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Heartbreaker’s Romain Duris on Finally Trying Comedy, and Dirty Dancing With Johnny Depp’s Girlfriend

Even if you don’t think you know Romain Duris, you probably know Romain Duris. One of France's more prolific leading men, the 36-year-old actor has starred in such films as The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Moliere, In Paris, L’Auberge Espagnole, and many others. And, despite his reputation as a bit of a hunk — albeit a decidedly Gallic, scruffy-looking one — he has rarely strayed into the realm of breezy romantic comedy, preferring to stick with intense dramas. So what a welcome surprise to see him have some fun in Heartbreaker, an engagingly lighthearted romantic comedy about a man who runs a business breaking up relationships by seducing the females. Oddly enough, Duris seems perfectly cast as the conflicted, brooding Alex Lippi, who often has to feign confidence and passion to lure women out of impending marriages and misguided couplings. He talked to us recently about doing something different, and about that time he thought about quitting acting.

This type of romantic-comedy adventure feels like quite a change of pace for you.
That’s why I was interested in doing it. I’d never done a romantic comedy like that. It was difficult at the beginning to really feel what kind of movie this was; I wanted to do something new, but to make my decision, I had to understand the style of the movie. So I discussed it with Pascal Chaumeil, the director. It was difficult, because it was his first film. I was afraid that a comedy like this would feel too cold, too formatted. I wanted to see if we could put some humanity or personality into it. And we agreed about adding some romance. So it was a process of rewriting some things. But Pascal was very open to the suggestions Vanessa Paradis and I made.

What are some things that changed?
I don’t remember all of it. But for my character, it was key for me to understand him, so I wanted to add some realism and details, to see that this was a guy who did this kind of job because he needed the money. That was important for me. He doesn’t have so much confidence. He has some doubts. I was afraid that he’d be the James Bond of seduction. I didn’t want that. I wanted him to fight these doubts. I felt that made him more moving.

The character is not confident, but he pretends to be very confident in front of people.
Yes, of course, but when he’s alone, or he’s not working, we see that he’s very simple and modest. For me to understand and to play this character, I had to have this. Of course, it’s just a movie and we’re in the cinema, and it’s a romantic-comedy adventure, but he’s very human and we love him for that.

He also shares some similarities with other characters you’ve played. In Moliere, for example, your character was pretending to be someone else. How do you go about playing someone who is playing someone else?
It’s great. We have to have complicity with the audience. Your character can do something ordinary, like cooking, but if he has a secret, then it’s better: because that means your character is feeling something else, and you can share that with the audience, because they already know it. They have to know that you have these different emotions inside you. Otherwise, you might be empty inside, and that’s the worst of all.

You always seem to have great chemistry with your lead actresses. What’s your secret?
It’s my job. [Laughs.] I don’t know. Sometimes it’s difficult, because you have to act like you like the person, but you really don’t. So you have to close your eyes and think about some other person you love, and then you open your eyes and think, “Okay, I have the feeling. It’s not you, but it’s no big deal.” Sometimes it’s really easy. When you’re getting along with someone and you have similar taste, it’s easier to pretend that this person is close to you, whether they’re supposed to be your sister or your mother or your lover. Sometimes, I’m very lucky. A good cast is when the director can make that happen.

Do you prepare a lot for a role?
For this movie, I prepared a lot, because at the beginning, I didn’t want to do it. I was scared about this, I was scared about that. I kept asking, “Why do you want me in this movie? How can I play a character like this?” Preparation is mostly about thinking about the character, about who he is and how you can play him. And we also had to do some physical preparation, like rehearsing the Dirty Dancing dance moves with Vanessa.

Do you ever do a lot of research for a part? For example, did you do any research for Moliere?
Yes. I read some biographies, I did some research about the period. I went to the Louvre and tried to see some paintings about this period. Research for me is to go somewhere, so that everything you see can talk to you and let you think about the character. It’s about entering a new world where you can think about this character. So that world can be reading books or seeing movies or going to the museum. It’s always different. You want to do something to create a new world for a new character.

You were first discovered when you were a teenager, a director noticed you in the street. So, you sort of fell into acting.
Very much. What’s funny is that the director who discovered me, Cedric Klapisch, is now the director that I have made six movies with. That was strange, to start with him. Now it seems incredible — like it was something that had to happen. But at that time, when I was 19 years old, I was painting; I was in another world. Acting came naturally to me, but only when I played myself.

Is it true you once considered quitting acting?
Yes. I didn’t know how far I could go with it. To become a different character — I didn’t have any method for that. So at some point I thought I would stop, because I didn’t want to go to school or learn a technique. I wanted to stay natural. I had the luck to work with great directors at this time. Tony Gatlif, Olivier Dahan, Cedric Klapisch. They told me I could learn by just being in the movie. So that was my school.

What’s next for you?
I’m doing some theater with Patrice Chereau, the famous director. It’s amazing, because it’s very new for me. It’s a monologue, and I’m alone. It’s very new and challenging for me. So we’ll see if that works. I like that because I want to fight, I love to be challenged. It’s called La Nuit juste avant les Forets. I guess in English it would be The Night Just Before the Forests. It’s by Bernard-Marie Koltes, a French author of the eighties. And I have a movie which will be released in France in October, which we will be showing in Toronto, called The Big Picture.

Photo: Fergus McDonald/Getty Images