photography by JOHAN SANDBERG
style by ROBERT RABENSTEINER
interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
Melvil Poupaud started acting at the age of nine when he shot his first film with the experimental Chilean filmmaker Raoul Ruiz, a working relationship that would span nearly three decades. Ever since his early exposure to the fantasy world of cinema, the now 40-year-old French actor has adopted the adventure and discovery of filmmaking as a lifestyle. His urge for the new is also reflected in the variety of roles he takes on, ranging anywhere from a Parisian fashion photographer with terminal brain cancer in François Ozon’s Time to Leave to the transsexual title character in Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways.
His next film, Sélection officielle, shooting in various locations in China, is no exception. Melvil will be playing a French Jesuit priest in 18th century China, the character that inspired Robert Rabensteiner for this photo shoot.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Melvil, do you have an active interest in fashion?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Fashion is something that I can’t really master in a way. It’s not my world, but I’m getting it more and more. I see it through friends that work in the fashion business. Doing this photo shoot was almost like making a movie, but only the good side of it. It didn’t last long — it was only one day — and I really liked the pictures.
SVEN SCHUMANN — In the end, fashion isn’t so different from dressing up for a role.
MELVIL POUPAUD — Yeah, and as an actor, I’m very into costumes. The appearance of my character is maybe the most important thing for me. When you have the right look and you feel right in the costume, you behave differently.
SVEN SCHUMANN — It’s the same way when you wear a nice suit in real life.
MELVIL POUPAUD — Exactly. I don’t have the same day if I wear a jacket or some sneakers. It’s an entirely different personality that is transmitted by the costume. Some clothes feel right from the beginning, and you behave correctly, you know?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Of course.
MELVIL POUPAUD — After you’ve been dealing with that you start to understand what makes a suit look right and how it’s made and how it’s done, the little details and the way it’s handcrafted. So, I’m not completely into fashion, but I find it more interesting now than I used to.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Robert Rabensteiner told me that the concept for this shoot came from a movie you will be shooting soon in China. Is that right?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Yes, I told Robert that I’m doing this movie in China where I will be playing a Jesuit priest, which is also why I have this long beard, and I guess it inspired him to mix the traditional and the contemporary for this story. I really liked the idea of doing a fashion shoot that’s dealing with a character that I’m playing in my next movie.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How come?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Because it wasn’t just about wearing the clothes and modeling, it was also like preparing for the role and trying to look as credible as possible as a priest. Even though it’s totally fashion, and it has nothing to do with the actual movie, it was almost like playing the role for the duration of the shoot. I was interpreting the way Robert had interpreted the character I’m going to play.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What is the film about?
MELVIL POUPAUD — The movie is called Sélection officielle, and it is inspired by a true story of a Jesuit who stayed in China for a long time in the 18th century. He was a gifted painter who mixed Chinese technique with a touch of French knowledge. One day the empress, played by Fan Bingbing, decides to have her portrait done by him, and the movie is about the relationship they have during the creation of this portrait — a painting that actually exists. Even though I am a Jesuit and she is the empress and nothing could ever happen between us, it’s sort of a love story. There’s this kind of passion underneath those moments.
SVEN SCHUMANN — The Jesuits used to be quite influential in China back then.
MELVIL POUPAUD — Yes, they were very close to the emperor. They even had a church inside the Forbidden City. They were dealing a lot with Chinese power until the 19th century, and then they were thrown out of the country.
SVEN SCHUMANN — How long will you be in China?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Two months, June and July, and then back in October, because there is a scene that is shot in a desert, a very special desert in Xinjiang. It’s close to Mongolia, and we need the snow.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You’ve made films all over the world. Do you pick those kinds of projects on purpose?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Absolutely. I like my work in cinema because it’s a way of traveling, of discovering the world and different cultures. I am looking for a complete experience when shooting a movie, something that will pull me out of my reality, out of my day-to-day life, and throw me into another world. I want to go on an adventure and live a crazy life. Every time it’s like entering a whole new fantasy.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Has acting always been such an adventure for you?
MELVIL POUPAUD — I began acting when I was nine years old. I was making these movies in Portugal all by myself, immersed in a new world. Those shoots were kind of crazy because it was an old crew of crazy, interesting Portuguese actors, and all those movies were dealing with some kind of pirate world. It was always like City of Pirates or Treasure Island, and I was living that kind of adventure as a child.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is that desire for adventure also why you started making your own short films when you were only 10 years old?
