Looking deeply, I don't think I was made for acting. Looking deeply, I have no vocation. It's not something I would've done. I'm sure of that.
French filmmaker Nicolas Pariser’s debut feature, The Great Game, parachutes burnt-out novelist Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud) onto a political chessboard with the corridors of power and a group of ultra-left extremists at opposing sides. Loosely set against the “Tarnac Nine” affair—a 2008 incident in which nine back-to-the-farm anarchists were arrested over anti-state terrorist claims in Tarnac, France—The Great Game is anti-spectacle, rather quietly navigating the portrait of a forty-something man recalling the faded revolutionary delusions of his youth. Divorced, out of work, broke and alone, Pierre lives in a Parisian garret with a blasé scorn for the world that doesn’t even spare his ex-wife. This state of limbo is disturbed when Joseph Paskin (André Dussollier), a charismatic but scheming government high-up, tempts Pierre into ghostwriting a radical tome designed to disrupt the country’s balance of power and transform the landscape of public opinion.
As for Poupaud’s own debut, the seasoned French actor appeared in Raoul Ruiz’s The City of Pirates at the age of nine. By the Chilean filmmaker’s passing in 2011, they had embarked on a creative partnership spanning nearly three decades. At 43, Poupaud has also worked under the guidance of a dizzingly diverse palette of directors like Jacques Doillon, Éric Rohmer, James Ivory, the Wachowski Brothers, François Ozon, Xavier Dolan, Arnaud Desplechin, and Angelina Jolie.
The Great Game made its U.S. premiere at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in NYC.
Are you enjoying your time in New York City?
I always enjoy New York City. I have friends living here now. Just walking down the streets, going to bars and places, is fascinating. I’m here with Nicolas Pariser, the director of The Great Game, who hadn’t been back since ’94. It’s a great opportunity for him to return with this movie.
Do you enjoy watching one of your movies with an audience?
No, not really. I’ve seen the movie twice and that’s enough for me. But I was surprised because the theater was packed and full of American people. I just watched the first scene and people were laughing. We could instantly feel that they were into the movie. It was very encouraging.
So how did you and Nicolas first meet? What did those early conversations look like?
I met Nicolas a long time ago, actually, because he was a film critic. I believe he did his first interview with me when we were 25 or something like that. From that I discovered he was a great cinephile and crazy about films since his childhood. He was also working with this producer who’s not famous but very important in France. I could feel that passion with Nicolas. It took him three years to finish writing The Great Game. I knew Nicolas would be precise in his demands, I loved the references he gave me whenever we talked about a movie or an actor, and we agreed instantly about the look of the film and the inspiration for my character. It was very reassuring to me, even though this is his first feature, to have someone who’s mastering cinema in a way because he’s such a cinephile. And we’re still on the same page. I think we’ll make another movie together.
This being his first feature really didn’t bother you at all?
Not really, because I knew I would be working with André Dussollier. I knew he was perfect for the part and it would be a pleasure to work with him. Although we had very long scenes with 20 pages of text sometimes, I knew it would be reassuring to have André there. And that was the case. From the first day when we shared a scene together, we instantly didn’t want to rehearse and filmed right away. It was going very well. I could feel that he was well-prepared, listening to me, and looking at me for real. He was very generous. Also, the script was very well-written. The thriller aspect with all of its intricacies was easy to follow. The more [Éric] Rohmer-like scenes where a character starts talking about himself and his ideas about life were very well-written as well. I liked this duality of the movie being the thriller and the more traditional French romance.
The “Tarnac Nine” incident serves as a backdrop, although it plays a largely peripheral role in the film. Are you heavily into politics yourself? Is it ever a source of great agitation?
Actually, no. [Laughs] I’ve been criticized in France for saying that I don’t vote on the radio. People told me it’s “nasty” to not vote, but I told the truth. The truth is that no politician in France gave me the will or reason to vote. I’m getting more and more into politics now, especially thanks to The Great Game. Since I’m talking about specific books and making references, I had to read those books written by the “Invisible Committee” and more ancient ones dealing with anthropology. I didn’t want to be a puppet reciting text. I want to know what I’m talking about.
