One of the most well known French actors in the U.S. is unquestionably Mathieu Amalric, the wild-eyed, handsomely disheveled actor-director who has collaborated with some of the biggest names in the field today, including David Cronenberg, Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg. Claiming roles in Otar Iosseliani’s “Winter Song,” Guy Maddin’s “The Forbidden Room” and Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days” in 2015 alone, Amalric still finds time to write and direct his own films, including “The Blue Room,” which premiered to much fanfare at Cannes last year. His previous effort, “On Tour,” won him the Best Director prize at the festival in 2010.
It’s fitting then that the French Institute Alliance Française and Anthology Film Archive is now conducting a retrospective for the great jack of all trades, entitled “Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man. The series, taking place through December 15, includes screenings of “My Sex Life…,” “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and a stage production of Eric Reinhardt’s “Fight or Flight.” Adapted and directed by Stéphanie Cléau, “Fight or Flight” serves as the actor’s U.S. stage debut. Before the play’s opening, Amalric sat down with Indiewire to talk about his favorite collaborators, what it’s like doing American movies and why he and Arnaud Desplechin are like an old married couple.
You’ve had an immense career in film for 30 years now, and you’ve recently gone back to your early film roots with Arnaud Desplechin’s “My Golden Days.” What was that like?
I just play the old guy, I think. But it’s beautiful, no?
Yeah, it’s been a beautiful collaboration. You’ve mentioned that Desplechin actually brought you into acting.
Yes, I fell into movies just to fabricate films. I did all the jobs in movies.
How old were you when you started that?
About 17. I just did all the jobs — editing, AD, the food, the transportation, the props. Film school didn’t want me. But this was better. I did all those jobs and did my short films as a director, but later on, Arnaud invented this thing. Acting was not supposed to be. He’s the guy who saw something I wasn’t aware of or had never thought about. So he’s sort of widened my range of life.
You have a lot of collaborators, directors that you return to multiple times. Is there a specific spark you find common in the directors who you want to return to?
Well, Arnaud… He’s incredible. To be part of his world it’s really amazing. And now that it’s been almost 20 years. So of course, it’s more and more scary. We’re like an old couple, no? We just have to continue. He doesn’t write for actors but I think it’s practical after a while. I’m on time, I’m nice. I also direct films so he doesn’t lose too much time having to say to the actor, “You’re the best, I love you, I love you,” he doesn’t need to do all that stuff because I’m just a director. I learn my lines, so it’s practical.
Are there other French directors that have rooted themselves very closely with you?
Well, the Larrieu brothers for instance, they are very different from Arnaud. Two brothers, they come from the Pyrenees and each time they invent things like if I was a puppet. A female puppet. So they put a dress on me, so they put a lot of disguise. I love to be in their cinema, which is not well known here, and it’s a pity because I think they are incredible filmmakers, really. It always has to do with circulation of desires, it’s great to be part of their world because all those films help me to try not to fuck up my life — to use everything that a human being can be. That’s what’s great in those experience as actors with all those amazing people. They just spread my curiosity.
There is quite a difference between what you’re known for in the U.S. and what you’re known for in France It’s been 10 years, but in 2005 you did “Munich” with Spielberg, which was kind of a big American splash, and of “Diving Bell and the Butterfly” hit the states two years later. Were you ready for the recognition in the U.S.?
I didn’t think about that. Steven Spielberg, that film for him that he shot in Europe was very important for him, was a small film for a him, in the scale. The guy just loves actors. And he is like a kid, he takes the camera and runs around. And of course it was almost like a joke that an actor would say to another, doing this film: “How are you doing today?” “Oh nothing, Spielberg just called me to be in his film.” You know? I don’t think about acting when I wake up in the morning, I think more of how can I steal time to write for myself, to not see journalists. [laughs] And have time really to work.
So I act only when it’s completely irresistible. And that was irresistible. In Spielberg films you can feel, especially in small scenes, even in “E.T”” how he films the actors, the family, you feel that he loves the actors. So “Munich” was more a film like that. It was very funny to do that. I was scared, because the scale was huge. Same thing for Julien [Schnabel]. “Diving Bell” was supposed to be French. It was with French actors, only French money. It’s a French film. It’s a sort of friendship, in fact. With Julien. Complicity.
