Vincent Perez's true talent is not dating supermodels, but heating up the silver screen.
French actor Vincent Perez wears his heart on his sleeve. This might seem unlikely or even inconvenient for someone who is roughly France's equivalent of Brad Pitt, voted the eighth sexiest man in the world by the readers of Paris Match; for someone who is hounded all over Paris by paparazzi, nubile young fans and gossip columnists; for someone who has lived with Carla Bruni and Jacqueline Bisset and starred opposite beauties Isabelle Adjani, Emmanuelle Beart and Catherine Deneuve.
But if you ask Vincent Perez the simplest, silliest question, like 'What is sexy?' his reply is so revealing, so vulnerable, it makes your heart break. What's more, it makes you want to shake Carla Bruni - who squeezed Perez in between Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, lawyer Arno Klarsfeld, then dropped him four months ago.
"I'm always looking for a light. But this maybe has nothing to do with sexy. How do you explain that? Is sexy just sex?" asks Perez, considering the topic in an oversized booth in the back of the Regency Hotel's breakfast room. He's chosen the booth so he can smoke. It also provides privacy and intimacy, both of which underline what it is about Perez that drives French women crazy. It's not that he's incredibly handsome, because he's not. It's not that he's so suave or polished, because he's neither. It's something... else.
"I think grace is quite sexy and curves, curves are quite sexy. Being graceful, which doesn't have anything to do with plastic beauty. I've seen beautiful women, but when you see them up close, there is no light. There is no grace. Sometimes it's just a voice, it's just a smell. Then you find you're falling in love, especially when there is a light. You see the spirit or soul of a person. I believe in honesty and respect for people. I can see it and feel it in people. But I've made mistakes. I'm not in love today. I'm still searching for the light. Sometimes it's sort of thinking you're blind and it's too dark."
He brings his monologue to a halt and laughs. "I have to stop doing poetry in English," he says. "It's a disaster. I'm not Robert Frost."
That of course, depends on if you are looking into his soul. Or his eyes. Or if his thigh is touching yours.
In France, Vincent Perez has been a heartthrob ever since he played the tongue-tied lover in Cyrano de Bergerac. It was his fourth film role and just a prelude to his part in Indochine as the handsome navy officer who seduces a French plantation owner (Catherine Deneuve) and then falls in love with her adopted daughter (a role that turned Perez into a sex symbol in the Far East as well). This winter, he heated up the screen with his performance as La Mole, the dashing Protestant lover of Isabelle Adjani in Queen Margot. And in his next role, in Talk of Angels, he will play a Spanish aristocrat who has a brief but passionate affair with his family's beautiful Irish nanny.
"They always ask me to play the lover," he says.
And so they should.
But the question is, how did this man, talented, sensitive and poetic, get dumped by model Carla Bruni, who once picked up the extension phone when Perez was being interviewed to announce "We are in love!" and who chatted to the press about Perez as she packed her bags to move out of the apartment they shared?
Perez isn't saying, although the question reflects what happened, much to the delight of the French press, which covered the breakup as if he were Charles and she were Di, hounding them both wherever they went. Reporters have since been chronicling Bruni's escapades with Klarsfeld, the 28-year old son of French Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. They even found out that Perez discovered Bruni's ongoing liaison with Mick Jagger via fax: Bruni had sent Jagger a fax, which was intercepted by Jerry Hall, who in turn, faxed the fax back to Perez.
It's that kind of reporting that has soured Perez on the gossip trade, notwithstanding his rating as the eighth sexiest man in the world - outdistancing both Hugh Grant (16th) and his rival, Mick Jagger (27th). "It's a way for magazines to fill the pages, because you have a lot of numbers and very few words," says the 30-year-old actor. "All they have to do is put the rankings and name on each page and fill the rest of the page with pictures. And they are filling the next page with an advertisement that pays for it."
