French Actor Dazzles Students With Tales of the Acting Life

He got his first role because he had long hair. Not because it was the fashion in 1965, but because Gerard Depardieu had no money for either a haircut or a pair of scissors.

So he was typecast in “Le Beatnik et le minet” (The Beatnik and the Cat). His lines were dubbed because his delivery was judged unfit for the screen.

This is how Depardieu explained his debut on the screen to students of the French school Lycee Francais Rene Descartes on Wednesday.

Depardieu, 52, is in Phnom Penh to play in the feature film “Beneath the Banyan Trees” directed by US actor Matt Dillon.

His roles have earned him a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival in France, a Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination in the US.

Depardieu, a big man with a gentle demeanor, in clothes that had suffered from the heat of the day, shook hands with students and teachers as he walked into the school’s library. During the next 90 minutes, he talked about his childhood and his craft in a soft, intimate voice, as if chatting with a friend.

“I love comedies, love stories and I love historical films maybe to compensate” for lack of formal education, said Depardieu, whose 150 or so films have included a host of historical characters.

Depardieu recited verses from plays to the students, explaining how he had learned to put emotion into his acting—even for the driest subjects.

Depardieu’s father was illiterate and his mother “was busy having children,” he said. At school in Chateauroux, France, he was seen as being behind because, “at 12, I was already 1.82 meter.”

So at 12 years old, Depardieu dropped out of school and hit the road. “I had a taste for adventure and I wanted to see the country,” he said. “You meet odd people when you hitchhike.”

Depardieu dealt with them by telling them what he thought they wanted to hear.

Eventually, the solitude and harshness of life on the road took its toll. “I lost speech,” he said, explaining that he had presented himself so much as others wanted him to appear that he could no longer express himself.

Books and theater gave him a voice again.

The first time Depardieu was asked to play a scene at theater school, he had nothing prepared. So he started to chuckle and soon, the whole class was laughing. Students congratulated him on a fine piece of improvisation. “I had not said a word.”

Later, the teacher gave him a series of characters out of French classics to work on. The text was in verse, which he found strange.

Depardieu plunged into the assignment. After all, he said, “It’s the work of any actor to say something he doesn’t understand as if he did.”

Depardieu started to experiment with sounds and rhymes, and bring passion into the lines. His youth on the road helped, he said. There, he had learned how to be someone other than himself.

His experiences also taught him to listen. “It often happens in films that you get lines in one language and reply in another,” he said. Even if you don’t understand the language, Depardieu said, “At one point, one begins to understand.

“This craft is not only based on words,” he said. There is “a kind of peace within that one must have on stage to become the other [person]….There comes a time when one must no longer think—one must live.”

Depardieu found an eager and receptive audience at the Lycee.

“It’s quite impressive to see someone you’ve seen on television, and in Phnom Penh,” said student Gabriel Hernandez.

“For us,” said Bertrand Lepetit, director of the lycee, “he is a myth.”



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