GASPARD ULLIEL ON CINEMA
By Crash redaction
RARE ARE THE ACTORS WHO MARK THEIR GENERATION BUT THERE ARE MAJOR POSSIBILITIES THAT IT WILL BE THE CASE FOR GASPARD ULLIEL. HIS UNDENIABLE TALENT, HIS ANGEL FACE AND STRONG PERSONALITY ARE ALL ELEMENTS THAT LET US FORSEE A BRILLIANT CAREER. WITH MANY FILM RELEASES ON THE AGENDA AND WITH THE SUPPORT OF HOLLYWOOD, HE IS ALREADY THE PROMISING FRENCH ACTOR OF THE NEXT YEARS.
Interview by Eugénie Poumaillou
Your career so far?
I started completely by chance when I was 11. One of my mother’s friend had opened an agency for actors and was looking for youngsters. I had no intention of being an actor, but I thought, « Why not give it a try? », so I was soon doing castings and got small parts in a number of television films. I remember that I really enjoyed those first experiences. For an eleven-year-old, a film studio set is always impressive, and I found it quite easy – no bother at all. After school I spent two years at the cinema faculty at St Denis I felt I wanted to know more about it. It was really interesting, because I came across loads of directors that it would have taken me much longer to discover otherwise. I gradually began to take more interest in the cinema, to ask myself questions, and in the end I felt I wanted to carry on with it, but what I really wanted was to get behind the camera and make my own films — to really be in films.
I’ve always hung on to that idea, but I’ve also taken increasing pleasure in working as an actor — I find that really interesting. I still want to direct, but in fact with everything that’s been happening to me I’ve tended to go for the acting, since I’ve still got plenty of time for the rest. I’ve written a few drafts already, but I don’t feel quite up to it yet. When I had a bit more time I tried writing, but each time I’d almost got to the end I felt it wasn’t properly complete. And I think now that it was a subconscious way of putting off the deadline, the time when I actually had to make the film, after the writing. So in fact I don’t really know; I’ve put it on a black burner for now but it’s quite true that it’s something I often think about.
You’ve already done a bit of everything — art films, big French and international productions — and you’ve just finished filming Young Hannibal, an American blockbuster. Why have you decided to do more mainstream films after a rather underground career?
At the beginning you don’t really get to choose much. I took whatever came because I wasn’t in a position to choose my films then. At the time I was still a student, so of course it had to be art films and important directors. At that age it’s easy to be a bit silly when you’re thrown into that sort of environment. I was a bit stubborn really — I reckoned that only art films counted, and I used to criticize quite a few films that I like a lot now. But I realized very quickly that for a career it’s important to do completely different things so that you don’t typecast and stuck in a rut. In any case, I wanted to try lots of things and explore different genres. Filming with André Téchiné was unbelievable — I was just thrilled. I think that’s the experience that has given me the most as an actor, he was behind me all the time and it was my first major cinema role, so there was a lot of pressure. He’s a great director — he expects so much of his actors. Then there was Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement and there again it was something that came to find me. That was something very different, and it was a great experience. I discovered a whole new type of cinema, with enormous financial ressources, gigantic sets, extras all over the place, much more in the way of technical shots and specific positions to stick to. Then I made a film with Rodolphe Marconi and I came back to something much more intimate. It was a very pleasant feeling, and the thing I really liked, once again, was the contrast. After making a large-scale film, where filming had taken more than six month and we had spent entire days at a time filming the same scene in the trenches and in the mud, it meant getting back to something very much simpler. It was made on a low budget, much more quickly, with a lot of improvisation.
So now you’re moving into the international scene, you’ve started making films in English.
I went to a bilingual school, so my English is pretty good. I landed my first English-speaking role in a Peter Greenaway film called The Tulse Luper Suitcases, but I was playing a French character so the accent was OK. Then I did a short for the Paris Je t’aime project set up by the producers Claudie Ossard and Emmanuel Benhily; it involved making a short for each arrondissement in Paris. Gus Van Sant was doing the 4th arrondissement and suggested me. I was delighted, because he’s a director I’ve admired for a long time. I’ve seen nearly all his films and he’s someone who’s making really interesting films these days. We filmed for two or three days before the summer, with Marianne Faithfull and Elias McConnell. It was in an old printing works in the Rue Vieille du Temple. When we got there, Gus said, « You’ve all read the script so go for it — do it as if you were living it for real, and I’ll sort it all out afterwards. ». He lets you get on with it and then he adapts. The film’s going to be shown to open the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Festival. For Young Hannibal I hesitated for a long time, I thought it was pretty risky making a follow-up to Hannibal Lecter, coming after Anthony Hopkins. Mainly because it was in English. I didn’t feel at all confident about it! I had a month and a half of coaching in English because we had to film fairly quickly to fit in with the time Gong Li had available. I did my best, but it’s pretty difficult working in English. I had trouble just letting myself go and stopping thinking about my accent. It takes a while to stand back from all that and let yourself go. It wasn’t at all easy.