Since you brought up Rohmer, someone Nicolas studied under and you’ve certainly worked with him, do you see similarities in their approach to filmmaking?
No, I wouldn’t say that. I think Rohmer was an inspiration for Nicolas in his love of cinema. The way Nicolas writes dialogue can sometimes sound like Rohmer a little bit, especially in that long countryside scene between Clémence Poésy and my character. I guess there’s a tone that’s very close to Rohmer. The way Rohmer worked was very special and almost artisinal. There were very few people on the crew for A Summer’s Tale, he initiated the travel and he made the sandwiches himself, so it was like a small family making a summer vacation movie. I think Nicolas’ ambition is more traditional and romanesque. All movies that claim to be close to Rohmer and pretend to be in the Rohmer style will fail because it’s so specific and so different. Only Rohmer can make those films ring true. If you copy his style, it will probably run out very stupid and cheesy.
You started acting at 9. What did it mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?
When I was a child, it didn’t mean anything. I was making movies with Raoul Ruiz who was a fantastic director and very special in his own way. He was crazy in a way. There was no script. I didn’t understand how to communicate the dialogue. I had no character. I would be there in front of the camera and Raoul would say, do this, do that, cut the throat of this man, shoot this guy in the balls… [Laughs] It was crazy for a child. I was lost, but in a good way because it was fantasy and I loved it. I was on this adventure with pirates, treasure, and magic. It was the best experience of my life. But it had nothing to do with real acting or even the understanding of what it means to make a movie. As an actor, it was always very disorienting to work with Raoul because he didn’t want you to get it. He wanted the actors to get lost and he would use that. He drops you into a labrynth.
The moment I understood more about acting was when I did a movie with Jacques Doillon. He was very different. We would do 30 to 50 very long takes sometimes with a lot of dialogue, intimate scenes, and a bit of hysteria that was very psychological. It was a big transition for me to go from Raoul’s world of magic and fantasy to the realism of French drama. I was a bit shocked because I had to deal with my own emotions. There were scenes where I would cry and he made me redo it 50 times. It was almost like torture sometimes. So I started with the good side of cinema—fun and adventurous—and the next experience was more painful. But painful in the way actors have to be ready to cry, to shout, and do whatever the director has in mind. Through all those years, all those movies, and working with different kinds of directors, I feel much more confident and much more willing to collaborate. I’m much more supple. I think I enjoy it more and more, actually.
Do you think you would’ve ran away from acting had you seen the painful side of it first?
Oh yes, for sure. I started acting because my mother did PR for Raoul in the 80s, and I was already surrounded by the film community. Looking deeply, I don’t think I was made for acting. It was a chance for me and I was lucky that I kept making movies. Looking deeply, I have no vocation. It’s not something I would’ve done. I’m sure of that. I don’t like to be on stage. I don’t like talking in front of people. I don’t like to make jokes. This is a cliché maybe but I know actors that want to be the center of attention wherever they are. They want people to look at them. They’re happy when people are fascinated by what they say or what they do. I hate that. I’m much more shy. It’s different when you have a character that you’re playing in front of the camera because you hide behind that character. More and more, I want my characters to be strong enough that I can hide behind them. The star system and all that shit—I don’t buy it. I’ve never been into that.
Do you still get surprised when you’re working on a movie?
Absolutely. I try to choose movies that will give me an experience. I did a movie in Bulgaria with only non-actors like gypsies and a real gangster. The main actress was a 15-year-old girl who hadn’t seen a movie. She didn’t know shit about cinema. It was very surprising and very touching to see her understand what it is to feel those emotions in front of the camera and transform into an actress. I did a movie in China called The Lady in the Portrait with Fan Bingbing, who’s a megastar there. I learned and acted in Mandarin. It was magical working together because she didn’t speak French and we had no other way of understanding each other. I wrote a book about that shoot, which will come out in September in France. It’s about that crazy shoot, the craziness of acting in another language, and most of all, the craziness of acting in general. I’m always surprised.
