Having swerved some English-speaking roles, French actor Romain Duris tells Siobhan Synnot why there’s no place like home when it comes to his film choices
ROMAIN Duris doesn’t see himself as a big deal, but interviewing France’s plat du jour requires a pretty big room. Slightly built, 5ft 9ins tall, and wearing the skinniest of skinny suits, Duris barely takes up any space at all but it’s getting crowded in our all-white London hotel room. Perched alongside us on the sofa is a translator, to help Duris flit between English and French, but the real bulk comes from the French camera crew who have asked to film this ménage a trois. They’ve been around all day apparently, keen to capture the breakout of one of France’s most popular stars. In his homeland, 38-year-old Duris is as recognisable as Jean Dujardin, Audrey Tautou, and Vincent Cassel but his name still draws a blank from the average English-speaking movie-goer.
Populaire may help change that. It’s produced by the Wild Bunch, the team behind The Artist, who are gunning to make French films globally appealing. Their latest film, which opened the Glasgow Film Festival, paw-swipes forward-looking and backward-thinking attitudes to embryonic feminism in the 1950s. Duris plays a straight-arrow boss who discovers his hopeless secretary (Déborah François) has one strength: her typing speed. Duris becomes her coach and trainer for typing competitions. “It is Rocky with typewriters,” says Duris. Well, it’s not really, but it is an appealing bit of froth which should please anyone who recalls Duris in Heartbreaker, as a professional lothario who promises wealthy clients that he can steal any woman from a husband, fiancé or boyfriend by sweeping them off their feet. “They see me as a cool seducer in comedies,” says Duris. “Despite the fact that I’m not cool.”
Even the translator looks sceptical as she repeats this because, with his feral cheekboned scruff and jutting jaw, Duris has a little of Mick Jagger’s louche rock star vibe, which he even carries off in Heartbreaker when recreating Dirty Dancing’s climactic dance scene for a client who adores Patrick Swayze. Duris is the youngest son of an architect father and a dancer mother; a talent scout was so struck by his looks when the 19-year-old Duris passed him in the street that he was offered a screen test on the spot. He turned it down, saying he already had a job lined up for the summer, delivering pizza. His friends persuaded him to change his mind. “I hadn’t thought about acting,” he says, but his sardonic look brought him a role in Le Peril Jeune, sparking a long partnership with its director Cédric Klapisch, and a string of broody bad boy roles throughout his twenties.
For a long time he resisted comedy, despite being an arthouse hit as a young debt-ridden Molière in a costume romp in much the same vein as Shakespeare In Love. “I was a little afraid,” he says. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a formulaic comedy so I have to be involved so I know where it is going. Sometimes you read a script and you don’t know how it will turn out.”
For Populaire, he drew on American comedies of the 1950s with James Stewart and Cary Grant. “I watched French movies – Carné, Chabrol – too. My character is not a Parisian sophisticate. He’s from the provinces, and they were more reserved than the inhabitants of the capital. The difference still exists. I liked the era – the clothes, colourful dresses, furniture, design. Also the cigarettes you could smoke at work. It was a fun time, apart from the status of women obviously.”
Duris spends a lot of time thinking about character, partly to compensate for a lack of formal dramatic training. “I could not trust directors for a long time because I didn’t have any rules as an actor. I’m not Method, and I don’t like to analyse what I do too much because it feels too fragile. I can’t watch myself on screen, I always doubt myself.” He’s also very sensitive about stereotypes. “They want a French lover,” he says in accented English and with an expressive eye roll. “They think I can be charmante.”
He resisted English-speaking film after a couple of ill-starred experiences. He had a small role alongside Kate Hudson and Naomi Watts in a comedy, Le Divorce, and played a bohemian filmmaker in Roman Coppola’s sci-fi fantasy CQ. However he enjoyed working with John Malkovich in a movie called Afterwards, and proved that he could get through lines phonetically, if not fluently.
He also auditioned for the role of the villain for an English-speaking action blockbuster. “They wanted me to work on improving my English, and I was already very busy and there was a film in France that I wanted to make. I wasn’t afraid of working in another language but there wasn’t enough time to learn the words and find the rhythms. So I said no.” Casino Royale went with Mads Mikkelsen instead. “I have no regrets,” says Duris. “He did a great job – but I think I would have been good too.”
Instead he stayed home and enjoyed his breakthrough role in 2005 in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, directed by Jacques Audiard. Duris played a thug torn between inheriting his father’s criminal set-up or becoming a concert pianist, and won a Cesar for best actor. He took lessons in piano playing from his older sister Caroline, who is a concert pianist, and kept himself sleep-deprived for much of the shoot to give his character a desperate edge. He loves preparation, he says. Madonna approached him to appear in her film about Wallis Simpson, WE, and sent him pages and pages of notes. “I loved that,” he said. “If I had a question, I would email her and she would send me such long, long answers. Very detailed. I respected her hard work, and that she was very serious about making this film.” But in the end he turned down Madonna? He smiles toothily. “Oh yes.”
The camera crew love this, but being the focus of interviews still discomfits Duris. When he first became famous in France, he got fed up of being stared at in the Metro, and bought himself a scooter to get around town, hidden under a helmet. After The Beat That My Heart Skipped, he shaved his head to put some distance between himself and his Byronic moppy new heartthrob status.
When he’s not working he stays away from TV and film, preferring to watch sport or hole up in his studio painting. “Animalistic!” he says, sketching a sweeping brush. “I do people making love in big landscapes.” He also has a four-year-old son, Luigi, with his long-term partner Olivia Bonamy, and enjoys spending time with him, although his son is beginning to pick up that when they are out in public, a walk will frequently be interrupted by people wanting to stop and talk to his father “and he finds this very, very boring. People do not understand that when you work in a profession where you are often naked, you want to keep the rest for yourself. But I’m not complaining. It’s OK.” «
• Populaire is in cinemas from 31 May