Hollywood meeting with a French movie star
Vincent Perez is one of those stars who no longer need an introduction. His work as an actor (he has starred in over 30 movies), director, screenwriter, cameraman, producer and graphic novelist has demonstrated that he is more than just a heartthrob.
He was discovered by the public for his roles as a romantic lover. He played Christian in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's Cyrano de Bergerac, Jean-Baptiste in Régis Wargnier's Indochine, and La Môle in Patrice Chéreau's La Reine Margot. In 1995 Perez went international and played Niccolo in Beyond the Clouds by Michelangelo Antonioni and Wim Wenders, as well as Ashe in Tim Pope's The Crow: City of Angels. His penchant for fantasy was revealed in The Queen of the Damned and The Secret, which is also the second feature he had directed. In 1992 he won the Jean Gabin prize for promising young actors and in the late 90s he was nominated for two Césars (the French version of the Academy Awards) - one for best supporting actor in Philippe de Broca's Le Bossu and one for Patrice Chéreau's Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train. His first feature-length film, Peau d'ange, earned him a nomination at the Montreal International Film Festival's Grand Prize of the Americas.
By a lucky coincidence, Vincent Perez was in California when the French Tuesdays celebrated their six-month anniversary in Los Angeles. While in the midst of the cosmopolitan and Francophile crowd waiting outside the Moonshadow Restaurant in Malibu, I ran into a smiling, relaxed Vincent Perez; he kindly accepted my request for an interview. We agreed to meet at the Sunset Marquis hotel, and two days later, there he was, wearing jeans and a safari jacket looking like an eternal teenager. We sat at a table by the poolside.
Kareen Slajer: How did you develop a passion for the movies?
Vincent Perez: Movies provide escapism, a symbol of life and travel through space and time. I remember, when my parents weren't home, I secretly watched the late night movies. They always played amazing films. This is how I discovered Elia Kazan, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Hitchcock's movies, Kurosawa's Seven Samurai… I was 10 or 12, and it felt like an electric shock. My father turned me on to Charlie Chaplin, and it gave me the desire to make movies. I first fell in love with films, actors - they're usually the ones who attract us in the first place - and then with images and directing.I love the movies in their entirety, but here I'm talking about the end result. I'm not so enamored with the complicated process involved in the making of a film. I hate the fact that it takes so much money.
KS: Would you call Patrice Chéreau your mentor?
VP: Absolutely. He has been. To this day he unconsciously influences me. I'm privileged to have made three movies with him and collaborated with him in the theatre. I joined his experimental school at the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre, near Paris. Through an exchange program between the school and UCLA, I discovered Los Angeles in 1986. We did excerpts of musicals like A Chorus Line and, at the time, I couldn't speak a word of English. [(Laughs.] We were studying the method, as it had been taught by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. Ah, those were the years!
KS: Is there a specific director you worked with that gave you the desire to become a director in your own right?
VP: Michelangelo Antonioni is the one who convinced me to go behind the camera. It was in 1992, and I had just finished my first short film, L'exchange. At the time I was shooting a movie with him and Wim Wenders. I thought I would show Antonioni the short some evening, after the dailies. A pal of mine wanted to project his own on a Monday - Jean Reno was in it - and I decided to show mine the day after. After the dailies, my friend showed his film and before it was even over Antonioni got up and left the room! He hated the movie. So you can imagine how I felt the next day when it was my turn. Thankfully, it wasn't very long, but Antonioni stayed until the end and he said, “Bene, bene.” [Laughs.] All the directors inspired me. There are plenty with whom I would love to work, like Roman Polanski, for instance.I love discovering films: new ones, old ones… I had never seen A Place in the Sun with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Movies like that make me feel alive. In this movie, there's a sequence with both actors around a pool table. It's a cinematic masterpiece. The emotion is real. I need sequences of this kind, when we almost feel as if we were projected into another dimension.
KS: Is there an actor or actress whom you dream of starring with?
VP: I'm currently working on a project as director, and I'd love to cast Meryl Streep in it. Being her partner on the screen would be a real treat, but above all, one of my dreams is to direct her. By the way, I just came across a movie I had never seen before where she plays an amazing part: Sophie's Choice. I still haven't recovered from watching it.
KS: Could you tell us about your current project?
VP: It's the reason why I'm here today in Los Angeles. I've finally obtained the rights of Seul dans Berlin, a novel by Hans Fallada. It took me a year and a half. It's a classic German novel about 1940s Berlin and an insider's look at Germany at the time. I want to shoot the movie in English, so I came here to find an English-speaking producer. I found one - I'm not going back to Paris empty-handed. A few other producers are still reading the script. I've also written an original screenplay, La Fôret, set in the time of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. It's a pretty funny movie, but I'd rather call it a “dramedy.” It takes place in the Forest of Brocéliande, in the midst of all those legends: Morgan, Merlin, the devil, ghosts, witches, water nymphs, etc.While the movie plans are in the works - it's going to be very expensive - the graphic novel is going to be published in April by Casterman - Tintin's publisher - who is very enthusiastic about it. It's a long comic book - about 100 pages - distributed by Thiburs Augé. I'm thrilled. The graphic novel is a good start, especially with this type of movie, because the visual element is very important. The drawings from the graphic novel can be used as a luxury storyboard. The comic will be published in French, but I absolutely need to find an American editor, since American formats are different. My friend, Jean Veber, is the American comic book specialist.
KS: And you've worked with him?
VP: Yes, he's the director of Le Pharmacien de Garde.
