did – oh, that's Julie Delpy, fat and crying."
It wasn't just postnatal depression. Delpy's mother was diagnosed with cancer and died around the same time as Delpy gave birth. Looking back, she doesn't know how she got through it.
Julie Delpy and parents Delpy with her father Albert Delpy and late mother Marie Pillet. Photograph: Murdo Macleod
Glib as it sounds, she says, writing a comedy helped, not least because she cast her own father in it. Albert Delpy, a veteran French theatre actor, plays Marion's dad in both films. Seen through American eyes, he is gross in the traditional French style: sex-obsessed, liable to eat those parts of the cow/pig/rabbit that Americans won't touch and reluctant to shower unless bullied into it. Delpy drew heavily on her own father for this, not least in the scene in which he is shown trying to smuggle large amounts of meat and cheese through US customs. ("The dad bringing eight sausages and cheeses through customs? That's my dad. He's never been caught but when he comes, I tell him, please don't bring anything. I have to tell him 100 times. The first time he came, he had everything in the suitcase: it was horrible. Disgusting.")
Chris Rock is brilliant as the strait-laced American foil to Delpy senior, who could become truculent in the face of his daughter's direction.
"A couple of times on the set with my dad we had All Day Not Happy face. Deep inside I'm protective of him, but on set I have to be firm. He's an actor, he's worked all his life, but I'm his daughter, so when I give him directions, he doesn't always want to follow them. When I say to him, 'Dad, you have to do it, I'm the director,' he's like, 'Fuck you.' And I'm like, OK."
Delpy's parents were heavily involved in the French experimental theatre scene of the 1960s. They never had any money. Delpy calculates that she was eight before the family had their own bathroom. Before that, they would use the public toilets in the courtyard of their apartment block and once a week, go to the public baths. In between, they washed at the sink. "I didn't suffer from it. I knew we were eating a lot of pasta, but that's OK. Not the end of the world. Healthier than steak every day. I had clothes from thrift shops, but that's OK, too. I was never angry with them. It just made me a little careful with my spending."
She was only angry when they were behaving eccentrically. For a while, Delpy says, she was the uptight kid telling her parents to stop dancing in public. And she was mortified by some of their theatrical productions; her dad would be on stage in drag, pretending to change a – she fishes for the word – "feminine hygiene product". Yikes.
"Yeah. Crazy stuff. I mean, not disgusting disgusting, I mean pretty disgusting, but more like mad. Crazy. He was the nicest dad on the planet, we had a lot of fun. I would be backstage all the time because they didn't have money to pay for a babysitter. I was with them constantly. It was mad, but I had so much love." They were "free spirits", she says, but not in the "creepy hippy" way. Delpy, too, would describe herself thus, even though she thinks the idea of free-spiritedness has been ruined by association with cults. "They're true free spirits. Not with a crazy, extreme leftwing agenda, but anarchists in the right sense. Like: no God, no master, but respect of human nature. Not free spirits in that everyone has sex with everyone. They were very faithful. They had a lot of ethics. But when I say, 'Oh, my dad was a free spirit', people say, 'Oh, so you were having sex with his friends?'"
It's not that her parents disapproved of success. Her father was a fan of many mainstream movie stars and Delpy was named after Julie Christie. They didn't disapprove when she became famous, although, she says, it had never interested either of them. Delpy herself wasn't that interested. After the success of Before Sunrise, a few commercial offers came her way. She was either unlucky or made a bad decision, but the only one she said yes to was An American Werewolf In Paris and it was a disaster. "The experience was so unpleasant. It was so tacky and the director was very mean and didn't work much after that. I thought, oh, that's what a Hollywood film is, and I stayed away after that."
Does she regret that? "No. It allowed me to spend time writing. I'm at a better place now than I would have been. Sadly, a lot of actresses reach 40 and the pressure is unbearable. It's over. There are younger, prettier actresses. Even if I don't work in my own films, I'll be directing. I'll go make movies everywhere in the world. I don't care about celebrity – I got that from my parents. I never had that no-love-from-my-daddy and need to be the centre of the universe thing. Attention-wise, I don't need to show off my new teeth or tits or whatever."
