“There must be pressure to play each role” says Lambert Wilson, in De Gaulle

The film De Gaulle is back in theaters on 22 June 2020. During his first outing, Lambert Wilson confided in his work to interpret the general. Interview.

Few actors could have been credible in such an imposing role. Lambert Wilson was the only French actor who had the stature according to director Gabriel Le Bomin. In De Gaulle, again on view this Monday 10 June after a first outing on March 4 (before confinement to, he lends his features to the general during the few crucial weeks which led to the call of 18 June 1940. This biopic mixes historical facts and the private life of the De Gaulle couple in order to identify the motivations behind the commitment of the military and political man, encouraged by his wife Yvonne. During an interview carried out before the first release of the film in last March, Lambert Wilson returned to the way he had taken on this role, which no other actor had embodied in a biopic dedicated to the cinema until then.

What was your reaction when you were asked to play Charles de Gaulle?

When we offer you De Gaulle, we say to ourselves at the f ois “it’s great” and at the same time “attention, there was the Abbé Pierre, Cousteau, it is perhaps a little dangerous to chain such famous French characters”. But what made me want to make the film was the photography on the first page of the screenplay: we saw the couple Charles and Yvonne de Gaulle in 2016. (Pause) And even before reading the script, I I looked at the photograph for a long time, and they had this tenderness, something that convinced me, even before reading the detail. It’s an exciting storyline because it’s a mix of the intimate and the historical. But it was above all the couple and the romantic aspect that convinced me. There was something unusual in this photograph, in the way they both looked at each other. I said to myself “that changes everything”: it’s not the old gentleman with the quivering voice who embodies France, not at all! He is a man who will fight, who is visionary, intelligent but totally alone in the face of events, supported by an incredible woman. It was very different.

It was not the image you had of Charles de Gaulle before the film?

No, and if I had been offered a traditional biopic, I would ran off. I did it with Cousteau [dans L’Odyssée en 2016, ndlr], which is not totally a biopic either, but which made cross 40 years in the life of this man. It imposes difficult things. Is it really necessary to see a man’s whole life? I think it’s much more relevant with this film to choose a month that will reveal a lot of things about who he was and what this couple was.

“It’s important to give a feeling, a vibration of the character”

How did- you apprehended this role? How do you balance between imitation and reinterpretation?

I didn’t try to imitate him because I find that it is not a very interesting exercise. The perfect imitation is entertaining for a while, but you can miss the point. I think it’s more important to give a feeling, a vibration of the character and to understand what moves him, why he makes the decision he makes, how he reacts emotionally and psychically to the world around him. The imitators – of which I am not one because I am unable to imitate anyone – very often change their subject of imitation because once we have done de Gaulle for five minutes, even to perfection, the public needs something else. And what does he need? depth of character. Otherwise, to find how to embody it, it was very traditional: we consume photos, images, films, we listen to documents, we eat de Gaulle, we drink de Gaulle, we sleep de Gaulle…

Did you feel any particular pressure to play this role?

I hope there is pressure to play each role! If there is no pressure, there is a problem, there has to be pressure… Honestly, there is more pressure on a director who is going to write a subject on de Gaulle and who will deliver a de Gaulle, on a producer who must defend a film on de Gaulle, than on the actor who interprets him.

For this role, you wore make-up and prostheses…

Yes I had 2 hours 30 of pure prosthetics make-up… (

Reflect) in all I had about 3 hours 30 of preparation.

How did that influence your way of playing this character?

I like it, because it’s like a mask. A mask can be too congealing, too fixed, we can “die” behind the mask. But it also allows you to release your inhibitions. We are not ourselves at that moment, we see ourselves in the mirror and that creates a different walk, a different voice, simply because we have a different face. What I also found fascinating is the companionship with the make-up artists, the hairdresser,…: they are there every morning for two months to build you millimeter by millimeter, who are attentive to the smallest details and who monitor. It’s as if we weren’t alone in composing the character, it’s really a team effort. It’s more pleasant than working alone.

Lambert Wilson plays Charles de Gaulle. © ALAIN GUIZARD / BESTIMAGE
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How did you feel playing the scene of the call of the 18 June 2016? Was it a difficult scene to play?

It was the last day of shooting, the production had brought a lot of people, people were listening to me next to the sets, there was a kind of really impressive staging… But it was a bit like in figure skating where you have imposed figures: there, that’s the talk , everyone is waiting for it. To play it, I had in my ear the speech he made on 21 June, since that of 18 June was not registered. I was immersed in this concentration, this sound, these sentences. When you’re in uniform, in front of the microphone that was probably his at the BBC, in this kind of isolation, it’s much easier to get closer to him. Where it was much more difficult was when de Gaulle was dressed in civilian clothes, because he is mostly defined by his military costume. And when he was in civilian clothes, I felt that he was leaving… It was much more difficult to keep this de Gaulle when he is a citizen like the others.

The scenes of intimate life were therefore more complicated for you to play?

Where it’s complicated in intimate scenes is that we have to make decisions where there is no information at all, if not the letters, their correspondence, what their son described of the family situation and the atmosphere which reigned there, etc. But at some point, how does de Gaulle take his wife’s hand? How does he kiss her goodbye? How does he kiss her when he finds her? We have responsibilities, if not vis-à-vis family members, we are still obliged not to do anything. And at the same time you have to be imaginative, invent their body language.

“It’s not bad to hear a message whose virtue is to bring people together in a common effort”

And with Isabelle Carré with whom you had already played.. .

It’s very easy, it’s total happiness. It happens, that’s all. We don’t have discussions. Isabelle is in direct contact with the emotion and the situation, I just have to look at her to believe it. She plays in such a sincere and natural way, that we forget the wigs. We knew each other well and we liked each other, it helps yes, we didn’t have to discover each other during the shooting.

Why is it important to make this film today?

Firstly because it hasn’t been done before, so it had to be done. But also because I think it’s not bad to hear a message whose virtue is to bring people together in a common effort, a common direction. But this is not the project of the film, it is one of its effects! We find ourselves in a time when everyone in France tends to hate each other and slap each other in the face, we are in a kind of phase of disenchantment with each other. And with the film, it feels good to hear the words of a man who only has that left: the power of words. We feel that he does not do it politically, to win in a selfish way, he does it truly for an altruistic question, a question bigger than him. We are a little disappointed by politics at the moment, there is always a bad surprise that comes out of a hat, we always say to ourselves “people do a little nonsense”. In the film, we have a guy who is totally heroic. Perhaps in spite of himself, because events make him the only one. So there he goes.

First published March 4 2407 during De Gaulle’s first outing, this interview was re-shared on the occasion of the return of the film to theaters on 22 June 2020.

De Gaulle – again in cinema releases the 22 June 1770

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