Wed, Jul 20, 2011 - Page 14 News List

No one’s ‘poor, little Frenchman’

As he takes another step toward international stardom in a new thriller, Romain Duris talks about his painting, changes in French morality and why he refuses to have a television in the house

By Elizabeth Day  /  The Observer, LONDON

Romain Duris stars in a scene from the film Moliere.

Photo: Bloomberg

Romain Duris thinks a lot is explained by the fact that he is the youngest of three children. Growing up in Paris, he was, he says, always competing for the attention of his architect father and dancer mother. “That’s why I make so much noise,” he explains, smiling broadly and jiggling his legs like an energetic toddler. “I wanted them to know I existed.” He laughs, then his voice rises and he makes a great show of thumping the cafe table in a parody of anger. “I needed them to know I was there!” And now? “I am still a child,” he admits. “I have to keep playing.”

It is no coincidence, he says, that in his native French as well as in English the verb “to play” or jouer is used when actors take on a part. And for the last six years, Duris, 37, has been playing his parts spectacularly well. His breakthrough role came in 2005 in The Beat That My Heart Skipped, directed by Jacques Audiard, in which Duris played the son of a violent slum landlord who is torn between his father’s brutal criminal underworld and his own secret desire to be a concert pianist. The performance, which embodied both a quicksilver rage and an unexpected vulnerability, earned him a Cesar for best actor and international plaudits.

Then, last year, Duris starred as an arch seducer in Heartbreaker alongside Vanessa Paradis. The romantic comedy went on to become highest-grossing French film of 2010. Now, he is about to be seen in The Big Picture, in which he portrays a high-flying city lawyer who goes on the run after accidentally murdering his wife’s lover — another role which requires both strength and fragility. “I liked playing the guy who has been cheated on,” Duris says. “He’s a victim, but I wanted to play the weakness, the vexation of being wronged without his being too miserable or too passive.”

It has taken him a while to get used to being recognized. His celebrity status was “shocking to me at the beginning. At school, I played the clown, I made people laugh on the metro and suddenly, when I became well-known, I started having to pay attention to how I behaved and I didn’t like that.

“Most people think I am very nice, they think I’m their friend, which is lucky, but it means you’re never allowed to be in a bad mood. They take it personally. The worst is when you’re on holiday with your family,” he adds (Duris has a two-year-old son, Luigi, with his long-term partner, French actress Olivia Bonamy). “That sucks. But I can always go somewhere else.” He grins. “Fame is OK. I hate it, but it’s OK. I’m beginning to understand how I can be hidden. It’s an attitude.”

And it is true that, when we meet in a cafe in his neighborhood of Paris, Duris is almost unrecognizable from his powerful on-screen presence. Partly this is to do with the fact that he seems to like wearing hats — he is already carrying a moped helmet when he arrives, with a leather cap pushed low over a springy mop of hair — but it is also that in person, he is slight and puckish, doing everything in a succession of quick, graceful movements. Yet in many of his films, he brings to his roles a real sense of tormented physicality.

“Yes, I’m aware of that. Before I film a movie, I look at how the character will move and walk.” He sees this as being in the tradition of “the English acting technique. There is something more powerful than the French way ... a way of filling yourself up with the idea you’re about to express.” It is rather unexpected to hear a French actor praise the English way of doing things. Isn’t French cinema renowned for being more thought-provoking than most? “Yes, but just because something is intellectual doesn’t mean it’s profound.” And then, catching himself sounding pompous, he adds: “I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow I’ll say the opposite.”

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