The media, Perez finds, reflect a world that is superficial, trying, and worse, that leads to top modeldom. "I'm not an Andy Warhol fan. But I think he was representing something that was important in our century. He was the first one to say everything is constant repetition. It is the first century where we've got so many images and we start copying images from the past, and then we get into what we have today with tops models making a lot of money because they have an image. And there's nothing behind it. They're just selling the image."
"We broke up four months ago," he says of Bruni, "and I went to work." That would be about the time the actor took off for northern Spain to shoot Talk of Angels, his first English language film, opposite Polly Walker, an experience he describes thusly: "It's amazing when you're doing a movie and feel you're at a turning point in your life. I felt that with Angels," he says. "You love people, they die or are born, private thing. There's all this movement and you put it all into your character. It's amazing to see the changes. When I saw the rushes I saw a young man instead of a young boy. It was someone who was 30. It was a strange feeling."
Perhaps as an antidote, Perez is now considering moving, if not to the countryside, then to New York, which he thinks would be stimulating. "I'm in a mood for going away from Paris. Today, everything is becoming sad in Paris...Poets are wanderers. I'm sort of wandering, but I'm not a poet. Something must be missing in my life," he says. "I miss the countryside, Asturias, where we shot Angels. The Spanish people are really direct. It's easier to have relationships there, more than with Parisians. You don't feel judged. Judging is a real disease."
Vincent Perez of course had a thriving career before he ever heard of Carla Bruni. Born in Switzerland, he moved to France to study acting at the famous Conservatoire of Dramatic Art, and then with wunderkind director Patrice Chereau. Since his first film role, Gardien de Nuit in 1986, he has worked with some of Europe's best-known directors -Ettore Scola and Jean-Paul Rappeneau. A short film he wrote and directed, L'Echange, caught the attention of Roman Polanski. "He's called me four times," says Perez. "It's amazing. He's really pushing me to be a director." He had even won grudging acknowledgement from his parents - his mother is German and his father is Spanish - that he had talent as an actor.
"I decided to leave [Switzerland] because I was bored," says Perez, who first attempted a career as a photographer. "I was tired of chocolates and mountain's and cows... I was the black sheep of the family. I wanted to become an actor [My parents] thought it was a bad idea. They thought actors were drug addicts lazy, gay, everything. Of course when you start to be famous, they [people who had no faith in you early in your career] think of a real hetero, smoking cigarettes and certainly a kind of genius. They change their minds."
While he continues to win the romantic leads in period dramas, he says he "dreams of doing comedies like When Harry Met Sally and primarily accepted the part as La Mole in Queen Margot because he wanted to work with Chereau again. The bloody tale - about Catholics and Huguenots slaughtering each other - also appealed to his fascination with mortality and passion. He compares it to a film about a Spanish torero that he worked on briefly. "To prepare, I did two weeks of bull fighting, sort of playing with a two-year-old bull. [My performance in Queen Margot was influenced by this. Especially during the love scenes...No just joking. But definitely the way I held my sword and moved my body... It was interesting because with bull fighting, it's always in relation to death. In Queen Margot, it was similar."
Until the romantic comedies start rolling in, Perez is working on raising his profile worldwide. In his next film, Beyond the Clouds, he's another doomed lover, a man who falls in love with a woman about to enter a convent. But the movie was shot in English, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, written by Wim Wenders and stars John Malkovich and Fanny Ardant. He is the principal cast member of Queen Margot being used to promote the film around the world. In Manhattan just a few days, his comings and goings were instantly tracked by the gossip columns. Saleswomen at a shop where he bought a tuxedo located his publicist and offered to "help" Perez in any way possible with further sartorial needs; smitten female journalists who had interviewed him bombarded Miramax with requests for "follow-up" interviews.
Now his real ambition is to direct the movie he's written, a fairy tale about "An ogre, who is a rich man and powerful; his son, who is weak and small; a fisherman, who is the prince, and a sea fairy, a sort of Circe," he says. "She has to choose between true and deep love and money and being rich."
And? "It's a fairy tale, of course, it's true love." the actor smiles, answering the next question - Does that only happen in fairy tales? - with another smile.
"Today, it's rare to find someone who wants true love."