I’m curious about the memorable things you end up taking away from these experiences. What do you remember from working on Laurence Anyways, for example?
This movie was so crazy. I wasn’t supposed to play Laurence at first. I was supposed to have a small part in that film. But ten days before we started shooting, Xavier told me he wanted me to be Laurence. Of course, I was very happy because I loved the script. I had thought I could be Laurence from the start. From there, it was six months of craziness because Xavier is crazy in the best way imaginable. He was 21 when we started filming and he was already one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. I could sense that he had everything in his mind: every shot, all the music, every detail down to my costume, and every line. He also acts, so he could’ve played every character in the movie himself. I was immersed in his world. I had never been to Montreal before. He was working with all of his friends. In fact, he wrote this movie for Suzanne Clément, so I had to deal with the deep closeness they already had for each other. Every day was crazy and challenging. I had to transform into a woman. He almost shaved me himself… [Laughs]
The thing I remember most is the energy, enthusiasm, and passion of this young director giving his all every day. I haven’t seen him for a while, but at the time, he believed he wouldn’t live long. He was giving it his all every day, thinking that maybe tomorrow he’ll be dead. Hopefully he wasn’t going to die and make very good movies, but he had that juvenile, poetic, and romantic energy.
When you do form those close relationships on a shoot with your co-stars, your director and whatnot, does that make your job as an actor more difficult or maybe easier?
That’s a tricky question. It’s a very subtle relationship that you need to have with your director. If you’re too close, it’s not good. If you dislike the director, it’s not good because you won’t want to give him everything you have. When I did movies with Raoul, it wasn’t my best work because he knew too much about me and I couldn’t allow myself to fully transform. It’s a very complex relationship. When a director looks at you, it shouldn’t be too seductive because then you feel uneasy, especially working with women. It happens with men, too. But if you feel too much sexual tension, for instance, it can make you feel like you can do whatever you want and overact. It’s a very, very strange relationship that should be analyzed at some point, I guess. This could be the subject of a next book. Also, sometimes you get very close to a director where he no longer hires you. He doesn’t think about you anymore as an actor, but as a friend. That can be disappointing.
Looking back at your extensive body of work, are you able pick out a film that you maybe chose impulsively and another one where you were extra cautious before committing to it?
Actually, it’s very rare to be impulsively attracted to a movie from my point of view. I usually agree to do movies because I have to work or think it might be good. At the last minute I’m always like, “Why did I say yes? I shouldn’t do it. I regret it.” It happened with Rohmer. I knew I had to do it and everybody told me it was a great opportunity. But I didn’t like his movies when I was 22. I was more into rock and roll, and things like that. So the day before I was supposed to go to this little town with this old guy to make his old-style movie, I was very depressed. It happened with Nicolas, too. I thought there was too much dialogue. I thought I would never be able to do these ten-minute scenes. But that’s a constant dilemma. Sometimes it’s also a way to protect yourself. It’s so strange what happens in your mind when you’re acting, when you’re about to act, or about to accept a role and trying to remember why you chose to do the part. It’s too complex.
Do you think you’re very easy to work with?
I think I’m the easiest actor to work with in the world. I always try to do my best to please the director. I’m serious. I have too much respect for the director, the crew, cinema, and to my partners to be capricious. And because I started out when I was a child, I was often the only kid around adults. I was very disciplined. I’m well-educated. I think I’m really easy. I would be curious if you find someone who says something different about me. [Laughs] If you do, please let me know.
It wouldn’t even cross my mind to ask someone else that question about you.
I probably wouldn’t know how honest they are. I asked you because you’re very candid.
It’s hard to imagine someone saying something different. I’ve worked with bad actors, those actors that behave like bastards on set. But it’s rare. Also, even with those people, they’re not too crazy.
You have another film on the way called Victoria. When’s that one coming out?
I’m doing ADR when I get back to Paris. They’re shooting for Cannes and the movie should come out in September. I think it’s a very special comedy, a bit crazier than the average French comedy.