Stories of an actor being discovered while out in public are a dime a dozen, but they seem to be relics of a bygone era when casting agents would scout the streets looking for next big thing. Well the tradition is still alive and kicking in France. Romain Duris, the scruffy, limber Gallic charmer who stars in Pascal Chaumeil’s romantic comedy “Heartbreaker” alongside Vanessa Paradis, landed in the film business through one such lucky encounter.
At 18, while enrolled in painting school, Duris was approached on the street by Cedric Klapisch, a director who was looking to cast the main role in his film, “Le Peril Jeune.” Klapisch offered the part to Duris on the spot. The rest is history. Since starring in his first film with no prior experience back in 1994, Duris has become one of France’s most respected and sought after actors. At 32, he has landed three Cesars nominations (France’s equivalent to the Oscar), and has starred in such critically lauded films as “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” “L’Auberge Espanol,” “Paris,” and James Ivory’s “Le Divorce.”
However, unlike the majority of actors who hold the ‘discovered’ card, Duris never had any intentions of becoming an actor, and was wary of accepting his first film offer. Not because he didn’t think he had it in him, but because he had his own reputation on the line.
“At 18, I was savage,” said Duris, seated in plush suite at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, while in New York to promote “Heartbreaker.” “I didn’t want to do something that wasn’t true to me. It was very difficult to judge my first script, since I had never read a script before. But I knew that I would do something public with my life. Painting was a lonely work.”
Uncharacteristic of most ingénues, Duris described his first time on set as very natural. “It was like a holiday,” he recalled. Duris insists that he was more scared at the time about how the movie would turn out, and whether it would live up to his expectations.
“I was never like those people who had dreams of becoming an actor since 10 years old, so there was no pressure, I didn’t care,” Duris said. “That attitude helped me be light about the whole affair.”
Since completing his first film, Duris’ approach does not seem to have changed over time. There’s a refreshing lack of technique in his work. He’s an actor who lives in the moment, constantly keeping his audience unsure of what’s coming next. “When you play, it’s just being,” Duris said. “So it’s good to have no pressure. I try, even today, to feel the same spontaneity, the same lightness.”
It was this quality that made Chaumeil want to cast him in “Heartbreaker.” “He’s some kind of wild animal,” said Chaumeil, also from New York. “You’re always surprised. There are some actors you can almost predict what they are going to do. Good thing with Romain is that you have the feeling that you’re discovering the character along with him during the process of filming. It’s very rewarding for a director.”
When initially approached for the role of Alex Lippi, an adorable scumbag who runs a business designed to break up relationships–only to fall in love with one of his targets–Duris admitted that he turned down the offer. He had never appeared in a mainstream romantic comedy, and could not relate to the humor on the page. “I had to feel the humanity,” he said, “because the style of the script was a very formatted kind of comedy.” When he learned that Chaumeil was willing to let him improvise on set and find his own groove, Duris signed on.
“Heartbreaker” marks Duris’ first film to have the true potential to cross over to audiences the world over. The film unabashedly plays by all the American romantic comedy conventions to winning effect. In France, it was a bona fide hit this past spring.
So can American audiences hope to see him take on roles in the U.S.? According to Duris, not anytime soon. He appeared briefly in Romain Coppola’s “CQ,” and as a French heartthrob in “Le Divorce.” Though he said he enjoyed both experiences, he didn’t feel challenged by the work. “In terms of practice my job as an actor, I want more,” Duris said. “I don’t want be pegged as the French guy. If I do American films, I want to be distinguished by a character. After the question of the language is just an exercise. I want to create someone.”