Americans know Gaspard Ulliel best as the young Hannibal Lecter in the 2008 prequel “Hannibal Rising” and as Audrey Tatou’s costar in “A Very Long Engagement.” In his native France, he’s a household name who, with Kate Moss, is the face of Longchamps. And such a face: Lips to rival Angelina’s, steel-blue eyes, a killer jawline. Lucky for us, the hunk can act.
In his latest film, Bertrand Tavernier’s 17th-century romance “The Princess of Montpensier,” Ulliel portrays the young Duc de Guise, a rakish warrior who dukes it out with the Prince de Montpensier (Gregoire LePrince-Ringuet) to win the heart of the beautiful Marie de Mezieries (Melanie Thierry). The film hits theaters this Friday, April 15 through IFC Films.
indieWIRE caught up with the charmer in Manhattan.
For a young actor, you seem to have an affinity for period films. You got your big break the 18th century-set “Brotherhood of the Wolf,” worked with Jean-Pierre Jeunet for the WWI romance “A Very Long Engagement” and played a young Hannibal Lecter in “Hannibal Rising,” set shortly after World War II. What’s the deal?
I just choose the scripts I want to work on. I don’t know why. It’s not something conscious or that I’m doing on purpose. Maybe my physical appearance speaks more to period-style films. I think it’s a good thing, because it’s something that permits me to travel and explore history. You get a chance to learn so many things about daily life during these different periods. Especially on this experience. Working with Bertrand was so interesting. He knows so many things about so many subjects. French history is one of his main passions. He was so precise and focused on these minute details to make the film as faithful to history as possible.
Speaking of your appearance, it’s ironic to note you yourself have a visible scar on your face like the Duc de Guise, who was nicknamed Le Balafré (the scarred).
It was a total coincidence. When I first met Bertrand, I asked him if he was interested in me because of my scar. He said, “No, not at all.” He actually thought it was just a dimple. It was quite useful because all we had to do for the first scar was add a bit of makeup to my existing one. In the film, he gets a second one on the cheek.
What kind of research did you do prior to coming on set?
It’s good to have a director who knows what to give you, in terms of references. There was one major book that he gave to the whole crew. It was an amazing French biography on the king, Henry the Third. It delved into the conditions in which people were living – really small details, about how they would eat, sleep, clean themselves. It really helped fuel my imagination.
What was the training process like for the film? You seem to have done a lot of your own stunts.
The film was on standby for a couple of months due to financing issues. Suddenly they phoned everybody letting us know we had two months before the shoot began. So we had to rush through the prep.
Bertrand told us from the very beginning that he didn’t want any doubles, for anything. He also wanted to film in very long continuous shots without cutting. When I saw it finally, I was taken aback at how different it looks from current action films. You get a real feel for the pace of the fight and get a sense of the exaustion that sets in.
We knew we had to be ready for the day. We all trained for a month and a half. I had never really done anything like this before. It felt like dancing. It’s not real fighting. It’s choreography.
I hadn’t really ridden any horses before. So we had to train a lot. I really discovered something I loved. After completing the film, I kept going back to ride again. I missed it so much. It’s a wonderful feeling to be in a big landscape on a horse.
The film is notable for its attractive, young cast. What was it like working with peers your age?
It was interesting for Bertrand to pick such a young cast. Most of the characters in the film really existed and they were that young. The King wasn’t even 20 years old. He was the head of the army at 17. Bertrand was really out to cast the right age. Usually in period films you tend to see actors who are much older than the characters they’re portraying.
For me, it was great. Since first starting my career, I’ve grown accustomed to working with actors older than me. I’m always the youngest. So it was really nice to work with actors around my age. The whole experience was really enjoyable.
You were nominated three times for the César Most Promising Actor award, before finally winning in 2004 for “A Very Long Engagement.” Did you feel like a newcomer by the time you won?
In a way, yes. I was still young. I still feel a bit like a newcomer. Other actors have accomplished so much, so you always feel like you’re a beginner in a way. In France, the Césars aren’t as big a deal as the Oscars, so it wasn’t something that I was craving. It was really nice and moving to get recognition from the industry. I wouldn’t care if I hadn’t won it.
I’ve had a lot of luck in my short career. I got into it by chance. I met some people who got me into casting rooms and I landed roles. I never even thought of pursuing this before. I did some theater as a kid for fun. But it was really by chance that I landed into acting.
You studied cinema, not acting, at the University of Saint-Denis, correct?
Well, it was around 11 or 12 that I started acting. I then became interested in cinema as an art form. I think I developed little by little a real passion for movies, not just acting. For all those years, I was more attracted to being on set, working on set than being on a stage. I’m a bit changed today. I think as an actor, the stage would be such an amazing experience.
After high school I decided to go to film school. When you’re so passionate about cinema, the idea to direct your own film is really appealing. That was what I wanted to do at that time and at the same time I was getting more and more offers to act in film. So I decided to stop those studies and give it a chance as an actor.
I don’t regret leaving, but sometimes I miss those moments when I would go to school and open myself up to interesting things. Even if I only studied for two years, it allowed me to discover these amazing directors from all around the world. I could have discovered them on my own, but it would have taken me more time.
Since then you’ve worked with some great directors — Gus Van Sant, Niki Caro, Jean Pierre Jeunet, to name a few. You even did a commercial with Martin Scorsese for Chanel.
It was just a commercial.
But still, Scorsese!
Yeah, I mean I was just thrilled when Chanel phoned me to tell me who was directing the ad. Even if it was just four to five days, it meant so much to me. I would wake up in New York City to work with Martin and pinch myself!
With Gus, it was sort of the same story. I was such a fan of his work. I was attached to “Paris, Je T’Aime.” They were offering me different parts in different districts with different directors. It wasn’t really clear. A year passed, then someone from production phoned me saying, “We’re ready to shoot your part. We want to give you a part in Gus Van Sant’s short.” I said, “Yeah, that’s perfect.”
Though set in Paris, that was an English-language short for the most part. Any more English language work planned for the near future?
I’d love to. It’s a bit tricky. As a foreign actor, I get offers from time to time. But as a foreigner, I don’t really get interesting offers most of the time. I’m really happy with my career in France. I think you have to give a lot of your time and come here more often if you want to break this market.
But I did just meet recently with Peter Greenaway for a nice project. Nothing’s set in stone, yet.