Her representation was not impressed with this rationale. One agent, she remembers, told her to quit writing the sequel to Before Sunrise ("A stupid movie no one is going to see") and do something useful like go to the gym. "And he fired me, the same day." She has learned to shrug it off, although was taken aback earlier this year by an unexpected reminder of how brutal it is out there. Delpy never goes to the Oscars parties, but this year a bunch of her friends were going to the Vanity Fair bash and urged her to join them. She rang her PR and asked her to fix it. A while later, the PR rang back.
"She said, 'No, they don't want you. It's too crowded.' And it's because I'm not A-list enough. I laughed. What can I do? You see bimbos there you've never heard of. All my friends were there, and lots of them don't really work. But I don't give a shit. I play the game when I need to and the rest of the time, I don't give a shit. I don't even blame Vanity Fair. Whatever. That's the way this town works. It's not about if you're good or bad, it's about whether you are wearing the right clothes that day. Who cares?"
Hawke and Delpy co-wrote Before Sunset, the sequel to Before Sunrise, 10 years after filming the original. They also contributed to the script of the first film, but were denied credit after a vicious battle with the director, Richard Linklater, and the official screenwriter, Kim Krizan. Delpy is still fuming about it. She and Linklater have since made up. But, she says, "Richard was not totally fair on that. And he knows it. Richard says he couldn't do anything, but I think he could've done something." If he had any class, she says, he'd "take the film off the shelf and put our names on it".
Delpy, Chris Rock and Dylan Baker in 2 Days In New York.
In spite of her neuroses, her occasional panic attacks and her absent-mindedness, when it comes down to it, Delpy is like a dog with a bone. When she couldn't find funding for one of her movies, she approached every backer in town until she had drummed up the money. "Not even the pimps would give me money," she says.
Eh? "Pimps fund movies sometimes. Big pimps. Weapons salesmen invest in movies. Even those people wouldn't listen to me. I didn't give up."
The producers of 2 Days In New York wanted to shoot in Toronto to keep the overheads down, but Delpy knew she would never persuade Chris Rock to relocate and so talked them around.
Whenever Ethan Hawke, with whom Delpy is still good friends, is contacted for an opinion about her, he says, "She's crazy." What does she think he means? "Ethan – it's funny, I'm really not crazy. I wouldn't be directing movies – but I don't think I'm crazy in the sense that I can't function. He thinks I'm crazy because I'm a very intense person. When I write or do something, I don't do it half way. It means something to me. I don't let go easily. I don't give up easily. I'm very determined in a way that a lot of women might not be. Or men."
She gets it from her mother, a lifelong campaigner for various causes whose family had been more or less wiped out by the Nazis during the war. They were communists, most of them shot, says Delpy, as part of the resistance. "Only my mother's mother survived."
Her mother liked to fight, too, and although Delpy isn't political – she doesn't get stirred up about municipal matters, "fight for a cause, I'm not like that" – there are similarities. "I mean, she was crazy, screaming at everyone. Even when she was sick, she would always protect old people in the building. She was the first one out on strike. And I was the centre of her world. She couldn't have any other kids because she had cancer when I was born. And it got her, 35 years later."
After her mother's death, her father was a mess, she says. Delpy was a mess, too, with the new baby, but she tried to hold it together for him. With startling honesty, she says her boyfriend "was kind of not helpful. He was incapacitated by my pain and difficulties. It was too heavy for everyone."
She got through it. And now there is Leo. "Ridiculously cute. Unbearably cute. I just want to eat him, sometimes."
There is a gap, Delpy realises, between her self-perception and the way she is. "I thought I was wimpy but I'm really quite tough." And she gets up to do photos, delicately avoiding the balcony.
• 2 Days in New York is out this Friday, 18 May.