Gérard Depardieu

An interview with a man who inhabits the French imagination

First published in Interview, 1990

The French greet the arrival of the latest Gérard Depardieu movie with the same unflagging enthusiasm for the inevitable that they reserve for the asparagus harvest. Mouths water, lines form, and the francs flow. Depardieu, who has just completed what, by his tally, is his eighty-seventh movie – Bertrand Blier’s Merci la Vie,which the star casually describes as “a mix of AIDS and Nazis” – is far and away France’s biggest box-office draw. From his first success in 1974, in Blier’s Les Valseuses (Going Places), a picaresque story not unlike that of Depardieu own adolescence as a runaway, the large, shambling actor from Châteauroux has swept away all his competitors with a performance stamina that borders on the pathological. If you land in France and fail to find a first-run Depardieu movie playing, check out live theater: he’s probably taking Paris by storm, as he did recently in a production of Molière’s Tartuffe. Adding to the aura of professional ubiquity are the stories of Depardieu the hellion. Married for more than twenty years and a father of two, he is nonetheless one of France’s favorite wild men. Along with his impaired-driving conviction, Depardieu lore consists of outbursts of generosity, binges of epic proportions, and adventures of the unchained libido. Small wonder that the man who sat down with me in Los Angeles in September spoke familiarly of Rabelais and boasted that “winemaker” is the occupation listed on his passport.

Depardieu, quite simply, inhabits the French imagination. In the last decade his amiable hulk has convincingly slipped beneath the skin of George-Jacques Danton, Martin Guerre, Jean de Florette, Auguste Rodin, and, now, Cyrano de Bergerac. His portrayal of the grotesque, silver-tongued soldier-poet in Jean-Paul Rappenau’s film of Rostand’s famous verse play won Depardieu the Best Actor award at Cannes this year. He has since made his English-language debut in Peter Weir’s Green Card, a romantic comedy (co-starring Andie MacDowell) about the tribulations of an illegal French immigrant in New York. We discussed some of Depardieu’s experiences on a Sunday morning over breakfast. The menu consisted of four glasses of wine apiece and a bowl of cashews.

Stephen O’Shea   Why was there such a Cyrano craze last year in France? There was your movie and Jean-Paul Belmondo in the role onstage.

Gérard Depardieu   Belmondo’s still at it.

SOS   But why Cyrano? Isn’t it a little corny?

GD   I’ll admit that I don’t like the original play very much. It works well onscreen because we dusted it off and adapted it a bit. Onstage there’s a lot of repetition, a lot of very outdated material.

SOS   Wasn’t it already outdated when it was written? By turn-of-the-century standards…

GD   The role was first created in 1897, by Coquelin. Sure, it’s dated, but its language is absolutely sumptuous. It was a pleasure playing Cyrano – you have the impression that you’re playing a musical instrument. All texts, in the end, are beautiful. Unfortunately, in the movies a good text is becoming a rarity. That’s why I look for young authors and push them to write scripts rather than dream up images.

SOS   So Cyrano was a role you’ve always wanted to play?

GD   Not at all. Cyrano’s one of those roles you think you know but you really don’t know at all. There are a lot of characters like that – Macbeth, Hamlet. Actually, Hamlet bores the shit out of me. He’s such a little intellectual. Give me Macbeth any day – at least he’s got a real problem with God. But since I don’t like Hamlet, maybe I could play him well. Sometimes when you like a part too much you try to put too much into it, and that’s not good. So I never really thought about Cyrano; I never really wanted to do him – which is why I went for it when I was asked to play him. With a text like Cyrano, or even the most conventional text, it’s always agreeable to have something to say.

SOS   Words count, not pictures?

GD   Images bother me a lot. We have a big problem with that in France, because the new generation of directors can’t even write a decent script. Luc Besson’s The Big Blue was a catastrophe, with that stupid diving sequence. Then there’s the little [Jean-Jacques] Beineix and his Betty Blue – that was worth watching for about five minutes. And [Léos] Carax! He’s way too much of an aesthete.

SOS   What’s wrong with that?

GD   It’s boring! What’s worse, he doesn’t have the balls to go all the way with his aesthete take on things. French cinema is in such a bad way because there are no great films being made. Of the 130 films that are made in France every year, maybe four or five are exportable. The rest is crap. And then there’s another problem: there are no good young actors.

SOS   How can you say that?!

GD   Because French actors are stuck on themselves. They have a sort of egomania that’s even worse than the one over here. At least in America you see a whole load of working actors, a movie industry that is exciting even if they go overboard with special effects. Of the four or five hundred movies they make, there are more than a few good ones. In France, most movies couldn’t even stand up to a bad American television show.

SOS   Still, there’s the Old Guard, like Chabrol –

GD   Chabrol?! He’s boring. There’s Maurice Pialat, Godard, Resnais… A lot of the old guys are younger than the young directors. Pialat is a genius. And there’s Blier, of course.

SOS   Why do you think young French actors are such egomaniacs?

