By Paula Schwartz
Actor/writer/director Guillaume Canet is a big star in France – and a major heartthrob – according to the movie website, Imdb. Both are undeniably true. I sat next to the charismatic and charming French actor at an intimate lunch recently at the Park Hyatt Hotel in New York hosted by Jaeger-LeCoultre. The event was to celebrate Canet’s two films included in the Rendez-Vous With French Cinema film festival, a co-presentation of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance Films. Only veteran French actor Catherine Deneuve, with three movies, had more than Canet at the festival.
Cold and jetlagged, Canet had arrived in Manhattan from Paris only the night before and had a dizzying schedule of luncheons, receptions, panels and screenings planned. Both of his films at the festival – In the Name of My Daughter
(L’Homme qu’on aimait trop) and Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart (La Prochaine Fois Je Viserai le Coeur)– are based on true stories that took place in the 1970’s and sees Canet playing dead-eyed, psychopathic killers.
During the two-hour lunch, the Tell No One director charmed and entertained guests, mainly journalists, with stories about Catherine Deneuve, with whom he co-stars in In the Name of My Daughter, his adventures riding horses and paragliding, and made many loving references to his famous actor partner, Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard, with whom he has a young son.
Complaining slightly of the cold, he kept his overcoat on and stuck to sparkling water. Boyishly handsome at 41 years of age with his curly hair peppered with grey, Canet is an entertaining raconteur and has the actor’s gift of making you feel like you are the only one in the room. He’s particularly good at impressions and mimicking accents. Once in a while, especially when a remark made him laugh, he pulled out his cellphone and said he had to text Marion.
Catherine Deneuve stars with Canet in In the Name of My Daughter, so naturally there were questions about what it was like to work with the iconic actress. Deneuve plays a haughty casino owner and grieving mother who spends three decades seeking justice for the daughter presumably murdered by Canet’s character, a sleazy lawyer with whom she had an affair.
“I was petrified, I never had this with anyone, and I worked with some really famous actors and actresses,” he told me of working with Deneuve. “When I arrived in front of Catherine, who started the scene, my text was gone, no memories, nothing, I apologized, ‘I’m so sorry,’ I was laughing, ‘I’m sorry but you impress me maybe,’” he told her. “I was seeing all her movies flashing before my eyes.”
Deneuve was gracious and calmed her co-star by saying “don’t worry, tomorrow it will be me.” And the next day, says Canet, she had scenes with lengthy dialogue and text and it was her turn to fluff her lines.
In all three of her films in the festival including In the Courtyard (Dans la Cour), Deneuve smokes so many cigarettes I got chest pains just watching. According to Canet the cigarette smoking also takes place off screen.
“She’s always smoking,” he told me: “One day we were in a restaurant and a waiter came to her, and she had a cigarette, and he said, ‘Ms. Deneuve, I’m so sorry you’re not allowed to smoke in here.’ She just looked at the guy, gave him this nice smile, said thank you very much, that’s nice to tell me, and kept smoking.”
The conversation then turned to Canet’s many passions as a sportsman. In fact he could be a character out of an action film as the actor competes in horse jumping competitions and paraglides over open fields half a mile above ground.
When he was 18 years old, Canet was a horse rider and show-jumping enthusiast but quit the sport a year later after a bad accident. Three years ago he made a movie called Jappaloup where he played a famous Olympic equestrian, and he had to train and ride again. “I loved it,” he said. Now he competes regularly and only three days earlier had placed well in a show-jumping event in Spain. The paparazzi often run photos of his famous actor partner cheering him on during show jumping competitions.
Canet admitted a love of the sport had saved him from his workaholic tendencies and the insular world of filmmaking: “I met some other people, some other stories, some other life, and it just feeds you as an actor, as a writer, as a director, not seeing always the same people, the same world, cause it’s such a small world.”
He says paragliding, which is an unusual sport and probably not one sanctioned by the producers or insurers of his movies, is his way of relaxing. He told us his paraglider – a portable, foot-launched contraption that has an engine at the back – fits into a suitcase and takes only 20 minutes to assemble.
“When I get too nervous or too difficult to live with, Marion says, ‘Please take off,” he explained, “because when I land it’s like all the problems are resolved. It takes me distant from everything.”
He imitated the sounds of a revving engine and described his first flight. “I was so nervous because that was my first takeoff and it’s weird because you never take off with anybody else. The first time you take off it’s alone because there’s only one seat,” he told me. “If you have a problem with the engine you just glide and just hope you can glide over where you are.” His first flight was not a great success. He pulled a lever too hard and dislocated his thumb: “I was like, we’ll see to that later. It’s the second problem. First I’m going to try to land.”
And he is open about the dangers of the sport. Does he wear a helmet someone asked? “There is no need to wear a helmet,” he told us. “If you crash, having a helmet or not it won’t change anything.”
Occasionally this is how he arrives on set although he never tells the director or crew, who sometimes spot the unusual sight of someone descending from the air. Then there are the chunky shoes paragliders must wear, which Canet often tries to pass off as hiking boots.
Another sport is also at the center of his next film “Icon,” which the actor just completed about disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong. Directed by Stephen Frears, “Icon” stars Ben Foster as Armstrong with Canet as Michele Ferrari, the Italian doctor and coach banned from the sport for drug violations in 2012. The film may be finished in time for the Cannes or Venice film festivals. And Canet is full of praise for Foster’s performance.
“He was waking up every morning at 3 am to train, cycling every morning, and for weeks when he was shooting those scenes where he has cancer he had to lose so much weight and so he was like training, not eating anything,” he explained. “And he was exhausted, exhausted, because when you don’t eat and you work and you train it’s terrible. Ben did a great job.”
Asked what it was like to play the flamboyant and disgraced Italian doctor, Canet put on a heavy Italian accent and made exaggerated hand gestures and repeated the notorious statement that cost the doctor his coaching career, “EPO is not dangerous, it’s the abuse that is. It’s also dangerous to drink 10 liters of orange juice,” he joked.
“I love that character. He’s always smiling and pretending everything’s cool, he didn’t want to meet with me. I don’t know why,” laughed Canet.
The actor said he doesn’t know what inspired Frears to cast him since there is no physical likeness. Fears told him that he wanted to change Canet’s face. “So I have a really fake balding head and grey hair. I lost a lot of weight, and I had to play this character with a lot of colour, very cynical, very theatrical,” he explained.
The actor took out his cellphone and showed me a picture of him as Ferrari, unrecognizable with a stringy grey wig and ugly glasses.
Asked what Marion thought of his physical transformation Canet smiled and said “She just laughed.”
Paula Schwartz is a veteran journalist who was on the staff of the New York Times for three decades. For five years she contributed to the newspaper’s season movies award blog entitled Carpetbagger. Her work has appeared in a number of outlets, including Movie Maker, Showbiz411.com, More.inc and Bitch Flicks. Her grand passion is sitting in a dark theater watching three movies in a row as long as no one is texting or talking