WE INTERVIEW FRENCH ACTOR LAMBERT WILSON, WHO STARS AS JACQUES COUSTEAU IN 'THE ODYSSEY'
Jérôme Salle’s beautiful, big budget French biopic of oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau, The Odyssey, stars Lambert Wilson, Audrey Tautou and Pierre Niney. Filmed in locations from South Africa to the Antarctic, Salle’s portrait is both richly cinematic and intimate, portraying Cousteau as a complex figure torn between fame and family.
We spoke to César-nominated French actor Lambert Wilson (The Matrix Reloaded, Of Gods And Men) – himself a Curzon fan since his London drama school days – who vividly brings to life 30 years of Cousteau’s journey from explorer to environmentalist.
Lambert shares his experiences of being stranded in the Antarctic, diving around the world, and why Donald Trump has got it so wrong on environmental issues...
You play iconic explorer and environmentalist Jacques Cousteau across 30 years of his life, from his first successful underwater films to his ecological awakening. How did you approach the challenges of portraying Cousteau in this role?
Lambert Wilson: When you have a character who is so immensely documented it’s easier, actors need models even if they’re fictional; you get your food from all that material. When a character is super famous like Cousteau, the responsibility is heavy because you have to present such a complex image - it’s boring otherwise. But you also have a moral responsibility towards the family, you have to be fair and honest. You say to yourself “Can I meet his surviving son Jean Michel, look him in the eyes and say to myself, have I portrayed his father in the fairest way possible?” I was really thinking of that a lot.
In fact I bumped into Cousteau’s oldest son at Cannes Film Festival - I didn’t dare ask if he’d seen the film - but what was touching is that he greeted me by calling me "Daddy"! What threw me was that Jean-Michel has Cousteau’s voice. It left me rather unnerved as I’d listened to his voice over so many months for preparation, and it was like Jacques Cousteau was next to me. It freaked me out!
What was it about writer/director Jérôme Salle’s approach to this biopic, and the story of the Cousteau family, that attracted you most?
Rather than a conventional biopic that would have started in Cousteau’s early twenties and ended with his death – expensive to make and impossible to cast – Jérôme decided to concentrate on the rapport between Cousteau and his children, once they become adults. So you skip the invention of the aqualung, their childhood, The World of Silence winning the Palme d’Or [in 1956], in order to confront Cousteau and his grown up children.
What I found really interesting was the story of the conflict between the father, younger son [Pierre Niney] and his wife [Audrey Tautou], all the things that many people can relate to. The combination of it being a really picturesque film with action, landscape, beauty but also an intimate family drama with a story that people can identify with. In particular the common issue that men of the same family have expressing their affection. The Odyssey is a film of a great love story, a love story between a father and son.
'The Odyssey' shoot took place over a number of months and locations around the world, from South Africa to the Antarctic. Can you tell us more about highlights that stand out for you?
There’s a very memorable moment for me with Pierre Niney. We’d travelled to Antarctica and been deposited with a crew on an ice floe, abandoned there to be filmed by a drone. There was no one in site for a long way, and we couldn’t move to avoid making footsteps in the snow. Pierre and I waited on the ice floe for a few hours in silence - complete silence. When do actors experience something like that? When in life do you experience something like that? Being abandoned on a piece of ice in the middle of nowhere! It was surreal, so beautiful - we couldn't speak because it was so silent, so incredible, so bizarre. After some time we had to hold on to something that connected us to reality - so we started talking about Parisian real estate! Otherwise you go mad, because it’s too overpowering.
What was it like working with fellow acclaimed French actors Pierre Niney and Audrey Tautou?
I loved filming the big confrontation scene in the diner with Pierre as in a way I related to that rapport, because I suffered that way with my father. He was was an actor and director of the Théâtre National de Chaillot in France. Like Cousteau my father was very overpowering, so that scene was odd to me because I knew what the character of the son was going through, but I had to play my own father; I had to portray what I had been fighting as a young man. It was a strange twist, as I related more to what the son said, but I had to be the father figure, the obstacle, the bad guy.
And of course working closely with Audrey Tautou was an unforgettable experience, including shooting on the Calypso: the boat is also a centre character of the film. We had to dive, we went to Antarctica, we sailed through the same storms Cousteau experienced. I think Jerome Salle really wanted us to feel what they went through. Pierre was put in dangerous situations. He had to dive with the sharks in The Bahamas, and also with seals in freezing cold water. Pierre had to do most of the real stuff, I was very jealous. I had to keep telling Jerome “I am Cousteau! I am the bloody diver of the story!” But I had to be more of a womaniser, and also a seducer of studio execs!
Throughout the film, we see Jacques Cousteau become more aware of the environmental impact of his films on the oceans. What messages would you like audiences to take from this film, including younger viewers who may not be familiar with Cousteau’s legacy?
I think it’s interesting to watch the film to realise how much of a whistleblower Cousteau was. As early as the 60s, he had already made a documentary about how fish were disappearing from the Mediterranean due to pollution, so he was already prepared to receive the ecological message. He wouldn’t have called himself an environmentalist then but he was half way there. So it think it’s interesting to see how Cousteau represents the evolution of man at the end of the 20th Century, from being a predator to becoming a protector. He was ahead of his time but he represents the rapport between man and nature. To begin with he uses it for his own satisfaction. He observed his actions then embarks on a journey of protection, and to enlighten the public.
The message at the end of the film is clear; it wants a new generation to reflect on the urgency of action towards the environment. In France we did meet a lot of members of ocean protection organisations. You will find most of these people, at least those in their late 30s and 40s, were influenced by the actions of Cousteau. I think it’s interesting that a younger generation could discover his work, and realise that something we take for granted like breathing under water, we owe to him. And something that we completely take for granted - that Antarctica is protected until 2048 - we owe to him. It’s fragile, every state wants to attack that continent, it’s full of incredible riches. If they do, we are doomed.
Particularly nowadays when President Trump decides to remove us from the COP21 convention [The Paris Agreement], it’s about time we really woke up on the subject of environmental issues - this is really serious. It’s a slow process but every effort counts.
Megan James, Curzon Home Cinema