By Jen Vineyard | The Playlist March 9, 2012 at 2:46PM
You won't see Mathieu Almaric in his new film, "The Screen Illusion" -- which is part of the Rendez-vous with French Cinema Film Festival -- because this time, he's the director.
In fact, Almaric -- best-known to American audiences through his roles in "Munich, "Le Scaphandre et le Papillion" ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"), and "Quantum of Solace," has been a director longer than he's been an actor. As a teenager, he took a job as a trainee AD on Louis Malle's "Au Revoir les Enfants" and he won Best Director at Cannes in 2010 for "Tournee." He has also worked with some of France's best directors, of course -- among them Arnaud Desplechin and Alain Resnais -- and he'll next be seen in David Cronenberg's forthcoming "Cosmopolis," playing a "pastry assassin" who creams Robert Pattinson in the face as part of his mission to sabotage power and wealth worldwide. Almaric sat down with The Playlist to talk about his philosophies on- and off-screen, and why he feels an actor is "nothing."
How did you first get your start?
A man called Otar Iosseliani, who was a Georgian director, knew me since I was a kid -- we lived in Russia, my father [Jacques Amalric] was a journalist who was over there for Le Monde. When I was 17, he picked me out to do something in his film ["Les favoris de la lune"] which had nothing to do with acting. It had more being a silhouette. He directed with a whistle -- one blow you walk, two blows you stop, three blows you drink a coffee. Like Jacques Tati films. And I just -- God, I wanted to do what he was doing! To see the set, to see the construction of a film. I was at that terrible age when you don't know what you would do. You think you should do your studies, learn Japanese, do something useful -- everything is interesting at that age. And cinema seemed to be a place you could work on not one thing, but everything. I tried to go to school, but I failed, and so I did a short film ["Sans rires"], and it was very bad. And because it's very bad, you continue, like a drug addict. You continue because it's bad. And I was very shy, so I was protected by the camera. You observe. You observe people, like in parties, you know? There are people who know how to dance, and the director is watching them from the kitchen. That's how I decided I wanted to make films. And Arnaud Desplechin gave me this life as an actor [by casting him as the lead in "Comment Je Me Suis Disputé ...(Ma Vie Sexuelle)"/("My Sex Life... Or How I Got Into An Argument")] -- and then I was able to make a living.
You've worked with so many great French film directors over the years. Are there any directors left that you haven't worked with, that you want to work with?
I never think about that. I think it's something you shouldn't control. I don't believe in projects that are coming from an actor's wish. I think that an actor is nothing, and you should just enter the desire of somebody who brings you into a world you couldn't even imagine. But the actor shouldn't say, "I want to work with him, and him, and him." The actor shouldn't say, "Come here." No. Unfortunately, that is often the case.
Well, I thought since you're both an actor and a director, there might be some people you'd want to work with just so you could learn from, as a director...
That happens, or not, but you shouldn't try to make it happen. It's life that is always more surprising than you believe it is. Always. I don't wake up in the morning thinking, "I am an actor." I don't need to act to feel alive. I don't think about it. My life and my obsessions are more about making a film. Writing. Stealing time to write. And so, when I do a thing as an actor, yes, I'm attracted to the director. Yes, there's that. But there's also friendship and destiny, no? To watch Cronenberg one day, two days, three days shooting, of course it's amazing. But I never thought about it before -- I didn't wish it to happen.
As the pastry assassin, you get to throw a pie in Robert Pattinson's face and then give a six-page monologue.
Cronenberg is very close to the book. And Rob is a great guy. Yeah, yeah -- it's a tough scene. I had to speak in English, and Cronenberg shot it in one sequence, where you do the whole scene in one shot. It was very physical, and I spoke so much. And you're afraid, because it's Cronenberg! [Laughs] But you manage to learn your lines, and I'm always surprised when I manage to be able to say the words in complete order, you know? I don't know how it's possible. But I think it's going to be an amazing film, especially because he shot it in order, exactly as it happens in the book, about a man who gets broken.
Memorizing dialogue is difficult for you?
I have no memory! [Laughs] I would want to speak, but I have problems with my memory. It's a struggle. I have to learn it a long time beforehand. In France, we don't have this notion of "coach" -- here you have a hundred coaches for everything.
If that's something you struggle with, what advice do you give your actors when you're directing them, especially when you're having them do something as elaborate as Alexandrine verse in "The Screen Illusion"?
It was a commission at the beginning, part of a France Deux television series of Comedie Francaise -- plays turned into movies. It was their idea. They had this simple idea, for French television to record all the plays that are performed of Comedie Francaise, with two cameras. Because they put on shows, but we never see them. So why not ask directors to pick a play that had been performed during the year? You're not allowed to change the actors, so they know the lines! When we were shooting "L'Illusion Comique," some nights they were playing "L'Illusion Comique" on stage!
The commission was also, try to invent something in movies. You're not allowed to shoot on stage. Invent something. And you have 12 days of shooting. That's not a lot. And so I saw the hotel -- the Hotel du Louvre -- in front of the Comedie Francaise, and my experience as an assistant director sometimes helps. You say, "12 days in a hotel -- a hotel can have a lot of locations in the same place!" A kitchen, the roof, parking garage. And then I thought maybe I can shoot two hours late in the evening, because they just have to cross the street to go on stage, so I can shoot more. More time to shoot! That's how it started.
Still, the dialogue is tricky, because now it's set in a modern context.
For the actors, it was very funny to use the same words, but do two completely different interpretations, in two different universes. The difficulty was to keep it moving. There's 1,825 verses in the play, and I didn't count, but I think I kept not more than 500 in the movie. You try to sometimes do something silent, because you can't speak all the time in movies -- you have to find a way with gestures, with action. That's why there's lots of guns, and violence, and you know, betrayal. So of course the difficulty was to learn the lines that are without words. If you can't feel any more the difference between action and words, that's good. For instance, when the couple fight in the nightclub at the end -- in the play, the woman speaks, "Blah blah blah blah blah," and the man answers, "Blah blah blah blah," there's only words. But I had them scream at the same time, because they are not listening to each other, so the words are not important. They are saying, "I love you," "I love you," but in a way that's crazy. They're trying to hurt the other person with those special words, because they know the other person, the woman knows that word will make him go crazy. It's a game! So the action is not the words, but after two years of life together as a couple, there is this wall, this prison, this desire -- the action is in that.
You've just reteamed with Alain Resnais for "Vous n'avez encore rien vu"?
Yes. We've finished the film. We shot that with 14 actors, all the actors in Alain's family. I'm not his family -- I'm just a newcomer. He has just finished the editing, and he showed it to us, the actors. It was incredible. It's an amazing film. So now it's up to the festivals!
Rendez-vous with French Cinema ends on March 11.