Master of the Silent Treatment
In an Oscar season of breakouts, none has been bigger than "The Artist" and its stars as Jean Dujardin, one of France's top actors, keeps landing honors -- though American stardom may be more elusive.
As a child, Jean Dujardin struggled with words. "I wasn't dyslexic, I was just very slow," he recalls. "I passed my time daydreaming. They called me 'Jean de la lune' (Jean of the moon) because I didn't concentrate, I didn't listen." The actor's parents were so concerned, they even sent him to various psychotherapists, but he says, "I was just in my own world."
Now that world has come full circle with his title role as George Valentin in The Artist, the story of a silent film star who's also struggling with words, thanks to the coming of sound. The movie has propelled the French-born actor -- his father owned a small metalworking firm and his grandfather was a well-known chef -- to international fame. On Jan. 29, it won him a Screen Actors Guild award, and the next day he signed with William Morris Endeavor.
The Dujardin that Hollywood is now meeting is far more nuanced than the comedic figure he's known to be in France. "I'm not like him," he reflects. "I have moments of anguish and doubt, and I can go from being quite full of joy to being very silent." Then he quips, "It's tiring for my entourage!"
Says his friend, French actor-director Gilles Lellouche, "Jean is very reserved, modest, even shy."
The silence that haunts The Artist is something Dujardin himself is drawn to, especially when he wakes up early in Paris for one of his favorite pastimes, a run that leads him to Notre Dame cathedral, where he finds himself alone, lost in its emptiness. "I feel very at home in an empty church," he says. "I feel the most protected. It's very mystical."
Given this side of him, it's perhaps not surprising that he's been in no hurry to become a Hollywood celebrity. Another reason is that he speaks limited English (indeed this interview was conducted in French); he started learning English only in October.
"It helps doing all this promotion work in English," he says, "but I also have to promote my next film in France."
That's Les Infideles, a series of vignettes about infidelity that Dujardin co-wrote and co-directed with Lellouche, to be released Feb. 29. After that, and after the Oscars -- where he's running neck and neck with George Clooney as the favorite to win best actor -- he'll shoot Mobius, a romantic thriller set in the finance world, playing a spy opposite Cecile de France (Hereafter). All this could mean his schedule is too packed for Hollywood, even if it does find a place for him. And that's a big "if."
"He’s incredibly resourceful and inventive," says Artist casting director Heidi Levitt. "He’s a leading man with character actor skills. But crossing over will be about finding the right role that will utilize his charisma and acting chops. I can see him as everything from James Bond to Steve Carrell.
Adds Laray Mayfield, casting director for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network: "He could only get cast in a U.S. movie that had a role for a person who's French," says "An American actor is not going to get cast in a French movie either, unless they've got a part for an American."
Those kinds of limitations are precisely what impacted the career of Italian star Roberto Benigni, whose Hollywood crossover didn't take off after his Oscar-winning role in 1997's Life Is Beautiful. Other than Marion Cotillard, no French actor has become a real Hollywood star in recent years.
But Harvey Weinstein, who is overseeing The Artist's Oscar run, predicts a big future. "I don't think I've seen someone with such international star appeal since Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren," he says. "The drama, the comedy, the song and dance -- he is the consummate cinema buff who brings great ideas and energy to every project he's involved in."
Dujardin, 39, may seem like an overnight success here, but he started building a name for himself in France after barely making it through high school (he managed to pass his final exams by reciting a poem by one of his favorite writers, the romantic Charles Baudelaire, whose work he'll happily rattle off even now).
During 10 months of (then-mandatory) military service in his early 20s, the daydreamer started writing comedy sketches and monologues based on the varied characters he met. When he moved to Paris (he grew up about 20 miles from there, after spending his first few years in the town of Rueil-Malmaison, best known as the home of Napoleon's Empress Josephine), he pitched himself to the owner of a local bar. "I had written 11 characters, and I asked to perform them," he says. "The bar owner said, 'I've never done that before.' I said, 'Neither have I.' "
Dujardin went from performing in front of six or seven beer drinkers each night to playing in cabarets, either solo or in groups, before finding fame in the TV series Un Gars, Une Fille (A Guy, a Girl), which ran for three years.
