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Gaspard Ulliel—Saint Laurent, Hannibal Rising—4/26/2015

/content/interviews/410/2.jpgGaspard Ulliel began his screen acting career at age twelve, and other than a stint in film school, it's been full steam ahead since. Ulliel's films include Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement; Bertrand Tavernier's The Princess of Montpensier, Michel Blanc's Summer Things; Brotherhood of the Wolf; Paris, je t'aime; and Hannibal Rising, in the leading role of Hannibal Lecter. In his latest, Ulliel essays another iconic role: that of fashion giant Yves Saint Laurent in Bertrand Bonello's Saint Laurent. In town for the San Francisco International Film Festival, Ulliel discussed his process at the Fairmont Hotel.

Groucho: So you were almost literally born to fashion. Can you talk about your parents' jobs and how they influenced your understanding of fashion and life itself?

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah, that's true. Both of my parents work in fashion, and also, you know, being born and raised in Paris, at some point it feels like you have this inevitable proximity to the fashion world. But in the end, when I think about it, I don't feel a direct relationship to this world. I don't think I really belong to that world. I'm an actor in the movie business. Obviously I have this collaboration with Chanel and her perfume. That also adds up to this fashion attraction. But in the end, when I think about it regarding this specific part, I don't think it really helped me in any way...that's funny, because I have all those memories of my father sitting at his desk all day long drawing all his collections, but I don't have any memories as a child where I was curious enough to actually wonder what he was precisely doing or asking questions, you know? So most of what I had to prepare for in this film, I had to do it prior to the shoot. I actually had to follow all of the steps of dress, confection and creation, and so I realized that I really didn't get anything from my parents on fashion—maybe unconsciously it helped me get more sensitive to it or receptive or aware of it. But I still had to do a lot of research and preparation for the part.

Groucho: Of course. Of course. Though creativity, I guess—you draw, yourself, right? Did you learn any of that from your father? You mentioned your father drawing.

Gaspard Ulliel: Yeah. That's a point. As a kid I would spend hours drawing and painting, and this obviously comes from from my father because he was a fashion designer, but he would also paint a lot for himself. And so yeah I spent a lot of time drawing and painting. So this helped obviously for those few scenes where you see me drawing in the film.

G: Yes. Yes. So can you talk about your collaboration with Gus Van Sant on Paris, je t'aime and how your journey with Saint Laurent started with him?

GU: (Chuckles.) That's a funny story 'cause I don't remember exactly when that was. I think it was like ten years ago or something. We worked on this film Paris, je t'aime with Gus for this short movie of one...Paris district. And after that we kept in touch, and he wanted to work with me again on another film. We didn't really know what at that time, and a few months later he came up with this idea of a film on Yves Saint Laurent. He wanted actually to adapt this book that was just released at that time called Beautiful Fall, by Alicia Drake and so he came up with to me saying I would be a great young version of Yves Saint Laurent, and the film never really happened. It was never made. And I kept thinking back about this saying, “Aw, that's a shame. It would have been such an amazing character to work on." And years later I just met with Bertrand Bonello for the same role. How funny is that?

G: There's a split-screen sequence in the film that contrasts political unrest and violence with Yves Saint Laurent's haute couture designs. And there's different ways of viewing the relationship between the socio-political...

GU: Mm-hm.

G: And fashion. I think one way of viewing it would be, well, why does fashion even matter in that greater context? So I'll pose that to you. Why does fashion matter, and then why does Yves Saint Laurent matter?

/content/interviews/410/7.jpgGU: Well, I think you got it. I think that's what Bertrand Bonello the director wanted to show in this specific scene. It's that we're talking about fashion, but in the end, you know, many other way more important things are happening at that time in the world, and you can actually see that it doesn't affect a tingle all the characters we're talking about in the film. They're not even aware of what's happening outside of their own world. And I kind of agree, you know? But we're talking about a time where everything was so different, especially in the fashion industry, and the fashion world. It's very different from what it is today and what it means today. So it's hard to make any comparison with today's world, you know.

G: Mm-hm. Beyond all of that the film is about a man—one who breathes very rarefied air but nevertheless a man. So what did you decide were his driving impulses?

GU: His driving impulses. What do you mean?

G: What pushed him? What motivated him? What was he living for?

