Pop­u­laire star Ro­main Duris talks pe­riod rom­com with Tara Brady,

For nearly two decades, French ac­tor Ro­main Duris has been charm­ing au­di­ences – and crit­ics – in a wide va­ri­ety of films. And he’s set to do it again in a new ‘retro’ rom­com. Tara Brady met him

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You have to re­mind your­self that Ro­main Duris is clos­ing in on 40 and that later to­day, he’ll re­turn home to La Bastille to be with his ac­tor part­ner, Olivia Bon­hamy, and the cou­ple’s four-year-old son, Luigi. He has dressed down, in jeans, and his art­fully messy, dark hair makes one think in style sec­tion bytes such as “cam­pus chic” and not of phrases such as “dad” or “aver­age age of Volvo owner”.

To­day, he has stopped off in one of Lon­don’s more fash­ion­able ho­tels for a fly­ing visit, but Duris’s re­turn ticket on the Eurostar ought to, one feels, mark the first stage of a dar­ing in­ter-rail­ing ad­ven­ture.

And yet, as even a cur­sory glance at his CV re­minds us, Duris is 39 and has notched up al­most two decades’ worth of cred­its in the “biz” – stretch­ing all the way back to Cédric Klapisch’s 1994 dram­edy, Le Péril Je­une .

Bar­ring the oc­ca­sional ex­port-friendly con­fec­tion – 1996’s froth­tas­tic When the Cat’s Away or 2002’s The Span­ish Apart­ment spring to mind – Duris’s early break­throughs were syn­ony­mous with what, in the An­glo­phone world, was dubbed the New French Ex­trem­ism. Not long into his eclec­tic ca­reer, Duris fea­tured in Jan Kounen’s sem­i­nal, ul­tra­vi­o­lent Dober­mann in 1997 and in Tony Gatlif’s wil­fully ab­surd 1999 film, Chil­dren of the Stork.

Did he feel as though he was part of a nou­velle, nou­velle vague at the time?

“Yes and no. I like to mix things up too much to say,” he grins. “It is the great thing about France. The young au­di­ences can go to a film by an author like Gas­par Noé or Ozon and, you know, that’s great. We can make pop­u­lar films like The In­touch­ables and we have some movies for ex­port. But we still pro­duce au­thors. We still pro­duce great cin­ema. That’s the most im­por­tant thing.”

To­day, Duris oc­ca­sion­ally – only very oc­ca­sion­ally – turns to a trans­la­tor for a dig-out. Mostly, he’s per­fectly ca­pa­ble of gab­bling along in ac­cented English. He speaks French only jok­ingly: “Moi?” he cries in­cred­u­lously and more than once.

The ac­tor had al­ready been short­listed twice as the Most Promis­ing Ac­tor by the César com­mit­tee – for Gadjo dilo in 1997 and Peut-être in 1999 – when Jac­ques Au­di­ard’s moody 2005 drama The Beat That My Heart Skipped, cat­a­pulted Duris into the broader, in­ter­na­tional con­scious­ness. A slanted re­make of James To­back’s Fin­gers (1978), Beat boasted a daz­zling cen­tral per­for­mance from Duris and enough swag­ger to jolly its maker and lead­ing man around ev­ery awards bash on the con­ti­nent.

It must have changed the kind of projects and screen­plays he was of­fered overnight, surely?

“Yes,” he nods. “But this was not al­ways a good thing: mostly what changed is that with ev­ery script the di­rec­tor said ‘I’m go­ing to do some­thing like Au­di­ard’. You read the drama and you knew the di­rec­tor wanted to be Jac­ques Au­di­ard. And that’s com­mend­able. But no­body can be Au­di­ard ex­cept for Au­di­ard. It’s im­pos­si­ble. He does things with story and char­ac­ter that are co­her­ent that no­body else could make co­her­ent.”

Duris ad­mits, none­the­less, that The Beat That My Heart Skipped im­pacted on his own view of him­self. The “ac­ci­den­tal ac­tor”, who was spot­ted by a cast­ing di­rec­tor on the Metro in 1996, had, hith­erto, gen­er­ally con­sid­ered his glit­ter­ing pro­fes­sion as some­thing of a joke.

“At that time, I was play­ing with same weapons I had again and again,” he says. “I had no method. I still don’t. I had been re­ly­ing on spon­tane­ity. Spon­tane­ity is good but what’s great in this kind of job is that the more years you spend, the more truths and tools you have to play with. I don’t know. It’s dif­fi­cult for me to speak about act­ing and make any sense. I have no train­ing. It’s a mys­tery to me . . . ” Born in Paris to an ar­chi­tect-en­gi­neer and a bal­le­rina, Duris’s train­ing for stage and screen came through his sis­ter Caro­line, a con­cert pi­anist who taught her brother how to fake be­ing a pi­ano vir­tu­oso in The Beat That My Heart Skipped. (Her play­ing fea­tures on the film’s sound­track.)

