The bad boy that European cinema adores
- He has just finished making Tuers sans gages by Jean Pierre Mocky. “I prefer playing slightly unsavoury characters,” he said
We have seen him as a petty criminal, a killer, a screaming queen, a suspicious husband, a sacrilegious lover and, more rarely, the good old “Monsieur Arnaud”. His latest challenge was to play a mafia foot soldier in Jean Pierre Mocky’s latest film that has the provisional title of Le tueur sans gages, based on a crime novel and scheduled for release in September. Michel Serrault assures us that for reasons that have everything to do with his chosen profession: acting, he does his best work when asked to play the baddie. “I discover my characters when I see myself on the screen. When I was young, I jockeyed for roles, just like every other young actor does. Priests say “in manus tuas domine” and for quite some time now I’ve been saying “I put my character in your hands, oh director” and become somebody else. My characters make me laugh when they really are funny. I also cry when they’re pathetic. In any case, I try my hardest to bring them to life and give them that little touch of humanity regardless of whether they are ugly, crazy or just repulsive. I never judge: I portray! I have often been told off for making a mad killer like Dr Petiot sympathetic but it was impossible for him to be any other way! What idiots! Just think about it for a moment, if the “good doctor” hadn’t been so welcoming when he opened the door, he’d never have got his victims in the furnace!”
You were asked to play old Dominici for TV. This man was the talk of the town in the 50s when he was tried and found guilty of a massacre in a field near his farm. Although the crime was never really solved, the farmer paid a high price. Now you were asked to recreate the same character. Did you accept?”
“I did, but on one condition: or I play the innocent or nothing doing! And hurry up with what you will see. And you jurors sitting on your court bench, will you condemn him again or not? No! I could never play a suspect or even a convicted criminal without giving him a chance.”
Your first love was the circus and clowns...
“Given my age, I met the greatest of them. I talked with Albert Fratellini in his dressing room although I also see lesser talents and like them just as much. The thing that made La Cage aux Folles such a hit in Italy was not the comedy but the emotion the film gave audiences. When one actor pulls on a pair of pink tights and the other (Tognazzi) says: “your’re better dressed than any woman...”, you can’t stop laughing. That is just as tragic as M. Arnaud’s loneliness. I feel the urge to say: don’t laugh too hard, don’t overdo the admiration, don’t refuse too many things and be more indulgent. Enough judgement already! I only feel really comfortable when I play the poor old loser. Once a journalist wrote: “Serrault’s secret is his humanity” and I got all emotional only it was genuine, and not a trick.”
Did you ever meet Fellini?
“We were supposed to make a film together. Fellini came to Paris. I knew some of his films but had never met the man. We made an appointment, just the two of us, face to face in a Chinese restaurant. As soon as I saw him coming in, I understood the mystery of his personality and it still fascinates me: a smile and his slightly accented French won me over right away. We had the time of our lives. We talked about the films he made dedicated to clowns. I admitted that I failed to laugh even once – just sat there and cried my eyes out. Four hours later we were still there at the table and had stopped eating. Fellini wanted me to make E la nave va. I asked to read something but he replied: what is an actor who wants to read? I’ve got nothing to show you... Come to Cinecittà and I’ll show you my drawings of you. So I went to Rome just on the power of those words. I saw the sketches for all the characters pinned to the wall of his office. I visited Cinecittà and Fellini’s Studio. Regretfully, I was already making Mortelle Randonnée when Fellini began his film.”
In cahoots with Jean Pierre Mocky, you have played some of the strangest characters imaginable. The two of you just finished a film. Is there another in the pipeline?
“The provisional title of the film is “tuer sans gages”. It will have to be changed because that is the title of a play by Ionesco. The film is about a craftsman whose dream is to join the mafia so he can bed beautiful women and drive great cars. This character, played by Jacques Villeret, meets a small-time lowlife (me) who promises to introduce the craftsman to a local mafia chieftain, played by Michel Lonsdale. I am a former legionnaire who’s never really retired. Although I am not a winner, I exert a certain influence on the craftsman and put him to the test by ordering him to kill the people who are giving me pain. The craftsman is so successful that he becomes a prime target for both the police and the mafia and they agree to work together to catch him. The film is a biting comedy, typical of Mocky’s work: you could never say that he does things by accident. He is always only too well aware of the situations he is dealing with and is sublime as he leaps from one situation to another. The only risk is repeating the same scenes. I know that he will choose the best scene: he never misses. I measure my capacity for invention against him. We have another project scheduled for the autumn. Les bénévoles, a bittersweet comedy about voluntary work. We’ll have the time of our lives. There are lots of great volunteers but there are also others... I don’t think I have to tell you which category I belong to, do I?”
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