Fifty-six years after his debut in François Truffaut’s cult film The 400 Blows, Jean-Pierre Léaud, the 70-year-old living legend of the nouvelle Vague, has agreed to this rare interview. He is the face of avant-garde cinema in France, never compromising his talent and living in a poetic and unpredictable way, blurring the lines between his life and his films.
His latest role is in Rosa Mystica, an 18-minute film directed by Eva Ionesco and written by the French novelist Simon Liberati. The two met up with him in Paris to speak about his life.
interview by SIMON LIBERATI
portrait by EVA IONESCO at L’Hôtel, rue des Beaux Arts, Paris
I am to meet Jean-Pierre Léaud at a hotel on the Rue des Beaux-Arts in Paris. It is where Oscar Wilde died, under the name Sébastien Melmoth. The actor arrives early, wearing a navy blue suit and a tie. He drinks Cognac; apparently it “warms his throat.” He has brought me a gift, a book with a splendid title: La Lucidité Implacable (Épître des hommes du blâme), or The Implacable Lucidity (The Epistle of the Men of Blame) by Sulami, a Sufi hagiographer from Nishapur, Iran, the spiritual home for the Muslim mystics we call the “men of blame.”
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — You know what that means, the “men of blame?”
SIMON LIBERATI — No idea.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — They were a special set of mystics who were outwardly very agitated, dirty, and disorganized to mask their spiritual state. In their view, the best way to hide their inner life is to have a bad reputation.
SIMON LIBERATI — I don’t know much about Muslim mysticism, even though I do like Massignon [a scholar of Islam], not that I know exactly why. Do you remember that you tried to convert me to Islam in a pizzeria?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, I wanted to transmit the baraka [benediction] to you but you refused to recite the words.
SIMON LIBERATI — As I told you, I am a Roman Catholic, and I plan to stay that way. I have to be careful because you’re a hothead — that’s what you told me, right?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — [No response]
SIMON LIBERATI — In Cannes, at that same pizzeria, you told me the story of your initiation into voodoo in Haiti. You’d been invited to the USA for a film festival, and then you left for Haiti. People were looking at you, worried; they were already mourning you, knowing you were going to be doing something so dangerous. You said to me, “My dear, I was a hothead!”
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, I decided I would be initiated into voodoo by a Haitian grandmaster. It was crazy. Before I left, the film people who knew what I was going to do were very nice to me. They were look- ing at me, no doubt thinking, “This is the last time we’ll be seeing this poor fool,” taking special care of me, even people I didn’t know or knew barely, producers. I went there, dressed impeccably like I am now, in a suit and a tie.
SIMON LIBERATI — I think I remember from having once visited you in your hotel room that you only wear custom-made Lanvin?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, yes, for a long time now. They’re good tailors. They’re the only suits that fit me, in which I feel comfortable.
SIMON LIBERATI — So you went off to Haiti in your suit, to be initiated.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, by a great voodoo master, a truly impressive guy; he was very black. We sat in a circle, they lit some candles, they sacrificed a ram. Right in front of me, a few inches away. I saw the ram’s eyes, bulging, terrible … the blood is spraying everywhere. It goes on and on, and I can feel forces swirl- ing around me. Do you know the method for avoiding possession?
SIMON LIBERATI — Uh, no.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — You have to look as terrifying as possible. So I make a face like this, all squinched up. [He makes a horrible grimace.] And yes sir, I held on. [He smooths his tie, but his face doesn’t change.] And the guy sitting next to me, he’s caught, the spirit enters into him, and he gives me this colossal punch in the face, which sends me flying back several yards. He hit me really hard. I mean I’ve been hit many times in my life, but that punch was really hard. And I am rolling over backward. When I lift my head, I see that the other members of the ceremony have gone to get these clubs, and they’ve all turned on the possessed guy, the guy next to me, and they’re hitting him and hitting him, right in front of me. I barely escaped with my life, my dear.
SIMON LIBERATI — You told me that that adventure changed you, that since then you have become much calmer.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — It’s true. That ceremony liberated me somehow. That punch seems to have calmed me down.
SIMON LIBERATI — And you believe in God…
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, unlike other actors, I don’t believe in luck, but in Providence, divine Providence. It’s because of Providence that I met François [Truffaut] — and that he hired me to act in The 400 Blows.
