The Vincent

May 16, 1998                                                          


In Patrice Chereau's Ceux Qui M'aiment Prendront le Train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train), a famous artist dies and a group of old disciples, friends, former lovers and their wives, take the train to Limoges to bury him. One woman misses the train and appears later as they have never seen her, in a wig, spike heels, makeup.

''That's Viviane. She arrives late and nervous they're her friends, they're her family but for the first time, she is showing her new self. She was born a boy and always thought that God made a mistake, so she's been working on it. Now she's on her way.''

Not quite, for Viviane, as we get to see later when she showers, has budding budding breasts, but she hasn't done quite all the work.

Playing a transsexual is certainly a transmutation for Perez, and it came as a surprise to audiences at the Cannes film festival, where the movie opened the competition.

''Definitely, it was a risk, but that's the only way to grow, to make the work personal, and that's what I've always been looking for. The trouble is, when you start as a jeune premier, they put you in a little box and want you to stay there.''

Perez, who turns 34 next month, has an international career and lives between Paris and Los Angeles, where he made a splash in The Crow: City of Angels. He is slight, taut and sprung for action, with something of the feline presence of the young Alain Delon; he has a rushed delivery, as if every moment counts.

He made his mark in 1989 as Christian, the pretty face who woos Roxane for Cyrano de Bergerac in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's movie; he was the tanned officer who breaks Catherine Deneuve's heart in Regis Wargnier' s Indochine, and Isabelle Adjani's lover in Chereau's La Reine Margot.

''Viviane is a richer role than the part I played in La Reine Margot, but Patrice always knew that I was looking for ways to stretch."

In the '80s, he left the Paris Conservatory to audition for Chereau.

''I had done work as a clown and in commedia dell'arte, but I wanted to get out of the classic mode and felt that he could help.''

Chereau was already an innovative force in French theater, heading the Theatre des Amandiers in Nanterre, near Paris, when he developed his own school and company, with actors like Perez and Pascal Greggory who are with him still. His Hotel de France in 1987, with Perez and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, launched the young actor.

''Everybody saw me, and I got the part in Cyrano, which was wonderful just seeing Gerard Depardieu move into that character, I realized what a strong experience making movies can be."

In Ceux Qui M'aiment, with Greggory, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Charles Berling, Perez plays opposite Bruni-Tedeschi again.

train13a.jpg (8152 bytes)''Valeria plays the woman Viviane admires. She wants to be her because she's a real woman, she has beautiful breasts and she's going to have a baby. You see, Viviane knows she'll never really be a woman or raise kids. She's in between, but she prefers being in between to being really wrong.''

When Perez talks about Viviane, it is not quite in the third person. Chereau kept his role a secret during the shooting, which started last May.

''It was a secret for a year. There was no Vincent on the set, just Viviane.''

He came on the set three hours early to make up and find the right pitch to his voice.

''I needed time to explore. Working in English taught me to immerse myself myself in a character.''

Perez, whose mother is German and father Spanish, was raised in a Swiss village; he left Switzerland for France and lost German as his primary language at 14. Perhaps English became my new mother tongue, he says, ''but my roots are in France too.''

Viviane took awhile to emerge.

''Patrice said we don't want to do an actor's number, we want something deeper and we haven't found it. I needed a lot of self-confidence and trust in Patrice. One day it was all there: magic something violent came out of me, and we all saw that Viviane really existed.''

It was Abel Ferrera who first thought of using Perez as a transsexual three years ago.

''I did a photo shoot and I enjoyed the character that came out of me, but the movie didn't get made. Then when Patrice told me he was writing a new script and wanted to put me in the movie, I showed him those pictures. Six months later, he called and said, 'Viviane is born.' I was like, 'Oh my God!' I thought, maybe I can't do it but I kept my doubts to myself.''

Perez feels that his progress as an actor is about ''being free and to be free, you have to be able to face your fears.'' He started on Viviane right after playing the daredevil Duc de Nevers in Philippe de Broca's Le Bossu. ''De Nevers felt he was above it all that helped me a lot.''

The actor, who has had famous liaisons with famous beauties, said that in creating Viviane he never worried about being thought of as an effeminate man. Joking, he opened his shirt and said:

''See I'm really a man they just glued those breasts on. But I played the part as a woman. I talked to women a lot, and my girlfriend helped. I talked to transsexuals too, and watched tapes.'' Yet, for weeks after the shooting stopped, he says he woke up feeling feminine, sleeping on his side, not his usual position."

The story of Dana International, the transsexual singer who recently created a scandal in Israel when she won the Eurovision song contest, draws a passionate response from him.

''Can you imagine her solitude? She must be so proud, scared and lonely. Viviane is like that she' s really very pure; she's a good girl.  The idea of becoming a woman was impossible for me too, but this kind of challenge brings out new things in my acting. I used to feel you had to show, to bring things to people, but it's good to let them steal from you. With Viviane I decided not to show, just to be.''

[Written by Joan Dupont]

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