By Jeff Labrecque
Updated April 25, 2014 at 04:10 PM EDT
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Sophies Choice
Credit: (inset) Jennifer Lawn
  • Movie

Anyone who’s seen Sophie’s Choice knows the scene. A frightened Polish mother stands in line for the German concentration camps, holding her young daughter while her young son huddles closely against her. A rapacious Nazi officer makes some lurid remarks and then demands that Sophie choose which of her children will survive. Only one. The other will die. Sophie protests. She screams. And then… she decides.

If that scene — punctuated by Meryl Streep’s silent scream — is forever branded on the back of your skull, imagine if you were the girl being ripped from Streep’s arms. Jennifer Lawn Lejeune was just 4 years old and had never acted before she was cast as Sophie’s daughter, and that day of filming was practically as harrowing for her as it was for the film’s characters.

In an exclusive clip from a new roundtable discussion that is part of the new Sophie’s Choice Blu-ray (out April 29), Streep says she didn’t “act” when the soldier ripped Lejeune from her arms. “It was just what happened in the moment,” she says.

Watching Lejeune’s heartbreaking reaction, it’s clear that she wasn’t acting either. Now 36, married, and working in finance in Paris, Lejeune’s memory of that day differs slightly from Streep’s, who remembers filming it only once. “Everybody was shocked because they thought they had only one take to make this happen,” Lejeune says. “They expected the first time and that’s it. And they were able to to do it 13 times.”

13 times. 13 takes of being ripped out of her “mother’s” arms, and carried off to who knows where. Make no mistake: Those screams were real. “I totally thought it was the end of the world,” says Lejeune. “Absolutely. People tried to explain it to me, but I had such a bond with Meryl, so I think I got into the whole emotional part of it. Just as she was getting more emotional and scared, so was I.”

The first take was everything director Alan Pakula and cinematographer Néstor Almendros could have hoped for. Still, they ended up using a subsequent shot, in part because Lejeune’s anticipatory fear of what was coming became increasingly palpable, which only enhanced the emotional truth of the scene. The sense of dread and fear — look at her quivering lip — is all over her adorable face. “The guy who was playing the German was always hidden from sight from me until the actual film was rolling, and as I soon as I saw him, I was terrified of him,” says Lejeune. “You couldn’t tell on the screen, but he actually had a huge scar on his face that was sort of covered up with makeup.”

Fortunately, the experience ultimately was not traumatic for Lejeune, and she can laugh about it today. She had been discovered by Pakula at a New York City Polish foundation, where her grandmother was a member, and was cast not only for her credible resemblance to Streep but also for her attitude. “They asked me to kind of kick Meryl at the final interview, and I gave her a good whacking on the shin,” says Lejeune. “I don’t know if anyone else [auditioning] did, or tried to lighten the kick, but I kind of gave a good kick.”

Despite that somewhat rude introduction, Lejeune and Streep hit it off, and the young actress spent a month in the former Yugoslavia making the film. Mostly, though, Lejeune was there to bond with Streep so that the final scene would feel authentic. “Every day she’d come home from the shoot, and she’s spend like an hour or two playing with me and my acting brother [Adrian Kalitka],” Lawn says. “It was just playing together — sometimes in the hotel, sometimes just around town in the playground — and getting to know each other so I trusted her. I felt safe with her. I apparently told my real mother that Meryl Streep is a nicer mother than she is. That didn’t go over really well with my real mom.”

That connection clearly made all the difference when it came time to film the separation scene. Lejeun’s mother, Barbara Lawn, stood near the monitors on set for the two hours it took to capture the haunting moments. “After each take, Meryl calmed Jennifer and herself,” Lawn wrote in an email. “She held her closely and consoled her, and the two of them composed themselves and got in line again for another go at another take. Every time, the crying and screaming was all Jennifer, and Meryl was clever to let the sound of the child’s terrorized cry dominate the scene and she just opened her mouth in a dry scream.”

Lejeune dabbled a little in acting and modeling up through high school, but she gave it up to go to college, which led to a successful career in finance. She’s worked in Europe for several years and settled in Paris “because I fell in love with a French guy.” Her close friends know of her distinguished acting history — though it’s not something she often brings up — but she hasn’t seen Sophie’s Choice in years. “It’s such a long time ago in my life but it’s always nice to remember,” she says. “It’s a nice memory.”

Certainly one that audiences will never forget.

Sophie's Choice

  • Movie
  • 150 minutes
  • Alan J. Pakula