It's ironic that George Clooney's biggest competition at the Academy Awards for Best Actor may be Jean Dujardin. After all, Dujardin -- one of the most popular stars in France, with 23 film credits to his name -- is already being described by some as "the French George Clooney." That's because the dashing 39-year-old has the looks and charm of a matinee idol -- or Clooney, 2011's closest thing to a matinee idol. It's also why Dujardin is the perfect choice to lead 'The Artist,' the French import that is already the talk of Oscar season -- even though it's totally silent.
Directed by Michel Havazancius, 'The Artist' tells the story of silent film star George Valentin (Dujardin, who won Best Actor honors at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year), a titan of industry who winds up on the outside looking in when a new industry, talkies -- embodied onscreen by Berenice Bejo's Peppy Miller -- takes away his livelihood. The silent film (which is also in black and white) is a love letter to Old Hollywood and the magic of movies, the perfect antidote to a world where 'Jack and Jills' and 'Tower Heists' routinely hit the big screen.
Dujardin spoke to Moviefone, via his interpreter, about filming 'The Artist,' the differences between French and American audiences, and Uggie the dog.
'The Artist' is obviously not an easy sell. Was it difficult for Michel to convince you this was a good idea for your career?
The first time he mentioned it, I said yes. Then, I had a big doubt for a moment. I wasn't sure at all if I should do it, just because I didn't know enough about it. Michel said, "You're the one who has to do it; no one else can do this. I wrote it for you. I can't force you, but..." I called back and said, "Excuse me. I'm thinking like someone else. Of course, I'm going to do it." For me, I loved it. I only want to make silent movies now. [Laughs]
What was it about the experience that really made you fall in love with the silent format?
Michel had the music live on set. That, for an actor, multiples your emotions. It's the only film you can do that in. You're live. In the movie, you're live. You're already in the editing of the movie during. He would put on music based on the scene. It was 35 incredible days.
You're a major star in France, but a newcomer to American audiences. Do you think that mystery helps the film at all?
Yes, absolutely. There's no judgement or expectation. They don't know Berenice, Michel or me. They're starting from nothing. In Cannes, it was the same thing. It's very comfortable. There's no pressure. It's all pleasure. People are kind when they see the movie...
But does that frustrate you -- having to maybe prove yourself all over again to a new audience?
No, because the work is done. It's on the screen. I did my job. After, I can explain it. It has to be joyous. I don't want everyone to like me, and I don't choose who likes me. You have to give them the choice, give them the option.
Vincent Cassel comes to mind as a French actor who stars in films both here and abroad. Does that type of career interest you? Do you want to star in American films?
It would have to be a role that is for me. It's the encounter, with the director and the story, that counts. It's about the relationships -- the human relationships. It's not about a Hollywood machine. I want to work with a director who becomes my brother, my father, for two months. You give yourself over to that person. Like, in France, you say no to a lot of things to have real yeses.
You've worked with Michel three times now, so you've obviously found that great human relationship. What is it about him that keeps you coming back?
He's very calm. He never yells. Not once in three films together. He's reassuring. He's anxious, but he keeps it to himself -- he's elegant in that way. He's a hard worker and he jokes around a lot. So when you have both, it's great.
Your previous films with Michel -- the 'OSS 117' films -- were parodies. 'The Artist' could have easily drifted into that arena, but it never does. How difficult was it to maintain the tonal balance? To not make it too much of a goof?
Michel wanted two stories. His idea was to develop the character in the beginning of the movie -- the film within the film, the Douglas Fairbanks references. But it wouldn't have held up for an hour and half. So, it went to a more 'City Girl,' F.W. Murnau kind of story. Just telling a story. That's cinema. It's not silent, black and white. It's a simple story that's well made.
'The Artist' has done very well at the French box office, but there is some question about whether it will connect with American audiences. Do you think there's that much of a difference between the two?
Maybe the French are more cineastes. Americans are more relaxed. Films are a spectacle [to Americans]. Entertainment. Here, people comment live. They laugh. They live it. That's the best gift you can have. In France ... it's not more intellectual, but there is a little more judgement. To be relaxed is more of an issue. It's more of a modesty. It's more prudish -- but it's not the sexual side of prudish. More modesty. There's a distance.
I have to mention Uggie the Dog, who was just about my favorite onscreen dog ever; he's like George's right arm in the film. How much time did you have to put in to make that relationship work?
I knew that it was an added value to the project, and he really is part of George's life. They are Siamese twins. It was actually quite easy to work with Uggie, because he's a really well trained dog. Very talented. I just had to follow him a little bit, improvise a little bit. Sometimes he'd follow me. Especially because of the sausages I had in my pocket. [Laughs]
'The Artist' arrives in limited release on Nov. 25. Check back to Moviefone for more from the film's key players next week.
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