Mathieu Amalric is a man with the apparently limitless capacity to be exhaustingly profound. He does extreme thought like other people do extreme sports, so that he turns a simple question into an exercise in philosophical abstraction. “How come I became an actor?” he muses, eyes gazing into the mid-distance, head tilted quizzically to one side. “I was so shy. I still am afraid. I always think I’m not going to be able to do it. How can I learn these lines? How is the brain connected to the tongue? It’s a miracle.” I nod. He smiles benignly, rather like, I imagine, Socrates might smile at Victoria Beckham. Sometimes talking to Amalric can feel a bit like being in an earnest postgraduate discussion group pondering the meaning of it all.
As an actor, too, he remains an enigma. He has a semi-recognizable face but, for the past few years, has contented himself with carving out a niche in critically acclaimed, independent films in his native France. Then last year he put in a startlingly good performance in Julian Schnabel’s Oscar-nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and shortly afterwards was cast as the baddie in the forthcoming Bond film starring Daniel Craig.
At 42, Amalric is teetering on the brink of global celebrity — but it is not a prospect he relishes. “I try to have a normal life,” he says. “That’s very important to me. Being an actor, if you only have that in your life, you would go mad immediately.” As he talks, he clutches his head in his hands, as if attempting to dig thoughts out with his dirty fingernails. “Try to do things you’re not able to do,” he says at one point, apropos of not very much, and then leans back in his capacious leather armchair with an enigmatic sigh. It’s impressive, in a baffling way.
But perhaps it should not be surprising: as an actor, Amalric is extraordinarily good at conveying a sense of great depth of thought onscreen, even at moments of extreme physical passivity. His performance as a paralyzed victim of “locked-in syndrome” in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly won him a Cesar for best actor. Amalric’s portrayal of Jean-Dominique Bauby, the former editor of French Elle who was left paralyzed by a massive stroke in 1995 and able only to blink his left eye, was remarkable for being almost entirely static, yet simultaneously conveying each subtle shade of poignancy and pain.
For an actor so defined by intellectual introspection, I wonder whether the machismo of Bond is not a comedown. He ponders this. “You know, when you act, you act with your body, so immediately you’re not working as an intellectual. You have to be an animal. You have to be a bit stupid to be an actor, it’s very important, you know, just to be ... ” Instinctive? “Yes. It’s exactly like an acrobat, I spend a lot of time preparing my props.
The James Bond was a continuation [of that]. This morning I was rehearsing the stunts for the fights and I love that. It’s very wild, very nasty — it’s great. And you know for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I was exhausted by the end of the day. It’s very physical, not moving.” He can’t say much more about Quantum of Solace, the 22nd Bond film due for release here in the fall, because of the near-fanatical secrecy that surrounds the franchise. But he didn’t hesitate when they asked him — for years his PIN was 0007, although I imagine he might change it now, in case any enterprising French criminals read this interview.