Five French Actors To Watch In 2018

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Five French Actors To Watch In 2018

Words by Mr Louis Wise | Photography by Mr Yoshiyuki Matsumura | Styling by Mr James Sleaford

20 June 2018

MR PORTER catches up with France’s most intriguing leading men: Messrs Tahar Rahim, Arnaud Valois, Niels Schneider, Vincent Lacoste and Alban Lenoir.

This summer, MR PORTER is partnering with some of France’s most exciting designers. So, we thought, shouldn’t we also meet its most intriguing leading men? And here they are: thoughtful, stylish and full of that annoyingly effortless Gallic charm you always hear about.

Mr Vincent Lacoste

Mr Vincent Lacoste may be one of France’s brightest young actors, but he’s also one of those terrifyingly precocious types. A decade ago, the young Parisian, then going on 14, was eating lunch in his school canteen when he was spotted by agents who were casting a raucous new comedy, Les Beaux Gosses (The French Kissers). For Mr Lacoste, who had never even entertained the idea of acting before, it was a shock. “I was a bit of a loser at school, really,” he says in his affable, slightly hangdog way. “I tried to go to bed with girls and it wasn’t really working. So cinema wasn’t quite on my mind.” Mr Lacoste was cast as the film’s hero, Hervé, and it became a huge hit. Did that help him with the girls? “Well, not really, because in the film I was a teenager with zits and a dental brace.”

Nearly a decade later, Mr Lacoste, who turns 25 in July, has, presumably, had more success in that department, although he’s much too diffident to say. He has certainly grown in professional stature, having gained three César (the highest honour for film in France) nominations, for Most Promising Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Actor. After his MR PORTER shoot, he looks resolutely Gallic in bomber jacket and shades, an eternal cigarette on his lip. With the big curly hair, the strong lips and nose, he could easily be a tambourine player in Phoenix. He says he recognises a French style (“a bit relaxed, but still a bit chic”) and the striped Breton T-shirt he wore today is, he concedes, “a classic”. He also loves wearing suits. “They’re very beautiful,” he says. “We don’t have enough occasions to wear them these days.”

Mr Lacoste’s light gaucheness sits in contrast with his professional skill. Since Les Beaux Gosses, he has moved beyond comedies. He has starred opposite Mr Gérard Depardieu and Ms Léa Seydoux, been directed by Mses Julie Delpy and Mia Hansen-Løve, and filmed big-budget fare such as Asterix, while completing his baccalaureate, which his parents, not acting types, insisted he do. If he never expected to work in cinema, he’s now a fan of all the greats: Messrs Éric Rohmer, Elia Kazan, Frank Capra and François Truffaut. “And then, also, I love Larry David. I’m obsessed.”

What next? Mr Lacoste would like to go to the US, but he speaks English with a decidedly French accent, he chuckles, so it’s something to work on. He knows he should try somewhere other than Paris, since he’s never lived anywhere else. “I love it here,” he says. “It’s my city, but I’d like to live abroad, out of curiosity.” As for acting, he thinks he’ll do it for ever now. “Being an actor is really mostly pretty easy,” he says. “The only thing is to know how to manage certain pressures and doubts. As for the rest, we’re pretty spoiled. It’s not the hardest job ever.”

Mr Niels Schneider

There’s a dreaminess to Mr Niels Schneider, both in terms of looks and conversation, which hides a zanier streak. Take, for instance, this photoshoot, where the actor, 30, happily gravitated towards a vivid shirt by Hartford. “I love Hawaiian shirts,” says Mr Schneider, who was born and now lives in Paris, but grew up in Quebec. “There’s a store near me. They call me as soon as they get new ones in.”

Mr Schneider may have the air of a teenage heart-throb, but his tastes, it’s clear, lie elsewhere. That much is obvious from his lead role in the 2016 crime drama Dark Inclusion (Diamant Noir), in which he played a petty crook wreaking revenge on his corrupt relatives. It won him a César for Most Promising Actor and forced the industry and audiences to look beyond his looks. Until then, he was best known for starring in the early films of directing wunderkind Mr Xavier Nolan, particularly Heartbeats (Les Amours Imaginaires), which featured Mr Schneider as a cherubic figure lusted after by two friends. A critical hit, it underlined a tendency to view Mr Schneider as a pretty object of affection. Dark Inclusion, by contrast, was “a dense role” that let him finally show off his acting chops. “It allowed directors to see me in those interesting, more complex roles,” he says.

