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Currently Hollywood's no.1 French star, Jean Reno talks to Paul Byrne about his latest movie, Ronin, and his long and winding career.

Jean Reno is an unlikely leading man. With his baggy-eyed face and a nose that could shade a small picnic, Reno is far more Gonzo than Gable. Then again, Jean Reno is not your typical leading man.

A longtime star in his native France, it was his performance as a lone assassin who takes a young girl under his wing in Luc Besson's 1994 hit, Leon, that Jean Reno became an international star. Taking the baton from Gerard Depardieu, Reno has now become Hollywood's favourite Gallic actor, with a string of international hits to his name. After Leon came the romantic comedy, French Kiss - Reno starring opposite Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline - quickly followed by the box-office-busting Mission Impossible and Paul Weiland's quirky For Roseanna.

This year, Reno has already been drafted in to lend some credibility to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's bombastic Godzilla, the fact that the French actor outshines his co-stars - including the beast - hardly surprising. And now comes John Frankenheimer's highly agreeable heist movie, Ronin, Reno starring alongside Robert De Niro, Natascha McEhlone, Jonathan Pryce and Stellan Skarsgard as a gang of former covert operatives out to steal a high-security suitcase in Paris.

"I have been very lucky with my movies," smiles the 50-year old actor. "With Godzilla, Roland and Dean actually wrote the part of the French secret service agent especially for me. They had sat down and watched all my movies with Luc Besson - Nikita, Subway, The Big Blue, Leon - and they just came up with a character they felt would be perfect for me to play. That was very flattering."

As for Ronin, Reno just wanted to work with a director he admired and "and a cast that you wouldn't often get in the same room together, never mind the same film. I've always been a big admirer of De Niro, and Stellan Skarsgard is a wonderful actor too."
Born in Morocco, 1948, to Spanish parents, Reno has nothing but fond memories of his time growing up in Casablanca. But when the Six Day War came in 1967, Reno's idyllic life "just hanging out on the beach" was suddenly over, and a year later he moved to France. Enlisting in the national service in order to become a French citizen, the teenage Reno arrived in Marseille in May, 1968, the month that found France on the brink of civil war.

"It was a very crazy time," offers Reno, "and my timing couldn't have been worse for enlisting in the national service. But luckily, when they sent me to Germany, my time at the national drama school in Casablanca meant I was put in charge of entertainment and arts on the camp. I'd always had a love of the theatre, and now it was saving me from having to go out and shoot people. That was such a sweet relief."

When the war was over, Reno settled in Paris, enjoying the drama student life ("It was fantastic, just acting and being with women!"), whilst slowly building up a reputation in the theatre circuit. His big break came when, in 1981, he teamed up with Luc Besson.

"Luc and I are like brothers; we instinctively understand one another, and we advise each other all the time about our career choices. Not that we always listen to each other (laughs). Our relationship is sometimes difficult, but that's to be expected when you're both working in the same area."

Having turned 50 last July, Reno has survived the first rush of international stardom that came ten years ago with The Big Blue ("I believed my own hype, and basically went on a one-and-a-half-year bender") and is now a "wiser and happier" man. Married for a second time, with a fourth child recently arriving, for Reno the most important thing today is living a good life and doing his job well.

"For every film I make in Hollywood, I want to make a film at home too," he finishes. "I'm lucky in that I have the opportunity to choose my roles, and as long as I continue to choose carefully, and do the best that I can, I will be happy. And sane (laughs)."