‘I never wanted to be an aged celebrity actor’

He believes that in the theater, the actor reigns supreme. As an actor of the highest caliber on a global scale, Michel Piccoli has earned the right to think so, too. His resume alone gives an idea of his scope: Approximately 140 cinema roles, collaborations with the cream of European directors, an extremely impressive presence as an actor in the theater and as a director. The list goes on: In 1994, at the age of 69, Piccoli directed his first short film. This was followed by two features and in the upcoming Cannes International Film Festival (May 11-22) he will be screening his third. «I never wanted to end up an aged celebrity theater actor,» he said in a recent telephone interview with Kathimerini, explaining that directing was not just the natural course to to take at this phase of his career, but a necessary one. Now, on the threshold of his 90th birthday (born December 27, 1925), Piccoli is plunging into the private life of Anton Chekhov. How would the Russian playwright feel if he knew that his private correspondence with Olga Knipper was being presented as a play? For the first time, Piccoli admits to facing a similar dilemma. «Ta main dans la mienne» (Your Hand in Mine) is the title of the play by Carol Rocomora, which is based on 412 letters exchanged between Chekhov and the actress, later his wife, Knipper. The production, directed by Peter Brook and with Natasha Parry playing Knipper, will be presented in Athens in May, on the initiative of the Attica Cultural Society. «An evening of extraordinary wit, beauty and quiet, luminous tenderness» is how the Guardian critic Michael Billington described the play in a January 27 review. The performance’s staging in France received similar rave reviews from Le Monde: «From the very first second [they appear on stage], we know we are going to experience a great moment in theater.» (Fabienne Darge, Le Monde, February 2, 2003.) A selfish pursuit What drew your attention to the correspondence between Chekhov and Knipper and why were you compelled to bring it to life on stage? The first reason is that I had already worked with Peter Brook, in a German play and in Chekhov’s «Cherry Orchard.» When he proposed this project to me, I found that it was absolutely necessary for me, selfishly, to try enter even further into the secret life of Chekhov. What were your sources of inspiration so you could approach the different facets of Chekhov’s personality? First of all, I have not read everything of Chekhov’s, but I have read so many novels. I have read his extraordinary book «The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin,» which is a reportage, we would say today, on that pace of exile under the czar’s regime, on his life as a doctor, his life as a playwright, his passion for life… Chekhov died at the age of 44. He died very young. But how many more years did he have to live for us to discover to what extent this man was modest, had a sense of humor, a passion for theater, a passion for women, I think, and a passion for the woman he married. Therefore, I had to ask myself two moral questions: Would he have accepted us playing him, through these letters, that we penetrate his intimacy? Would he have found this shocking, vulgar, or, on the contrary, would he have found this amusing, funny? I don’t know. This is a problem of my conscience I have with Chekhov. Do you find that Peter Brook’s directorial style represents a position toward art or toward life? Both. Life and art are intrinsically linked. The theater is a lab in which we research what we must do to understand life, to fight against unhappiness and the powers of evil. In this way, the theater is one of the first written records of the history of humanity. What has impressed you most when working with Brook? Two things. First of all, that he had an earlier career in Britain, where he was a very famous director, with the biggest English actors, with lavish productions. He decided though to look for different things in the theater. I think that he felt a kind of saturation with the celebrity and the way things were done, and he wanted to look for the secrets of theater. He went to Africa. He worked under very modest conditions and he rediscovered, without doubt, the very essence of the theater. He left one side of grandeur in the theater for another type of grandeur. Do you share the same ideas, the same principles as him? Very much so. The theater may be dangerous in my opinion, if there are too many frills, too much decor, too much egoism, pretension on the part of a director who thinks more of himself than the actors who are trying to act. Peter Brook is modest about himself. It’s more than simplicity. It’s a quest for the essential. Actors’ directors You seem to have a special affiliation to specific directors. We cannot speak of Claude Sautet, Juan Luis Bunuel, Marco Ferreri or Jean-Luc Godard without thinking of you. It is about a lot of good luck and a lot of opportunities to work with actors’ directors, if you understand. We have to be very modest when we are actors and we must also know how to take the initiatives. For example, in the theater, the actor takes the initiative. When we act, the director does not exist anymore. The audience thinks that we have directed in the theater. The tempo of the theater is that the actor has to follow at rehearsals. We have to give the impression that the play comes from us, while also preserving the rhythm of the director. Could you tell us a bit about the great directors you have worked with? The secret – with Ferreri, Sautet, Louis Malle and even with Godard (who was a more solitary person) – is that I always had a strong sense of intimacy with them. Sometimes even a strong sense of fraternity, complicity. I often found that I played the director I was with more than the role I was supposed to be playing. Is going behind the camera a break from acting or the natural course of things? For me it was part of the natural continuity. Even more, it was essential, indispensable. Because I never wanted to end up an aged celebrity theater actor.Ever since I began acting in films, I was fascinated by what they call the technique of making a film. That means, that a film is made, created behind the camera. In front there is the decor, the lighting, but the decor was made behind the camera. The lighting is made behind the camera. All the people are behind the camera. In front of the camera there is the actor, but it is thanks to everything behind the camera that the actor exists. You are participating in the next Cannes festival with a new film. Could you say a few words about «Ce n’est pas tout a fait la vie dont j’avais reve» (This is Not Exactly the Life I had Dreamed Of), such as what does the title mean? I wrote the screenplay with my wife, Ludivine Clerc – it is the second we have done together after «La plage noire» (The Black Beach) – and the title is a tender and mean mockery of the behavior of a man with two women; a wife and mistress. But it is a comedy. Perhaps it is a rather nasty comedy: It pokes fun. Perhaps it’s philosophical; I couldn’t say. It will be up to you to say. Information «Ta main dans la mienne,» directed by Peter Brook and starring Michel Piccoli and Natasha Parry, will be in Athens at the Ilissia-Volanaki Theater (4 Papadiamantopoulou, Ilissia) on May 11-15. For reservations, call tel 210.721.0045, 210.721.6317, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. and 5-9 p.m.

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