KS: Could you discuss The Secret, your second film as a director?
VP: The Secret is done. Luc Besson produced it - he was also behind Peau d'ange - and he also initiated the project. Right now we're looking for a distributor. If I had to describe the movie, I would say that it's a drama laced with a supernatural theme, starring David Duchovny and Lili Taylor. The main role is played by a young actress, a true find if you ask me. Her name is Olivia Thirlby; she's incredible. The movie is based on a peculiar story from Japan - the Japanese like stories where spirits wander about in other people's bodies.
KS: Does Hollywood make you dream or does it make you want to vomit?
VP: Some days it makes me dream and other times it makes me vomit. What's good about Hollywood is that everything is possible. If I say I'd like to work with Meryl Streep, it's because there's actually a chance that she could end up with the screenplay in her hands. In France, we're the kings of the impossible. Impossible is very French. We don't like changes, we're rigid and conservative. It's a problem for me, since I only want to make movies in English. I want to make movies anyone can watch.
KS: Was it a challenge to play a woman's part in Those
Who Love Me
VP: Yes, it was a physical challenge.Once, Abel Ferrara offered me to impersonate a transsexual opposite Christopher Walken in a movie that didn't end up being made. So I organized a photo shoot at my house with a photographer-friend. I wanted to see what I would look like dressed as a girl, since I had never imagined that I could be an attractive woman. Something happened during the photo shoot. Those two or three hours were amazing. I loved it; it was a real challenge. Especially since I'm really into out-of-the-ordinary roles and I'm not offered enough of them. So I found myself with these pictures and didn't know what to do with them. One day, Patrice Chéreau called me and said, “I'm writing a screenplay, and I'd like to write a part for you, but I don't know what to write.” Two weeks later, we were in Sarasota for the French Film Festival and I had the pictures with me. I showed them to him and said, “Patrice, you should meet this actress.” He looked at the first picture, the second, and while he was looking at the third one he burst out laughing when he figured out it was me. He loved the idea. A few weeks later he called me and said, “Viviane is born.”So yes, it was a challenge, because just before the shoot began we realized we could bomb. Obviously we were afraid of looking ridiculous.
KS: Have you worked with a coach?
VP: No, I've always worked on my own, like a big boy. However, I borrowed feminine mannerisms left and right. The positioning of the legs, running my hand through my hair and down my neck, etc. Viviane is an amalgam of a few of my friends. From the moment I put on a wig, I played the part for 15 hours a day, non-stop. It took me three hours to find the high-pitched voice. After that I stayed in the part until the evening. For the first three weeks I didn't see anyone, I stayed in my room and focused; it lasted three months. The fascinating thing is, the people on the set knew Viviane better than they knew me. They were attached to Viviane. The actresses came and chatted, we had women-like conversations and the men came to flirt! [Laughs.] And I can assure you they were heterosexual. I never had to ask for a chair, someone always brought it for me. I served tea on the set. My real name wasn't even on the service card - Viviane's name was on it. Someone had come up with a last name I shall not divulge… [Laughs.] Well, okay, it was my mother's maiden name. On the last day of the shoot, everyone came to say goodbye to Viviane, it was incredible, some people were crying. It wasn't me playing the part anymore, it was Viviane, and that's amazing.
KS: As a public figure, do you ever want to take on a political issue in the fashion of George Clooney, who is fighting against genocide in Sudan?VP : I think what George Clooney does is amazing; it's great and deserves respect. I'm more focused on humanitarian issues. I'd like to invest some time in Sidaction [an AIDS organization] in Paris. During the last year we've been negotiating to set up vignettes that would bring to mind the idea of danger, because AIDS is on the rise again. People at risk of contracting AIDS are no longer the three H's (homosexuals, heroin users and hemophiliacs); now they're also housewives and heterosexual couples. So we're going to put together this documentary with Sidaction. Besides that, I did a commercial against the death penalty in China in 2002. Over the last 10 years, 29,000 people were condemned to death. How many more until the Olympic Games of 2008?
KS: While discussing your character in Fanfan, you said: “It's a character that fits me well, and that helps me get rid of the label of the dark, silent type that I've been dragging around for a long time.” Mission accomplished?
VP: Did I say that? Sometimes we say the strangest things. I'm now completely indifferent to it, especially since the image of heartthrob is gone. What's difficult is to make one's image evolve, to make it change. I've been working on that for the last three or four years. I'm getting there, even if it took a long time, because people only want to see me in certain parts and not in others. I'm trying to make career choices that will broaden my range as an actor.
KS: Would you consider working here in the City of Angels?
VP: You have to live here to have regular work here, unless you're like Jean Reno, a star who has had a series of American hits. There was a time while I was in Los Angeles during which I received several offers, and then I went back to France. Now I'm thinking of coming back here to live with my family.
KS: Do you have any anecdotes from the set of La Reine Margot that you'd like to share with our readers?
VP: Of course, I have several…I had a tragicomedic exploit. It was during a horseback riding scene. I had a dagger behind me and a sword in front. At the moment I got on my horse, the dagger stung the horse. Needless to say, he took off at a gallop without giving me the chance to put on my stirrups. The horse threw me and during the fall I thought about the risk of falling on the sword or the dagger. So I ended up six feet in the air, limbs flying and trying to unsheathe my weapons; I landed on my back. Luckily there was peat on the ground and it softened the fall. There was a moment of silence and when I got up, everyone clapped. [Laughs.] It was the perfect stunt!