Mathieu Amalric on playing James Bond`s nemesis
Mathieu Amalric may be finding global notoriety playing the latest Bond villain, but he would prefer to orchestrate his plans for world domination from behind the movie camera - if only cinema's finest directors would stop calling on him to act. By Murphy Williams of The Telegraph
A dark, brooding figure sits in silence at a table, occasionally flicking a cigarette into an overflowing ashtray, gulping back coffee and concentrating hard. He is completing, it turns out, an application form for the Pinewood Studios creche. This is Mathieu Amalric, between takes in his final fortnight as James Bond's latest demonically ruthless antagonist in Quantum of Solace.
Amalric shouldn't be here at all. He has been trying to direct his fourth feature for a good couple of years now, but life keeps throwing these irresistible challenges at him. 'I had to postpone my film because of this thing,' he says, combing his fingers through his springy black hair. 'And then I thought I was going to shoot in November but again great directorsâ¦ I said to them, "Come on! Please! I'm sick of acting." And it's true, I have to go back to my film. I haven't shot a film for six years now. Six years!'
For someone who has appeared in more than 50 films since he was 30, the reluctant film star line sounds like a bit of a pose. Since his first major, CÃ©sar-winning role in Arnaud Desplechin's My Sex Life in 1996, Amalric has been feted as the new hero of French cinema, excelling at tormented, quick-witted, unpredictable, garrulous, seductive professionals who smoke, sulk, wear dark scarves and get slapped. He is such a director's darling, starring in several films by Desplechin (he won his second CÃ©sar for Kings and Queen) and the Larrieu brothers (A Real Man) that the New York Times described him as a latterday Jean-Pierre LÃ©aud, the prodigy who played Antoine Doinel in five Truffaut films.
Amalric first came to mainstream attention as the shady, urbane informant in Spielberg's Munich in 2005, the stand-out performance of the film. This led to a role, in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, that would have terrified most screen veterans: that of the man-about-town Elle editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, who suffered paralysis after a stroke and went on to dictate a bestselling memoir by blinking his left eyelid. 'I tried to tell the story of a normal guy,' Amalric says, 'not a saint. Even in his bed, he continues to check out women's legs, be proud, ambitious and funny.' The film adaptation by Julian Schnabel was a challenge that Amalric overcame with such nuance and sensitivity that he won a third CÃ©sar.
Amalric's restless energy, compelling spark and expressive eyes do bring LÃ©aud to mind, but his beauty is less conventional. He has the anaemic, fragile, woeÂbegone features of John Hurt, and he is always compared with Roman Polanski, who hails, by coincidence, from the same Polish village as Amalric's mother. Marc Forster, the director of Quantum of Solace, whose credits include Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland and Stranger than Fiction, was fascinated: 'There's something so intriguing I couldn't take my eyes off him. You're really drawn to that face. You almost feel pity for him.'
Pathos is an odd qualification for a Bond villain, but carrying on from Daniel Craig's updating of Bond as a vulnerable assassin in Casino Royale, this modern baddie has depth. Dominic Greene, the tycoon hotelier behind the eco-friendly Greene Planet company, is more subtly sinister than his predecessors in the Bond canon: a shy, softly spoken, philanthropic charmer and environmental campaigner who is afraid of blood and has no tell-tale idiosyncrasies, no white cat, scar, metal teeth or even a far-fetched name - 'a great guy like you see all the time on television,' Amalric says. Behind the facade, Greene is busy fomenting rebellion in Latin America on behalf of the exiled General Medrano in exchange for an apparently barren strip of land. 'I was scared of the role,' Amalric admits. 'I suggested a beard or a bald head like Marc, but he said, "No, no, just your eyes. That's enough."'
'I always saw the villain as someone from next door,' Forster explains. 'There's this ambiguity about Amalric that he could be anybody. Where Greene comes from isn't explained. I thought it was more unexpected to cast an innocent-looking man for a character who is really creepy and dangerous. Greene has decent impulses: he cares about the environment, but at the same time wants to get rich through that. A lot of corporations do the same thing.'
