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Jean Reno: cinema's multinational mystery man

By Ric Leyva
of the Associated Press
October 09, 1998

New York  -- International film star Jean Reno was international long before he ever became a film star.

The son of Spanish parents chased out of their homeland by a fascist dictator came into the world shortly after World War II in Casablanca, Morocco, the celebrated international crossroads immortalized on screen by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.

Young Juan Moreno roamed the exotic urban oasis in North Africa, speaking in multiple tongues, learning a different language at home, at school and at the movies, where everything he saw was a foreign film.

"In those days the cinema for me was John Wayne, Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, William Holden, James Dean, Marlon Brando," Reno says, lounging in a Manhattan hotel suite, sipping mineral water.

As relaxed as the journey from late summer to fall, the veteran actor currently watching Robert De Niro's back in "Ronin" casually describes his family's 1960 move to France, which became his adopted country.

He looks the part of the classic grizzled Frenchman: oblong face, close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard and a pair of mournful, magnetic eyes.

He grew into manhood in France, was drafted into the Frdnch Army and was trained as a commando in Germany.

"Logical, eh? I was always traveling with a bag in my hand," Reno chuckles.

Travel remained the norm as an actor. Reno got his start in the 1970s with a traveling theater company that crisscrossed France. He has gone on to make movies all over Europe and in the United States, with recent blockbuster credits including "Mission: Impossible," "Godzilla" and now John Frankenheimer's action-thriller, "Ronin."

Dream come true? Not really.

"No, I had no big dreams in my mind," Reno says of his early aspirations, as he remembers a time when he sometimes performed for free, supporting himself with day jobs like truck driver, accountant and photo shop clerk.

"A play, a character, a place, a director -- a salary, if it's possible," Reno says, chuckling again. "The joy was just to have a stage and an audience."

Not that he's complaining about how things turned out. After winning praise in director Cnsta Gavras' 1978 film, "Claire de Femme," Reno teamed up with director Luc Besson in several films, among them "The Big Blue," "La Femme Nikita" and his hit, "The Professional."

He starred in France's No. 1 box office hit, the 1993 comedy "Les Visiteurs" and its recent sequel. At the top of his game, Reno is nevertheless the first to acknowledge that international stardom didn't come without supreme sacrifice.

"I divorced. I paid for my success. You have to pay always," Reno says, speaking softly. "So, it changed my life, but it's OK. I don't know nobody who doesn't pay."

Reno's French accent is undeniably thick, but doesn't impede clear communication. Still, his agile mind is sometimes victimized by a clumsy tongue.

Asked to define his greatest challenge performing in English, Reno says, "To be believable and understable."

He knows it didn't come out right.

"Understable?" he asks, laughing at himself. "Understandable. You see, I still have to work."

Without missing a beat, Reno proceeds to get laughs doing his movie star impersonations: John Wayne ("Howdy, pilgrim"), Elvis Presley ("Thank you very much") and De Niro ("You talking to me?"). He tells about cracking up his "Ronin" co-star with De Niro's famous line from "Taxi Driver."

"He made that little smile he has, you know, and tried to stop," Reno says.

Trying to describe his feelings about working with De Niro, Reno is stymied by more than the language barrier. "Robert," he says (pronouncing it Row-bear). Then he pauses, momentarily lost for words.

"Metaphor," he finally says. "In an orchestra, the first violin. A lot of colors inside the music he's playing. That's Robert De Niro. A little bit of green, do-do-hmmm. A little bit of dark, bo-bo-hmmm. You see. Easy. That's him."

He is reminded that fans and critics alike have ascribed a similar virtuosity and ease to his work, and he laughs off any such a comparison as joking or incredible flattery.

"I do what I need to do, all that I can do, to furnish the work. That is all," he says. "I have been lucky, but there is never a guarantee. I'm older now and it's always difficult."

More confident than he sounds and with success firmly in hand, Reno admits hitting 50 this year profoundly affected his psyche.

"It's a problem. How much time do we have? Fifty. How much time do we have?" Reno asks, concerned about his four children, two from his first marriage, ages 21 and 18, and two, ages 21/2 and 3 months, with his current love.

"More attention to kids, more attention to the woman you live with. More attention to the difficulties of people you love, their pain. Because it's almost done. How much time do we have?

"It's almost done. So you're not in a hurry to prove to yourself that, in fact, you can exist, that people love you, that you can be somebody."