GU: Well, that's a tough question. You know, it's...mmm...I think any artist...I don't think he actually knew what was actually driving him. We're talking about someone who started so young and was at the peak of his career so young, so early in his life, so in the end it's one of those careers where you don't even have time to think about what got you here and what you're actually in charge of; you're just doing it. It's just a natural impulse, I think. But I think one of his real geniuses—how do you say, "geniuses"?

G: Sure. Sure.

GU: Was to actually be able to seize the essence of an era, you know? He was brilliant in actually being able to understand his era, his time, and how the world was actually changing and the mentality in the daily life of women, and to actually respond to it in his creation, in his fashion.

G: When you describe him sort of falling into this world so young—

GU: Mm-hm.

G:. And being pulled by the current of that, it sort of sounds like something you could relate to.

GU: True.

G: That's really your own story, isn't it?

/content/interviews/410/4.jpgGU: Yeah, yeah. There were many similarities or many points on which I could actually identify myself in this role. As you said, I started working really young and also all the relationship with notoriety and celebrity, you know? That's something I experienced also in my own life. Being shy, insecure: this is something I experienced a lot when I was a kid or a know, as an actor when you open a script and you start reading it, there are some characters where you straight away identify yourself or understand deeply the complexity of the human aspect of a character and some others where nothing really happens, you know? And I think it's purely organic and visceral relationship to the character, and this is one of those characters where this immediate relationship...builds as you just read the script for the first time.

G: Soulfully, the character seems he's adrift in the world but also in some way a prisoner of his own success. There's just this sort of contradiction in terms. Is that how you saw him? What about his mindset as he traveled through all this success?

GU: Yeah, I think you're right talking about imprisonment. It's a prison movie when you think about it. And that's a recurrent...theme in Bertrand's work. When you look at his previous films, there's always this idea of imprisonment, incarceration. And that's very present in the film, especially in all those studio scenes where he is actually creating. At some point I like to picture those scenes as prison scenes. Maybe the way it's lit. It's more a hospital or asylum: you know, his being watched, infantilized. And yeah we're talking about this specific period of his life and his career where it's a dialectic between work and life, and enjoyment and freedom, and that's what we're talking about. It's one point in his career where work, creation, becomes a real pressure and a real imprisonment of himself, and so all those dark and night scenes full of excess, reckless abandon became for me the real light scenes, you know? The scenes where he would find the light? Find life and freedom and lightness of itself, and that was an interesting way to work through the film.

G: You mentioned him being infantilized...Jacques de Bascher refers to him at one point as "a spoiled child," and Pierre Berge treats him like one in some ways. Do you think he was, in some ways, frozen in his childhood where he had been surrounded by wealth and love but also subject to judgments about his sexuality?

GU: Yeah, at that time, I think, where you are—I was gonna say "feminine," but he's not that feminine, but you know as a kid he would be...

G: Delicate.

GU: Yeah, delicate, fragile, a bit feminine, maybe. I think inextricably it affects your relationship to other boys at school, and there is only a few documents where he's actually talking about his childhood, but you can see that he suffered from it, obviously. He probably was bullied at school. But strangely later, when you think of it, with Pierre Berge they were actually the first French couple to publicly announce they were together. So he was not hiding it anymore.

G: How would you characterize those two relationships that are so much the story of the film in a way? How deep was Saint Laurent's love or his lust, and what did each man give him?

GU: I think we're talking about someone who is very sensitive, you know, very fragile. That's maybe in every artist, but you know he was so, um, I don't have the word, but I like to think about him in many scenes of the film—this helped me a lot for some scenes—to think about this man as a sponge that would actually impregnate himself from all the people around, all the emotions he could receive all around him, and just use it: at some point withdraw himself from the surrounding world and surrounding people, isolate himself in his own bubble and maybe rise above it all to get another perspective and then use it in his creation. That's what, maybe, art is about. So in the end it makes this man very, very emotional and fragile in some way.

G: This is probably a good time to segue to talking about your own process of sponging up...

GU: (Chuckles.)

G: Before taking on this role. So there was a testing process over three months. Was that effectively as much rehearsal as test? What did you take from that time?

