The 25-year-old French actor and star of last year’s 120 BPM returns in writer-director Camille Vidal-Naquet’s assured and raw debut feature, Sauvage, about a gay hustler wandering the streets of Strasbourg, yearning for something he hasn’t yet defined. It’s a performance that earned Maritaud the Louis Roederer Rising Star Award at this year’s Semaine de la Critique in Cannes. We sat down with him to discuss this challenging role and the labels given to his films.
How would you describe your character, who seems untethered to social norms?
He’s a young guy that lives just for love and experience. He’s very free and very in love. With what? I don’t know, but he loves. He’s about absolutes – absolute love, absolute freedom, absolute power of choice.
Was it difficult to approach such a challenging role – someone with no backstory and whose name is never mentioned in the film?
I don’t go into characters – I feel like I have to let them go into me. It’s more a question of being able to accept him. What was interesting was working on body movements and we had a choreographer who lead workshops about the reactivity of the body. We also focused on the gracefulness of the body because prostitutes are always using their bodies as tools. As for the character’s inner thoughts, Camille (Vidal-Naquet, director) and I never talked about psychology. He’s an intense character and Camille saw that intensity in me.
I gather the director met male prostitutes and talked with them about their experiences. Did you at any point feel the need to do that?
It wasn’t important for me to watch or understand the mechanics of prostitution because my character is an outsider, an outcast, someone who is marginalised into his position. A lot of guys come into prostitution for the money. I think that if my character is a prostitute, it’s because it’s the best and most accessible way to live if you have his soul.
It must have been quite an intense shoot…
This experience for me was like an acid trip. You go high, and in that state of highness, you absorb a lot of information. And when you go down, it takes some time to find your bearings again. But the information you get sticks with you. It took time for me to realise what we made once the shoot was over, and the real moment of realisation was the first time I saw the movie.
How was that?
Crazy, like a waterfall in my mind. When you do a movie, you have several movies: the movie you read with the script; the movie you feel during the shoot; the movie you see after; and the movie people give back to you when they see it. And the movie I read, did and saw had the same sincerity, and I was so fucking happy about that. I saw it with the director and what was funny was that I didn’t remember we made some of the scenes. I knew the movie was intense and that the character was intense, but I never realised at the time how they recorded my face. It was very emotional to see the character in front of me. And in a way, now that the movie is over and that we’re promoting it, I think that now I have a view on my character. Before, I never asked myself who this guy was. He was just living with me.
The sex scenes are very intense and graphic at times.
We shot all the prostitution scenes like all the other scenes, without making something special of it. It was casual. The thing is that we shot those sex scenes in the same period and by the end of the shoot, my body had defensive reactions that it didn’t have before.
There’s one detail that caught my eye and I was thinking about it with regards to your character – he has a tattoo that reads ‘Rien à foutre’ (‘Don’t give a fuck’) just below his navel…
It’s my tattoo. [Shows tattoo]
I was clearly overthinking it, but I liked how visible it was and how it showed this duality between an incredibly romantic character who yearns for intimacy but who has that “don’t give a fuck” attitude…
I’m sorry to ruin that and show you that it’s real! [Laughs] But you’re right, the character is a lot like that. I didn’t do the tattoo for the movie – the story is that everyone was telling me to stop it with my tattoos or your career won’t happen… So, I came back the morning after with my new tattoo… [Laughs]
How was Camille Vidal-Naquet as a first-time feature director?
Very precise. He knows exactly what he wants, and he’s not only a good director for actors but also for the whole team.
I read a piece in which he describes your character as an errant dog, faithful but resilient…
I can see that… The character is like a person who hasn’t been touched by civilisation, and like a dog, he gets used to things. He has something a bit primitive and that’s maybe why Camille talks about the director in that animalistic way.
Your first big screen role was in Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM… But I read that you didn’t want to be an actor at first…
I just wanted sex, drugs and rock’n’roll! [Laughs] But you’re right, it’s not what I wanted and I still don’t know what I want. I’m just passing by…
The huge success of 120 BPM and Sauvage, both at Cannes and on a wider stage, must be quite surreal…
What’s surreal for me is what it brings to people around me – my family, my friends… What’s odd is the press and all of this. What we’re doing now – this is fiction for me. I’m speaking about what I do for you… That’s surreal. I don’t want to seem pretentious, but I have intuitions and I use this. For now, my life is working out. I’m taking it easy. I’m very proud of Sauvage and how people are reacting to it, because it’s not an easy movie. It brings a lot more questions than answers.
Is it important for you to choose projects that aren’t easy, that challenge perspectives and take people out of comfort zones?
Yes, because why are people going to the cinema if it’s not for those reasons? I believe that art is a way to help people to go through a process of digestion about society and the world around them, and comfort zones are the worst. But before, the films chose me. Right now, I’m getting to make more choices and I’m trying to pick projects with regards to the sincerity of the author.
There have been some stunning French films with queer narratives in recent years and the three films that you’ve been in (120 BPM, Un Couteau Dans Le Coeur and Sauvage) are, in different ways, somewhat emblematic of this recent new wave.
I’m really happy to see that in France, there’s a new breadth of cinema with a lot of freedom – freedom of doing, writing, showing what they want. I think that the next five to ten years are going to be really fucking great.
The French magazine Têtu even called you “the new hero of French queer cinema”… How do you deal with these labels, and do you see them as reductive?
I try to be nice and clear with people about that, because there are mistakes born out of social constructions. Something is something when you put a label on it. Before, it’s nothing. And nothing is something… Woah! I’m sounding like Jean-Claude Van Damme here! [Laughs] Sometimes directors ask me if it’s okay for me to play a heterosexual role – and I reply “Do you want your hero played by a homosexual?” I’m homosexual – actually, I’m bisexual – and I’ve been seeing people kissing on screen all my life and it was always heterosexual couples. And now that white privileged gay guys can do movies, it’s not a big deal. I just don’t like movies when they only focus on the sexuality and sexual issues – that’s not cinema anymore. BPM is a very political movie but it wasn’t made just for political reasons – it was made with sincerity and honesty. It’s good to be proud of what people can be, but in a way, we’re in a society in which homosexuals are always used by governments to just put minorities down. I don’t want to be used and, yeah, OK, I suck dick, but that’s not the issue. I’m a gay actor but I don’t judge my movies based on whether the characters are gay or not. I choose movies if I fall in love with my character, with the sincerity of that person. And I think that if you give a description of your character, if you box him in, you limit and compress the humanity you give that character.
I’m starting to feel sheepish about my first question now…
[Laughs] No, it’s normal and everyone’s first question is always a bit awkward! It’s also normal because even I or Camille don’t fully understand this character! I just don’t want to be a flag-raiser, and I feel that my opinions are not politically correct for gay people. I’m into people. It’s not about being reductive and to be homosexual is a social category and there are 60 different ways to be homosexual. Sauvage has nothing to do with homosexuality – it’s about tenderness between men. That’s not the same thing. Feelings have no sexuality.
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