THE MAN WHO LOVES SMOKING, DRINKING, NEW YORK, LOST SOULS AND, OF COURSE, WOMEN
By DIANE BARONIy DIANE BARONI, Executive Editor, Moviecrazed
I'm not in awe of movie stars, but in
1991, when Lear's magazine editor Myra Appleton asked me to interview
this great actor, I was petrified. It was like being asked to interview
God--and to do it in French. --D.B.
3:00 P.M. on an unseasonably warm winter Sunday in New York, and
no one knows where Gerard Depardieu is. He may still be in Harlem,
where he headed several hours earlier to hear some gospel singers.
Or on his way back from Harlem. Or hanging out in a bar. Or God
"You turn around and hes gone," a press representative
saysnot quite, but almost, wringing her hands. Earlier in
the week, she adds, when he was doing interviews in the restaurant
of this small hotel on Manhattans Upper East Side, he would
often become restless and escape through the kitchen. The staff,
all of whom obviously adore him, let him get away with anything.
They are used to him by now; he stayed here for six months while
filming "Green Card," his first major English-language
film, which opened at Christmas and looks to be a modest hit.
Forty-five minutes later he wanders into the lobby. "Was it
for three?" he asks. He is "desole."
Rumpled, dressed in worn black denim, his blond-streaked brown hair
falling over his eyes, he seems too big for the elegant little room
with its delicate chairs and discreetly placed flowers. Its
not so much his actual sizealthough he is a big man, he appears
smaller in person than he does on screenbut his presence.
There is an intensity, a sense of excess about him that transcends
normal limits. "I was in church," he offers, like a small
boy who suddenly realizes he has misbehaved and, in an attempt to
make amends, comes up with what seems an inviolable excuse.
Indeed, there is something endearingly childlike about this 42-year-old
French actor, who has been described as more phenomenon than performer.
From his breakthrough in Bertrand Bliers 1973 film "Going
Places" to last years "Cyrano de Bergerac"
(for which he was named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival),
Depardieu has been Europes most provocative screen presence.
His range is truly remarkable. He can be funny, poignant, riotous,
tender, which is one reason he is a favorite of directors. He has
consistently worked with the best: Truffaut, Wajda, Vigne, Resnais,
Bertolucci, Berri, Pialat, Duras.
an actor!" says "Cyranos" director, Jean-Paul
Rappeneau. "He possesses both grace and ferocity, strength
and vulnerability. Who else could have played Cyrano? He alone embodies
the characters poetic dimension. With his feet on the ground
and his head in the clouds, Depardieu is elsewhere."
He is definitely elsewhere today as we go out into the pale, hazy
afternoon to look for a place where we can talk; the hotel restaurant
is closed. On Madison Avenue, filled with pricey strollers, he seems
wildly incongruous, a shaggy Visigoth turned loose in Laura Ashley.
He walks fast, his body hunched over, wary, like the boxer he once
was. But then he sees a doorman he knows, and his handsome-homely
face lights up. "Bonjour, Robert!" he yells and races
across the street, barely missing a stately septuagenarian on a
bicycle and a taxi piloted by a frenzied Indian. "I love New
York; its full of lost souls. I love lost souls," he
says when he comes back.
The bar at The Carlyle hotel is deserted at this off-hour, so we
go in. Depardieu lowers himself into a corner banquette, lights
a Gitane, orders calvadosthe potent apple brandy of Normandy,
where he has a villa by the beach. The waiter brings two bottles
for his approval. Does he want soda with his drink? Water? He looks
horrified. No, no. Just "calva."
"I dont like the heat," he says, shrugging off his
jean jacket and revealing a faded black shirt and a tattoo of a
bird on his left forearm. "Sante," he adds absently when
the calvados arrives, and tosses half of it down. The hand holding
the fragile snifter is huge, formless, the hand of a peasant. But
the eyesdark blue, deep setare sensitive. The voice
is low, resonant; it plays over you like a caress.
On screen and in his personal life Depardieu is a study in extremes.