MELVIL POUPAUD — In a way. When I started acting I really enjoyed being on set and watching the technicians and the lights and the behind-the-scenes feeling of the cinema. So in 1983 I bought myself a video camera with the money that I had earned, and I started making small movies all by myself in my room. I cut the movie and did all the characters and tried to do tracking shots on a skateboard. It was a whole world of fantasy.
SVEN SCHUMANN — There were lines of cocaine in one of the films you shot when you were 12. Did you even realize what you were doing at such a young age?
MELVIL POUPAUD — I was quite a cinephile when I was a child, so maybe I saw something like that in Scarface or one of those gangster movies. I thought it was a game, but when I see the movies now I can tell that there was much more than I could imagine as a child. Some things were quite violent in the movies I did as a child actor. In the first movie I did with Raoul Ruiz, I was a killer, and I had to cut throats and shoot people. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but my subconscious was probably affected by those scenes. I think I was kind of exorcising some of those things by making my own films and reinterpreting those images I had in mind and what I had been through as an actor.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You ended up shooting movies with Raoul Ruiz for almost 30 years. What was it like working with someone you knew so well?
MELVIL POUPAUD — To believe that it is important to be very close to the director is a mistake that you make when you are younger. It’s not ideal to be so close to those you’re working with. Sometimes I would rather have some distance between myself and the director so I can focus on my interpretation. If he doesn’t know me as well, then he doesn’t really know when I’m cheating. It’s better to keep a gap of mystery between an actor and a director.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You said that as a kid you were a cinephile, but I read somewhere that you don’t watch films anymore. Is that true?
MELVIL POUPAUD — No, I do my best to catch up on movies and to know what’s happening in the cinema business, but it depends. If I’m all by myself and I have no one at home, I would rather try to go out or play music with my friends. Cinema is an activity that, from my point of view, corresponds to a certain time in your life. Since I have a girlfriend now, I watch more movies. It’s this much more quiet life. But for years I was maybe a little bit wilder, and it was not my priority to sit for two hours in a dark room and, most of the time, fall asleep.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you really find most movies that boring?
MELVIL POUPAUD — I want more from cinema than just the pleasure of watching a two-hour movie to forget about my problems. I’m crazy about movies, but it’s a history that I like to see going forward instead of just pausing my life to be entertained for two hours and then going back to reality. It has to be something that is intertwined in my own thoughts and my own way of thinking and my own life. It has to be vivid.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is most cinema too focused on entertainment these days?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Of course it’s one factor in cinema to be entertaining. But in France we don’t say entertainment; we say distraction: divertissement. So it’s not exactly the same word as in English. I don’t need divertissement from cinema — I need something more. I need something essential in my way of thinking and rethinking the world and rethinking the medium. Unless I go with my daughter, I have so many expectations and so many ideas about what the right movie should be today and where cinema is nowadays that I don’t need to be entertained by some kind of American or French, money-maker, you know?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why don’t you make the movies you want to see yourself?
MELVIL POUPAUD — In fact, I have been doing some movies for myself; I’ve always been doing that. Sometimes I show some bits or pieces, like in Cannes in 2006, but mostly I keep them for myself.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why?
MELVIL POUPAUD — I don’t really need those things to be seen, so for the time being I just keep them for myself. I put them in some safe place where I know where they are. Maybe one day I’ll show bits of them. I do all kinds of things like that. I have to have some kind of activity. As an actor you have a lot of free time, and I’d rather do something more than just watch TV.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What kind of other activities are you talking about?
MELVIL POUPAUD — I tried to do some gold-leaf paintings, and I tried to do some silk paintings and some drawings. I’m just curious to know how it feels to do something, how you do it, how you get the technique right. I like to just experiment. It’s not that I consider myself an artist.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is this also the reason why you make music?
MELVIL POUPAUD — Yes. It’s a way for me to connect with my older brother Yarol, who’s a real musician. He’s a very good guitarist, and he’s been doing music all his life. Now he’s playing with Johnny Hallyday, but he had a very famous band in the ’90s called FFF. Every time I have the opportunity to play with him like we used to when we were kids, I just can’t refuse it.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So it’s more about your brotherly bond and spending time together…
MELVIL POUPAUD — Exactly, but when you’re playing live music, sometimes it also brings you into such a crazy state of ecstasy. It’s very powerful. So that’s a feeling I really need as well, and I’m very lucky that my brother is so good and so generous. He’s still into playing with me even though I’m not as good as he is. But I guess that’s what family is about.
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