SIMON LIBERATI — I read some- where that you were a real brat when you met Truffaut at the age of 13.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, a bad boy, or perhaps — how should i say it? i was rambunctious. a turbulent student, intelligent but turbulent. I had been expelled from 12 schools in a row. It is absolutely Providence that i got to do the film and found myself at the Cannes Film Festival at 14, back when that festival really was the center of cinema.
SIMON LIBERATI — In Cannes, just before you turned 70, in the car on the way to the festival and its famous stairs, you told us another story about your good fortune.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — The day after the screening [of The 400 Blows], I was in my hotel room, and someone brought me a bouquet of white car- nations. It was a Japanese woman. She had come with the delegation from her country. She had fallen in love with me during the screening. And yes, my dear, that evening I stole her from Pedro Armendáriz, who at the time was the biggest Mexican film star. [Born in 1912, Pedro Armendáriz shot himself with a revolver in Los Angeles right after he shot his scenes in From Russia with Love.] He was a complete gentleman when he saw that he had lost her, and he lifted his glass in my direction and left the hotel.
SIMON LIBERATI — Then, after The 400 Blows, you were taken in and adopted by François Truffaut.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — François was like a father to me. I had a room above his offices at Les Films du Carrosse. Jean-Luc [Godard] also paid a lot of attention to me. You know, I was given the chance to be at the heart of the Nouvelle Vague, at a time when French cinema was at the center of world cinema.
SIMON LIBERATI — You’re on the credits of several of Godard’s films as an assistant. What exactly did you do on those films?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Oh, I was an intern. I didn’t know how to do much. I got to watch Jean-Luc shoot- ing, which was pretty good on its own. Suzanne Schiffman, Truffaut’s assistant, used to say, “He is learn- ing to become a genius.” I remember a day on the Pierrot le Fou shoot, it was the day they wrapped, a myth- ical sequence in which Jean-Paul Belmondo wraps dynamite around his head. We were on a rock, Jean-Luc and me, alone; we were looking at the place where the scene would soon be shot, and suddenly he turned to me and said, “Where do you think I should put the camera?” I looked at him, terrified, and I said, “I don’t know.” That’s the work I did … [laughter]
SIMON LIBERATI — You worked with Godard several times as an actor?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — In La Chinoise and in Weekend…
SIMON LIBERATI — Jean-Jacques Schuhl told me that his favorite Godard film with you is Masculin Féminin.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Schuhl? Yes, he would like that one.
[Eva Ionesco enters the bar and sits down on the banquette.]
EVA IONESCO — Hey, Jean-Pierre, you know that Simon and I saw The Adventures of Buffalo Bill!
[Jean-Pierre Léaud looks at Eva with a quizzical expression. For a moment he looks exactly like Antoine Doinel, the character he played in Truffaut’s films.]
EVA IONESCO — Yes! You as a cowboy!
SIMON LIBERATI — I think it was called An Adventure of Buffalo Bill. [After checking, it is determined that the film is called Une Aventure de Billy le Kid.]
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — God, what a grind that was. I like Luc Moullet, but he spends way too much time on the landscape. The actors interest him as well, but it’s the landscape that seems most important to him.
SIMON LIBERATI — The Film Festival Locarno is doing a retrospective of your films this summer. Which films will they be showing?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — I don’t know yet. It’s fantastic; at 70 I get to be proud of all the work I did and think about all the films I turned down. As the Coen brothers have said, it is better to have acted in a cult film than to chase after an Oscar. They predicted it for me. One day I was in a car with Jean-Luc and he said, “You need an agent,” and I asked him why, and he said, “To earn money.” So I went to see Gérard Lebovici, you know, the editor and producer who was assassinated in an underground parking garage in 1984. At the time he was just starting out, and there were two or three photos of actors in his office. He said to me, “Would you like to work with [Roger] Vadim?” I said, “No.” So he mentions some other names, and each time I say, “No.” So he said, “You’ll work for your reputation in 40 years.” Which was true. Not that I’ve always been right.
SIMON LIBERATI — You told me you turned down a film with John Huston.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — What an idiot I was! Huston offered me the adaptation of La Condition humaine [Man’s Fate] by André Malraux, the main role. I refused because of Louis Althusser — I was a Marxist at the time, a fierce Marxist.