He is both streetwise and innocent, earthy and cerebral. On the
set he is known for telling stories so outrageously vulgar he has
entire film crews in hysterics. Yet he can also speak passionately
about Shakespeare, Moliere, Rostand, Alfred de Musset, in language
this is startlingly eloquent. Depardieu speaks French with me, and
the words have an elegance, a lyric quality, that is often lacking
when he is forced to do interviews in English or has a translator
present. As he says, he does not "have confidence" in
In "Green Card" his English is uncertain, hesitantwhich
is exactly the way writer-director-producer Peter Weir wanted it.
Depardieu had been offered English-speaking parts before, but none
seemed as right for him as Georges, the unemployed French composer
in "Green Card" who enters into a "marriage of convenience"
with a beautiful Manhattan horticulturist, played by Andie MacDowell.
It is also the first such role that challenged Depardieu to at least
understand English if not totally master it. And the effect is magic.
"Hearing English come from the familiar lips of Frances
leading acting export
is as jarring and intoxicating as finding
your favorite doll come to life," wrote one reviewer.
the role seemed perfect was hardly an accident: Weir wrote it for
Depardieu. He had the idea for this funny, unconventional love story
several years earlier, but it wasnt until he saw Depardieu
in Andrzej Wajdas "Danton" that the idea became
an obsession. While writing the script, Weir kept a photograph of
the actor above his typewriter.
He was drawn to Depardieus mysterious and contradictory qualities
of masculinity and vulnerability, of child and man. But, says Weir,
"If I had to sum up his appeal, it would be his unpredictability.
Youre never exactly sure what hes going to do, and each
time he does something, its different."
Depardieu, for his part, refers to Weir as a brother. He has many
such brothers, and sisters, in the businessa closely knit
group of directors, writers, and actors he clearly regards as family.
"I found other wombs," he once said, when talking about
what he describes as his "absolutely horrible childhood."
[shown at left in a long-ago photo] was the third of six children
born to an illiterate, heavy-drinking sheet metal worker and his
wife in Chateauroux, a small, ugly city in central France. By the
age of 8 he was running the streets; by 12 he had dropped out of
school and was on his own. Its been rumored that he lived
with prostitutes, spent time in jail. Certainly he was a vagabond
and petty thief. At 16 he wound up in Paris where, following the
lead of a friend, he began taking acting classes at the Theatre
It was there that he met Elisabeth Guignot, a classmate six years
his senior. They married when Depardieu was 20 and had a son, Guillaume,
the following year. Their daughter, Julie, was born two years later.
The couple have acted together, both on stage and on screen (Elisabeth
played his wife in the Claude Berri film "Jean de Florette"),
and they have also recorded several albums of songs written by Elisabeth.
"Songs about women. And very well-written too," says Depardieu.
Though the demands of his career have caused some problems, the
couple appear to have a solid, loving relationship"an
intelligent rapport" he terms it.
Unlike others who have been brutally wounded early on, he seems
to harbor no bitterness or seething resentment. "Anger? No,
I detest anger. It troubles me; it plunges me into a sadness that
is not my nature. I have a diplomatic temperament. Im happy,
calm. Rather, I try to be calm. But its a perpetual battle."
He gives only one indication that memories may still haunt him.
"I dont like to be alone," he says. "Im
afraid to think too much. The nights can be anguish."
Perhaps that anguish helped him to portray so perfectly another
character who might have been created specifically for him, the
legendary Cyrano. "It wasnt just a role," he says.
"It was a chance to relive that turbulent period when one has
left childhood and is trying to be an adult. The feelings we all
have thennot loving ourselves, thinking no one will ever love
that is the essence of Cyrano.
"Cyrano is a tornado. He expends his energy and his feelings
without a second thought and without worrying about getting hurt.
Im quite like him in this respect. Im a bit of a masochist,
because Im always taking risks, doing things that are more
and more difficult, in work and in life. There are always those
who envy you when you have a free spirit, as I do; most people are
afraid of freedom. When they criticize your quality of life, your
quality of humanity, it can hurt. It can kill the spirit sometimes."
During the filming of "Cyrano," Depardieu was called on
to synchronize the lavish Alexandrine rhymes with the complicated
dueling actionanother difficult task. "But the fencing
master used our natures very intelligently," the actor says.
"He told me, Use your sword in the same way you used
your fists when you were fighting in the streets."
