As Told To Sylvia Caminer & John Gallagher
Videoscope Exclusive Interview Winter 1999 #29
Ronin is the best action thriller of 1998, a taut drama that teams two of the world's finest actors - Robert De Niro and Jean Reno. Born in Morocco to Spanish parents in 1949, Reno grew up in France and is best known for his work with director Luc Besson, starting with the sci-fi classic Le Dernier Combat (The Final Battle) and on through with Subway, The Big Blue, La Femme Nikita and especially The Professional. Titled Leon in France. The Professional cast Reno in the lead role as a hitman in New York who saves a 12-year-old girl (Natalie Portman) from crooked cops led by Gary Oldman. The Besson pictures have given Jean Reno international fame, and he has even brightened overblown Hollywood epics like Godzilla and Mission: Impossible with his presence.
John Gallagher (JG): In Ronin you worked with one of the great directors, John Frankenheimer. Could you comment a little bit about working with him?
Jean Reno (JR): John actually is like John Wayne. He's real American cinema. But at the same time, he' still open. He deals with the Steadicam as well as the actors. He tries to have two takes in one, when he can. What can I say? He's young in mind. He knows exactly what he wants, he knows what lens he will use. He's not closed, and he likes actors. He trusted Natascha EcElhone to play a women without too much seduction, which is nice. Most of the time, they ask actresses only for seduction and she is a very good actress so she can act without that. I mean, she has it, of course, she's beautiful, gorgeous. That's John, he's smart, he had a lot of patience, especially all...
JG: ...the driving?
JR: He's crazy about that. He tries always before and says "It's not dangerous. I've done it." "Okay," I said, "I will believe you."
Sylvia Caminer (SC): How was working with De Niro?
JR: Who knows about Robert De Niro, in fact? Maybe Harvel Keitel. No, I knew the movies. He's a very shy guy, not somebody like I am. So he deserves the respect that he has and when you see him, you see the sensibility is very strong. So you try to help the situation, the play, the acting, and I think it's the best way to fly with him, not going inside of any ego battle. Some actors you need to shake them at the beginning.
SC: One of the first films I ever worked on was A Bronx Tale. De Niro's very reserved and quiet.
JR: Yeah. He told me after a certain time that he had an actor who said, "Why you treating me like that in the scene?" You're speaking to me in a very loud voice," and De Niro said, "Use it." And he said, "Until that moment, boom! I wanted to punch him!" To punish him, to think that De Niro was doing that for an ego battle, you understand, which was the contrary of that; it was how he should have been on stage. That's De Niro.
JG: The scene in Ronin where you and De Niro say goodbye...
SC: There's a great chemistry between you.
JR: Very warm.
JG: Like two guys really enjoying each other.
JG: Do you like early takes, later takes, take one, take two?
JR: Early. Quick. That's because of Luc [Besson]. With Luc, in the beginning, there was no money.
JG: Le Dernier Combat?
JR: Le Dernier Combat, and then the comedian I've been working with [in The Visitors], Christian Clavier, is really fast. With De Niro, it depends, sometimes three takes, sometimes can be eight, seven.
JG: Le Dernier Combat is such pure cinema.
JR: Black and white.
SC: How did you and Luc Besson meet?
JR: That was a love story. He was 22 years old. The script was 20 pages. Nothing. When I met him, he was a first assistant. I came for the casting with a friend of mine and then the love story began. Ten days later, he called me, saying, "I have to see you because I have a short movie." I met him near Opera and the Rue Cafe and he said, "We will do a short movie, black-and-white, bon." I say, "No problem." "It's for free." I said, "No, no." He said, "Ah, 500 francs [a hundred dollars]. I said "Yes." Then I said, "What's the story?" and he said, "Two people fighting." And I said, "Very good story!" Today I don't know why I said that. Yes, I have an idea. It's because of the faith he's able to create. That's Luc. He says we're going to Spain to work and you say yes and you start walking.
JG: You always play such different characters for him. The drummer in Subway...
JR: I'd been studying with two drummers.
SC: Did you have to do a lot of training underwater to play the diver in The Big Blue.
JR: Yeah. Year and a half. Luc had 500 dives; he'd been working on a holiday club in Greece. His father was involved with clubs. He said, "We have to go to 30 meters because I don't want to move the camera and catch the light like James Bond." I said, "Okay, I understand that," but I didn't realize at that time how long it will take. You have to have more than three minutes holding your breath, and it takes time. Bon. The kind of discipline, things like that. But also it's going inside the character, you understand more the sea when you dive.
JG: We all know people in our lives like Enzo.
JG: Is there someone you based Enzo on?
JR: Used? Vittorio Gassman. He's all the time: "Cosi, cosi." At that time I used to think of old actors, especially because when I saw French Connection, Gene Hackman was saying, "When I do something, I think of an animal." So I said, "Maybe I should think of those actors." It's also because I saw my image. I don't like to see my image. I don't like to see myself; seeing your image you know that you are not somebody else.
SC: Don't you go to the dailies?
JR: No. I hate that. No, because it's not the same movie that you see at the end.
SC: You started in theater.
SC: Do you still do theater.
JR: Yes. I will try to have on stage Don Quixote in France. If it's possible.
JG: When you were growing up, what actors did you admire?