/content/interviews/410/5.jpgGU: Yeah, we had a couple of readings and screen tests with Bertrand before he actually phoned me to say he wanted to work with me, but you know it was interesting because when I think of it the first thing we did was actually imitating—well, that's not what he was precisely asking, but the first thing Bertrand asked me to do was he sent me a link to a video interview of the seventies of Saint Laurent, and I would have to re-do it in front of his camera. So obviously the first thing I did was to go through a pure imitation process. And then as we started working on it—on the scenes from his script—it was the total opposite. We realized that this was the typical biopic trap and that as soon as I would start imitating or going through the mimicry, it would stifle and block the emotion, and the idea then was to try to inspire myself, appropriate this character to myself and never try to reproduce or imitate anything, and in the end it went even further in my own process. When I started preparing for the role, I realized that the key thing was to, as much as possible, try to clear some space to reinvent and fantasize about this man and reinvent him in the end in my own personal way.

G: As an actor, especially one playing a real figure, it can be incumbent upon you to sculpt your body even for the role, and I know that was a part of this process as well. Can you talk about how you went about that, or if you consulted others in that process?

GU: I was lucky to have Jérémie Renier on the film with me because he's a very close friend. He's been a close friend for more than ten years now. He was playing Pierre Berge in the film. And he did a few years back a film for the Dardenne Brothers where he was a junkie [Ed.: Lorna's Silence], and he had to lose a lot of weight, and so he actually helped me a lot in this process of getting thinner. I think I lost like nearly thirty pounds for this part. And he gave me a very specific diet and it worked really well.

G: (Laughs.)

GU: But yeah it's true. There was this physical approach to it, and then there was also this voice question.

G: Yes. Yeah, yeah.

GU: 'Cause for many people, I think, Saint Laurent in their memories had this very specific voice, intonation, rhythm in the way he speaks, and I knew I had to do something with my voice. I didn't really know what exactly and Bertrand either. He was really open on this subject, and so it was a question that kept pending for a very long time, and I just thought I would listen to a lot of different recordings of Yves, but I never really tried to analyze precisely any of those sounds or intonations. It was more about letting my ear absorb [those] sounds so that on Day One this voice would come out in the most natural, spontaneous, organic way. And I think that, yeah, that was the right way to do it, otherwise it would have been pure imitation.

G: Yeah. All of this kind of research and preparation is a conscious process, but then it all has to become unconscious when you're acting.

GU: True. Totally. Yeah.

G: What else factored into your research in terms of books, articles, footage, experience of people or places that he knew?

/content/interviews/410/3.jpgGU: Well, that was the first reflex I had was to gather as much information as I could, and there's not that much, you know. There's a lot of readings, but only a few pictures and really few TV interviews 'cause he was really shy and not really keen to do any TV stuff, so you can only find a few [bits of] footage on the internet and that's it. You can find a lot more when he's older, but I'm talking about the decade we cover in the film. And so for a month I would just keep reading many, many stuff on Yves and trying to gather information, and at some point I realized I was not doing the right thing 'cause I felt like buried under all those facts and [all that] information...and totally paralyzed. And that's when I realized I had to take some distance with all of those details and then, as I said before, reinvent my own character in the parameters of fictional film in the end, you know? It's still a fiction and a fictional character, and that's when it started to become really interesting, when I realized I could actually introduce my—well, use my own emotions, my own memories, my own soul and put it into this character.

G: What about understanding depression? That seems so central to the character. And I guess, also, his disconnect from his reality because that's a function of fame and also of drugs and maybe even just the creative mind.

GU: Yeah, I think it's all about this dialectic between freedom and imprisonment, as you said before, and I think that when you have to renew yourself a few times a year and do new collections all the time, you have to experience life fully, you know? That's where you find inspiration and also maybe the strength to keep going, and that doesn't really go well with the idea of being under all that pressure and being forced to work. 'Cause that's what happened at some point: when he was not going to work for a couple of days, Pierre Berge would actually imprison him in the studio. He would lock the door and force him to work, and nothing good can come out of this. But, you know, we're talking also about—that's what makes it interesting is about the economical pressure, and when you have such a big brand, even if it's about art in the end 'cause he's creating, you have to come up with a new collection somehow even if you didn't find any inspiration. So that's what was so hard, and it's this struggle between the economical aspect of it and the artistic. And it's interesting 'cause it kind of echoes what's happening also in today's film industry, you know? And somehow maybe it was also something that talks to the director Bertrand Bonello. It's about how can art and commerce co-exist.