Fighting in the streets seems a long way from Boujival, a pastoral
village west of Paris where Depardieu lives in a 300-year-old house
(actually, three houses; after purchasing the original in 1978,
he bought the two adjoining ones as his fortunes increased). It
is he who most often cooks for guests, as well as for the family"duck,
pintade, fish, rabbit. Sometimes sauces but usually something simple,
light, not too much fat. I love to feed people, especially Elisabeth
and the children. I love it when ils se portent bien, when
they are euphoric, in the literal Greek sense of the word."
Depardieu also has a chateau in Anjou, where he makes wine. "The
wine is like menot a la mode. Real wine. Strong. Natural.
As he signals for another calvados, its clear that hes
a man who likes his "calva," and his wine, and his food.
When you mention this he laughs, a lusty Rabelaisian laugh so rich
you can almost taste it. "My excesses are fine for me. But
theyre a little tiring for others."
Is this a reference to women? He takes a mouthful of calvados, considers.
"I love women," he says finally. "And when youre
a man who loves women, everybody thinks youre making love
with them all. To me, women are more interesting than men. Theyre
more courageous, theyre kinder, nicereven when theyre
driving you crazy. I have a lot of extraordinary women friends in
the businessCatherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani
MacDowell, too, is a friend. You might say Andie is the ideal woman
for a man. Shes beautiful, obviously, but she doesnt
care about her looks. Shes there, she takes care of
her children, she doesnt ask too many questions. Shes
"So, yes, Ive become very close to some of my costars,
but what most people dont understand is that the intimacy
is stronger than if we slept together. Such friendshipsand
I know this from experiencemust never go too far. That isnt
to say you never have feelings, but, no, its not possible.
If it went further, the friendship would suffer. The film would
But, he is reminded, it often does go furtheron-screen
romance leading to real-life romance, straight on to divorce and
remarriage. Laughing, he holds up his hands, as if to say enough.
"Ive made over seventy films. I couldnt have married
Besides, he adds more seriously, "my marriage is"he
searches for the right word"irremediable. We have
our highs and lows, not everything is perfect, but Elisabeth is
the woman of my life."
A scene that calls for him to kiss an actress, he says, is far more
troublesome than one in which he has to make love. "Actual
sex isnt possible on screen; you just cant do it. But
thats more difficult."
On-screen nudity, he believes, is for the young. "A man is
whats called sexy from twenty to twenty-eight or thirty. After
that the skin"he gestures comically through a cloud of
Gitane smoke, pulls a long face"it falls apart.
"Its particularly difficult for older women in this businessin
France just as much as in America. Jeanne Moreau can work in the
theater because there is that distance, but in movies? Unless shes
willing to play une vieille femme, which is not at all her
spirit, its difficult. In the theater Roxanne can be played
by a woman of fifty, but not in the movies. Its a cruel art,
"I think its only after fifty that a woman becomes truly
passionate. At that point women abdicate certain aspects of their
personalities, leave seduction behind. And when seduction is left
behind, there is so much more energy, so much more passion."
There are few films being made today, he continues, that explore
such subtleties of the human conditionthe sort of charming,
sensitive works that were the trademark of Francois Truffaut. "In
American movies, particularly, you see so many special effects.
Even when there is a strong role for a womanthe parts that
usually go to Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Jessica Langeits
invariably a role that requires her to carry the spirit of woman
on her shoulders. And when that happens, the femininity is lost.
Think of Garbo, Ava Gardner, the mystery they had: Theres
less and less mystery in movies.
"I prefer not to see everything at once. In the nineteenth
century to catch a glimpse of knee
ah. To watch a woman
taking down her hair at night
extraordinary. A superb invitation.
Im sensitive to that. I love what comes before."
The man who is sensitive to mystery can be quite pragmatic about
his career. He sometimes makes up to six films a year, but he doesnt
feel he works all that hard. "When Im working Im
with friends, people I love. Also, I dont take my work too
seriously. If I ever started worrying about what my public
would thinkno, no, I dont want that. I like this work
to the degree that it doesnt prevent me from living. If it
all ended tomorrow, Id do something else. Id write,
Id make wine. I have other interests, you know. I wouldnt
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