Mr Schneider comes from a performing background. His father is an actor-director and he has four brothers, all of whom have acted at some point. He insists that “until quite late” he wanted to do something else, probably psychology, but then one day he started doing theatre and that was that. It’s just another way of “getting into, understanding the other”, he says. He likes the malleability that acting calls for and says it’s there in his style, too. “I like to always be moving,” he says. “Often I wear very supple materials. I don’t like clothes that are too rigid.” You’d know this immediately from his relaxed manner. Does he think there’s such a thing as Parisian style? “It’s a kind of classicism, really,” he says. “Parisians aren’t mad, eccentric. It’s a mix of simplicity and elegance.” Which he likes – up to a point. “But it’s nice to have fun, to go crazy.”

Work, meanwhile, is definitely getting madder and badder. He has just come back from Sarajevo, where he was playing a reporter in the Bosnian War (“really draining, very intense”). This autumn, we’ll see him as the radical Jacobin, Mr Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, in a big French Revolution biopic (spoiler: he goes to the guillotine). And in Curiosa, he plays the symbolist fin-de-siècle poet Mr Pierre Louÿs, a fantastical figure who specialised in mythical erotic verses. Mr Schneider liked playing him. “He was completely mad, completely free, very controversial,” he says. Inspired, he now has some of Mr Louÿs’s ornate wallpaper in his own home. “When you’re doing a role like that, it’s like an amplified version of you,” he says. “It’s me but better, freer – with more balls.”

Mr Alban Lenoir

When Mr Alban Lenoir, 37, presented his new film at Cannes last month, the premiere was also an anniversary. The Frenchman first rolled up at the film festival 20 years ago, having won “some junior competition”, with a tuxedo in his backpack, and he was climbing the mythic red staircase that same evening. He met Ms Béatrice Dalle, he crossed paths with Ms Claudia Schiffer and Mr Jeff Goldblum asked him to pass the bread. For a movie-obsessed teen, it was heaven. “I swore I would never go back before having my own film,” he says. After a longer wait than expected, he made it.

Angel Face marks Mr Lenoir’s full acceptance into French cinema, after two dogged decades. He stars opposite Ms Marion Cotillard in a gritty story about a mother who ups and leaves her small daughter. The child then clings to whoever is closest, and that turns out to be Mr Lenoir’s character, a hard man not really minded to do childcare. The film marks another anniversary. “Twenty years ago, I also met Marion in Paris, at the Centre de Dance du Marais,” says Mr Lenoir. “She was doing tap dance there. And I said to her, ‘One day, we’ll make a film together.’ She laughed and said, ‘Yeah, right.’ And I said, ‘No, I promise you.’” He reminded her of this conversation on the first day of filming. “After that, everything went fine,” he says.

Smiley, chatty, disarmingly frank, Mr Lenoir has a kind of sweetness to him that is miles away from his first big film role in 2014’s Un Français (aka 2015’s F_rench Blood_). After years of playing mostly comic roles on television, here was a very serious part in a film that traced the life of Marco Lopez, a French former neo-Nazi who was trying to atone for his past. It covered 28 years in the character’s life. It was filmed backwards, so that Mr Lenoir could slowly lose his beard, lose weight, get a little cleaner and younger. “It was an incredible experience for an actor,” he says. “Almost the dream role.”

Mr Lenoir decided to become an actor when he was quite small. What lit the fire? He smiles. “I saw Bloodsport,” he says. Bloodsport, for those not in the know, is a 1988 martial arts movie, one of the finer achievements of Mr Jean-Claude Van Damme. “I was like, I want to be like him,” says Mr Lenoir. “I mean, I was nine years old. Wanting to be Van Damme wore off, but wanting to be an actor didn’t.” He had no interest in school and eventually his mother, who brought him up alone in Dijon, just gave up and sent him to Paris, aged 17. She believed in him, then? “Well, she also knew she had no choice.”

Angel Face marks a turning point for his mother, too. The day before he went off to Cannes, she told her son that she was proud of him. “I could see her sigh with relief,” says Mr Lenoir. He seems relieved, too. His aim now is to keep on being a good actor. “Twenty years ago, I wanted to be famous,” he says. “I wanted to make fight movies. And the more time passes, you just hope to be good. Be good, and in a good film.”

Mr Arnaud Valois

What exactly is a 1990s face? Mr Arnaud Valois, of all people, should know. A couple of years ago, he was contacted on Facebook by the director Mr Robin Campillo, who was researching his new film. It would tell the story of a riotous bunch of young gay activists desperately fighting for better HIV/AIDS treatment, and Mr Valois’s distinctive angular features, coupled with very short hair, were apparently just the ticket. Even now, Mr Valois, 34, still isn’t exactly sure what the formula is, not least because he now has longer, curlier hair. Is that still a 1990s face? “I didn’t ever really discuss it with Robin,” he says. “I just don’t know.”

