Interview: Christopher Lambert, actor

UNLESS you have been to a video store recently, you might have been wondering what happened to Christopher Lambert.

• Christopher Lambert as Connor MacLeod in Highlander. Picture: AFP/Getty

After hitting paydirt with the smash Highlander, in 1986, a series of flops (including three Highlander sequels) seemed to exhaust the kudos Lambert had garnered from his Cesar-winning performance in Luc Besson's Subway, and his international breakthrough as Tarzan in Greystoke, leading Lambert gradually towards direct-to-video hell.

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What a surprise, then, to now find him starring opposite Isabelle Huppert in an unsettling post-colonial drama, White Material, co-written and directed by the acclaimed provocatrix of French art house cinema, Claire Denis.

To be fair, Lambert doesn't entirely seem to believe it himself - not least because Denis approached him. Dressed in jeans, a crisp shirt and trainers, and nursing a pack of Marlboro, he says they met at his agent's office and she asked him to appear in her next film. Easy as that. It did not faze him that there was no script, just a story outline: as an admirer of Denis's uncompromising style since her 1988 feature debut, Chocolat, he would have appeared in anything she was directing.

"Her mind works completely differently than the directors I have been working with," he says, "and she is a woman with no concessions. She goes all the way and she is not politically correct. Basically, it's you like it, you love it, you hate it, and that's what matters: nobody will leave this movie being indifferent."

Crucially, Denis was able to see that there was more to Lambert than the type of work he has been doing for the last 20 years. Or at least the kind of work we know him for, because he has actually been trying to move beyond genre films, as Christophe Lambert, on the other side of the Channel, for the last three or four years. Even so, the kind of approach he received from Denis has, he says, been "pretty rare because people have a tendency of not having enough imagination to see things completely different in an actor, or in somebody who's been impersonating action heroes or cops in a thriller, and I think most of the time it's sad."

Lambert blames himself, to some extent. After Highlander, he says, "I cornered myself a little into the action genre, because it became such a huge movie." Even now, almost 25 years later, he says, kids come up and tell him they love his character, Connor MacLeod. But he's not complaining: "I'm proud of the movie," he insists. "It was shockingly new." Consequently, he did not mind being associated with the fantasy/action genre. At least not at the time. "Now I don't want to feel cornered as an actor," he says, "because I've got a wider range than that. Even somebody like Sylvester Stallone, when he did Cop Land, proved he could do something else, without forgetting the most famous movie he ever made was Rocky."

He more than proves his point in White Material, bringing sensitivity and vulnerability to his portrayal of the owner of an African coffee plantation who tries desperately to convince his ex-wife (Huppert) that they must abandon their land, or die, when the country erupts in civil war.

Lambert understood instinctively how "heartbreaking" it would feel to be forced from a place you know, and where you felt comfortable, because, "on a human level, on a feeling level, [I had done that] many times by changing schools, by changing friends, by having to adapt myself without anybody asking me if I was happy with it. So that was something I understood about the character and the urgency, the lack of choice that he has."

Unlike his character, the actor has never felt rooted. He was born in Great Neck, New York, to a French diplomat father, and raised in Geneva. When he was 18 he moved to London, then Paris, then Italy. "So I was constantly, and I am still constantly, moving," he says, explaining that he lives between Paris, home to his partner, French actress Sophie Marceau; Los Angeles, home to his 16-year-old daughter, Eleonora, from his first marriage, to the American actress Diane Lane; and Geneva. "My main place is in Switzerland, but I live on a plane, really."

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His childhood has instilled a kind of restlessness in him, and he loves to move. If there is a downside it is that "sometimes you never know what foot you're standing on". He often worries that he mightn't be spending enough time with each of the people he cares about, but "strongly believes [that] there is one rule in life: you cannot have everything".

That said, Lambert has come pretty close. Thanks to his film work and other business interests, such as a winery in Provence, the self-confessed workaholic has the financial wherewithal to spend a whole year with his daughter if he wanted to - "I don't need to work" - and would, if she "desperately" needed him. "But making a movie is stronger. It's a need. It's like a drug."

He got hooked, he says, when he performed in a play "within the family", aged 12. "I loved the applause at the end and thought finally, maybe, somebody is recognising something good about me. I just thought, ‘I want to have that feeling again'." So he just wanted to be loved? "Maybe. But who doesn't?"

If Lambert's life today seems enviable, he does not take it for granted. He learned early on, attending an international school in Switzerland with pupils from 25 countries, that not everyone is the same or has the same advantages. It is a lesson that he has tried to pass on to his daughter. "I get my kid to Guatemala. I get my kid to Africa. I get my kid to go and build houses in Central America. I get my kid to help farmers in Africa. I did that when she was 12 and 13 and 14, and it's a shock. But it's a useful shock." Did he make her go? "I don't think it's through imposition that you get results," he says. "If she had said no, I would never have forced her."

The point, he believes, is that it is not enough just to see things on the internet or on television - you have to experience them first hand. "That's when you learn that you're lucky to have a cellphone. That you're lucky to have a TV. That you're lucky to have someone who's cleaning the house for you.

"And most of important of all, you learn to respect that luck. It doesn't mean you have to feel bad about it. If you're lucky enough to be raised in a rich family, good. But learn how to respect that luck. It's not a given, you know? It's not like, ‘Well, it's normal'. No, it's not normal. It's lucky."

Lambert certainly had cause to feel lucky when he travelled to Africa to make White Material, and not just because he was working with Denis and Huppert. Revisiting the area where he was based while shooting Greystoke, he realised nothing had changed since the mid-1980s. "It was the same battered road, the same unfinished buildings, the same ‘misery' for the same people," he says darkly. "The rich had clean water and electricity. But the basic life of the average human being was exactly the same as it was 25 years ago."

The trip for White Material did more than just remind Lambert how privileged he is, though: it resulted in a performance that has earned him some of his best notices in France since Subway and Paroles et Musique, more than 20 years ago. Could this be the beginning of a renaissance? One thing for sure is that fail or succeed, kicking the acting habit is the last thing on his mind.

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"I need it on a mental level. I need it because I believe being an actor is what I was meant to do. It's like a sailor who's got the spell of the ocean," he says.

"I never understood how a guy can spend six months alone on a boat. They have wives, they have kids. But if you ask these people why they do it, they say, ‘Because it's my life.' It's the spell. And it's the same for me."

lWhite Material is in cinemas from Friday