Despite appearances, Perez himself wants to be more than just a pretty face. "I feel nothing about [being a sex symbol]," the 32-year-old actor says. "What should I feel? I don't know. Give me an example. What's a beautiful person? What's the meaning of beauty? That's the question."
But with a string of handsome leading-man roles behind him, can he really deny his appeal? He drove Catherine Deneuve mad with passion in Indochine, as well as Isabelle Adjani in 1994's bloody sexfest Queen Margot (complete with a generous display of Perez's frontal nudity). Granted, he's at a career crossroads with his American debut in this month's The Crow: City of Angels. Wearing feathers and gothic makeup, he plays a dark angel out to avenge the murder of his son.
"It's my best movie," he says, extinguishing his cigarette. "It's very powerful. [My character] is a cross between Jim Morrison and Hamlet." The Crow reminiscent of Shakespeare? "Because of the darkness and what's happened to him," Perez explains.
True, the original Crow was surrounded by tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Its star, Brandon Lee, died two weeks before the film's completion when he was fatally shot with a prop gun in a freak accident. Perez, usually verbose, in brief on the subject of reprising Lee's role. "It's strange, yeah," Perez says. "I thought about it sometimes." City of Angels director Tim Pope clearly thought about it a lot, however, and made a conscious effort to select for the part someone who could stand on his own. "I didn't want whoever played the role to look like the son of Brandon," says Pope, who chose Perez after seeing his dashing turn in Queen Margot.
Ironically, this French star is not a native son. The product of a German homemaker mother and a Spanish father in the import/export business, Perez grew up in Switzerland and moved to Paris when he was 18. He says he considered becoming a sculptor, painter or photographer before settling on acting: "I decided not to be an artist because I feared solitude. It was a way of dealing with my fears."
"I was extremely shy and unhappy with my life," he says, adding that he had dreamed of becoming an actor since seeing a Charlie Chaplin movie at the age of 7. "I recognized myself in him," says Perez, who was a self-described quiet, accident-prone boy.
His European background and art-house success have led some to compare him to Spain's Antonio Banderas - although Pope thinks this is unfair. "Just because he's got a thick accent and he's a hunk, people compare him to Antonio," says the British filmmaker, whose previous work includes directing videos for the Cure. "Vincent is a different kind of actor. He doesn't just rely on his smoldering good looks. He brings a lot of intelligence to his acting."
A true renaissance man, Perez is always striving for more. Today it's an African-drum lesson. In the huge loft he's subletting in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood, Perez sits beside a Senegalese instructor, drums between his legs. "I am very bad today," he says, shaking his head. "No," says the teacher. "You are trying. When you're learning, you make mistakes." This seems to content the actor, and he tries again. "It's sexy. It's pure," he says of his interest in African culture and world music. "It's a celebration of life."
Which pretty much sums up Perez. He speaks often of his pursuit of personal growth and the human need for love in a way that makes Deepak Chopra seem like a cynic. "Everything about life, work and relationships is because you want to know how to love," he says. "Why the need of reading things in the newspapers or books? It's because we want to learn how to love."
It's surprising that Perez can remain so philosophical considering the press coverage he endured throughout his relationship with actress Jacqueline Bisset and supermodel Carla Bruni. Of the experience, he says, "I hate it when people talk about someone without knowing them. But you can't choose who you're going to love. You can't say you're not going to love a celebrity because of gossip."
Will American audiences fall in love with Perez? Another English language film, Talk of Angels, is due out early next year, and he's already relocated to New York. Of his decision to settle on the East Coast rather than the West Coast, he says, characteristically speaking in metaphor, "The step was too big for my small legs."
[Written by Christina Kelly]