You mention scale — what about your James Bond film?
That also is like if somebody gives you a big lollipop, like visiting in Coney Island. And I loved working with the stunts. It’s very impressive. Because on the Bond films, there is this philosophy to do the stunts in real. No green screen. The people who do it, they do it in real. So you have to work a lot with the body. It helped me a lot. So each time it’s very different. I just have this luck because I’m not an actor. When I say I’m not an actor, I just mean that it’s not my whole life. For some, if they don’t act they are dry, they are miserable. They have to act to feel themselves alive. I do it because other people have the idea and it’s like an invitation. So I’m lucky. But then I just try to keep my time to do my own stuff.
You certainly have a history of irresistible films. Is there a director you’ve always wanted to work with that you haven’t yet?
No! I never think about that. I like the fact that it’s something that is not planned at all. It’s like a real encounter. It’s like a love story. If something happens by chance, it’s very strong then. So never I would have thought to work with Roman [Polanski], for instance. Because I know all his film by heart. He’s one of the filmmaker, when I was an adolescent, that made me want to make films because he has this spirit of loving all of the tools of movies. I mean props, makeup, light, writing, acting. He’s an actor also. Everything is detailed. That’s what I love about making films is all those jobs. So I had read a lot on how he works, everything. I knew everything. And one day it happens. But it happened 9 days before the shooting. He changed actors 9 days before, he switched. So you don’t have time to be afraid. I had kept that month for writing for me, but I can’t turn him down.
We had to be ready with all the text 9 days after, because he works with theater, Roman. So especially for that film, “Venus in Fur,” it’s real time. The film takes place in 1 hour and 25 minutes, I think. So sometimes he needed us to do the whole thing. Sometimes he would stop the shooting and just have us run through it without the camera. You don’t have time to be afraid or to even realize what’s happening, that you’re doing a film with Polanski. We’re just working. So each time it’s a bit like that. You live in it, you have something to give.
Usually when directors are like that, they are simple to work with. The nightmare is when you work with someone who is empty. Then it can be stupid and vacuous and empty. Emptiness. If the person who is doing the film doesn’t give a shit or is doing it for social reasons. In fact, if you look at the set, the person that is not needed, technically is a director. It’s true. It happens very often, the guy will just come and sit on his chair and the film will be done. Everybody knows their job. You don’t need the director. I’m lucky I’ve never worked on that kind of film, because I’d never do it.
So, in a case like “Venus in Fur,” you lost your time to write, and that usually means losing your time to make your films. Is there something similar that brings you in or turns you on in all of your projects?
Well, you never are aware of those things when you do the film. It is thanks to journalists that you realize two years after or three years after that you go, “Oh, I did the film for that reason.” You don’t know, you really don’t know. Then what is very impressive is how the film that you do in a moment of your life shows a lot about what shape you were in. What strength or weakness or prison or liberty in that moment of your life you are living. But you are aware of it afterwards. Each film is in fact, starts with very intimate reasons. But you’re protected by fiction, by trying to do something that can be shared by other people. Entertainment is something very important for me in the fact that it can be spread.
“On Tour,” I had it about a guy who comes back in his country and thinks he has purity, you know, and I know that I was worried about producers, about the end of a specific way of producing films. To be in danger like that, and then I put those things with the kids. I love to be able to speak badly to kids as you’re not allowed to do in real life, I like to be able to speak badly to women, also. Because in life I don’t have that courage to be macho. So it was funny for me to do that. Because you do it with friends. And then “The Blue Room” was to film a lot more of a nightmare.
I know that when the film first started screening, you were all of a sudden very aware of how dark it was.
But it’s wonderful.
You know, cinema reveals a lot of yourself: of darkness, of sexuality, of mystery, of that attraction, that well inside of you. The parts that are deep. We all have that in common, in fact. How do we deal with the fact that we all come from animals? Every day we have to manage with that. Everybody. So you can shut it down, but we all have lived those moments of just bursts. Cinema tells about what things we all have in common. I like to do it in that way for that film, but it’s scary.
“Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man” will began Tuesday, November 3. “Fight or Flight” will debut November 4. Learn more about “Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man” at the FIAF website.