x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The quiet Frenchman: Jean Reno

We talk to the French actor about his latest film, 22 Bullets, out in the UAE today, and his journey to international stardom.

Jean Reno and Abdulla Kaabi
Jean Reno and Abdulla Kaabi

It's nearing 5pm, and Jean Reno is flagging. An early flight to Britain has left the 62-year-old's bloodhound eyes looking bleary and bloodshot. With stubble you could sand wood on, he could do with a good night's sleep. Fatigue is also accounting for Reno's meandering sentences. "I'm sorry," he apologises at one point, after one particularly long-winded ramble. "I'm a little bit complicated." On screen, at least, this laconic Frenchman has always traded on being a man of few words - most famously as the taciturn hitman in Léon. "The less you speak," he grunts, "the more impressed are the people."

He embraced this minimalist approach during his recent project with the Emirati filmmaker Abdulla AlKaabi, whose short film The Philosopher, lasting just 17 minutes, followed a man who wanted to give up his life of materialism and become the eponymous philosopher. The production was such a success that Reno agreed to collaborate with AlKaabi again for his next film, a feature-length comedy called Culture Shock.

The last time we met, in Hamburg, Reno was awkward and sullen, his black mood doubtless exacerbated by the fact he was under orders to promote the dire remake of Rollerball. Today, despite stifling yawns, he's in a far better state of mind. Presumably happy with the job in hand - to talk up Richard Berry's French thriller 22 Bullets, in which he plays the lead - he bounces across topics, name-drops his celebrity friends and tells me I have a good voice for radio. All very charming, all conducted with some serious bonhomie.

In the film, Reno plays Charly Matteï, a retired Marseille criminal who, after surviving a brutal assassination attempt, goes on a roaring rampage of revenge. The film is loosely inspired by the life of the real-life gangster Jacques "Jacky Le Mat" Imbert, who similarly cheated death following a hit in a parking lot that left him with 22 bullet wounds. "Then it's a completely fictional story," adds Reno. "Being shot 22 times, it is a shock enough to ask yourself, 'Who am I?'"

I ask Reno why he thinks gangster stories hold such an appeal. "We're fascinated by the dark side," he answers. "I remember in Paris, when we first had The Godfather. Before that, the book became famous. And then we saw the movie. I read the book, and I remember… the book was fascinating."

As for 22 Bullets, he believes it's less a mob story and more a movie about betrayal, about a man who wants to be redeemed, change his life and protect his family. "This guy will take you from blood to tears," he says.

For the record, Reno has never been shot himself (despite a spell in the military) and has never wondered what it might be like. Born in Casablanca - his Spanish parents had settled in Morocco years before to escape Franco's fascist regime - Reno left the country in 1968 when he was just 20. It was then that he was forced into the army. Desperate to head to art school in Paris, in order to gain French citizenship he needed to serve in the military - though it was just at the time of civil unrest in the country. Shipped to Germany, he was surrounded by professional soldiers who had returned from fighting in Algeria and Vietnam. "It wasn't pleasant," he recalls. "They were very tough, not nice. They had this discipline idea… they weren't very modern."

Fortunately for Reno, he survived and made it back to Paris, where he started acting. While he endured long periods of unemployment, he eventually teamed up with the stage director Didier Flamand, and began touring Europe with his friend's theatre company for several years before he won his first small film role in Costa-Gavras's 1979 drama Clair de femme. He claims to still love treading the boards. "You meet the people, the audience, and you feel the heat," he says.

By 1981, he made the short film L' Avant Dernier, his first work with Luc Besson, the director with whom he is most famously associated in France. After their first two features together, The Last Combat and Subway, came the 1988 classic The Big Blue, in which he played a deep-sea diver. They reunited briefly for Nikita, the story of a female assassin, and then he got to play his own killer in Léon in 1994. The last time Besson directed him it was a marvellous farewell, not least because it "was the key", as he puts it, to launching him in America.

Since then, Reno has fared well in Hollywood, whether opposite a giant city-flattening lizard (in Godzilla) or the crème-de-la-crème of the A-list, from Tom Cruise (Mission: Impossible) to Tom Hanks (The Da Vinci Code). But he claims he's not dazzled by star-power. Rather, he's interested in his illustrious co-stars as people. "You can spend six months with Tom Hanks, talking about everything you want, because he is somebody… he is a human being. For me, it's not only movies; it is more what feeds me as a human being. Anything that can refuel you."

While Reno's range in France goes from mean and moody to broad comedy (most successfully in the time-travel effort Les Visiteurs), Hollywood is only just waking up to the fact that he can be culturally diverse. He cites the recent thriller Armored. "They gave me a role that wasn't a Frenchman," he says, delighted.

In his mind, he's lucky to still be working. "I do not want to be a pretentious guy. From the beginning, especially in France, I've seen people going up and down very quickly. I had no real dream. I had only a dream to meet people and to spend, if I could, three months working with them. Because of that I think I've been living well."

Twice divorced, and now married to the model/actress Zofia Borucka (some 23 years his junior), Reno became a father for the fifth time (he has two children from each previous marriage) in 2009, when Zofia gave birth to their son Cielo. While she is currently embroiled in parenthood, does he ever think about acting with her? He screws up his face. "I prefer the idea that she can exist by herself. Maybe if we have the opportunity, then OK, but it is not nice to have somebody too close to you [on set] when you're married."

For the first time today, he looks a little ruffled. Maybe the idea offends his old-fashioned sense of machismo. Or maybe he's just tired.

22 Bullets opens in UAE cinemas today