Does it make a difference, working with a foreign director? Is there something special about the French cinema?
No, not really. The only difference is in the speed — it’s often a much faster pace. You work twelve-hour days, whereas it’s eight in France. Everything’s really quick, and that’s the only thing I didn’t like sometimes. I’m exaggerating, but often when I asked the director for another take and he said OK, I felt that I was holding things up. Whereas in France, some directors will do as many as thirty takes, and take their time. On the other hand, as far as working methods go I didn’t feel any real difference.
Has that made you want to make films outside France? You’ve got an American agent?
Yes — I’ve got an agent in Los Angeles; I met him while promoting the Jeunet film there. He sends me quite a few scripts. But I’m very pleased to be making French films as well, I don’t particularly want to take myself abroad permanently and stop making films in France. Quite the opposite, in fact, I think it’s a good things to do a bit of everything in a number of different countries.
Do you think it’a easier these days for a young french actor to make it in the States? There are more and more French actors in foreign films — is it a case of the attraction of the exotic?
It’s true that it’s getting more and more frequent. I get the impression it’s a bit of a fashion — it’s fairly exotic to have a French actor in your film. People like it. I think it’s a good thing when everything gets mixed together like that because I’ve always wanted to go and make films in other countries and, like many French actors, I think a number of countries are producing very interesting films. I adore Asian films, and Brazilian films. I know there’s the language barrier, but I think people are getting more and more tolerant. And then in all the old film, there have been actors with accents for a very long time.
It has to be a dream role for a young actor. I remember the first time I saw The Silence of the Lambs I was absolutely fascinated by Anthony Hopkins’ acting. When I was offered the role I was both very flattered and very anxious about doing it. It was a real challenge. The difficulty about the film is that I was limited. It’s very difficult to play a character that exists in books and three films already. So I tried to absorb Anthony Hopkins’ work, I read the three books, and I watched the films endlessly, particularly The Silence of the Lambs. The idea was to catch certain details in his expressions, in the way he moved, his walk, his tics, the way he blinked, and so on. I had to offer something different but stay sufficiently close to what had been done already so that people coming to see the film would find the Hannibal they already knew. It wasn’t particularly easy, but I got an enormous amount of pleasure out of doing it because it’s a fascinating character. It’s an American production with European funding, the team’s British. It should be out in France in October/November.
The rest of your family is in fashion. Does that interest you?
I like aesthetic things in general so I like good clothes. I sometimes watch the catwalk shows on TV when I think they look really good. It’s like design. I can be moved by clothes, but I like art in general rather than fashion in particular.
You’re close to Hedi Slimane.
I met Hedi when I got my first nomination for a César. I really liked what he was doing and he thought I fitted in with the image of his clothes. We left it at that, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. I really like his work — the shapes are clean and quite classy, and I feel comfortable in the clothes. I’ve bumped into Hedi a few times, he’s a really nice guy, very generous; I’ll stay with Dior Homme for the time being.
Anthony Hopkins, of course, I’ve always found him impressive. Sean Penn, I like the choices he’s made. In France, I really like Patrick Dewaere, but lots of others too.
Tarkovski. The New Wave, Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer. And Chris Marker. There’s also a Portuguese director I like a lot: João César Monteiro. He’s wild, really special. And there’s Murnau’s Sunrise, really impressive. It’s the culmination of the silent film. Things a bit weird make me laugh. I love Gregg Araki — stuff that’s a bit decadent. And I really like Michael Cimino, who’s made some really good films.
Very varied. I’ve listened to reggae, rap, soul, lots of jazz. I came round to rock not long ago. These days I mix a bit of everything. I really like Kanye West’s latest album, and I love Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, Nick Drake, the Stones and especially Prince!
Would you do the same all over again if you had the chance?
I’ve got many reasons to say yes and few to say no, so I’ll stick with the yes. But if I had the choice again I’d really like to do architecture.
Interview from Crash #38
PHOTOGRAPHY Russ Flatt / FASHION Armelle Leturcq
MAKE UP Alexandra Schiavi @Airport
PHOTOS TAKEN AT RESIDENCE AZZEDINE ALAÏA, 5 RUE DE MOUSSY