Interview with Guillaume Canet

Responsible for two of the biggest hits in French cinema history, GUILLAUME CANET may be wooed by Hollywood but his heart remains in Paris, as he tells Pierre De Villiers...

Responsible for two of the biggest hits in French cinema history, Guillaume Canet may be wooed by Hollywood but his heart remains in Paris, as he tells Pierre De Villiers. Guillaume Canet is struggling to keep his eyes open. Sitting slumped on a couch in a suite at the Soho Hotel in London, the man known for being a fine actor, an even better director and that lucky bloke who's dating Marion Cotillard, looks exhuasted, even though he's just woken up from a power nap. "Being an actor and director are both hard work because they offer different challenges," the 38-year-old says with a weary smile. "With acting you have to be ready to switch on and, say, cry at a moment's notice, while you give a lot of energy directing a film because it never stops – you're always thinking about it day and night. And I put so much pressure on myself when it comes to making films. I'm always unsatisfied with myself and my work." Canet's perfectionist streak has allowed him to hold his own as an actor opposite the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and G�rard Depardieu while, as a director, also crafting two of the biggest hits in French cinema history – Tell No One and Little White Lies. His success has come at a high cost, though. A few years ago while putting together Tell No One, Canet almost worked himself to death, picking up a virus that led to septicaemia and spending a month in hospital. When he was finally back on his feet, depression set in. "It was a time of my life during which I worked a lot," Canet recalls. "I was doing so many things at the same time that I was not enjoying life the way I deserve to. I was not taking enough time to enjoy my family and friends. I think I was working to avoid things I did not want to think about or deal with. I only realised this, because I got sick. I realised that it was not good for me because I was missing a lot of things." During the period of soul-searching that followed, Canet penned the script for comedy-drama Little White Lies. "I spent a week of vacation with friends, really close friends I've known for a very long time and realised that we don't tell each other the truth anymore to avoid hurting each other," he explains. "Even if you think someone has become a jerk since he was a kid you just don't say anything because it's just one week of vacation. I thought making a movie about those little lies would be very interesting." Canet sat down and wrote a story about a group of friends who, every year, travel to a beach house near Bordeaux for a holiday. When one member of the circle of friends is knocked off his scooter in Paris and seriously injured, the rest have to decide whether to go ahead with their plans. Their decision to travel south backfires when the secrets they keep from one another start tearing the group apart. Working on Little White Lies hit close to home for Canet since it was partly filmed in Cap Ferret, an area he knows extremely well. "I've been to that area for vacation for ten or 12 years and I've always liked it," he says. "I spent such a long time there watching a sunset and wishing I could make a film in this beautiful place to show this incredible light that sometimes turns pink. It was such a personal film for me to make." Little White Lies became even more personal for Canet when his partner, Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, was cast in the pivotal role of Marie, a member of the vacationing group struggling to find love. "I know the cast well so it was tough creating that distance that you need between actors and the director," he says. "That was certainly the case with Marion as well. In fact, I think I was probably harder on her than the others because we were together and you don't want to show any favouritism. I am really proud of her but it was difficult for me on set to say: Oh, look everyone how wonderful she is'. To be honest I think that is stupid because she deserves as many compliments as the others." Working relationship Canet admits Cotillard found it tough to live with him during the making of Little White Lies."I think it was more difficult for her because when you are an actor and you come home, you don't want to be in the process of working, you want to have a break," he says. "But when you live with a director he comes home and he is still in this movie and thinks about the day, and starts talking about scenes because you can't switch off. It's a nightmare for Marion but she is so supportive." When Canet talks about his relationship with Cotillard, his face lights up. The pair worked together on romance Love Me If You Dare, which was made in 2003, and have been a couple since 2007. When I meet up with Canet, Cotillard is just weeks away from giving birth to their first child, the thought of which causes him to smile broadly.  "I'm not really nervous about becoming a dad, just incredibly happy," he says. "I don't feel I have to go out there and read books to prepare because I trust myself as a human being. I'm sure it's going to be hard work but how many men have been good dads without reading a baby book?" In Cotillard, Canet has clearly found a kindred spirit, someone who knows how hot the glare of the media spotlight can be and just how much hard work it takes to be actor. "It's great to be able to talk to someone like Marion who understands the highs and lows of being actor and a director," he confirms. "Someone who knows the dedication it takes." Canet's passion for the cinema certainly runs deep. He remembers how, as a youngster growing up in the rural district of Rambouillet, near Paris, he would make Super 8mm movies with his friends and hold screenings. "I would show movies of our holidays," chuckles Canet, who was born in the Boulogne-Billancourt suburb in the west of Paris. "I've always been passionate about closing the curtains and putting on the projector. I always wanted to be a director." Before working in the film industry, it looked like he might carve out a career for himself as a showjumper. The only son in a family of horse-breeders, Canet made the junior French National Equestrian Team, but a nasty horse-riding accident changed his plans and he enrolled in the Cours Florent drama school in Paris. "Before being a director I thought it would be interesting to learn about acting," Canet points out. "I would have to direct actors and therefore understand them so I went to drama school." A combination of raw talent and good looks saw Canet find work on stage and TV before impressing in thriller Barracuda in 1997. In 1999 he was nominated for a C�sar Award for his performance in crime drama En plein coeur before starring opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in Danny Boyle's The Beach (2000) and G�rard Depardieu in fantasy thriller Vidocq (2001). Despite establishing himself as an actor, directing remained Canet's first love and, in 2002, he stepped behind the camera to take charge of his first feature film, comedy drama Whatever You Say. The film divided critics but Canet showed enough flair to suggest he was destined for bigger and better things. In 2006 he fulfilled that potential with the brilliant thriller Tell No One, a film that won Canet a C�sar for best director and which raked in the cash at the French box office. "It was important that the film did well financially because when people trust you and give you money to do a movie it is really reassuring to know that you didn't waste it and they got their cash back," he says. "It also gives you the confidence to go on and do some other films. But what is more important to me is to see that the audience is there and they are touched by the subject that can be very personal but also popular, which is a nice thing." Paris is the place With Little White Lies also reaching a large audience, Canet is now one of the most sought-after directors to come out of France for some time. But while offers are no doubt coming in from Hollywood, the star is content to remain in the country of his birth for now. "The right place for me is Paris," he says. "I just love the city especially the Rambouillet Forest, west of Paris where I grew up. I also have my friends in Paris so that's really where I need to be." As my time with Canet draws to a close the conversation turns to the future and how he will be dividing his time between acting and directing. Having worked himself into the hospital once before, you'd think the star would be keen to take his foot off the pedal, maybe work as a writer-director and leave the acting to Cotillard. Canet's passion for film and uncompromising work ethic makes taking it easy difficult, though. "I hope in the future I can take more time to direct but I couldn't skip the acting side because I love it too much and I need it physically," says Canet, who will next be seen in relationship drama Last Night opposite Keira Knightley. "Directing a film is psychologically draining and it can be frustrating because at a certain stage you want to express yourself which you can do when you act. So, I really love striking that balance between acting and directing, even though it does take it out of you." Little White Lies is on general release now.