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Lambert Wilson: A Spiritual Man

The French actor has run the showbiz gamut from the avant-garde to action comedies; with Of Gods and Men, he meets his latest challenge, divinely.


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Though most know him best as the Matrix sequels’ Merovingian, Lambert Wilson’s filmography is a veritable odyssey of performances. Feeling his country’s dramatic tendencies to be too constricting, Wilson left France at an early age to study drama in England. Though he returned home to enjoy a fruitful career in French cinema, Wilson remained motivated by the expansive talents of British stage actors and our own Robert Redford. It was these versatile actors who spurred the actor to make the leap from French cinema to action thrillers such as Sahara, Catwoman, and The Matrix; to explore musical theater with several one-man shows; and to recently return to France to portray real-life martyred monk Christian de Cherge, in Xavier Beauvois’ tour-de-force Of Gods and Men.

 

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Based on historical events, Beauvois’ film revisits the 1996 kidnapping and murder of 7 French monks who refused to abandon their monstery in the face of post-colonial uprisings. When the story begins, the Christian monks of Tibhirine, North Africa, live in harmony with their Muslim neighbors, providing the community with medical attention and everyday guidance. But when a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps though the region. Beauvois’ film poignantly explores the dilemma of the humble monks, now faced with a daunting decision: return to safety in France, or remain in Tibhirine to promote fraternal and spiritual common ground?

 

After winning the 2010 Grand Prix award at Cannes, the film became a box-office success in France and leads the upcoming Cesar awards with 11 nominations. It also came as a great shock to critics and fans when the film was denied a spot in this year’s Oscar foreign language race.

 

Though Beauvois’ entire ensemble delivers penetrating performances as monks wrestling with their individual relationships to faith, it is the silent strength of Wilson’s Brother Christian that ultimately brings the group together, binding them in a manner that transcends the whitewashed monastery walls. I had the chance to sit down with Wilson recently at the Regency Hotel.

 



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Tribeca: Your filmography is quite diverse. You’ve done everything from French cinema to the Matrix and now the contemplative Brother Christian. What do you look for when choosing a role?

 

Lambert Wilson: Well, I’ve always been attracted by change. I have a very low boredom threshold, and I need to go from one universe to the other. So whenever there is something interesting to do anywhere, I go. I’m ready to do an American action comedy and then a very serious film like Of Gods and Men, and to go from cinema to the stage, from the stage to directing, and to singing. I think in a way my models are those English actors that you’ll see both on stage in Shakespeare at the National Theater and then in Harry Potter; actresses like Judi Dench who will do a musical like Nine, and then you’ll see her again in Bond, then in Cleopatra or something like that. Those are careers that I really admire—basically, what attracts me is the quality of the material. I feel I owe it out of politeness to the audience to be different from film to film.

 

And in that respect, my models were definitely Anglo-Saxon and not French, because the French very often repeat themselves. They are themselves, and they bring the character to themselves rather than going to the character. Something that was taught to me as a drama student in England is that one should never bring the character to one, but that one should make the journey towards the character.  

Tribeca: So was England where you first began acting?

 

Lambert Wilson: Well, that was where I made my first steps, but those were extremely painful steps because I didn’t understand the language. I had no idea where I had landed. I went to this bizarre drama school called the Drama Centre that taught the American method, among other things, and they were very disciplinarian. They were very tough and I had a very hard time. I was too young. I had just turned 17 and was away from home in a different country. I couldn’t understand anything and I don’t think I had even read the prospectus of the school I had auditioned for.

Tribeca: You just knew you wanted to act?


Lambert Wilson:
I think, in a way, I was determined to become an American actor. I wanted a good training, which I knew I could find in England, but I had no interest in French cinema whatsoever. I wanted to be Robert Redford. Little by little at the school, I discovered theater, which is ironic because my dad was a theater actor and director in France. So I had seen theater since I was a baby and I had taken it for granted. I thought I knew things about the theater when really I only knew it on a surface level. So at the drama school I started enjoying it, and then when I got out of school and began acting in France, I started mostly with theater... and then, little by little, I did cinema.

 

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Tribeca: How did you become involved with Of Gods and Men, and what were your first impressions after reading the script?

 

Lambert Wilson: It came to me via the producer—the director had not been chosen yet, and it was not a very good script. It was a very good story and an interesting starting point, but the script was rather conventional. I said that I was interested in doing it because I thought it was a good story, but I was hoping, praying, that the script would be improved, and it was with the arrival of Xavier Beauvois, a very good director in France who completed his fifth film, I think, with Of Gods and Men. He made the script simpler, more direct, more moving. By the time he was on board I was extremely happy, because he’s very edgy and also he’s an actor. I think that actors very often make very good directors. They know when you’re good. They know how to direct other actors.

 

Tribeca: They can speak your language.

 

Lambert Wilson: Yes, they have an instinct. They can tell when an actor has a difficulty or a tension with a scene, and he was a fantastic director. But there was also a grace over this film, something quite special that happened. It was very simple. A lot of people in France ask me, “Was it testing? Was it hard?” And I want to say: “No, it was very obvious to do, very simple.” The most difficult parts were the first steps that we took towards the preparation of the film, when we had to go to a retreat.

 

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Tribeca: You spent a week in a monastery, is that right?

