VINCENT PEREZ GETS IN TOUCH WITH HIS TRANNIE SIDE
He has limpid green eyes and a succulent pout, and in his last flick he cut a fine figure of a woman. But in the flesh, Vincent Perez's twinkling eyes and lazy French drawl are disarmingly masculine, as he well knows.
Lounging in a breezy Tribeca apartment sipping a strong espresso, Perez is in town from Paris to promote the August release of Patrice Chereau's murky film, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train. His portrayal of an angst-ridden transsexual, Viviane, is astoundingly convincing, a far cry from his upcoming role as Kim Basinger's lover in Hugh Hudson's I Dreamed of Africa.
His pale blue shirt is unbuttoned low, revealing a smooth chest and a small map of Africa hanging from a gold chain. A relatively new face on this side of the Atlantic, his American debut in The Crow: City of Angels was released in '96 - Perez has already starred in over 30 films in Europe, including Cyrano de Bergerac and Indochine. He has the aura of success, if not its full bloom.
Unlike many other French actors and directors, so anxious to preserve the purity of French film that they shun the rest of the industry, Perez has no qualms about diving headfirst into the world of American commercial movie-making, although it seems he has few illusions about the true nature of the business. "Hollywood is like a big factory," he says. "The rules are clear and if you know how to use it, it can be great." So what is the number-one rule in Hollywood. "Easy," he says, laughing heartily. "If you make a movie, the movie has to be successful."
He is also a cynic when it comes to the nature of success. "I don't think it is really about talent. You need talent for the long term, but for the short term, I don't think you need talent."
So if not talent, then what?
"Luck," he says, pausing before adding, "And a good star."
But American movies, to him, are a breath of fresh air. "The French know how to do it in a more intellectual way-the intellect is more present, heavier," he says. "But I think in America they really know how to tell stories.
What's it like, I wonder, for such a handsome heartthrob of a man to play a transsexual? "Nice," he says. "Quite a journey not to look silly." Which he doesn't at all, actually; just very authentic. This is probably because when it comes to work, Perez means business. He refers to Viviane as "she", the character obviously lives and breathes as far as he is concerned. To find her, he pillaged mannerisms from his wife, girlfriends, and friends; and immersed himself by remaining in character and costume for a full two months on set, even when they weren't shooting.
Slightly sheepish at first, with a bit of prodding he is imoanting femininity tips with impunity (dark lipstick makes thin lips thinner, stick to big coffee cups that dwarf big hairy hands, cross legs at the ankle). But when asked if he would play a woman again, the answer, without missing a beat is, no.
Which brings us to I Dreamed ofAfrica. Since his list of female costars (including Catherine Deneuve and Isabelle Adjani) is already impressive, was he blase about playing Kim Basinger's lover? "It is always a little bit intimidating at the beginning, especially when you've got someone like her in front of you," he says. "But we worked very well together and the chemistry was very strong." The highly anticipated movie is due to be released by Columbia this spring. "Very good fun for a little Frenchie," says Perez, obviously pleased, without a trace of Gallic ennui.
Like all the best heartthrobs, Vincent Perez, of course, has a sickeningly romantic love story. Karine, his wife of a year, is originally from Senegal, which explains the map of Africa around his neck.* Although they have been together for three years, she was his best friend for seven years before that. "It's quite amazing," he says, twinkling. "We know one another, so it's so easy. I mean it's more difficult to hide things, so we simply decided not to hide anything." They have a new daughter named Iman, and Perez is equally smitten by fatherhood: "Are you kidding me?" he splutters into his espresso when I ask if Iman is in Paris. "You think I'm going to be here, far away from her, when she is growing so fast? I don't want to miss a bit of it."
Now that he's got the acting thing down, Perez (who was a photographer for a spell after leaving his home town in Switzerland) is increasingly interested in directing. His short film Rien Dire, written by and starring his wife, was a contender at Cannes this year. And when he has finished filming his next role - in a "Puritan comedy" about the French philosopher Diderot - he wants to produce a dccumentary in West Africa and direct a full-length feature. He also has ideas for two other short films in the pipeline.
But he is soft-spoken and modest about his achievements. With those olive eyes downcast and sheepish, he is positively humble when it comes to assessing his own talent. "Oh, I don't want to talk about that, about myself," he mumbles. "I'm not going to say I have talent or I have no talent because I'm not a good judge of myself. I'm just trying to do my best."
Is this false modesty. It is hard to tell with Perez, who is a curious combination of the thoughtful intellectualism that is characteristically Parisian, and the studied vulnerability that often marks Hollywood leading men. That glint in his eyes could mean too many things.
*In a previous newspaper article, it was said that the filmmakers of I Dreamed of Africa had asked a KwaZulu-Natal jeweller to design a gold pendant made in the shape of Africa, which was to be worn by Vincent in his role as Paolo Gallmann.