GD  Because they get big heads from all the media attention. The media raises them up too high, even if they’re lightweights. They demand sums of money that I’m not even paid most of the time. It’s sad to say, but this new generation is a generation of sheep. They sit around waiting for things to happen. A film is something you have to make happen yourself; you have to give it a good kick in the butt. I’ve been trying for three years to do something about Balzac. I went out and found the screenwriter, the financing, the whole deal. That’s what you have to do. You have to bust your ass.

SOS  What about French theater?

GD   You ask a young actor nowadays to recite a line, and he won’t know how to do it. Only the English can do it properly. English actors are geniuses onstage. I think they’re the best in the world. France used to have wonderful actors, but not any more. Now it’s just crap, because they’re all egomaniacs and they’re petty. They strain for hours to shit a tiny turd! What ever happened to the great shits of yesteryear?

SOS   What do you think of American actors? How do they shit?

GD   I think they’re very good but they’re warped by television. I mean, they’re all so clean-cut. On TV everyone’s so perfect, with every hair in place. In American movies it’s the same thing – otherwise the public won’t go and see the film. It’s all a bit dull, except for a few great directors like Scorsese, Lynch, and Woody Allen. The biggest problem over here is not the actors but the goddamn censorship; the movies are ridiculously puritanical. It’s tough on artists. In most American movies, the amount of puritanism and lying is absolutely disgusting. Still, some people are daring, especially the young directors in New York. I thoughtsex, lies, and videotape was brilliant. But in general, American cinema is pretty poor. Behind the big idiotic machine out there, there aren’t a lot of ideas.

SOS   You don’t like the industry out here in Hollywood. Is it too businesslike?

GD   I’ve been going around with Peter Weir to see the majors. Talk about tough! But at the same time I think it’s good to be tough like that. Once you’ve got an ass to shit with and a prick to get a hard-on with, you need someone to hold you back a bit. You understand?

SOS   Not really.

GD   If you’re too much, if you’re really out there, you’ve got no problems. You’ll always manage to do more than they want you to. The problem is that every pathetic little director – and most of them are pathetic – takes himself so seriously.

SOS   So you think movie people are spoiled brats.

GD   Yes, on the whole. Except for people who perform in plays from time to time. The theater brings out a certain sort of discipline and humility. You can be an egomaniac one night and you can screw up the next.

SOS   It seems as if you’re more comfortable in the theater.

GD   Let’s just say I’m very respectful of a good text. I hate any sort of improvisation. I respect a text, right down to the punctuation. Every last comma of it.

SOS   You sound obsessed. Where do you think that comes from?

GD   I think it’s because I once lost the power of speech. From about age twelve to sixteen I started losing my words. I was such a mess that my words started crashing into each other and made no sense. Because I was alone, I lost my speech. I couldn’t finish a sentence; I was completely incoherent. It was only the words and texts of others that helped me back to a vocabulary. It happened when I was on the road.

SOS   You hit the road when you were twelve?

GD   I left home when I was still a kid because I wanted to see the sea. I felt better on the road. I hitched all over France; I went wherever I was taken. All I wanted to do was meet people, see a bit of life. And I saw queens, dykes, S&M, weirdos, space cases, everything. And I started lying like crazy. I told people what they wanted to hear. When you get into a stranger’s car, you’ve really got to pour it on.

SOS   Right. You’ve got to tell them their car is hot.

GD   Exactly!

SOS   Do you regret not staying in school?

GD   Yes. I would have like to have had a religious education. I wanted to be locked up in a Catholic boarding school. But they didn’t want me; they shooed me away. But I really would have liked a formal education. With the priests. I looked so hard for God or for some sort of interlocutor. I never got over it. The theater eventually became my religion. Catholicism is very strange, because it’s a religion that forgives, that absolves. But it’s so twisted, with its seven deadly sins and all that. So I became a Muslim for two years, from fifteen to seventeen.

SOS   You were a Muslim?!

GD   I have a mystical side, you know.

SOS   Did you go to the mosque?

GD   Yes. I thought it was a beautiful religion. It takes good care of the poor. Islam is one of the few religions that lets you talk to God casually. Once you admit your sin, you say to God, “O.K., I’ll take care of it.” You talk to God all the time.

SOS   So why did you drop it?

GD   My wife. She told me that a guy who doesn’t drink and who doesn’t eat pork just because he’s a Muslim is a real dud. I said, “You know, you’re absolutely right.”

SOS   That was a pretty easy out! It sounds to me like you were completely lost.

GD   I still am! I’m proud of it! I’m not sure about anything. Nothing makes me feel better than when I have lots of things to do. To have my route all traced out would drive me to despair.

SOS   So you’ll never work at the post office?

GD   No, I have another dream. It’s not a dream of possession; it’s a dream of freedom. The moment I feel captive to a job or to a contract, I lose interest in it. I’ve always managed to stay free, because it’s only through freedom that I can best express myself. And the struggle to remain free makes me go around obstacles, makes me take other avenues. It’s on these other roads and detours that you find freedom.

