UK PREMIERE MAGAZINE
DID YOU COME TO PARIS JUST FOR ME? Vincent Perez is surprised that someone should make the trip across the Channel solely to meet him in the flesh. Several facts flash through the head He is an actor, 30 years old and unattached; the former paramour of Jacqueline Bisset (they met on a film) and Italian supermodel Carla Bruni (from whom he recently split); the man whom Paris Match dubbed "Sexiest French Speaker". He is, in short, the sweetheart of Europe's silver screen and one of the world's most desirable hommes. Did I come to Paris just for him? There is no proper answer to that one, but so guileless is the question that it is difficult to stifle a smile. Perez, perhaps aware that he may have sounded somewhat gauche, reiterates his good-natured inquiry. "I mean, are you here just for the day?"
And so, it seems, I am. But the tedium of rising at five and enduring a cramped inter-European flight, an overheated bus ride from the airport into town, even thoughts of the journey back to London, all melt on stepping into the heady pulence of Paris's Lancaster Hotel. The chosen venue for this morning's meeting oozes with potted plants and pastel hues, and thick, thick carpets. It is here, ruby-lipped cherubs and heroic muscled knaves painted on the wall fresco behind him, that the immaculately groomed figure of Monsieur Perez - glass of Perrier and lazily pluming cigarette in hand - holds court.
It doesn't take a second glance to see why movie heroines are so often required to fall for Perez. In his latest film, the historical epic La Reine Margot (or Queen Margot, depending on what country you're in), it is the incandescent Isabelle Adjani; the scrumptious Sophie Marceau in Fanfan; the delicious Catherine Deneuve in Indochine. the beautiful Bisset in La Maison De Jade; and the breathtaking Anne Brochet in Cyrano De Bergerac, in which Perez's fair but dim-witted hero doesn't have to utter a single word before cupid primes his bow.
In France, Perez is regarded as a jeune premier or leading man, the kind of young, successful, pretty face which elicits envy and adulation in equal parts. When an actress is pretty, so the rules casting go, she is not generally taken as seriously as she should be.
"Also," sighs Perez, "an actor."
Vincent Perez was born in Switzerland to a Spanish father and German mother, and for his first 17 years lived in Lausanne, within walking distance of glorious Lake Geneva. He jumped school for art college at 15 to be a photographer and, though the acting did not start until two years later, the desire was there from the time he was a child. You can't help wonder if Perez hasn't felt burdened by his looks for a very long time indeed. Where, after all, did "pretty" ever get you if you just wanted to be one of the boys.
"I was a very shy, very lonely child," muses the actor, dragging hard on his Marlboro Light. "I was always dreaming to be an actor but not so much to act, more to run away. It was like an escape. As a child, I could watch Marlon Brando in The Wild One and A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. It was great, you know, so many lives, so many different characters. Acting was a good way of running away from the idea of having just one life. I was very curious and burning to discover other countries, different cultures to do other things. Being an actor was maybe the easiest thing for me - it was part of being myself."
And so Perez left Switzerland for Paris and the famed Conservatoire. A string of respectable but internationally invisible film and stage roles followed (including three for La Reine Margot director Patrice Chereau), but it was not until he was cast as the heroic Christian de Neuvillette in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano in 1989 that Perez at last swept into wider public public view.
"It was the real start for me," the actor recalls. "Suddenly I had five scripts on my desk and real propositions for the first time. When Cyrano came out, I didn't do one interview because nobody knew who I was, not one. Two years later I did Indochine and suddenly I was everywhere, everywhere in the world to sell the movie."
After Cyrano, Perez made two films. Capitaine Fracasse with Ettore Scola in 1989 ("an important part, but the movie wasn't successful at all") and La Neige et Le Feu ("a very bad movie") with Claude Pinoteau in 1990. The experience taught him to be wary when choosing his scripts. Although it was only made last year, La Reine Margot was first mooted by Patrice Chereau back in 1991 at the same time as Indochine. Perez held out for the latter; Margot, delayed by script problems and the availability of key actors, was postponed for another year and a half. And, after making Margot in 1993, it took Perez nearly a year to decide on his next film, his first English-language project. "I think a lot of actors don't have this patience," he says.
Such single-mindedness comes, in part, from the fact that Perez seems to go out of his way to be everything other than just an actor. When he is not acting, he writes constantly, currently working and reworking his first screenplay ("A modern fairy tale," he smiles self-consciously, "an impossible love story about sailors and sea fairies"). He has already directed a short film, L'Echange, starring his Margot co-star Dominique Blanc in 1992, and plans to do more. "When I was at drama school directing my friends in plays, I suddenly felt the excitement of controlling a set, of pushing actors into an emotion, and I realised that directing was part of myself too".
