Although he may be too introverted to gain status as an international superstar, Melvil Poupaud admits he’s content to let independent and auteur-driven films shape his career. He made his screen debut in Raúl Ruiz’s City of Pirates at age nine, after which his maturation on screen came at the hands of some of world cinema’s most accomplished directors, among them Eric Rohmer (A Summer’s Tale), François Ozon (Time to Leave), and Arnaud Desplechin (A Christmas Tale), and Xavier Dolan (Laurence Anyways). Even in his work for American filmmakers like Zoe Cassavetes (Broken English) and Angelina Jolie (By the Sea), there’s a sense that his aura, a charismatic mix of intelligence and apprehension, is a kind of inspirational force.
In his latest film, The Great Game, which had its U.S. premiere at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, he stars as Pierre Blum, a once-famous writer who’s fallen on hard times. Pierre is commissioned by the mysterious, alluring Joseph (André Dussollier) to pen a book that will have significant political impact and importance. When Pierre delivers on this promise, he finds his life in jeopardy. The film, written and directed by Nicolas Pariser, takes a cool approach to the political thriller; its thrills derive from the insights it offers of the intricacies of French politics. It also provides a terrific showcase for Poupaud, whose character goes from naïve to cynical to self-assured—which is some kind of mirror of his own trajectory throughout his career.
In New York City to promote The Great Game, Poupaud spoke to us about politics, the evolution of his career, and how, with every new film he makes, he learns something new about himself.
Let’s start with the questions that Joseph asks Pierre in the film. Do you drink, smoke, or gamble? Are you Jewish or in politics? What are your vices, and what should we know about you?
I’m not Jewish. I’m not into politics. I like to drink wine. I’m French. That’s more and more one of my passions: traveling and drinking proper wine, Burgundy and Bordeaux. And I do smoke—all kinds of stuff.
Your character Pierre is described as a promising writer, then less so, then not at all, a “disappointing type.” Your acting career seems to be the reverse: You keep rising and working with interesting directors.
I think it’s a weird career. I started as a kid, and child actors don’t make it as actors as adults. Cute kids change, and the public doesn’t recognize them. It’s sad that child actors are so unhappy. Jean-Pierre Léaud survived [childhood acting] like me, and when we work together, we joke about “surviving in cinema.” I was lucky also because I was raised among a cinephilic crowd. My mother was a press rep in art-house films: Benoît Jacquot, Wim Wenders, and Raoul Ruiz, which is how I came to work with the latter. She had a high idea about cinema—more the artistic, not the commercial side. So maybe that influenced my career and my choices to be in auteurist movies, not blockbusters. I respect my choices and hope people recognize that. That’s what I intend to continue to do.
Pierre goes from being unknown and naïve to cynical and self-assured. What do you think accounts for his transformation?
That’s the point: the idea that he’s a character who’s low in his life, and it’s like a rebirth, a rebuilding of himself—recovering his mind after his love ended, and he couldn’t write. It’s a dangerous way for him to work, but it gives him new inspiration. The chase sequence shows him as a man finally making a decision to run and get through better days. He feels something new.
He has an ethical quandary too. Pierre is a puppet being asked to participate in something he might not completely believe in. How do you see him handling the situation he has found himself in?
I think he doesn’t have much to risk, because he has nothing to do in his life. He might be curious to take a chance because he’s got nothing to lose. He’s charmed by Joseph, and [theirs is like] a father-son relationship. The first scene shows that Pierre doesn’t want to talk or be involved with Joseph, but then he has a lot of interest in and tenderness for this old guy. Pierre thinks Joseph is a master and he’s charmed.
Do you think actors are puppets, being manipulated by a director? How did you come to trust Nicolas Pariser, and work with him to create Pierre?
Actually, I met Nicolas a few years before we started working together. He was a film critic and interviewed me. He was a very good cinephile. He translated films as well, and I could feel he was passionate about movies. The references he gave me, such as Jean-Pierre Melville, were the right and precise ones. He convinced me because of his desire for cinema. I need the director to be a leader and find the right words to talk to his crew and actors, and the stronger and more precise he can be, the more I like it. I like directors when they don’t hesitate. I can propose and give my own ideas, but it’s important to be confident both as an actor in a director and a director in an actor.
How was Angelina Jolie as a director? By the Sea was unfairly maligned as a vanity project.
Jolie was very confident. I have received nice compliments now that the film is widely available. People say what they think. Critics were tough on it. It was a special, intimate, and courageous little film, like a European art-house film. And on set, that’s how it was: She was in charge, working with actors and her husband making a film about personal issues and being naked and truthful to what we all experience as couples in life.
The Great Game requires a bit of knowledge about the French political system. Are you active in politics?
I’ve never been into politics. I’m ashamed of that. I voted once or twice and I will change that. But this film changed my mind about this. I got to read some political essays and it opened my mind. That’s how it works. You get a part and it transforms you in many ways, though maybe not enough to go on to become president.
Both By the Sea and Fidelio: Alice’s Odyssey, rely strongly on your sexual magnetism. Do you see yourself as a sex symbol?
It was never my idea to become a sex symbol. I grew up on the big screen. It was a tough experience as a teenager because you have problems seeing yourself going through childhood into adulthood. I got a camera and made movies in which I filmed myself since I was nine. I’ve seen all my angles. It inoculated me to my own self. So I have no problem with my physical appearance. I like aging actually. It’s good to change and be different. I have access to roles I didn’t think I would do 10 years ago—playing someone mature, and who has experienced life. I think directors want to use that because they’ve seen me grow up and they know more about me than other people. I choose characters where sex is involved, but I don’t play sex symbols. Sex is part of building the character. Many of the characters I choose are because they have an interesting level of sexuality. I like to have sexuality in mind when I choose a character.
Do you have aspirations to make it in America?
I don’t know. I’d like to work more in America. I like to act in English and act in cinema and work outside of France. More and more actors export themselves because cinema is globalized. I work in Portugal and China, and experiment in different ways in acting. American cinema is important, so I’d like to do more roles here. But it’s almost like it’s not me deciding. I have to wait for the call. I have French friends who went to Los Angeles and tried to make it there, but I don’t want to get into that. I think it’s depressing. I’d rather wait for someone to see my films and come to me.
You have directed a handful of short films. Will you ever direct a feature?
It depends on how many projects I have as an actor. But since I have good propositions and work with good directors such as Pariser and Dolan, I’d rather keep on being an actor. If that stops, then I’d write a script. I think I could direct a movie. I’ve done shorts and videos that have been show in galleries, museums, and in festivals alongside films I’ve acted in. I like directing, and it gave me ideas about mise-en-scène and editing, which is helpful as an actor, but at the moment I’m happy with my acting career, so I’ll stick to that.