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The chances are Amalric would have leapt on the Bond bandwagon whoever was directing it - his very first pin number was 0007 and he is tickled by the prospect of his three sons (aged 11, nine and one) being able to kill him on the tie-in video game. Forster's 'strange, crazy idea' to cast him was 'this sort of Cinderella joke', Amalric says. 'Greene is trying to be invisible, like a wallpaper or like a gas you can't smell. I watched a lot of those CEOs and politicians on television, people that work so much, that are obsessed byâ¦ I don't know what it is, maybe power. When you watch Hillary Clinton or Obama, such great performers, you are impressed: "Wow, it looks true, maybe it is true." That was the thing I found really interesting: that the smile could be the ultimate weapon.'
Did he ever feel compromised by being part of the 22nd instalment of what the film critic Pauline Kael called 'sadism for the entire family'? On the contrary, Amalric insists. He can't stand people whose tastes run to only one genre of film, and quite aside from the sheer scale of an estimated $200 million, pan-global workplace, he is constantly astonished by Forster's work-in-progress approach: 'Ultimately, he is striving for something more realistic. He needs to be inspired by his actors.'
Amalric was born in 1965 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a bourgeois suburb of Paris, to Nicole Zand, a literary critic for the newspaper Le Monde 'who always had a lot of curiosity for everything', and Jacques Amalric, a foreign affairs editor for Le Monde and LibÃ©ration, Amalric spent much of his childhood in Washington and Moscow, where his parents befriended 'incredible people outside the system', such as the filmmaker Otar Iosseliani, who never used actors. When he was 17 Amalric landed a part as a thief's son in Iosseliani's film Favourites of the Moon. 'It wasn't acting,' Amalric recalls. 'He whistled once, you started to walk; twice, you stopped; three times, you did exactly what he did.'
Amalric decided then that 'I wanted to do what he was doing.' Failing to get into film school, he made a short film instead, with equipment borrowed from a college, making ends meet as a painter and decorator. Thanks to a family friend, his first paid movie job was as an assistant director on Louis Malle's multi-award-winning 1987 film Au revoir les enfants, but 'it was very disappointing because what happens is you have a walkie-talkie, and you're at the end of the street and you start the cars. Great. Oh, so that's what movies are about. OK. I was too shy to talk to him, but then on the last day of shooting Malle said, "We didn't see you a lot. Do you want to stay for the editing?" So I spent six months learning how to edit.'
During the following 10 years of working on sets - 'It's nice to know everything about something, no?' - Amalric often crossed paths with Arnaud Desplechin, but it was only when Desplechin saw his two short films Sans rires and Les yeux au plafond at a festival in 1996 that he decided to screen-test him for My Sex Life. 'I wrote the script for My Sex Life, about this man in love with three women, and wasn't fascinated by the male character,' Desplechin recalls. 'During the screen tests, I was filming Mathieu's back, with the women facing the camera. I think he thought I wanted him to work as first AD [assistant director], going through the script with the auditioning actresses. What amazed me was that because he was a director he was reacting, rather than acting, to each actress. Each time the actress changed, his character changed as well, and that was exactly what I was looking for. An actor wouldn't have known how to play the role because he would have first thought of his own performance.'
Desplechin gave Amalric a month to finish his own first feature, Eat Your Soup, and consider how playing his first lead in My Sex Life might affect him. 'I didn't realise quite how much,' Desplechin laughs. Eat Your Soup is a gentle autobiographical burlesque about Amalric's newly separated mother that Jean-Luc Godard praised as the best film he had seen in years. As in his second film, the enigmatic, contemplative Le Stade de Wimbledon (2001), overfilled bookcases figured largely. 'I entered my parents' room,' he recalls, 'and saw that my mother had replaced my father with books on the bed. Nobody reads, it's only objects. In the film this son comes and is stuck there for one week. He's 35 years old and has this very bad idea of saving her. So he tries to smuggle books out of the house and, each time, more books arrive, and at the end - it was so great to do it - the whole thing just falls on the mother. At the time, the family for me was pure tragedy, pure tragedy. I had a brother who committed suicide when he was 20 years old, my sister was into drugs, and family is tragedy. When I think about this film now, I am touched to see this young man who wanted to change this tragedy into comedy. That's the only moment where I think, "Well, yes, I'm Jewish." Humour as the only way to survive, you know.'
Amalric is a welcoming, engaging character who loves nothing better than to tell a story, debate an idea, convey an enthusiasm (John Ford's 1939 films are the latest: 'Oh lÃ lÃ lÃ !'), stoked up with cigarettes and a good red wine - to live life, in short, as a modern Parisian intellectual, and proud of it. 'For me, "intellectual" is a great word, but now in France, especially with the new president, unfortunately, it's an insult.'
