Marrakech: 'Yves Saint Laurent's' Pierre Niney on Taking on the Role of Famous Designer (Q&A)

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Pierre Niney

The young French actor talks about filming in Morocco and portraying a legend.

MARRAKECH -- Twice nominated for a Cesar Award in the most promising young actor category, Pierre Niney’s upcoming star turn in the highly-anticipated Yves Saint Laurent biopic could earn the 24-year old a main acting nod. One of two biopics about the late designer scheduled for 2014, Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent will open in French theaters on Jan. 8 before The Weinstein Company takes it to America later in the year. Though neither one of the films has official backing, the script to Lespert's film was approved by Saint Laurent’s lifelong business and domestic partner, Pierre Berge. It follows the designer from the early days of when he took the helm of Christian Dior at just 21, through the personal and professional upheavals he faced throughout his career, while focusing on his romantic relationship with Berge. The production had unprecedented access to Saint Laurent’s atelier and archive, shooting in his Paris halls and the designer’s former home in Marrakech. After filming in the city during the grueling August heat, Niney returned not only for this week’s film festival but to take in some of the sights he missed during weeks with 5 a.m. call times. He spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about taking on the tumultuous life of the legend.

YSL is such a legend in fashion and in France, did you feel intimidated at all taking on the role of someone who is an international icon?

I really tried as fast as I could to forget about that pressure and actually I was really impatient to start. I worked for five months with many coaches, on drawing, style, sewing and a physical coach too, and there was a huge amount of preparation. I was really impatient. I couldn’t wait to start the shoot more than I was afraid of it. I always work like that. It’s my only religion to work hard, and then I‘m not under any pressure because I know I’ve done the work on the character.

What made you so eager to be part of this story?

It’s a really complex part and he’s the kind of man who is the perfect person to do a film about. He has this fragility, and at the same time he has a strength inside him that you can’t really describe. He’s a guy who saw before everyone else in fashion what was changing and what was going to happen and what was going to work with shape and color. He’s a very intense character because of his creative story and also because of his personal life. He had such a journey between moments of glory and moments of breakdown and desperation.

How did you work with the physical coach?

That process was basically more about his changing physical shape, to have a real evolution in the body, because in the 70s he had a strong body even though he was kind of a fragile guy, which was a big contradiction of the character. It was really important that I could have those broad shoulders and the assurance of the character when the film was taking place in the 70s. When you see the photos of him in Marrakech, you can see he’s really tall and always has a kind of elegance and kind of strength, and I wanted to embody that in the movie.

Marrakech was his second home for much of his later life. What was it like shooting here?

We filmed in many places in Marrakech, in the Jardin Marjorelle, which was a really important place in his life. It’s where he really discovered color and created a lot of major designs. It was intense to be in that place and to feel that he had been there drawing at the same table where I was sitting. The people who are there, some of them knew him really well, and they’re still there working for the YSL company, and that helped the process a lot.

What was your experience working with Pierre Berge?

He liked the screenplay and gave us his support. He said he would let us use the places and the dresses so we had marvelous access to all the things, but he didn’t work with us directly. He came just once to the set and it was such an emotional experience for him, he just did it that one time, you know. He was really moved by the whole scene. There was a catwalk scene and he had lived it 20 years before, so it was pretty touching for him.  But the good thing was all the access we had thanks to him.

The access to the atelier and the archives …

That’s priceless. And the other thing was that he talked to me about Yves, many things that you can’t find on the Internet or in books, because he’s the guy that knew him like nobody else. They spent more than 50 years together and the link they had was so strong of both time and the sense of fidelity, it was all of that. It was really important for me to be able to talk with him, and he was really speaking freely about his relationship with YSL and his humor and at the same time his selfishness, so it was the good and the bad of course, and who’s the best person to talk about that? Maybe it’s a subjective point of view, but it is so much insight into the person behind the character.

What did you learn from playing such a complex character?

How to draw, which was a good thing, because I really sucked before! And how to sew. So, technically, I know how to do things now. I also learned how to balance your work on a character to create something you want to approach like a look, a way to talk, a voice -- because he has such a specific voice and it was very important for me to work on that voice -- the way to choose the words and the elocution, and how do you work within those constrictions and at the same time how do you find the freedom to create a character? Finding that whole big balance -- that‘s a new thing for me.

Do you have any upcoming projects or plans to break into Hollywood films?

I love the American culture of cinema and I love the language, I think it’s really playful for an actor and there is a lot of freedom in English from my point of view, but I don’t know. The future will tell us. I just signed with CAA, so we’ll see.