“She would drag me in to do lit­tle party pieces for her friends,” re­calls Duris. “I al­ways loved to dance at par­ties. So my sis­ter would chore­o­graph me in lit­tle shows. I had train­ing to be Michael Jack­son. I re-

“I think there is a nat­u­ral se­lec­tion to what I do. When I read some­thing, I’m look­ing for the kind of pu­rity any reader is look­ing for”

mem­ber that. She would gather her friends around: ‘Look, my lit­tle brother: he’s Michael Jack­son’.”

De­spite this in­aus­pi­cious sound­ing school­ing, Duris has sel­dom been short on grav­i­tas. To date, he’s es­sayed the ti­tle roles in the biopics Arsène Lupin and Molière and had a crack at Leonardo da Vinci in 2007’s L’Âge d’Homme. Be­tween busy awards sea­sons – he has chalked up 10 ma­jor nom­i­na­tions to date – Ro­main Duris seems happy to pop up in rom­coms and all kinds of con­fec­tions.

Heart­breaker, his ditzy 2010 Côte-d’Azur ro­mance, play­ing op­po­site Vanessa Par­adis, re­mains his big­gest Fran­co­phone hit.

“And it’s the film I said ‘no’ to for the long­est,” he says. “I re­sisted. And then it turned out to be the most suc­cess­ful film I’ve made in

terms of foot­fall and box of­fice.”

He shrugs: “Maybe I’m just bad at pick­ling com­mer­cial suc­cesses.”

The in­com­ing Pop­u­laire – re­leased in Ire­land next week – looks all set to bring back the Heart­breaker crowd. Pitched as a syn­the­sis of Mad Men, Pyg­malion and The Artist, the Day­Glo com­edy has Duris’s 1950s chau­vin­ist take on Déb­o­rah François’s bump­kin as his sec­re­tary. The girl proves use­less at ev­ery­thing, of course, but her skills as a typ­ist are near supernatural. Her boss quickly hatches a plan to en­ter his charge in the National Typ­ing Com­pe­ti­tion; he’ll do the coach­ing, she’ll get the Carpal Tun­nel Syn­drome.

It all goes swim­mingly un­til she starts mak­ing puppy dog eyes at un­move­able Henry Hig­gins. Can she grind down his steely re­solve? Will she be able to stay on task? And more im­por­tantly, will she want to? He is, af­ter all, kind of a jerk. “Ha. Ex­actly. That was the most im­por­tant thing for me,” notes Duris. “To hold back on open­ing his hu­man­ity, to hold back on be­ing nicer. For most of the film he’s not open to love and emo­tions. But he’s typ­i­cal of his time. They had no idea how to treat women.” Pop­u­laire bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to The

Beat That My Heart Skipped. Is there any­thing that uni­fies Duris’s wildly var­ied oeu­vre ?

“I force my­self not to cal­cu­late th­ese things. It would be too de­press­ing. I think there is a nat­u­ral se­lec­tion to what I do. When I read some­thing, I’m look­ing for the kind of pu­rity any reader is look­ing for when you read a book or a news story. I think when I want to play the guy it usu­ally hap­pens be­cause it is new. But I try not to think if I have done some­thing be­fore or even to think if it is good or not.”

He re­mains an au­teur the­o­rist and turns into an all-out fan­boy at the men­tion of Tarantino: “He is the most im­por­tant rep­re­sen­ta­tive of our art that we have for this age.”

Duris has worked re­peat­edly with di­rec­tors such as Tony Gatlif.

“It makes the job eas­ier,” says the ac­tor. “I’m more at­tracted by di­rec­tors who have their own world and who are pas­sion­ate about cin­ema and who are try­ing to ex­plain some­thing new and dif­fer­ent to the au­di­ence. It’s eas­ier for me to work with and un­der­stand di­rec­tors with very clear ideas.”

We do hope that think­ing stood him in good stead for Michel Gondry’s Mood In­digo. An adap­ta­tion of Boris Vian’s sur­re­al­ist clas­sic,

Froth on the Day­dream, In­digo ar­rives here later this year, re­plete with an in­vis­i­ble car and pi­ano cock­tails. Don’t ask.

“Ev­ery in­struc­tion was bizarre,” laughs Duris.”It was chaos. We were given new things to play with faster than we could work them out. It was chaos! Only Michel Gondry could know how to make a movie like this. No one else knows.”

Ro­main Duris and Déb­o­rah

François in Pop­u­laire

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