As the movie The Artist makes cinematic history, the silent film's leading man, Jean Dujardin, talks to Lanie Goodwin
He has been mugging it up for French audiences for more than a decade, playing everything from a megalomaniac surfer with a sun-bleached blond wig to a bumbling secret agent in spy comedies. Formerly known as the "enfant terrible" of low-brow humour, his sidesplitting imitation of a camel remains a classic.
For someone who never set foot in drama school, the French actor Jean Dujardin is on a roll. After pocketing the Palm d'Or for Best Actor in Cannes last May for his turn in The Artist, the 39 year-old actor has been scooping up awards and nominations for it ever since: a shiny Golden Globe, the best actor award at the Screen Actor's Guild ceremony on Sunday night and last week, an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
Now, weeks from the February 27 telecast, the star of Michel Hazanavicius's black-and-white surprise mega-hit finds himself elbow-to-elbow with the likes of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and other heavyweight Hollywood contenders.
And he got there without having to utter a word.
Jazzed up by a lush, swinging big band score, The Artist (give or take a few unexpected Foley effects) is predominately silent. As a record breaker, it goes down in history as only the fifth silent film to receive an Academy Award Best Picture nomination (the last one was 83 years ago) and the first French film to land 10 potential Oscar-winning categories.
So how does Dujardin explain the film's whopping global feel-good appeal?
"It's the genre itself," the actor says. "The silent era, the black and white, the music, and the love story ... it all adds up to a certain nostalgia for that period. Today you have the impression that everything rushes by too quickly. Back then, it seemed like there were less problems and more time to enjoy life."
In the opening scenes of The Artist, Dujardin's preening matinée idol George Valentin struts through the crowds of his admiring fans and catches the eye of a pretty girl in the crowd, Peppy Miller, who is superbly played by his co-star Bérénice Bejo, the director Hazanavicius's wife in real life. As Peppy rises from an extra on the set to Hollywood's toast of the town, Valentin sinks into a bewildered daze when his long-suffering wife leaves him, then abruptly falls from grace when the talkies arrives, launching him into financial ruin.
To prepare for the three-month shoot in Los Angeles, Dujardin says he watched dozens of black-and-white classics from The Mark of Zorro to FW Murnau's Sunrise. The net result is a mash-up of charms: Valentin has the smouldering gaze of Rudolf Valentino, the swashbuckling panache of Douglas Fairbanks, the grace of Gene Kelly and the sexy pencil-thin mustachioed allure of Clark Gable.
But Charlie Chaplin wins hands down as Dujardin's personal favourite.
"He was a genius," the actor says. "He was one of the few who knew how to make the bridge from silent movies to sound."
Dujardin was given carte blanche to improvise on Hazanavicius's carefully storyboarded scenes, and in the end he relied mostly on instinct.
"Generally, I reread a script about 50 times before the shoot," he says. "I don't know why - maybe to reassure myself - but I think it's a way to ask myself questions about the character. It helps me figure out what kind of smile I'll want to use, or generally how to modulate the way I'm playing the character at any particular moment."
One of his biggest satisfactions from the entire experience was also the most strenuous.
"I've always danced and used my body in the roles I've played, but once you start tap dancing, there's no going back," he says with a grin. "You know that you're coming along when suddenly, you're making music with your feet."
Working with the choreographer Fabien Ruiz, he says he poured out litres of sweat - "I recommend it as a way to lose weight," he says, "the fat melts right off of you" - to perfect the dance routine at the end of the film.
Dujardin also got used to sharing the spotlight with Uggie, a Jack Russell terrier who trails after him throughout the film.
"I thought that it would be more difficult with the dog, but he was very talented," he says, joking, "but then, so was his master. I helped him along with little pieces of sausage that I had in my pocket."
In person, the actor comes across as easygoing and down to earth, responding to questions with rapid-fire witty remarks that are punctuated by winks and his trademark bemused arching of the eyebrow. Yet, though Dujardin is one of France's best-paid actors, his glib manner turns self-deprecating when it comes to his own talent.
"Jean's career is a fairy tale," says his long-time friend, the actor Gilles Lellouche. "He went from popular TV shows to 'best actor' in Cannes with no theatrical experience, no conservatory ... there's only talent."
Born in 1972 in a middle-class Paris suburb, Dujardin first studied drawing and apprenticed as a locksmith to support himself.
"As a kid I wanted to become a comics illustrator," he says.
Early on, though, his zany antics and spot-on impersonations had started to attract attention. "I wasn't exactly a troublemaker in class," the actor recalls, "but I was clearly better at imitating my teachers out in the schoolyard than studying."
"I could hide behind roles and use them to mask my own personality. But at the same time, you actually become more yourself by playing other people."
At 24, Dujardin began performing one-man-show comedy sketches in bars and cabarets; a year later, he was voted the best comic on the TV show Graîne de Star, a showcase for budding talent.
His first big break came in 1999 with Loulou, in which he played an endearingly macho character in the daily seven-minute TV mini-series in Un Gars, une Fille (A Guy, A Girl). Teaming up with the actress Alexandra Lamy, Dujardin's parody of a young married couple's humdrum interchanges ended up in true romance. He and Lamy wed in 2009.
Over the years, Dujardin has worked with a number of French directors, including James Huth, whose sophomoric but wildly popular surfer flick, Brice de Nice drew about four million viewers in France. Prior to The Artist, Dujardin also starred in two 0SS117 comedies directed by Hazanavicius (Cairo,Nest of Spies, and Lost in Rio), in which the actor played an inept French spy.
Dujardin's next film, Les Infidèles (The Players), co-written with Gilles Lellouche, is about men cheating on women - inspired, he says, by Dini Risi's 1963 classic I Mostri (The Monsters) and the Italian actor Vittorio Gassman's playboy swagger. Divided into six 15-minute sketches by different directors (including himself and his inner circle, from Hazanavicius to Kounen), Dujardin warns that it's a total contrast to his image in The Artist. "It's 'trashy humour' that ends up as a kind of measured delirium," he says.
Despite the inevitable Hollywood offers, Dujardin plans to stay put in France. He also does not seem up for improving his halting English and Maurice Chevalier-like French accent for a future role.
"I don't believe for one second that I have a career in the US," he says with a shrug. "I'm French and I like to work with French actors."
In his downtime, he can be found zipping around Paris on his scooter, hunting for pieces of old rusted iron.
"I'm not really a sculptor," he says, "but I like to go out and find bits of scrap metal that I assemble and solder together. It calms me down and gives me balance. But don't expect any art gallery openings."
Whether or not he wins an Academy Award on February 27, Dujardin pauses when asked about leaving behind both The Artist and his charismatic George Valentin.
"In America, people were always asking me about the difficulty in playing in a silent movie," he sighs. "No one ever talks about the pleasure. Because so far, everything I've chosen to do - from my early TV comic sketches to now - seem to have one thing in common: c'est le plaisir."