He reins himself in, casting an eye over the Pinewood trailer that is 'about the size of my apartment in Paris'. Quantum of Solace is an action film, after all, and apparently the bloodiest Bond yet. 'It's not an intellectual's film, you see what I mean, but this film is about loss. All Marc's films are to do with death, loss and childhood.'
Amalric's co-stars are ardent in their appraisal: 'Greene is not a mad scientist or some crazed egghead trying to take over the world through science,' Daniel Craig says. 'Bond villains have to have an intelligence about them. He is an aggressive man with high intellect who is using his talent to manipulate people and grab as much of the world's landmass as he possibly can in his lifetime. Mathieu has understood the part completely and he is going for it - that's what you want in a Bond bad guy.' Olga Kurylenko, who plays the avenging angel Camille, agrees: 'He is not playing the cliched villain; he is trying to hide it and his villain is actually terrifying.'
Amalric is getting ready for the climactic fight with Bond, another departure for the usually aloof baddie. The set has been fitted with more than 50 explosives. 'Throughout the movie you get glimpses of the character,' Forster says, 'but in the final sequence his true nature is revealed and you see how malicious and frightening he can be.' Forster and Amalric have 'invented' a radically different type of Bond combat that suits his nimble frame and alert, sprightly countenance.
'In the script, Greene was supposed to have a secret skill,' Amalric says. 'I told Marc maybe it's more funny, more real if the villain doesn't know how to fight. Maybe it's even more dangerous for Bond because he is used to fights with professionals so he knows how to read them, but if a guy doesn't know how to fightâ¦ Look at home when you fight with your husband or your wife, or in the schoolyard - you don't know what to expect. It's wild, wild. It's more about anger, hate, andâ¦' At this point there is a heart-stopping commotion as Amalric, to demonstrate what he means, suddenly snatches a bottle to his left, hurls it into his right hand, and slams it down on the table. 'It's about taking anything,' he continues calmly, 'it's more that than kung fu moves and noises. There are no gadgets, nothing. It's just about looking for what can be dangerous, so that blind can strangle you, this pen I can use too. We worked a lot with stunts, to conceive this fight, make it psychological, close to Greene's character.'
Working alongside these inspiring directors must be useful for his own films. 'It's a great way of observing, but when I'm on set I don't think about that at all,' he says. 'I go back to the hotel and write things about the day, but I never look at the monitor, never look at the camera. I think the camera grabs something you are not conscious of, so if you start to look at the takes, at how your profile looks, this, that, you become dead. It's finished. Acting gave me confidence in taking risks as a director. It's important to do things you thought you couldn't do, and I need that sensation of getting away with something because it's exciting.
'I do have nightmares that I might be a better actor than director, though. People can be better at something they don't really care about. Maurice Pialat, the director, wanted to be a painter. Gainsbourg wanted to be a classical musician, but we love his songs.'
With no fewer than seven features out this year - among them the critically acclaimed corporate thriller The Heartbeat Detector and Desplechin's new film, A Christmas Tale - it is about time Amalric stopped giving in to 'those bastard director friends who take my time'. Then again, if Wes Anderson, James Gray or David Cronenberg were to approach him, there might be a problem. 'I think I have to be very strong now, stop this acting thing for a moment and just do my own film, La TournÃ©e, about these American burlesque dancers on tour around French ports,' Amalric says.
Desplechin is worried: 'He told me the story of this film, and it's really everything that I love in film; it's so French, it looks like the great cinema from the 1970s. But he loves to act and he loves the guys he works with, so he accepts one film after another. He comes to the office and says he will turn down a project and weeks after that, I run into him on the street and he tells me he couldn't say no: "The project is quite interesting, the guys are really funny; they don't have any money; I have to do it." So he postpones. In Cannes, he swore to me that he would start his film in November. Come on! Now, he's shooting another film. He can't stop.'
Amalric could also go on talking all night, one senses, but the studio creche is about to close and he has to collect his third son. He recently broke up with the French actress Jeanne Balibar, the mother of his two older sons. Based in Belleville, Paris, he now has 'a new life with another woman', a play-researcher who is working in Austria while he takes care of their baby. As we leave his trailer, he finds his mobile phone to show me photos of his one-year-old with a cigarette in his mouth, most probably taken without maternal consent. Quel vilain!
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