Perez is indeed that rare creature, an actor and fully rounded human being who would like you to know he's not just another pretty face, a man who refers as freely to the diverse worlds of Nobel prizewinners (Hermann Hesse, Mother Theresa, Albert Einstein) as to the worlds of art (Matisse, Egon Schiele, Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt) and film (Brando, Chaplin, Antonioni), a man just as likely to be inspired by the nature programmes he watches incessantly as by the work of writers and of poets. A particularly devout follower of the teachings of Prince Siddharta, he even sent Bernardo Bertolucci a copy of the first poem written on the life of the Buddha, Light Of Asia, as soon as he heard that the director was making Little Buddha.
"I am not a philosophe, no," shrugs Perez, tugging at the sleeves of his beautifully tailored navy blazer. "But, as an actor, something is missing for me. It's not an entire, global world. For me it's just part of myself, and the other part is to have the feeling of creating things, building relationships, stories, productions. It's very important to have that balance, because being only an actor is not very healthy. I am an actor, but in my private life, I don't want to be an actor. I have no respect for them. I have a lot of respect for good directors, good painters, for the people who bring peace, who fight for a good cause, but what is difficult for actors is the fame. They become interesse, we are saying in French, self-interested. I don't want to get into that game. I don't like it, I don't care about it. I think it's boring, very boring."
I suggest he must be a very centred person.
"Yes, I am," he snorts, voice breaking halfway between laughter and anguish. "Fame and being an actor. . . no, I don't have any illusion. It's not going to change my ego, except maybe helping me not to care. I'm no more important than anyone else. You understand?"
Perez has not had an easy time in the French press recently: "I really would like to put a bomb under this Voici [French tabloid magazine] sometimes," he sighs. "It's really full of sheet and sometimes it's very difficult for me to deal with that." With gossip about his ex, Carla Bruni, and her new love cramming every column inch, the strain is starting to tell. "Splitting just before this film was the best time because your thoughts are occupied," he told one reporter, just before flying to Spain to make his new film Talk Of Angels. "I don't want to talk about it because when you do, it makes it into a big mess."
That Perez also feels to some extent abandoned in his own country by the French film industry simply adds to his melancholy. Even when Patrice Chereau first suggested Perez for the coveted role of the heroic Huguenot La Mole in La Reine Margot, the actor could only tease, "Oh, Patrice, another jeune premier romantic."
As it happens, Perez may resent the leading man label under which he continues to labour, but he is undoubtedly well cut out for matters of amour, as even he must admit. Take La Reine Margot, for example, in which he swashes and buckles and wins the heart of Adjani's queen, only to (literally) lose his head. La Mole is a man who, Perez explains, is "trying to survive in this very mean world, with its politics and its manipulation, the only one who believes just in himself and his own feelings and in God, and in sacrificing himself for love."
"It's not difficult for me to do these kinds of parts because we are sort of sharing the same beliefs," he concedes. "But in France, it's very difficult for me because directors don't think about me for anything else because I'm jeune premier. Gerard Philipe (top French star of the '50s) suffered all his life because he was the young pretty face, and too lucky, too famous, and that's bad because everyone's jealous. It's very, very French, and I really have the feeling I have to move on. It's not like that in America. My best reviews are in America, not France. Strange, uh?"
It must be a tough call to be both successful and good-looking...
"Ohhh, looks are always an advantage," he snaps back defensively, flicking a hand through his dark blond mane. "But it's difficult knowing that people are not using you as much as they should, and that you could do more than you do. It's a big frustration." And so Vincent Perez is finally answering the call of the Hollywood hypeline, and looking for challenges further afield - "I would love to play a dangerous man, a killer, a bullfighter or a boxer." He has already sent an audition tape to agents in LA ("I made it myself with a hand-held camera and the help of a friend") and relishes the prospect of starting his acting career from the bottom of the Hollywood ladder.
"I do everything like I did when I started in France," he says, "and that's how it should be, because to them I'm just the guy who was in Cyrano and Indochine and Queen Margot, in another country. It's exciting. Besides, I prefer it this way because I don't want to - in France we have this expression mettre la charrue avant les boeufs. I don't want to put the cart in front of the cows. You have this expression? It's good for me to start from the little door. It's work, that's all."
The day after we talk, Perez flies to Spain, and his first English-language film, Talk Of Angels (based on Kate O'Brien's controversial novel Mary Lavelle), in which he plays the moody son of an aristocrat during the Spanish Civil War. Next year he takes the role of a washed-up boxer who loses all his fights, and a further project, Par-Dela Les Nuages - to be jointly directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, and star Irene Jacob, Sophie Marceau, Fanny Ardant, John Malkovich and Marcello Mastroianni - is also under discussion. So many lives, so many different characters.
"I am always looking for something new in my life," says Perez. "That's why I take so much time to decide to do a movie, because each movie should be teaching me something new. Even if people propose the same kind of parts for me, I always try to find the differences between them because I'm learning. I'm in another world. I'm like a sponge, picking things up and taking them. I think everybody should be looking for a kind of wiseness, you know.You're learning in life. And the day you stop learning, you start to die."
[Written by Phillipa Bloom]