JR: A lot. Ca va. Let's see: Jimmy Stewart, William Holden, Brando, John Wayne even.
JG: He's great in The Searchers.
JR: Because it seems easy but it's not easy. And Gabin. Jean Gabin. Lino Ventura. Comedians I like because it's quite difficult. Now I like very much people like Tom Hanks or Clint Eastwood.
JG: Giancarlo Giannini?
JR: Giannini. Benigni. Alberto Sordi. Vittorio Gassman. Nino Manfredi.
JG: I interviewed Lee Marvin and he said he never got his character until he put on the right hat and wardrobe. Was that the case with Victor the Cleaner in La Femme Nikita?
JR: The visual is always Luc. We had a challenge on Nikita because he said, "You'll come, I'll give you clothes, I'll give you lines and you go to the set." So I ad the dress and the dialogue and the challenge. Cleaner. That's why he did it. Always you have the second reason.
SC: Did that lead to Leon in The Professional?
JR: Yeah, but Leon was more a bridge in Luc's mind. And also he wanted a love story for Jean, but a special love story.
SC: I thought that was the best love story of the year; it was a beautiful story.
JR: Luc has always very difficult reasons to build the story, like he must force himself into something quite difficult. Not simple. He's not a simple guy. But directors are different, they're more complicated inside.
JG: I'm sure he wrote it for you, obviously.
JR: Yeah, yeah.
JG: When he auditioned Mathilda, were you there?
JR: No. Never with the directors. I don't go in their land. The problem was you have an eleven-and-a-half-year-old girl.
SC: It's a tough age.
JR: The challenge was not to destroy the girl, not to put the girl in the wrong place and company, not to say it's a game and everything, it's easy. We did it the first week, speaking with Natalie [Portman] and speaking with her parents too, explaining that we have schedule, we have discipline, it's work, it's not only fun, and she understood quickly. The first question she asked me was "Do you have children?" And I said, "Yes," she turned and run into Luc's arm because Luc was having that kind of relationship with her and in her mind if I have children, I'm not gonna have the same special relationship with her, and it took days and days to understand that even if I have children, I can still love her.
JG: Did you do much improvisation? For example, the pig in the kitchen?
JR: Oui. "John Wayne" also. Things like that. But most of the time it was written.
JG: Were there any scenes that were shot but cut?
JR: Not shot. Cut from the script. Because always we went far inside the relationship. There was a scene they sleep together more or less in the same bed and you see that. you know, impossible. But Luc always goes very different.
JG: The Visitors is the most successful film in French history.
JR: Yes, that's true.
JG: We saw the first, not the sequel.
JR: It's very different.
SC: Is there going to be a third?
JR: I don't think so. Enough.
JG: We know from making our films, comedy is tough. The old saying, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard." Yet in The Visitors, you balance farce with satire. It's playing straight.
JR: By me, because for him it's a real tragedy, the father of the fiancée, you know. And also you're dealing with a comedian, Christian [Clavier], which is like a very strange animal. Always brilliant, always disturbing and twisting the situation, twisting anything he can touch. You just try to act the most honestly you can, traveling to the time when everything you see is very, very strange and very dangerous. You try to be the most believable, then you let him be the stupid guy, if you can call it that because he's not stupid at all. And it was nice because I found a new family. A family of the writer and director, a strong family. They're strong with themselves, they're not easy to work. They're always wondering if it's the writing, and the rhythm and the character and the editing. You see, it's in the rhythm, always, Jean-Marie Poire always. Maybe he'll do it fast, if we can do it faster, faster, faster, faster, faster. It's a good exercise. And visiting French history, history of Europe, because at that time the ancestors were English and French, they were the same in the year 1000, very strange guys to play.
SC: How different is it for you when you make an American film like Godzilla or Mission: Impossible?
JR: The pressure is the presence of the studio, before and after the shooting. While you're shooting, more or less it's the same thing. They know when you come to be part of the star system or when you come to be part of the work. It's a real problem. I don't know if it's easy to change actors when somebody's not available because they're busy. In France, they change quickly. It seems like here, when they write for somebody and they change the actor, they will rewrite with a new one here, which is not the same in France. I'm not criticizing, it's just not the same, making a movie. It's a big industry here, so they have rules stronger than France.
JG: What do you look for in a script?
JR: I see what I can do, if I see the movie in my mind, more or less.
JG: The Antonioni/Wim Wenders film, Pardela Les Nuages, must have been a unique experience.
JR: Completely. It was a week shooting, but there were three stories, with Fanny Ardant. I had it though a line producer, a friend of mine. It was produced by Wim Wenders and a French producer. The producer was in Luc's place and I saw him, Bernard Ray. "Bernard, how are you?" I like him very much, he's a fun guy, he likes too much to eat, like me. We've had several meals together. So, "Hey Jean, we have something in the Antonioni, why don't we see him?" "Antonioni, wow, how is her?" "83." So I have to see him. And I saw him and he is half-paralyzed and all was in the eyes, you see. He said, "Mmmm...mmm," moving his head like that, "Shave yourself - le moustache," that's all. And I did it like that, to see, to be with him. And I made him laugh. We laughed together. It was nice.
This interview was typed up by Graham Bailey for The World of Jean Reno.