SIMON LIBERATI — Martin Scorsese also approached you.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, for a film with Paul Newman [The Color of Money, 1986], but that one I lost because my English wasn’t good enough. I should’ve studied harder in school, I guess.
SIMON LIBERATI — What do you remember about the shoot of Pier- Paolo Pasolini’s Pigsty, with Pierre Clémenti and Anne Wiazemsky?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Back then  they were all into these really difficult texts, again because of the Nouvelle Vague, because of Jean- Luc and the politics of the time. Pier-Paolo’s assistant would show up in the middle of the night, 3:00 a.m., with three pages of Marxist jargon to memorize. It was quite an ordeal. It was like that on Jean-Luc’s La Chinoise, too.
EVA IONESCO — Jean-Pierre, have you remained friends with other actors?
EAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — [Evasively] No, not really…
SIMON LIBERATI — Now here we are, Bertolucci and Last Tango in Paris.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — I heard about this project because I was hang- ing around all day in the offices of Les Cahiers du Cinéma. I heard that Belmondo had turned it down, saying: “I will not act in a porno film.” So Bernardo cast Brando, who wasn’t bothered by the script. His only stipulation was that he didn’t want to work on Saturdays. So that’s when I shot, and each week for the entire six-week shoot I had first-day stage fright every Saturday.
SIMON LIBERATI — Then came your iconic film The Mother and the Whore, which the magazine Les Inrocks has just named the greatest French film of all time.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, they called me. I was glad, but I told them I would do my own interview. I never do interviews. Well, almost never.
SIMON LIBERATI — Why?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — To maintain the mystery. But you were clever, you sent your wife, Eva. [Eva Ionesco has stepped away from the bar during this.] I couldn’t refuse because she’s my director! You know it’s quite spe- cial. On set she has managed to create a sort of controlled hysteria. She has a gift — she shares what she sees; we watch the piece as it is being created. I’ve never seen that except with [Philippe] Garrel. At the end I didn’t know if I was working with a man or a woman!
SIMON LIBERATI — Thanks, that’s a compliment. If you don’t mind, we’ll talk about Eva’s film at the end of our interview. Going back to Jean Eustache, The Mother and the Whore, which is certainly your greatest role — it also paradoxically marks the beginning of a long dry period for you as an actor.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — I spent three months on a mountain preparing this film, learning all the words. The subject of The Mother and the Whore was the language. As you probably know, Jean Eustache only shot one take. during the rehearsal period, if i got one word wrong, he would make me redo the entire five-minute monologue. After that mythical film I didn’t shoot any interesting films for 20 years. Talk about a dry period!
SIMON LIBERATI — You were often seen in Montparnasse at a café. And at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — No, that was before, with Garrel. Andy Warhol took a photo of me, but unfortu- nately I don’t have it. I remember there were black pimps all over. A girl was even raped in the hall.
SIMON LIBERATI — In Paris, you’re seen a lot at La Coupole.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, I look at the women. I stare at them, like this [he mimes a fixed stare, intense, hypnotic]. I continued to practice my art, but with women.
SIMON LIBERATI — You sometimes act a little eccentric, and you’ve had some problems with the police.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — I was coming home from the Jerusalem Festival, where they treated me like I was the Messiah, and the cops jumped me and took me away. They had a gun pointed at my head.
SIMON LIBERATI — A gun to your head, really?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — I had been insulting them. In the paddy wagon I kept yelling, “The cops are fags!” so one of them took out his gun and put it to my head, saying, “If you say one more time that the cops are fags there is going to be an officer- involved shooting.” and I responded, “The cops are really, really fags!” You understand the right had just come back into power, and the cops were pretty cocky, sure of themselves.
SIMON LIBERATI — You were practic- ing your art again, I guess. What did they charge you with?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — When I was read the police report, I didn’t rec- ognize anything they said. They said I had hit an old woman and exposed myself to her. So I was held for a few days in the Prison de la Santé. Prison, even for just a few days, is terrible.
SIMON LIBERATI — Then you returned to the screen in the ’90s. You were rediscovered. You worked with some young cinephile direc- tors, who were fascinated by the Nouvelle Vague: the Finnish direc- tor Aki Kaurismäki in I Hired a Contract Killer, and the French direc- tors Olivier Assayas and Bertrand Bonello.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, I have good memories of them. I did sev- eral films for Kaurismäki. As for Bonello, his films are very stylized and precisely written.