SOS   But what is it that you want to express?

GD   The please of taste, the pleasure of time. Pleasure. And desire. I think we’re losing the notion of pleasure and desire.

SOS   You’ve said that you take your own pleasure in language. It must have been frustrating to act in English in Green Card.

GD   No, I like the challenges. I like to be able to blush at my own stupidity, at what I don’t know how to do. I’d go into a deli in New York and I’d say to myself, God, I’m such an asshole! It was like being in front of a piano and not knowing how to play it. You’re there with your big fists and you smash down on the keyboard like a jerk. So I had to copy, to listen. That was good because it takes you back to childhood. And Andie MacDowell was magnificent. I love women who laugh. Andie has a lovely laugh. I don’t like women who work, I like women who laugh. Catherine Deneuve has a nice laugh. Carole Bouquet has a beautiful laugh. Andie’s is superb. They’re discreet; they have a private life. They stand up against all the bullshit. I’m in very good company when I’m with them. There’s no call to seduce each other. I think the relationship between male actors is far more sexual than the one between an actor and actress. For one thing, there’s no competition between a man and a woman – but between actors there’s a hellish competition. They come on to each other so that one guy can screw over the other guy. I’ve never had a problem that way with a woman &emdash; or with a man, because I hate that sort of infighting. I don’t like to put myself first. Like, with Ménage, every actor was scared of the role. One actor told me, “I’ve got to think of my fans. What would they say if you fucked me?” So I said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll just rewrite it and you can fuck me!” In the end Michel Blanc took the part, and he won Best Actor at Cannes. You know, the most macho guy can snap one day. So much the better. But actors are stuck in this phony seduction game. They’re afraid.

SOS   Would you rather be an actress?

GD   I think so. In fact, anytime I’m acting, I play with my feminine side. I’m much more open when I think as a woman than when I think as a man. Men are good only for going off to war, the idiots. I prefer to stay at home and do a bit of cooking.

SOS  Do you think women are more complicated than men?

GD   They’re more complicated when you’re not honest with them. Women are laughter, passion, patience, love; they’re superb. Most men are dull. I don’t know any great film director who doesn’t have a certain femininity. When people call Blier misogynistic, that’s when you know it’s a word invented by machos. Women love Blier’s films. They can like being treated like a scullery maid. Women can be masochists, just as actors have to be. The only difference is that most actors don’t know they are. I do and I love it! I’m a masochist for life.

SOS   So your character in Too Beautiful For You was not so far off the mark.

GD   I sold the script to a major and they’re going to adapt it as a comedy. I don’t think it’s a comedy at all. Middle age is tragic. If you’re in your forties and you’ve been married to the same women for twenty years, you just can’t go on. If you’re the slightest bit of an artist or creator, you have to keep moving.

SOS   To escape the monotony?

GD   Absolutely, if only to love more. To discover more, you have to go elsewhere.

SOS   You say you want to be an actress, yet a lot of actresses complain that there aren’t many good roles for them.

GD   Then they should go out and create them, dammit! Look at what Isabelle Adjani did: she wanted to play Camille Claudel, so she went out and got the whole thing together! A film is easy: you get two or three people together and you go wild. You’ve got to make everything explode! You don’t just jerk off on a lens. Sure it’s difficult to think a film through; I don’t have the patience. But I can spot the craziness in people and help them take off.

SOS  Like Anne Brochet, Roxane to your Cyrano?

GD   She’s superb. She’s like Roxane; she has the sensuality of words. A woman who searches for the soul through words is magnificent, sumptuous, exciting. Especially now, when people barely talk to each other.

SOS   She was luminous as Roxane.

GD   Yes, she’s very beautiful. But she has some problems. I told her to watch out and not get too wrapped up in herself. We’re all a little that way, but I said to her, “Don’t expect anything from other people. If you want to play a part, do it. Propose movies.” She could play Camille to perfection. It’s a superb part. A woman who is gasping for breath and who wants just one thing: screw, screw, screw until she dies. But Anne’s like Isabelle.

SOS  Adjani? How so?

GD   Isabelle’s too hooked on her own destiny. There are people like that: destiny junkies. But destinies are always tragic. They’re dizzying to think about, but it’s another thing to live one.

SOS  How about your own destiny?

GD  I’m at a delicate age. I’m volatile, as they say of wine when it’s in danger of turning into vinegar. I have the temperament of a wild man; I’m capable of doing anything. But it’s not out of anger toward others, it’s an anger toward oneself. A total abjection which brings on masochism: you’re never in agreement with yourself. So I’m the opposite of an egomaniac but I’m still a pain in the ass. Being so angry at yourself is also showing too much interest in yourself. It’s only when I can help an actor or encourage an author that I find any real peace. Giving gives me pleasure – but I suppose everyone’s like that. I like people.

SOS  Don’t you hate them just a little?

GD  I can say cruel things, but, no, I like people, even when they’re annoying. I like them. Truly.