French actors showcase a certain quality that is interestingly missing among their American counterparts. Perhaps, it is the natural elegance of the French of perhaps, it is the more interesting and less commercial subject matter that French actors seem to gravitate towards. Gaspard Ulliel perhaps best exemplifies this. Known to many in this region as the face of Chanel's men's fragrance Bleu de Chanel, Ulliel has generated international excitement playing the fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent in the recently released biopic SAINT LAURENT which features the trials and tribulations that plagued the famed French fashion designer. The life of Saint Laurent has recently generated much excitement perhaps because it is the subject of two films. The first released in the middle of last year, Yves Saint Laurent, stars Pierre Niney but it is the second, unauthorised version which made its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival that has generated more attention.
The film focuses on the designer’s life between the years 1967 and 1976, a period when his career was riding high but it was also a time when the designer struggled with depression, heavy drinking and experimented with drug use. The film is also told through the point of view
of French director Bertrand Bonello who is known for his adult approach to film-making. In this interview, Ulliel whose acting career began with a chance meeting with a movie agent̶he initially wanted to be an architect̶tells us why he is excited but nervous at playing the famed designer as well as why he is drawn to complex characters.
It is not the first time. In 2007, Ulliel took us through the thought processes of a different kind of icon, when he played the sinister Hannibal Lecter in the film Hannibal Rising, directed by Gus Van Sant.
Ulliel was only 18 when he won the Prix Lumière for Most Promising Young Actor for the film Embrassez qui vous voudrez (Summer Things). Two years later, he starred in Les Egarés (Strayed) alongside Emmanuelle Béart, a role which won him the French cinema award Etoile d’Or for Best Male Newcomer in 2004. He then got the part of Manech, Audrey Tautou’s fiancé, in Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles (A Very Long Engagement) by Jean-Pierre Jeunet and received a César nod for Best Promising Actor in 2005 following two consecutive nominations in 2003 and 2004.
What were your first thoughts when asked to play Saint Laurent?
From the very beginning, I knew that this project would be a potential key milestone in my personal work and career. It’s one of those characters that an actor only meets a few times in a lifetime. Thus, I was thrilled but frightened at the same time as it was very daunting too to incarnate such an iconic figure.
He is such an iconic personality defined by his eyewear. What did it feel like when you first put on those glasses?
True! The thick glasses are part of the character at such an extent that I was getting anxious to take them off in some scenes of the film...
This film deals with a darker side of Saint Laurent. What sort of research did you have to do play this aspect of Saint Laurent?
One book that really helped me was Alicia Drake’s Beautiful Fall. It’s not only a great portrait of YSL and Lagerfield, but also a very truthful portrait of this specific era, the daily life, nightlife in the Parisian fashion world of the 60’s/70’s. You talk about a darker side of Saint Laurent, but for me the seemingly dark and hedonistic night scenes full of reckless abandon, excess, and debauchery, were actually the opposite : that’s when Yves found liberty and light, life, lightness of self.
Are you typically drawn to playing these sorts of complex characters?
The more complex, tortured, paradoxical, the character is...the more demanding, thus interesting it is for the actor.
Why do you think it is important to present this “darker” side of Saint Laurent to the world?
It’s not a matter of how important it is to show this darker side to the world, but what made this biopic appealing to Bertrand Bonello (the director). This film is an odyssey into the mind of an artist, an iconoclast, a tortured creative artist. As the story progresses we go further into his mind. We couldn’t explore this man and his genius without exploring his insecurities and neuroses. This film shows how emotion and art are inextricably linked.
What is the main difference between French films and English language films?
In the end, it’s pretty much the same experience except that English films meet a much wider audience.
What are you future projects?
Maybe some stage play and one nice cinema project, in French, but with a great foreign director... That’s all I’m allowed to say for now.