Thursday, May 19

When Gaspard Ulliel evoked his role of Yves Saint Laurent

Gaspard Ulliel died on Wednesday from his injuries after a skiing accident. Actor with rare sensitivity, he had known the consecration in 2014 by interpreting the title role in the biopic “Saint Laurent”, by Bertrand Bonello, in the skin of the great couturier. A demanding character that the actor told us at the time that he had failed to interpret in the past.

Playing Saint Laurent had a special meaning for you?

A few years ago, Gus Van Sant, with whom I had worked on the film “Paris, je t’aime”, had plans to adapt the book “Beautiful People”, by Alicia Drake. He had been struck by my resemblance to a photo of young Yves Saint Laurent that he had seen in a restaurant and had offered me the role. Unfortunately, his project was aborted and I had kept a certain frustration. So when Bertrand Bonello wanted to meet me, it created additional excitement.

Did Bertrand Bonnelo think of actors other than yourself to play Yves Saint Laurent?

For my part, I met Bertrand four or five times. He clearly told me that he was going to go through the trial process, that we were going to meet again for work sessions.

Gus Van Sant was struck by my resemblance to Saint Laurent.

We first worked on excerpts from INA interviews which we tried to reproduce. Then on pieces of scenes that he had taken from the script. At that point, I hadn’t read the script yet.

What did you think of it after reading it?

I immediately saw that I was dealing with a rather special project, that there was one thing that went beyond the simple biopic. There was a wealth of themes that spoke to me in relation to the artist, in relation to celebrity…

You grew up in the fashion world. Did this experience help you?

It’s more of a coincidence. What the fact that my two parents work in fashion transmitted to me was above all a certain sensitivity to fashion, to the world of the arts. I have the impression that the fashion world today is not really the same as it was then. It is an industry that has evolved enormously. The film is set in a unique era, after 1968. What really helped me was the research work I did on Saint Laurent, his work and especially the era.

Exactly, what research did you do?

I found television archives from which I was able to observe Saint Laurent at that age. Otherwise, it was mainly reading: biographies, Alicia Drake’s book. This book was a very important material in my research because it faithfully transcribes what life was like in this microenvironment at the time. At first, I wanted to know everything. But after a while, I realized that it was becoming a hindrance to my work. I felt buried under all this mass of truth.

And Bonello had told me that his desire for the character was to find as much of me as of Saint Laurent. I had to find a totally free and virgin space beyond which I could recreate, fantasize things. Imagine a character that should be mine and Bertrand’s. It allowed me to convey emotion. If I had gone into mimicry, I think that would have blocked sincerity.

The performance of an actor is therefore less about mimicry than about appropriation?

Absolutely. We would sum it up like this. A work of appropriation and even sometimes of quasi evocation. The idea was to make it true by putting myself in his place, by exploring it through my own experience, my own emotions.

A physical transformation was still necessary: ​​weight loss, change of voice…

We know that a role like this involves physical constraints. The public has higher expectations than for a fictional role. We had to find something for the public to immediately accept this physique and this voice. The work on the voice appeared very early in the discussions with Bertrand. We thought it was a very striking element in the collective memory. I did a whole lot of analysis work in relation to the archival recordings. I listened to it on repeat to let it infuse. That it permeates my ear little by little and that it comes out on set like something spontaneous, natural, almost organic… which allows me to hold it throughout the shoot.

At what point in the project did you say to yourself: “that’s it, I’ve got my character”?

Honestly, few times. I doubted until the end and I still doubt a little today despite all the benevolent feedback we have. But it is the opposite that would be worrying. Sometimes, there are still moments when we have a different awareness of the character. We have the feeling that we need less effort to reach the same goal. But this is precisely where we must remain vigilant.

On this role, I doubted until the end.

Besides, I really wanted to express my gratitude to Jérémie Renier, who has been a close friend for a long time and who, through this experience, helped me not to relax a certain rigor and concentration. He had just made “Cloclo”, the biopic on Claude François. And he offered to help me. For this role, I was in a much more demanding job than for other characters that I could interpret in the past. There was this fear of losing part of the character by leaving the set at night. It was a novelty compared to my previous shoots

How does one emerge from such an experience?

I am often asked this question, which I understand very well. But I will never be in the position of the actor or actress who dialogues with the ghosts of his character. I manage very well to separate things between my personal life and my professional life.

But it’s true that during filming, it’s as if I had put my personal life on hold. On the contrary, after the shooting, I had a real desire to take a breather. To rest, to find my own life again. Although it’s an intense role, which can leave some scars, the character left quite easily.

When did you learn that a second film on the life of Yves Saint Laurent was being shot?

From the start. Artistically, it didn’t change anything for me. But it’s true that I could have had the curiosity to know what Pierre Niney was going to do, who is an actor that I clearly identified as extremely talented. It added some pressure. I could have but I didn’t try. I said to myself that it was sterile and I preferred to concentrate on Bertrand’s film. Anyway, their shooting took place before ours.

In fact, it was the business of the producers. There really was a point where the film’s feasibility was threatened. In an industry as fragile as it can be today, having two films on the same subject is a complicated element to negotiate. As if the money had been split between the two projects.

The film was presented at the Cannes Film Festival…

Cannes is a very strong indicator of how the press will receive a film. I have very strong memories of the screening. When the lights come back on and you get recognition from the profession, it’s a fairly symbolic and very moving moment.

It’s for another biopic, “Mr. Turner”, which actor Timothy Spall received the best actor award. Did you expect to win it?

Certainly not when you get there. I was already extremely happy that we were selected. I imagined that the film had more of a chance for the screenplay or directing prizes.

This character is extremely rich, complex, intense.

It’s true that a lot of people came to see me and told me about this acting prize… But there was no disappointment, because there wasn’t really any expectation.

What are your plans now?

I refused a lot of things. I had a lot of trouble considering fairly and objectively the projects I received during the shooting or after Bertrand’s film. I was still too much into the “Saint Laurent” experience and everything seemed extremely bland to me. Today, I have the feeling that I manage to take a step back and turn the page. This character is extremely rich, complex, intense…

Today I would like to be able to continue with a project with such high stakes. But I’m well aware that this is the kind of character you only meet a few times in an acting career. So mine nothing, it does not facilitate the choice that will follow. For now, I’m considering quite a few projects but I haven’t decided on anything yet.

This experience has changed the way I approach a project. In the past, I may have given priority to a desire for a filmmaker or a screenplay. Today, I attach a different importance to the character.

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