SIMON LIBERATI — Before that, in 1986, you made an excellent film with Godard — Détective, also star- ring Johnny Hallyday.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — No, don’t talk to me about that. I had problems with Johnny Hallyday. One evening I said to him, “A puddle could act better than you.” He did not take it well. He called everybody, the producers, etc. And Jean-Luc called me: “Why did you say that to him. He’s furious.”
SIMON LIBERATI — And you — some- times you seem absolutely possessed. Rehearsing with you on the film we shot with Eva, I noticed that you were reciting the text without paying attention to the other roles. You were repeating your lines over and over as if you wanted to forget the meaning of the words.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, it is necessary for your memory to stop working, so that the words become music. You know that in a short film — your film isn’t a short, but a short film, like the sketch films they used to do in the ’60s — the actor doesn’t have the time to modulate. For each shot I needed to be at maximum intensity right away; otherwise I’d be screwed. That’s why I was so tired in the evening after we wrapped for the day.
SIMON LIBERATI — Yes, I remember you having to be carried. Your assis- tant, a young man who could be your son, he would literally carry you to the Rue Dante, near our set. It was after that you quoted that line by Antonin Artaud on incandescence.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes, in your film I had no choice. I had to push myself all the way to incandescence. Eva was able to get that out of me.
SIMON LIBERATI — The film tells the story of a conference on Satanism and Esotericism, which is something that interests you a lot.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — Yes.
SIMON LIBERATI — On the second day of the shoot, you arrived carrying this strange little cane with a snake wrapped around it.
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — It’s a sorcerer’s cane, which I bought at the Marché aux Puces [a flea market]. It’s quite rare.
SIMON LIBERATI — At the end of the film, there is a moment when you recite a passage from an essay by W.B. Yeats, Swedenborg, Mediums and the Desolate Places, to Lukas Ionesco, Eva’s son [he has the principal role in Larry Clark’s new skate- boarder film, The Smell of Us], and you recite it in such an impressive way, with a sort of held-in breath, a way of skipping forward — not skip- ping, but there is a feeling of jump- ing which made me think of Artaud or the last days of Nijinsky. JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — I said it well, didn’t I!
SIMON LIBERATI — Yes. Would you mind doing it again, here in this hotel where Oscar Wilde died?
JEAN-PIERRE LÉAUD — [Breathing very carefully] “In the west of Ireland the country people say that after death every man grows upward or downward to the likeness of 30 years … and these angels move always towards ‘the springtime of their life.’”
SIMON LIBERATI — Thank you.
[Table of contents]
The Fall/Winter 2014 collections
by Terry Richardson
Richard PrinceRead the article
Rafael de CárdenasRead the article
1968Read the article
JacquemusRead the article
Barbara KrugerRead the article
Terry Winters x Edward FrenkelRead the article
Jean-Luc Godard Sound ArchivesRead the article
Purple AccessoriesRead the article
Bionic YarnRead the article
Francesco RussoRead the article
Nicolas GodinRead the article
Andre WalkerRead the article
Umit BenanRead the article
Chris MartinRead the article
by Sabine Heller
by Sven Schumann
by Giasco Bertoli
by Simon Liberati
by Terry Richardson
by Patrick Mauriès
by Takashi Homma
by Olivier Zahm and Stéphane Feugère with a portfolio by Christopher Wool
by Olivier Zahm
by Caroline Gaimari
Don’t Be Cruel
by Donna Trope
by Olivier Zahm
by Michel Compte
by Johan Sandberg
by Benjamin Alexander Huseby
by Drew Jarrett
by Katja Rahlwes
by Ola Rindal
Best of Men’s Fashion
by Andreas Larsson
by Paul Wetherell
by Giasco Bertoli
by Maxime Ballesteros
DarksideRead the article
by Chikashi Suzuki
by Camille Bidault Waddington
by Sandy Kim
by Olivier Zahm
by Donatien Grau
Tomoo GokitaRead the article
by Max Farago
by Olivier Zahm
Casper Mueller Kneer
by Charles-Edmond Henry
Ragnar KjartanssonRead the article
Pier-Gabriel LajoieRead the article
Cédric RivrainRead the article
Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2014/15Read the article
Aaron De Mey
by Theo Wenner
Thadée Klossowski De Rola
by Benoit Peverelli