When I walk into the interview room, Mathieu Amalric is standing by an open window smoking a Marlboro. It’s fine because he’s French. But even in France smoking is becoming verboten.
“It’s like here now,” Amalric says. “We like to imitate America. So now you’re not allowed to smoke in parks near children. I was raised in a house where my mother and father would smoke. No problem.”
Amalric — most seen by American audiences as the Bond villain in “Quantum of Solace,” but also in “Munich,” briefly in “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and heard but not always seen in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” — is in New York because of a series, "Mathieu Amalric: Renaissance Man, runningover the next month at Anthology Film Archives and FIAF's CineSalon, that considers him both as an actor and a filmmaker. The series includes his sometimes manic acting stints in Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” and “Kings and Queen,” one of many films he’s done for Arnaud Desplechin. (Their latest, “My Golden Days,” is due in America soon.)
But Amalric is also an award-winning filmmaker with his own distinct voice. He netted Best Director at Cannes in 2010 for “On Tour,” which is represented, as is 2001’s “Wimbledon Stadium,” 2003’s “Public Affairs” and last year’s “The Blue Room,” a compact and precise take on a particularly experimental novel by noir legend Georges Simenon.
In America, at least, though, he’s still best known for his performances. He fell into acting by accident. He explains how he was making a short in the 1980s, which was to include a scene featuring his grandmother. She fell ill and was suddenly due in hospital, leaving him mere hours to find everyone and bang out the scene. He was able to get in touch with everyone but the other actor. So he played it himself — forgetting that that meant he’d have to play the role in every other scene as well. Later Desplechin saw the role and cast him as the lead in his 1996 epic “My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument.” (He also has a walk-on in Desplechin’s 1992 film “La Sentinelle.”)
Amalric isn’t prone to actorly ego. “For me, acting is another manual job — like the guy who puts down the track,” he explains. “I’m attracted in movie to all those jobs. For example, if we had to shot here and you hear the noise,” alluding to the construction that’s happening just outside the window, “someone has to find the person in charge, whoever asks the workers to stop during the takes. And then you say, ‘Thank you, you’re a genius.’ He is as important as the actor who knows his lines. That’s what movies are about.”
Amalric is emphatic about avoiding pretentions of artistry in movies. “Especially in France there is this sickness about the author,” he says. “That is one word that is never pronounced on set: author, or artist, or art. It shouldn’t exist. You just do what you can with the time and money you have. That’s where it becomes exciting. It’s impure. That’s what I like about movies.”
And yet Amalric works with iconoclastic filmmakers, and is a filmmaker himself whose work is uncompromising in its, for lack of a better word, “artistry.” Desplechin is the only one who can make Desplechin films. (Though John Magary’s recent American indie “The Mend” is very indebted to him.) Only Wes Anderson can make Wes Anderson films.
Amalric has spoken about wanting to work with Anderson on “Budapest Hotel” in part so he could watch him work. He still finds him to be a “mystery.” He’s very moved by his films, even though they’re very rigid and designed. “Something just bursts in that very controlled world,” he says. He remembers shooting “Budapest” and being surprised to find, despite the rigor of his films, that when Anderson shoots he lets the camera roll through multiple takes.
“We pick our props back up and he talks at the same time,” he explains. “There’s a sort of savagery — something very savage about the way he talks to actors, to make us speak quicker, or maybe slower. It creates this incredible ping-pong with the actors. That’s rare, that animality. He makes something moving that could be cold and controlled.”
Amalric even did the lead voice in the French dub of “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” “It was very important for [Anderson], because he loves France, he lives in France,” he says of his hands-on approach to the French version. Amalric wound up recording his dialogue before his co-star, Isabelle Huppert, did hers. “So I was acting with Meryl Streep! It was nice to feel myself as Clooney, you know? I tried to imitate him in a way — to be very fast.”