Jean Dujardin speaks up about keeping quiet

November 24, 2011

No, Jean Dujardin says, he wasn’t a particular fan of silent films before he made “The Artist.” He hadn’t watched one in years, until director Michel Hazanavicius turned him on to the work of F.W. Murnau and King Vidor, as preparation for the film.

“There was such ease in the direction – I had this sense of wonder about how they filmed it,” Dujardin, 39, says, sitting in the library lounge of the Trump Soho. “My favorite is King Vidor’s ‘The Crowd.’ It really touched me.”

But modern audiences have no relationship with the silent films with which cinematic history began. That makes “The Artist,” which opened in limited release Nov. 23, perhaps the gutsiest new release of the year-end season: The Cannes-award-winning film is not only in black-and-white (strike one), but that’s it’s also a silent film (strikes two and three).

“People assume that if a film is silent, it is boring,” the Paris-based Dujardin says through a translator. “People think they’re going to be bored, that they’ll stay hermetically sealed outside of the film because the people don’t speak. But these characters speak profoundly when they don’t have lines to say. The audience participates in its own way.

“In a talking film, everything is predigested for the viewer; there’s no intellect involved in the images and the music. You’re a spectator. But with a silent film, you have to be smarter, in a way. Watching a silent film is like reading a book: You imagine the voices, the décor and everything else. Silent films have very simple stories – but sometimes those are the most beautiful.”

In “The Artist,” Dujardin – a popular TV and film star in France – plays George Valentin, an American silent film star in 1929 Hollywood. But Valentin sees his career skid into decline with the advent of talking pictures, something Valentin dismisses as a fad. Until his fall from fame, Valentin is a swashbuckling hero on the screen, not unlike Douglas Fairbanks, who Dujardin looked to for inspiration.

“They are similar – I thought he corresponded with George because they keep playing the same character,” he says. “And he’s happy being who he is. Douglas Fairbanks was really the first hero of American cinema.”

The biggest challenge in working silently, Dujardin says, was “creating the credibility of the character. I had to be a 1920s movie star and believe in it. I felt that I couldn’t repeat the same emotions from scene to scene or the same facial gestures.”

Dujardin co-stars with Berenice Bejo, Hazanavicius’ wife – and the two of them at one point perform a tap-dance routine that practically leaps off the screen with energy. But neither actor had ever strapped on tap shoes before.

“Tap-dancing was also a great challenge,” he says. “But I love it. Michel asked if I wanted to do it and I said yes right away. I had five months of high-speed training, starting with the basics and going into choreography. After five months, we got to L.A. and rehearsed in Debbie Reynolds’ personal studio, this beautiful room which had the right floor. Once we had it down, it felt like we could make music with our feet.”

Dujardin won the best actor’s award at Cannes for “The Artist” and is now being touted as a potential Oscar nominee. It’s a long way from the clubs where he did stand-up comedy until he was in his mid-20s. He never studied acting and wasn’t a particularly happy student at any point.

“Stand-up for me was freedom,” he says. “It was very playful for me – I was like a child creating a playroom. I did skits, creating characters, moving from one character to another: a surfer, a military guy – off-center characters. I always loved composing characters and hiding behind them, which I still do today in cinema. It was a great way to start.

“What I didn’t like was to be playing alone. I like acting with other actors, being part of a team and collaborating, making something together. One-man shows can be traps in a way. They make you a little too centered on yourself.”

Dujardin eventually starred in a hit French TV series that made him a household word, moving on to a second show and then to films. He’s known primarily for comedy in France but, as “The Artist” shows, he’s capable of dramatic depth as well.

“I’d like to do what Daniel Day-Lewis is able to do – to arrive on the edge of something,” he says. “That’s very dangerous and attractive to me – vertiginous, almost. Oh, and I haven’t played a woman yet. When you’re able to do that – like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Tootsie’ – that’s a tour de force. All men want to be women for at least one day.”

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