 

Lambert Wilson: About three days.

 

Tribeca: And you lived the full lifestyle of a monk?

Lambert Wilson:
Yes, you have your dinners and lunches in silence and go to the services, which start at 4 am and go until 8 pm. I was embarrassed to begin with. It's always a little embarrassing when you are sitting at a table with a lot of people that you don’t know in complete silence. And, also, clearly the people around us were believers. They would attend the services with great fervor.

 

Tribeca: Were they welcoming to you and the other cast members?

 

Lambert Wilson: Yes, they were quite nice, but at the same time, they were very silent, and they didn’t know what we were there for. We would attend the services with the monks, but we would be separated from them by a sort of wooden fence. It was only the day we left that we went, what I want to call “backstage.” We were accompanied by a monk, and we visited the cloister, the garden, and the scriptorium, which is where they read, and suddenly it became more tangible, more real. Especially humanizing to see was a room where the monks hang their habits, the white ones. They each had their names written on a hook, and the monk who was showing us around explained to us how to enter your habit in order to do it very quickly.

Tribeca: So everything is ritual for the monks?

 

Lambert Wilson: Yes, and that was very fascinating. That was really the beginning of the work. And once that was done we, as cast members, had broken the ice, and we were fine. And then the next important step was singing—learning how to chant together, memorizing the psalms and the hymns, and learning how to sing in this very religious way, which is not at all the kind of singing that I was accustomed to.

 

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Tribeca: I understand you are a singer yourself?

 

Lambert Wilson: Well, I do musical comedy. I’ve done 3 one-man musical shows, and I’ve done Candide, and A Little Night Music, which I did twice. I did it in ’95 with Judi Dench, and I did it again last year in February. But in terms of religious singing, forget about your vibrato, forget about your projection, it's something that is much more ethereal, pure, almost bodiless in a way, and it wasn’t easy, I must say. But it was a sort of great enjoyment, and it gave us a sense of sharing something with the other actors. It was a wonderful sensation, and it really gathered the group.

 

Tribeca: Well, it certainly comes across in the film. You can really feel the bond between the brothers.

Lambert Wilson:
Yes, and there is a bond that we have kept in life. Now when we see each other, we have a quality of relationship that I haven’t had with actors in other films.

 

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Tribeca: Were you at all religious prior to this film?

 

Lambert Wilson: I wouldn’t say that I was religious. I got baptized late in my life, and I’ve always been interested in spirituality and always on a quest for spirituality, but in a way I was ready to do this character. Faith is an ongoing question for me. I don’t like dogma or religion. Faith, I like, and I like to think about it. I think I’m a spiritual person. I’m definitely fascinated by questions of spirituality. In fact, I think it’s the only thing that is of any importance to me.

 

Tribeca: So then it must have been very interesting to play this character whose faith, by virtue of being a monk, is never in question?

 

Lambert Wilson: Yes, but it’s a challenge because my faith compared to his is minimal. When you’re a monk and you’ve dedicated your entire life to praying, that is something much more important. But I could relate to that faith, to that questioning.

 

Tribeca: And did you ever study any of Christian de Cherge’s writings to help you prepare?

 

Lambert Wilson: I read some of the things he had written, and that was a great difficulty for me, you know, playing such an intellectual. This man was so well read, so intelligent that I felt very stupid in comparison, but that’s my work as an actor: to give the impression that I am intelligent. His writings were too enormous for me to digest during the film. I just concentrated on the intensity of his struggle, of his fight with his fellow monks, with the authorities, with the terrorists. He’s a man with a mission, and I don’t think that reading too much of his work would have changed my performance, because those writings were very specific in terms of theology and philosophy and less about character.

 

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Tribeca: Were you pretty familiar with this historical event?

 

Lambert Wilson: Not really, no. I remember when it happened, and I remember being shocked like all French people were, but it was with the help of the book Passion for Algeria, written by an American man called John Kiser that I really gathered my information. It’s extraordinary that it should be written by an American who simply had a great interest in that story. It’s a very good book, and it was actually translated into French by a man who was very important in the making of this film, Henry Quinson, who was our monastic adviser. Henry is a Frenchman—but also of half-American nationality—who was a stock trader for many years and then became a monk. He was a monk in the same monastery where four of the monks who got decapitated came from, so he had met them. Henry was with us on the set and was a great source of information, especially on how to choreograph the services and the chanting: as he lived it for six years, he really knew what he was talking about.

 

Tribeca: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

Lambert Wilson:
I think the values that are represented in the film are altruism, tolerance, peace, love, and not to be frightened of what is different, what is other. That is what these men did, in spite of their doubts. They chose not to be frightened, and they chose to embrace the other in spite of his religion, and even in spite of his actions. And I think that’s what people have come away with in France, where the film has been a huge success.

 

Those values of spirituality and generosity, they seem to be old fashioned, but they are not. At a time when we are so self-obsessed, so egocentric and also at a time when we have no time, these men show us how to deal with others. That’s really my little crop of information that I have received talking to the audience in France. They were moved by the courage of these monks, but mostly by their generosity and their capacity to embrace the other.

 

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Of Gods and Men opens in theaters in New York and LA this Friday. Get tickets and save it to your queue.

 

Watch the trailer:

 

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