Only a Rabelais could invent a Frenchman so big-necked, so floppy, so friendly as actor Gerard Depardieu. He grins when we're introduced on a midtown New York City street. He's amused by the similarity of our first names: "Gerald/Gerard/Gerald/Gerard," he says out loud, playing with the sound of the words, as his meaty hand gives mine a Texas-style squeeze. He's wearing a leather jacket just like the one he takes off only for bed in Maurice Pialat's Loulou, and he has the same goofy kid's haircut and the wide, happy-go-lucky smile as his eponymous character.
The way Depardieu's movies are coming from France, he could be in America every several months plugging a new picture. He's made almost forty in the last ten years, including Going Places and Get Out Your Handkerchief for Bertrand Blier, Stavisky for Alain Resnais, 1900 for Bernardo Bertolucci, Maitresse for Barbet Schroeder, and The Last Metro for Francois Truffaut. But the lead in Loulou is the quintessential Depardieu role. He plays an amoral Parisian lumpen who loves to fornicate far more than to work. The women don't mind at all.
After our introduction, Depardieu makes a Broadway liquor store stop for a bottle of Pernod and some ice. Then we take the elevator to the offices of New Yorker Films, distributor of Loulou, where our interview is set. There, everybody gathers around Depardieu-the women, I think, because he's sexy, the guys because he's a trustworthy, unpretentious man's man, Gary Cooper crossed with Jean Gabin. After salutations and handshakes, everyone returns to their desks happy. Depardieu's warmth has been felt.
We sit down in a conference room and Depardieu tries hard, in some kind of non-French, to explain, "When I'm forty, maybe I'll speak English." That gives him about eight years. A translator takes over, and Depardieu jumps into his native languae. "For 1900, I tried to take English lessons," he remembers, "I once did a film in English, Bye Bye Monkey, by Marco Ferreri. I avoided speaking and whistled often, like Harpo Marx!"
I ask if he minds detailing his childhood. Depardieu leans over the table and unfolds his life story.
"I come from Chateauroux, in a region called Berri. It's sort of like Pennsylvania, closed within itself, a small town in which you become very bored. There were so many in the family, six in two rooms, and that makes a lot. So I read Jack Kerouac and took to the road. I was twelve-and-a-half and went toward the sea. That was my first desire.
"If I direct a film someday, it will be about this child who becomes what people want him to be who pick him up. It depends upon who picks you up you're different caricatures. This project has haunted me for a long time."
Young Gerard was a dishwasher and a traveling salesman. And then he reached the Riviera. "I put up umbrellas for people. It was hard because I was so young. But I was also very strong. I had to lie about my age. I had to lie about everything."
I ask Depardieu about the tiny tattoo of a star on his muscular arm. "I was still twelve and lived with two girls who were streetwalkers. I wanted to be tattooed, maybe because I wanted to be a man as soon as possible. I thought that was being a man: to suffer."
At that impressionable age, he also discovered movies. "We were young hoods, and the only emotions I saw were in the cinema. It was my only way of communication. I had only heard of the existence of the theatre." Nevertheless, he traveled to Paris and enrolled in an acting class at the age of fifteen; and Depardieu's life changed from The 400 Blows to The Wild Child. He recalls: "I came from the woods and the road. My life was so violent that, when I came to Paris with all that desire, I lost my language. I said one word and the other students laughed. I just made sounds. Then I started to mouth other people's lines."
His method of studying was beyond Stanislavski: "I would color what was written, and each spot of color was an emotion, so I could remember my lines. It was very abstract. Time/memory."
Something clicked. At sixteen, Depardieu was cast in two short films, one of them directed by Agnes Varda. But it wasn't until he was twenty-three that he got his first major screen role, a biographical part as a traveling salesman in Marguerite Duras's Nathalie Granger (1971). Depardieu's been sought after and gainfully employed ever since, both for movies and for Parisian stage productions of plays by Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, and Peter Handke.
As we reach his adulthood and stardom. Depardieu stops short. "Most actors bore me, drive me crazy, make me shit," he says. "I make myself shit. We can only really talk about childhood. Acting and childhood are the same. Actors are authorized to be children." And what about directors? "They're afraid of being children. That's why they have others do it."
I ask him about Maurice Pialat, the moody director of Loulou, who has been badmouthing Depardieu in many interviews, insisting, quite absurdly, that Jacques Dutronc, star of Jean-luc Godard's Every Man For Himself, would have played the part of Loulou better.
Considering his loony, self-destructive director, Depardieu has no anger. He likes Pialat. "I don't think he's mad," he tells me. "I am in pain for him. He's full of doubts but he's very extraordinary. Pialat is a painter. Truffaut is a novelist. Bergman is a musician. Duras is silence."
For the first time, we've broken through to a rhetorical speech which, I suspect, Depardieu feeds regularly to journalists. A few minutes later, Depardieu goes into a flamboyant rap about acting that sounds similarly rote: "I'm the criminal and the assassin. I'm the outlaw. I do what people can't do. It's like the ethnographic films of Jean Rouch. I represent something for society. I can be the crazy person, but I explain my craziness in the art form called Cinema," and so on. I interrupt him, and ask how he feels, in hot movies like Loulou, where he goes at it with Isabelle Huppert, being the audience's sexual surrogate?
"It bothers me," Depardieu answers, dropping his memorized speech. "The sexual act is private. I'd like to keep that for the people I love. I've been married for a long time," he says, with a deep, reverential tone. "I have two children. It's not a marriage any more. It's a family, so rare in show business. It's peace for me. I love to love. I can't explain these kinds of things."
(The Real Paper, Dec.4, 1980)