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It’s impossible to be in Marrakech without thinking of Yves Saint Laurent, the city’s European patron saint. He found inspiration from the traditional Berber clothing and from the light and colors of the city, which he describes as “insolent mixes.” He even bought Marjorelle Gardens (which combine Matisse-like shades of blue and yellow with cactus and foliage) and then donated it to the city. It was especially difficult to avoid thinking about Saint Laurent at the latest edition of the Marrakech Film Festival, which ended yesterday, since the festival juries included both Bertrand Bonello, director of the upcoming unconventional biopic “Saint Laurent,” and its star, Gaspard Ulliel.
It’s hard to take your eyes off of Ulliel. He might be described as a looking like a combination of Alain Delon and Jeff Spicoli, the goofball Sean Penn character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Endearingly, the Parisian speaks English with an almost American accent, yet with very French phrasings. Indiewire had a chance to catch up Ulliel at the festival to chat about Marrakech, “Saint Laurent,” working with Americans and kissing Louis Garrel.
Some of “Saint Laurent” takes place in Marrakech, but you didn’t film here?
No, we shot all the Marrakech scenes in the countryside a couple of hours from Paris. We found this amazing riad owned by a couple there, and it worked really well.
Had you spent much time in Marrakech to understand the appeal this city had for Saint Laurent?
I had been here many times, since I was ten. But still, before the shooting I decided to come here for a few days, and suddenly everything was different.
Did you see the city through his eyes? What was it that you think inspired him so much about this city?
He was always saying that this city reminded him of Oran in Algeria, where he grew up. The scents… And it’s true, when you’re walking around here you always have a strong smell, it can be flowers, or the food, or in the markets. Also this amazing light that gives the colors a different sheen. That was important to him, and an inspiration for his collections.
What was it that drew you to making that film? The character of Saint Laurent, the director Bonello, or the other actors [including Louis Garrel as his lover and Léa Seydoux as a muse]?
All of this. I was that lucky. The first step obviously was meeting with Bertrand, when I hadn’t read the script. Just the idea of collaborating with him, I was thrilled. To me he’s one of the most interesting French filmmakers working today.
Have you seen the other Saint Laurent performance yet [in the Jalil Lespert-directed biopic released last year, “Yves Saint Laurent”]?
I did. I waited until we finished our shooting to discover the other film. I remember arriving at the theater very nervous, and very quickly felt relieved when I realized quickly how different they were. They’re two different visions, two films that never really meet. So in a way, it’s legitimate for both films to exist. Maybe it’s the best way to celebrate the diversity of such an iconic man as Saint Laurent. I think Pierre Niney did a great job and I was relieved that he was proposing something quite different from what I decided to do.
How do you see those differences?
Well their biopic is more classical, and his performance is maybe more precise, closer to Saint Laurent in the voice and the attitude. While I decided very early in the preparation process to take some distance with the reality. In the end I think the character comes from something deeper in my own personality. At some point I realized that I could see deep inside my own perceptions, my own emotions, my own memories, my own life, to nourish this character.
There are so many moments of the character just being in reflection, in repose. In those moments, what were you thinking about? Your own personal thoughts? Or Saint Laurent’s own personal anguish?
I think it’s linked to the scene, you know. It depends on what came before and after in each scene. But sometimes you can drift away and think about something else and it gives something even more interesting.
What do you mean, drift off into a sort of dreamy state?
Well the base is the script. But what I like is to have some secrets that you’re not going to tell the director, or your fellow actors. It’s more something that is personal and secret, and I think that adds something more mysterious to a character.
Tell me about working with Martin Scorsese for a Chanel commercial.
It was a commercial that shot for four or five days, but it was like a dream. Waking up in New York, and going on set with Martin Scorsese. For me it was way more legitimate in that way, because when Chanel approached me about doing it, I knew I was taking the risk of becoming a model more than actor for some people. That happens a lot, people recognize me in the street more for a commercial than for a film. But with such an incredible director behind it, there was a cinephilic curiosity for me.
Are there other American directors you’d like to work with?
Well I’m not gonna talk about the big stars who are obvious, like Fincher, or Nolan, or even Scorsese. But Jeff Nichols [“Mud,” “Take Shelter”], I really like his films.
The kiss between you and Louis Garrel is one of the most memorable moments in “Saint Laurent.” I have to ask, is Garrel a good kisser?
He is. The best! With a mustache! It was the first time I was kissing someone with a mustache. I’m very proud of this kiss, because it was maybe the only thing that you see in the film that was not in the script. During that night of shooting, Bertrand the director came to us, and he could sense there was something going on that was very smooth between Louis and me.
Very easy. No fear, no shyness. So he came to us and said, I realized that I missed something, a kiss between these two men. It would be a very strong moment. And Louis and I looked at each other for a beat, and we said ok, we’ll give you one take. And that’s the one you see in the movie.
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This interview was originally published on December 16, 2014.