Cannes: How a Blind Actor Navigates the Croisette
Melchior Derouet, who starred opposite Natalie Portman in 2006 Un Certain Regard selection 'Paris je t’aime,' joins other French actors in the festival scrum to “see and be seen.”
He could be any young man in a tuxedo, screening ticket in hand, hurtling down the Rue d’Antibes to the night’s big premiere at the Palais.
Melchior Derouet, who starred opposite Natalie Portman in 2006’s Paris je t’aime, navigates Cannes’ jostling crowds, barricades and stern French police faster and more fearlessly than most. So most people do a double take when they notice Derouet is carrying a white cane as he races pell-mell toward the Croisette to get in line on the red carpet for the world premiere of Gus van Sant’s The Sea of Trees.
Almost totally blind since birth because of a genetic defect, Derouet has carved out a respectable career as an actor in Europe. He just got a new agent in London, in addition to his longtime Paris management, and hopes to work more in the U.K. and the U.S. He is fluent in English as well as Spanish, and speaks some German.
Beginning at age 5 in Paris, Derouet said he wore down his dubious mother by telling her every day that he wanted to be an actor. He made his first movie, a short, at 14. Director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) hired him for The Princess and the Warrior, which filmed in Germany in 2000, and then called him again for Paris je t'aime. He also starred opposite actress Alexandra Maria Lara in 2012's Imagine, and has been the French voice of Apple’s Siri on French television ads.
Like many other young working French actors who come to the festival to see movies (theirs or others) and to network, he arrives at the Young Actor’s Desk at the Palais every morning to fight over the available tickets for that day’s screenings. THR caught up with him over lunch at the Majestic for an interview in French, translated here:
How do you dare run through the streets of Cannes? Aren't you scared of getting hit by a car or banging into people?
Well, the time you saw me, I was late and I didn't want to miss the screening. I walk fast but I try to be careful. I do my best. The fact I'm blind and any issues it causes is really not my problem. It's just like a technical detail.
Did you have parents like Helen Keller who raised you as if you didn't really have a handicap?
Pretty much. I did everything other kids did. Ran around, played hide-and-go seek. Hit my head all the time and fell down. I was always ending up in the hospital. The nurses knew me. I wasn't a masochist. I just didn't have fear. My mother decided early on she would go crazy if she worried about me so she just took on a Zen attitude.
Why of all things did you decide you wanted to be an actor when you were only 5?
I always told my mother acting was the best thing in the world. She tried to tell me I should try something easier since I couldn't see. But I knew. When I found out one of my little friend's father was a director, I pounced on him one day begging for an acting job. When I got signed by Daniel LaCroix I was still too young to legally work in France but we got away with it. I was in at least two big productions a year. I'm sure if I was sighted I'd have gotten more work but I've always had jobs. I started doing short movies at 14 and the parts got bigger. When I got a new agent when I was 18, he saw my CV before he saw me and thought I must be around 42 with all the work I'd had.
You're making it sound so easy. How many roles are there for a blind person?
It's not easy. It's just a question of persevering. I've had agents who have really fought for me. French casting directors can be tough. They didn't want to see me for parts because they worried about the hassle of it all. But one of my agents would convince them to meet me for 10 minutes and sometimes that made the difference. Even now, my Paris agent will tell me about an audition and let me know if the casting director is difficult. So I go in with with all my equipment, my laptop with my braille machine and let them see that I can manage. I'm not going to hold up production because I'm blind. I can handle myself on set.
What was it like working on Paris je t'aime with Natalie Portman?
Natalie was fantastic. So brainy and professional. She was always reading. We had to shoot our scenes in just five days all over Paris with very little security, using real people as extras. We were always changing our clothes in little portable dressings rooms on the street. It was crazy but wonderful.
You're going to a lot of movies here at Cannes. You tweeted that one of them, Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales starring Salma Hayek was "nul" ["it sucks"]. How do you experience a film without being able to see it?
I see the movie through brain vision. Vision doesn't just come through the eyes. It comes through the face, the mouth, the palate, the sternum, the stomach, all the sensitive parts. You become the camera yourself. You forget your eyes. It's a different system of vision.
Do you have any plans to quit acting?
No, that's one reason why I'm at Cannes. For all of us working actors, it's a place to see and be seen. When I'm acting I feel as if I'm in the best place in the world. If there was a heaven for me, it would be somewhere with a stage on one side and a film set on the other. That's all I need to be happy.