by Gila Babich
photography by Gregg Delman
You don’t have to meet Jean Reno to realize that he is an exceptionally discrete man. Despite the high-profile films he has made, including Mission: Impossible, Godzilla, and The Da Vinci Code, the French actor has been successfully avoiding the Hollywood pitfalls of having his life documented across gossip-thirsty tabloids. This is probably because he spends his time off in France with his family where he owns a home, rather than living in star-crazy LA or New York. It seems as though his naturally reserved disposition, the very embodiment of privacy, keeps him out of the glaring limelight of the mainstream. One thing remains certain though, Reno manages to charm audiences with his multifarious persona alongside the world’s greatest actors, without the public drama.
I first encounter Reno at The Carlton Hotel, the setting of our photo shoot. “Sean Connery,” he holds out his hand in introduction, then corrects, “Uh, ahm, no, Jean Reno.” Reno, the comedian. He continues to joke with the crew, and occasionally mumbles something nonsensical to the camera. “Are you talking to me?” He asks it without awaiting an answer. “Yes. Yes. No.” A week later he is in Los Angeles, preparing to fly to Bora Bora to begin shooting his next film, a comedy called Couple’s Retreat with Vince Vaughn. He is elegantly apologetic about being fifteen minutes late for our interview, and then out comes the more serious, curt Reno that you’d expect.
“Drama? No. We have enough drama in life, everyone has their own pains,” says Reno, explaining his reluctance to schmooze the paparazzi. “It’s my way of living. I work as an actor, but it’s only my work, it’s not my entire human being… From the beginning I was like that, traveling all the time… you see them in New York or at Cannes Festival, more or less you have the same faces in front of you. If you behave with them honestly, saying ‘please don’t shoot my kids, please leave me alone,’ you know, they will respect you. It’s a relationship that you have to create between you and them.” For Reno, consistency is the key to keeping his personal affairs, well, personal. “If you say no Monday, and then Tuesday you’re going to have an interview with a lot of photographers for People, the guy from Monday won’t understand why you changed your mind.”
Reno’s genuine, gimmick-free attitude channels an inner everyman, almost as though he is just a regular guy with a regular job – only incidentally he’s also remarkably talented and quite famous. His taciturn ways are reminiscent of some of his signature roles, like Leon in The Professional and Vincent in Ronin, the inspiration from which he took from real life. “I don’t make too much noise when I’m in society, among people. I stay quiet – it comes from that.” But, he did not get into acting to play himself. On pondering why one chooses this elusive profession, he explains it’s “Because you don’t like yourself, and you want to be several people, changing personalities. You think maybe people will love you more because you are not yourself, but somebody else out of a story. It should be true for all actors.”
After proving he can play more than the brooding-hulk-with-mystique he has proven that he can diversify his resume with lighter characters, like Thibault in The Visitors and Felix in Jet Lag. He also branched out from a successful career in French Cinema to Hollywood. Something not many of his compatriots have been able to achieve, which has earned him the unofficial title of a cinematic ambassador. He rejects this definition with profuse modesty. “It’s too much responsibility… I do not have enough qualities for that. Not enough information to be a good critic, to know all the movies and directors, I am just an actor… Maybe Javier Bardem. These years belong to Javier.”
The Reno story begins in Casablanca, where he was born to Andalusian parents who left Spain to escape the throes of Generalissimo Franco’s regime. At 20, he enlisted in the French army for service compulsory for those seeking French citizenship, an experience from which Reno claims he learned nothing. “They sent me to Germany, they had frogs there… It was a lonely year in my life. I did theater, as a matter of fact. I found myself looking for ways to express myself and help people. We made some television show, it was the most artistic thing that we could have done at the time,” Reno relays, and then adds dismissively, “But I already had my discipline, my mother educated me well. I knew how to make my bed; I didn’t need the army for that.”
Reno studied drama in France, and then began his career in theater (“the living show is always more interesting. When you are in front of the audience, if you’re wrong you cannot redo it, it is gone.”) After 15 years of performing on stage and playing minor parts in film and television, he met French filmmaker Luc Besson, a relationship that lead to some of Reno’s best works. “I met him when he was very young,” Reno recalls. “He was a first assistant on a little comedy, and we became friends. We still see each other very often.” Soon after, Reno began working on Besson’s Subway, and subsequently, Le Grande Bleu, Nikita, and of course, The Professional, which has earned him worldwide fame, and helped him make the transition into Hollywood, something Reno claims he did not expect or plan.
“It wasn’t my target, as a stranger you are not targeting to come to Los Angeles and work,” Reno explains. “But the Americans, they opened their arms for me, and I was very happy. I have a lot of friends here; I’ve had the same agent, same manager for 20 years. I became part of a family. But it is because the Americans decided that, it wasn’t me.”
Reno has been through two divorces, and in 2006, under the eye of close friend, French President (then candidate) Nicolas Sarkozy, has married model and actress Zofia Borucka, 24 years his junior. His secret for finding love? “Don’t force yourself. Trust yourself, trust everybody. One day somebody will love you.”
The 60-year-old actor’s crossover career is on fire, and he has an array of films coming out in the fast approaching 2009, including Margaret alongside Matt Damon and Anna Paquin, and Armored alongside Matt Dillon. But Reno remains tight-lipped about future works, even the personal projects he dreams of making. “I have a lot, but, you know, I’m superstitious.”
In keeping with the theme of staying out of the spotlight, Reno tiptoes around controversial issues with the stealth of a panther, appearing cautious with his words, and avoiding offending anybody. Not a big surprise, considering his friendship with Sarkozy. “I’m not somebody who can speak about politics. Sometimes you ask actors to say their point of view on a lot of things, but we’re just actors,” he pauses to chuckle, “we’re not very intelligent.”
Somehow, I doubt that.