By Roger Moore, Journal Arts Reporter
Too bad Jean Reno isn't playing the monster.
Reno, the stubbly, tall and intense French action star, is making another grab at Hollywood fame in this summer's biggest movie. In Godzilla, he portrays a French secret agent, someone who is there to both apologize for the French nuclear testing that created the gigantic lizard, and to secretly help New York fight the critter.
''Thees one ees vairy beeg,'' he said, in charmingly accented English. He was talking about the monster. ''Beeeg. And vairy fun-NEE, no? She is a real character. I like her. I call her 'she,' because to me, this monster is a fe-MALE. She moves like, like, well, like me.''
Reno described Godzilla, the monster, as ''the conscience of the world. And I may be the conscience of France in the moo-vee, because I am French. I am respon-SEE-ble for zis cree-TURE. And I am who France sends to, to, well clean. Again I play a cleaner.''
Reno, who will turn 50 in July, chuckled. ''The Cleaner'' is how most Americans and international filmgoers will know him. In La Femme Nikita (1990) and The Professional (1994), Reno played a ferociously single-minded hit-man, a ''cleaner,'' someone sent in to wipe out anyone who might have knowledge of something someone else wants covered up.
''Eet's a compliment to be asked to play this sort of character,'' he said. ''They trust me. They know I can do this. Eet's up to me to change the roles I play. I tried with For Rosanna (1997), a little romantic comedy I did with Mercedes Ruehl. But the audience said, 'No no, Jean. Ees not for you.' But I will try again. I do comedies and tragedies in France. I will try them again here.''
For instance, in The Visitors and its recent sequel, he played a French knight transported in time to modern-day France. The films were huge hits, but did not work for American audiences, despite the fact that Mel Brooks was brought in to make the translation funnier. Reno will remake The Visitors with American John Hughes (Home Alone) writing and directing.
''Maybe this time, the comedy will translate,'' he said. ''Some of my movies are too French, too far from American life, to work here.''
His real name is Juan Moreno. Reno was born in Casablanca to Spanish parents, and spent his childhood in Morocco and France. He speaks Spanish, English, French and Italian. He has been in French films since the late 1970s.
His best-known movies, The Big Blue (1988), Subway (1985) and The Visitors (1993), were international hits. That is why his friend, director Luc Besson, insisted on hiring Reno when he made his American film debut, with The Professional. That performance landed him a role (as a secret agent) in Mission: Impossible. And it is what made Dean Devlin write Reno a role in Godzilla.
''He's so cool, we just had to have a part for him in this,'' Devlin said.
''I thought, 'Well, they wrote eet for me,' '' Reno said. ''But thees character, I will have to explain heem to the French press. I hope they understand who this guy ees and what he ees SAY-ing about nuclear testing.' ''
Reno worries over what the French press will write. Even though he has another big American film, Ronin, with Robert DeNiro, coming out, and even though he splits his time between homes in Paris and Hollywood, he knows which side his baguette is buttered on.
''You're a star here, you're a star before the entire world. That's who Americans make their movies for. You could nev-vair do a Titanic or Godzilla in France.
''But I worry when the French say, 'Oh, you're living in Los Angeles, now. You're leaving France behind!' I say, 'No. When Yannick Noah was a great tennis player, he lived where he worked. That ees what I do.' ''
But being a Frenchman, Reno has a few gripes about life in America. Finding a good meal is tough.
''My voice coach, who is from Nebraska, helps me find places. As long as the wine is good, ees OK, no?''
And even though his character spends most of Godzilla griping about American coffee, he's not sure he agrees with that assessment.
''Eet ees much better, no? No bull! You put more cof-FEE een eet. Not so much wa-TER.''
But how does he maintain that perfect four-day growth of stubble that is his trademark?
''EEeet is E-Z. I have an electric ra-ZOR. And if you shave thees way and not THEES way, it comes out perfect. EV-er-eee time.''
Published May 21, 1998