Jean Reno - A man for all seasons

Jean Reno is one of the most versatile French actors in movies today. He talks to PIERRE DE VILLIERS about his career and making it big in Hollywood

Jean Reno is in a chatty mood today. From the moment he eases his hulking frame into a chair at the stylish Ritz- Carlton Central Park hotel in New York, the French superstar best known for playing brooding tough guys merrily starts shooting the breeze.

“For me the most important journey in life is the one you take through those you meet,” Reno says. “I enjoy talking to people, staying in different cities and soaking up different cultures.”

Reno’s affable nature and desire to broaden his horizons have played a big part in the tremendous success the actor has had in America. Over the years he’s been happy to globetrot between Paris and Hollywood while establishing himself as the Frenchman every top producer has to have in their address book.

Unlike so many French actors who struggle to make their mark in America, the 60-year-old has appeared in a string of blockbusters including Mission: Impossible, Godzilla and The Da Vinci Code. This February he returns in another high-profile Tinseltown offering, starring opposite Steve Martin in comedy sequel The Pink Panther 2.

“For a French actor to be successful in Hollywood you, of course, have to try and speak English, which is what I have done,” Reno points out. “You also have to realise that establishing yourself takes time. You are not going to waltz in and simply replace an American star. You have to make a mark alongside other actors and to do that you have to strike up a relationship with the audience by putting in honest performances.”

Reno’s passion for acting runs deep. Growing up in Casablanca (where he was born Juan Moreno in 1948 to Spanish Andalusian parents) the actor felt something stir inside him the moment he stepped on to the stage as a youngster.

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“I did a play and I remember the experience so vividly,” Reno recalls. “The smell of the wood on the stage, the costumes people were wearing, the reaction from the audience – everything was magic.”

At the age of 17 he relocated to France and, to gain citizenship, had to sign up for national service. While stationed in Germany, Reno’s superiors found out he had been part of the national drama school in Casablanca and put him in charge of the camp’s entertainment and arts. “I remained very focused on becoming an actor,” he remembers. “I stayed close to the things that would help me achieve that goal.”

After a year in the army, Reno was ready to pursue his dream of becoming a professional actor and enrolled in the famous Cours Ren� Simon drama school in Paris.

“I was so impressed with the city,” he recalls. “I didn’t know the place at all so I had to find my way around Paris with a guide book and using the trains. It was wonderful to explore such a beautiful city. I had a fantastic time just acting and enjoying the many things the place had to offer.”

After some stage and TV work he landed a role in Costa Gravas’ Clair de Femme in 1979 but it was not until he teamed up with writer/director Luc Besson two years later that his career really started to motor thanks to sci-fi offerings L’Avant Dernier and Le Combat Dernier. Reno achieved some fame outside France in Besson’s The Big Blue (1988) and La Femme Nikita (1990) and followed that up with his signature role as an assassin in the brilliant L�on in 1994. With his career in rude health Reno was ready to target Hollywood, especially since spending time in LA and enjoying a new culture appealed to the actor.

Cultural mix “I’m not exactly sure where this wanderlust comes from,” he muses. “Maybe because I was born in Casablanca, an Arabic and French speaking country. So from the earliest age I was part of a mixed culture.”

Reno enjoyed his time in America so much that he has now settled in New York. “It is where I really feel at home,” he says. “Fortunately I don’t miss France because there is a French community over here.”

While Reno is happy tucking into the Big Apple he clearly still cares deeply about what happens in France, especially since the man who runs the country is a close friend. The actor famously befriended Nicolas Sarkozy when they were neighbours for about ten years. The French President even acted as Reno’s best man when the star married British model Zofia Borucka in 2006.

“I talk to him every now and then,” Reno says. “When it comes to making positive changes in France I really hope he improves the relationship with the Americans. He has already opened up new channels with England and Englishspeaking countries, which has been great. I think he has shown that he is someone who is open-minded. It is completely different to the way Jacques Chirac lead the country. I believe Nicolas Sarkozy is committed to doing some really good things.”

Happy days The fact that Reno now lives in America means he really makes the most of what France has to offer whenever he makes a film in the country. Of all the actors to invade Paris while shooting The Pink Panther 2 no-one had a bigger smile on their face than Reno.

“It was great because I know every corner of the city,” he says. “I know where the best restaurants are, I know the people, so I had a wonderful time making the film.”

The Pink Panther 2 is a sequel to the 2006 film that re-launched the comedy series featuring the bumbling French sleuth Inspector Clouseau. Reno returns as Ponton, Clouseau’s partner. For the actor, doing the sequel meant adding to a special franchise.

“Inspector Clouseau is really an iconic character that has been with us for a long time,” he explains. “Peter Sellers made him popular and now we have to build on that.”

Reno’s performance in The Pink Panther 2 again shows how comfortable he is with both comedy and drama.

“It’s important for me to be versatile throughout my career,” he says. “You don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing. I also think that doing comedy makes you better at tackling dramatic roles. By watching wonderfully skilled comedians like Steve Martin (who plays Clouseau), you learn things and improve as an actor.”

While there is a good chance The Pink Panther 2 will be popular with the public, it is fair to assume that critics, who slammed the first film, are already sharpening their knives. Reno is, of course, no stranger to criticism. While films like Godzilla and The Da Vinci Code raked in the cash they were slated by many reviewers. Despite the blows, Reno seems unfazed by critics, especially those in France who accuse him of selling out by doing Hollywood blockbusters.

“Back in France they are always looking at how their actors are doing overseas,” he says. “When your countryman is doing something you don’t understand you go: Oh-oh’. That’s not unique to France, though. In Spain, actors such as Antonio Banderas and Javier Bardem are also criticised for doing American movies. I think some French actors are afraid to do American films because they will be judged by the media. It’s sad because so many great French actors don’t get wider exposure.”

Reno, for one, will continue to alternate between American and French films.

“If it’s possible, then why not?” he says. “I get sent scripts from all over, so I will do the films that really interest me.”

As for the near future, Reno is hoping to shoot a film in England – a country he has found fascinating from a young age – and is also writing a play based on his life.

“I am trying to write down the journey I have had from Casablanca to Hollywood,” he says. “I really want to convey just how important people are when it comes to making your journey through life special.”