May 26- June 1st 2008
STRENGTH IN DEPTH
Acclaimed for playing a paralyzed stroke victim in award-winning The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and the next villain up against Daniel Craig’s 007, French actor Mathieu Amalric discusses his new film Heartbeat Detector and tells Leigh Singer why actors have to be “a bit stupid”.
If one required proof that Mathieu Amalric is a great actor, watch his last two released films, then spend half an hour in his company. In The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Amalric portrayed a magazine editor whose massive stroke leaves him with “locked-in syndrome”, able only to move his left eye. In his new film Heartbeat Detector, Amalric isn’t physically paralysed as much as emotionally; his corporate psychologist quietly processing the company policies that streamline “unnecessary” workers, silently tormented by his job requirements.
In person, however, Amalric, a youthful, unshaven 42-year old, is a restless source of energy, his mind forever turning over questions, his movements expansive and intuitive. It’s notable that his tendency to intellectualise his responses go directly against the tools he feels one needs as a thespian.
“I think that an actor has to be a bit stupid,” he states. “I’m not joking. Maybe animal, instinctive. Try to be a body, just a body. I believe that a lot. I don’t make the difference between the spirit and the body when I act.”
If that sounds contrary, consider this. Amalric, who’s already won three Cesar (French Oscar) Awards as an actor, the last for Diving Bell and the Butterfly, who co-starred in Steven Spielberg’s Munich and who’s currently filming as villain Dominic Greene in new Bond movie Quantum of Solace, describes acting as “not my first job. I’m a director, you know,” he smiles, “so I just do [films] when they’re irresistible.”
Behind the camera, Amalric’s debut Mange Ta Soupe (Eat Your Soup) dates back to 1997; ten years prior to that he’d served as an assistant director to Louis Malle on his wartime classic Au Revoir Les Enfants. He’s since made a couple more features, but since his onscreen bow, Ma Vie Sexuelle , garnered him his first Cesar, he’s evidently found his share of “irresistible” acting jobs, even if, as with Heartbeat Detector, which examines corollaries between the Nazis’ “Final Solution” and current capitalist business practices, he claims they’re not for the obvious reasons.
“It’s not about denouncing CEOs, or the Holocaust or things like that,” he says adamantly. “I don’t do a film because of issues. My pleasure comes when I’m afraid. That’s what gives me the desire to do a film, when I don’t fully understand it.”
To help him play his tormented character Simon, sent to investigate the mental state of his own petrochemical giant’s CEO who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, Amalric decided not to do too much background research.
“I wanted to be like Simon, a good soldier, a guy who just does his job,” he explains. “The problem is, what can young people believe in today? Companies have replaced churches, people sometimes sacrifice their lives for them. And I don’t think it’s just about more money, it’s something to do with the Father, I don’t know. Of course it’s competition also, modern clinical war that we all need, men – and now women.”
He points out that contemporary France, under Nicolas Sarkozy, is a good example of the dangers the film highlights. “The technical language in France would be English words, they love them,” he says ruefully. “’Debriefing’, ‘managing’, it’s a new technical way of hiding the violence. ‘Human Resources’ – how to fire people.”
“Of course you can’t really compare this to the Final Solution – incredible words, ‘final solution’, the guy who invented that is amazing – but Sarkozy is the incarnation of that spirit.” He shakes his head sadly but eyes flashing with anger. “I can’t believe it’s only one year! And [in Italy, Silvio] Berlusconi is back – great actors…”
Amalric proposes the idea that modern bad guys don’t necessarily have huge facial scars, or cackle maniacally as they brag about plans for world domination. It’s more subtle and insidious, now – which may explain why he was picked to be James Bond’s current nemesis, an environmentalist who seems eminently respectable but disguises his ruthlessness behind legitimate causes. Still, for an actor whose track record is primarily smart, sophisticated French film, the call to go up against 007 must have been unexpected to say the least.
“I laughed out loud and thought they were making a mistake,” he says incredulously. “Then I read the script and understood more maybe why.” He agrees it was an opportunity impossible to resist, especially for his two oldest sons, eight and ten, from his relationship with actress Jeanne Balibar (the youngest, nine months, is from his current playwright girlfriend). And presumably the success of Casino Royale and Daniel Craig’s Bond in particular, made a difference.
“Craig is so committed, connected,” he says in admiration. “He’s a Shakespearean actor, each time we’re doing a scene, it’s like, ‘What’s the scene about?’ There’s just this real work-in-progress feeling that surprised me.” Amalric’s also loving preparing for his stunts and fight scenes, though he admits he’d be no match for Craig in real life.
“He’s too good, he’s scary,” he acknowledges. “The thing is, he’s so funny in real life, sometimes you feel that, shit, maybe I should have done a funny Bond, because he wants to make jokes, but he can’t, he’s playing a broken heart now.” Because of you? “Well…” Amalric smiles, obviously au fait with the Bond code of silence.
So no regrets that doing a Bond movie will take him even further away from his original plans (Amalric had to postpone shooting his long-planned film about American burlesque dancers travelling through France)? Fortunately he could ask the advice of his Munich and Heartbeat Detector co-star Michael Lonsdale, who played the Bond villain of 1979’s Moonraker.
“I asked him did it change your life, could you walk in the street afterwards, was it too hard,” he relates. “But he said, don’t worry, people will just spit on you and say you’re a traitor, but in fact they’re jealous. And of course as an artist you always have to be where you’re not supposed to be.”
Suddenly Mathieu Amalric’s career makes perfect sense.
Heartbeat Detector is out May 16th. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is out on DVD on June 9th.