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.

It is 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 knows where.

"You turn around and he’s gone," a press representative says—not 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 Manhattan’s 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. It’s not so much his actual size—although he is a big man, he appears smaller in person than he does on screen—but 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 Blier’s 1973 film "Going Places" to last year’s "Cyrano de Bergerac" (for which he was named best actor at the Cannes Film Festival), Depardieu has been Europe’s 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.

"What an actor!" says "Cyrano’s" director, Jean-Paul Rappeneau. "He possesses both grace and ferocity, strength and vulnerability. Who else could have played Cyrano? He alone embodies the character’s 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; it’s 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 calvados—the 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 don’t 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 eyes—dark blue, deep set—are 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 his English.

In "Green Card" his English is uncertain, hesitant—which 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 France’s leading acting export…is as jarring and intoxicating as finding your favorite doll come to life," wrote one reviewer.

That 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 wasn’t until he saw Depardieu in Andrzej Wajda’s "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 Depardieu’s 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. You’re never exactly sure what he’s going to do, and each time he does something, it’s different."

Depardieu, for his part, refers to Weir as a brother. He has many such brothers, and sisters, in the business—a 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."

Depardieu [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. It’s 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 Nationale Populaire.

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. I’m happy, calm. Rather, I try to be calm. But it’s a perpetual battle."

He gives only one indication that memories may still haunt him. "I don’t like to be alone," he says. "I’m 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 wasn’t 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 then—not loving ourselves, thinking no one will ever love us…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. I’m quite like him in this respect. I’m a bit of a masochist, because I’m 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 action—another 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 me—not a la mode. Real wine. Strong. Natural. No sugar."

As he signals for another calvados, it’s clear that he’s 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 they’re 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 you’re a man who loves women, everybody thinks you’re making love with them all. To me, women are more interesting than men. They’re more courageous, they’re kinder, nicer—even when they’re driving you crazy. I have a lot of extraordinary women friends in the business—Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Adjani…Andie MacDowell, too, is a friend. You might say Andie is the ideal woman for a man. She’s beautiful, obviously, but she doesn’t care about her looks. She’s there, she takes care of her children, she doesn’t ask too many questions. She’s superb. Appetizing.

"So, yes, I’ve become very close to some of my costars, but what most people don’t understand is that the intimacy is stronger than if we slept together. Such friendships—and I know this from experience—must never go too far. That isn’t to say you never have feelings, but, no, it’s not possible. If it went further, the friendship would suffer. The film would suffer."

But, he is reminded, it often does go further—on-screen romance leading to real-life romance, straight on to divorce and remarriage. Laughing, he holds up his hands, as if to say enough. "I’ve made over seventy films. I couldn’t have married them all."

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 isn’t possible on screen; you just can’t do it. But a kiss…that’s more difficult."

On-screen nudity, he believes, is for the young. "A man is what’s 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.

"It’s particularly difficult for older women in this business—in France just as much as in America. Jeanne Moreau can work in the theater because there is that distance, but in movies? Unless she’s willing to play une vieille femme, which is not at all her spirit, it’s difficult. In the theater Roxanne can be played by a woman of fifty, but not in the movies. It’s a cruel art, the cinema.

"I think it’s 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 condition—the 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 woman—the parts that usually go to Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Jessica Lange—it’s 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: There’s 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. I’m 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 doesn’t feel he works all that hard. "When I’m working I’m with friends, people I love. Also, I don’t take my work too seriously. If I ever started worrying about what ‘my public’ would think—no, no, I don’t want that. I like this work to the degree that it doesn’t prevent me from living. If it all ended tomorrow, I’d do something else. I’d write, I’d make wine. I have other interests, you know. I wouldn’t die."