G: Yeah. Well, in the film, of course he says he created a monster, and then he has to feed that beast. So one of the things the press notes talk about is Bertrand Bonello talks about scenes veering off in unexpected directions, and I think he's talking about particularly your scenes with...

GU: Louis...

G: Louis Garrel. How did that go?

/content/interviews/410/6.jpgGU: Yeah, I think that's maybe the only scene, the only moment, because the entire scene is very long, but it's the only moment in the film that was not in the script. I'm talking about this kiss, this long kiss. Because Bertrand likes things to open up and build themselves on set. But, in the end, when you think about it, everything we shot was pretty close to the script aside from this particular moment where he just came up in the middle of the night shoot saying, “You know what? I think we need a kiss between those two men 'cause it's not in the script, but I think it's something we really need.” And, you know, we looked at each other, with Louis, the other actor, for a beat and we agreed and said, “Okay, we'll give you only one take" [laughs], and this smart Bertrand just...

G: (Laughs.) Let the camera go.

GU: Just let the camera roll roll forever. (Chuckles.) But I'm happy we did it 'cause it's a very nice moment, you know. This kiss is amazing. You can actually hear the leather crack at the same time. It's a nice cinema moment, really.

G: Speaking of identifying nice cinema moments, you went to film school when you were younger, and you've talked about a desire to one day direct. I wonder if you have kind of cast the net wide. Are you actively looking for something to direct or is that still something you think about being down the road?

GU: Well, when I think back—today it feels to me less easy than it seemed when I was younger, you know? Somehow I feel way more pressure today than I could feel at that time. Maybe I was not totally conscious about what it means to direct a film, and so today I still have this strong envy to one day direct, but I realize that it really means something and that, when you take this responsibility, you have to really have something to say or to show to the world, you know? You just don't do a film to do a film. So I hope one day I'll find the right subject and I'll find the confidence to do it. But, yeah, it's very appealing to me, but I'm taking time to spot the right script.

G: What about stage work? On a similar note, you've expressed a desire to perhaps trod the boards more. Have you done that in recent years, or no?

GU: I did. I did three years ago for a full month in Paris in a theater near Champs-Élysées. It was my first professional experience on stage. So very daunting, a bit frightening, but in the end very fulfilling. It's a total different way of approaching acting. It gives you so much more in a way. It's so rewarding 'cause you have this direct connection to the audience, and the reward is immediate. Actually it's the same feeling as when you run, you know? You have this adrenaline kicking in, and it's very appreciable. But very, very exhausting. I found it very exhausting in the end. When you do the same thing every night for a full month. So I don't know if I could it that often, but I will certainly do it again. That's for sure.

G: Many of your films have traveled to these shores, but probably the average, everyday American is most likely to know you from playing Hannibal Lecter. (Laughs.)

GU: (Chuckles.) Hm. True.

G: Which I guess was your breakthrough role over here.

GU: Yeah.

G: Playing an iconic role like that—and now, of course, you're playing another. Is that something that follows you around? Obviously it's following you around at this moment—

(Both chuckle.)

G: But do people still kind of press you about playing Hannibal Lecter? Or see you in those terms?

GU: Ah, you know, it's weird because I was so young. For me, when I think about it, I don't even recall, and it seems like it's a different part of my life, you know? Today if somebody would come up to me with the same offer...

G: (Laughs.)

/content/interviews/410/10.jpgGU: I would say "no" straight away. I was so crazy to accept this role. How can you work on such a character coming after Anthony Hopkins that just did the most perfect performance on this role. But you know, I learned so much with this experience. It was my first experience in English, and I also discovered what it is to actually promote a film 'cause I remember we just traveled around the entire world with this film, and I went through all those heavy junkets—

G: (Laughs.) Yeah, right.

GU: For the first time. So it was a hell of an experience. But yeah. Honestly, you know, it was just so, uh, brave...

G: (Laughs.)

GU: Of me to just put on such a role, and today when I think about it, I just think I was totally insane, but—

G: (Laughs.) The bravery of youth.

GU: Yeah.

G: Alright, well, it's been fantastic talking to you. Best of luck with the film.

GU: Thanks a lot.

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