Whatever the thought process was, it worked. The film, 120 BPM, became a huge hit, winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and six Césars. It has also made Mr Valois, who played newbie activist Nathan, a star. It’s all the stranger because Mr Valois had, at the time, completely given up on the profession – there’s a gap of six years on his acting CV. Discouraged by false starts and dead ends, he had retrained as a masseur and was living in Thailand. Only Mr Campillo’s amazing script tempted him back. It’s taken him a while to accept that his old dreams are coming true. “Before, everything was linked to suffering and frustration,” he says. He’s neat, polite, a sports lover who still works assiduously through a packet of cigarettes, but he has now got to grips with things. Presumably, having five films in the pipeline this year helps. One is in Hollywood, where he’ll be playing a villain in a sci-fi movie, opposite Ms Milla Jovovich, decked out in a blonde platinum wig. Mr Valois’s English is excellent, by the way, finessed by 10 months of promotion for 120 BPM across the world. “Sometimes I have moments and I think, this is exactly what I dreamed of,” he says.

In 120 BPM, Nathan is a calm, stoic presence. In person, Mr Valois, who was born and brought up in Lyon, has a similar Zen quality, no doubt honed by the massaging interlude. He had clients right up until February this year, when he had to give up to focus on filming. It was a helpful hiatus, he says. “Before, I’d be in my head a lot, prepare a lot, and now I’m totally different. I’m much more in the moment.” He still meditates and is zealous about rest and recuperation. The night before the MR PORTER photoshoot, he even went to bed at 9.10pm. “I knew that I’d need good reserves of energy,” he says. As for clothes, Mr Valois is unsurprisingly low maintenance. His everyday style, he chuckles, is “black, blue, grey, T-shirt, jeans, jacket”. He loves the clothes on this shoot because they’re his taste, just a little ramped up, although he does like wearing a suit for red-carpet events and the like. “A good outfit, for work, can be like a suit of armour,” he says. “It can help you position yourself, and it’s just a little less you. If it’s too you, you can be too shy. An outfit puts you on stage.”

Mr Tahar Rahim

In Hulu’s new hit series The Looming Tower, Mr Tahar Rahim gets the chance to showcase his newly polished American accent. One of France’s most bankable international stars, he has won plaudits as the Lebanese-American Ali Soufan, an FBI agent trying to halt the rise of Al-Qaeda during the late 1990s. But if he is pleased to have mastered American English, he has new goals. “I wish I could do a cockney accent,” he says. “It’s beautiful to hear.” Mr Rahim is being quite sincere, but still, at 36, there is something a bit impish, mischievous and mutable about him.

On screen, you will probably remember him for more serious fare, chiefly his astonishing breakout role in Mr Jacques Audiard’s gritty 2009 gangster film A Prophet. Mr Audiard plucked Mr Rahim from near obscurity to hand him a gem of a role as Malik, an imprisoned petty criminal who slowly but surely climbs the ranks inside. It won nine Césars and Mr Rahim picked up the gong for Best Actor. It also made the three months of auditions he went through to get the role – seeing off about 150 other contenders in the process – worth it. “I went mad,” he says. “But I get why. I hadn’t done much. He had to be sure.”

Since then, Mr Rahim has worked solidly, but has only recently crossed the pond, despite a long-held desire to do so. All that came his way for a long time was “pretty stereotyped stuff”, but then he was offered The Looming Tower and Mr Garth Davis’s biblical biopic Mary Magdalene, in which he played Judas, “a total pleasure”. He welcomes series such as The Looming Tower, which have an international cast and an international audience. It’s how cinema and television should be, he says. It’s also how he grew up, with his Algerian parents, in the city of Belfort in northeastern France. “We all lived together, people of various ethnicities,” he says. “Living with someone from Asia or Africa or Latin America is also living with their history, their culture, their food. That’s what makes me attracted to diverse cultures.”

Mr Rahim fell in love with acting when he was a teenager “due to boredom”, he says. “Belfort is a small town. There’s not much to do. The bus stopped at 7.00pm.” Cinema was a fantasy, then a dream, then a goal. “And then the goal became a need.” He is building his career slowly but surely, and is used to turning things down.“A career is built on nos,” he says. Isn’t that scary? “I always try, when I’ve decided to decline something, to tell the director myself. It’s a way of respecting someone.”

As for today’s shoot, he says he loved the dark shirt from Saint Laurent and the backless moccasin slippers by Bottega Veneta. He was offered his own pair recently, but hasn’t dared wear them outside. Is it part of an actor’s job to look good? Yes, he says. Back in the day, in Belfort, cinema taught him how to dress, how to talk, how to act, and the impression it made on him was huge. “When you’re an actor in the spotlight, you have to continue to make people dream,” says Mr Rahim. “The actors who made me dream are the ones who made me want to do it.”