Comedy, not drama, was where he made his name. His movie status swelled with the 2005 cult hit Brice de Nice, in which he plays a bleach-blond surfer on the French Riviera who's obsessed with Patrick Swayze in Point Break. The movie made upward of $50 million -- blockbuster territory in France. It was followed by his first teaming with Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, for whom he played a suave superspy in a pair of James Bond-spoofing OSS 117 movies that brought in some $55 million combined.
The three movies helped Dujardin become as well known in France as George Clooney is here, though the person to whom he's most often compared there is Jean-Paul Belmondo, the great actor who could hop back and forth from lightweight fare to heavier matter and is best known for 1960's Breathless and 1965's Pierrot le Fou.
He does favor comedy, though he says he enjoys the full spectrum of acting: "I like the hot-cold, the sugar-salt, being able to play over-the-top and dramatic things -- in the same film. Just as in my life, I can be very funny and at other times almost extinguished."
The funny side already has made him a hit with American television audiences thanks to The Artist's awards-season publicity push. He spoofed a camel on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon and saluted one of his personal heroes, Robert De Niro, with an impersonation he can pull off without words.
The actor never expected The Artist to have such success. But from the moment Weinstein spotted it prior to its debut at the 2011 Festival de Cannes, he says he "knew it was universal in its appeal, its scope -- it's a love letter to our movie industry. It pays tribute to American movies, but it is a passport to every country in the world." The Cannes jury agreed, awarding Dujardin its top acting prize. Still, the film has been a slow burner at the U.S. box office, where it has made $16.7 million to date, and may need the Oscar win to reach beyond a small art-house coterie.
"Michel spoke to me about it while we were making the second OSS," Dujardin recalls. "He said, 'I'd like to do a silent film,' and I said, 'Yes, and I'd like to fly to the moon!' But he's very tenacious, and then he started writing, and one day he showed me the script. I said, 'It's magnificent, but very difficult to get off the ground.' "
Dujardin was relatively unfamiliar with silent film, but, with Hazanavicius, he started attending the Paris Cinematheque, watching such as F. W. Murnau's Sunrise and King Vidor's The Crowd. "I saw there was a whole other side to silent film that was very modern," he says. It was this kind of film the pair wanted to capture in The Artist -- and their success can be measured by the movie's 10 Oscar nominations, including one for Dujardin as best actor.
Now, whether or not The Artist opens other doors for him, he seems quite happy with life as it is. He acknowledges that turning 40, as he will on June 19, is a turning point, but he's more focused on his relationship with his wife, actress Alexandra Lamy, whom he met while shooting Un Gars, Une Fille, and their three kids -- two boys and a girl, ranging from 10 to 14 years old. "At home, I'm a dad," he says. "Without them, I'd be a very famous actor, but a very isolated one. What would be the point of this success?"
6 FRENCHMEN WHO MADE THE LEAP: Like Dujardin, these actors built their reputation in the U.S. on careers started at home
Gerard Depardieu (b. 1948) The larger-than-life Depardieu made his name in the U.S. with 1974's Going Places, endearing himself further with Green Card and Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
Charles Boyer (1899-1978) A prolific film and stage actor in France, Boyer rocketed to fame in 1930s Hollywood, starring in Conquest, Algiers, Love Affair and, later, in Gaslight. He was nominated four times for best actor Oscars.
Vincent Cassel (b. 1966) Since his breakthrough in 1995's La Haine, Cassel has perfected complicated types in such movies as Black Swan and A Dangerous Method.He and Dujardin are remaking 1977's One Wild Moment.
Jean Reno (b. 1948) Morocco-born Reno moved to France at 17 and became a frequent collaborator of director Luc Besson, earning fame for his tough-guy roles (Nikita, Ronin). In 2006, he revealed his flair for comedy in The Pink Panther.
Lambert Wilson (b. 1958) Probably best known here for his role as the Merovingian in the Matrix movies -- and his Calvin Klein Eternity ad campaign -- Wilson was nominated for a best actor Cesar last year for the French film Of Gods and Men.
Jean Gabin (1904-1976) After performing at the Moulin Rouge, Gabin appeared in silents before becoming an international star in talkies such as Pepe Le Moko and Jean Renoir's 1937 masterpiece, Grand Illusion.