Exclusive Interview: Gaspard Ulliel Talks ‘SAINT LAURENT’

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Gaspard Ulliel plays the titular designer in SAINT LAURENT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Gaspard Ulliel plays the titular designer in SAINT LAURENT. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Courtney Howard// Film Critic

This originally ran on VeryAware.com

Having starred in such high-profile like director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT and director Martin Scorsese’s fragrance campaign film for Chanel’s Bleu, actor Gaspard Ulliel is an international icon. In director Bertrand Bonello’s SAINT LAURENT, Ulliel transforms himself, inhabiting the skin of fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent through his creative highs and personal lows. The film is an unconventional biopic of sorts that takes a fascinating look into the complex mind of a creative genius through a nine year span.

Q: Bertrand had mentioned the audition process took a few months. What was going through your head during this time?

Sometimes you have these roles where there naturally easy about it. I felt there was a direct connection with this character.

Q: I’m always curious to hear where finding your character begins. Where did you find your voice for Yves? Your physicality is also different from him. This isn’t mimicry.

That was the entire point. The hardest part was to actually make this character come alive. To make him real and true as possible, but at the same time, to portray him in my own personal way. For the voice, it’s a bit more technical. Even though I never intended to go all the way to this precise analization of all his sounds and intonations, it’s more about listening to many different recordings to let my ears absorb sounds so it would come out in a very spontaneous, natural and organic way. Same for the physical take on it. It seemed to me I had to get thinner, but not only to get closer to his silhouette. Also to arrive on the set in a body that wasn’t really mine any more would help me get into his shoes. It would also affect the way I would more and occupy space and maybe help me uncover the grace and the flexibility he had. The other part of my work prior to my shooting was to clear some space in which I could fantasize about this character and to reinvent him in my own way, with my own emotions. I think that was the only correct way to approach this character – to make him moving and true. I realized very early in the process. Trying to go through mimicry would stifle and block the emotion. It’s about appropriation and inspiration rather than imitation.

Q: What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Yves that you wanted to bring to the screen – something that resonated with you?

In the end, what this movie shows about his work, his greatest talent was to be able to seize the essence of an era – of a world that is in a big change – and use it, reflect it, respond to it in his fashion, in his creation. A funny detail that is reoccurring in different interviews and biographies is the obsession he had with hair. He was obsessed with the idea of becoming bald. I don’t really understand where it comes from – maybe it’s an expression of his anxiety or linked to his childhood. I don’t know. It’s a funny thing because he had so much hair and still was afraid of losing it.

Q: He was an eccentric fellow. Did you feel any pressure playing someone who is such an icon?

Yeah, it’s very daunting. You know there’s going to be a lot of expectations on such a character. You wonder how you can portray someone who is still so alive in people’s memories. But as I said before, the whole idea is to step back from reality to be able to feel free to create my own Yves Saint Laurent. That’s what Bertrand tried to do. When I think about this film considering all his other films, it’s one of his most personal pieces.

Q: Did YVES SAINT LAURENT wind up freeing you in the creative process such as it did for Bertrand?

That’s for sure. It’s two different films and two different incarnations of Saint Laurent. We knew the other film would be way more classical in the sense of what you expect a biopic to be. So he knew it would cover the biopic information on the subject. He would be able to free himself of those tedious details and get straight to the point. That’s what I like in this film – it’s not only about this man and his life, it’s more about what it is to create. It’s like a journey into the mind of a tortured creative artist.

Q: What were some of the toughest scenes for you?

There’s not one specific scene or time that was harder than another. It’s a whole entire experience.

Q: He’s got a lot of inner demons. How do you decompress from that on a day to day basis?

Well you don’t actually. You don’t until the end of the shoot, I think. It’s one of those characters that’s very demanding where I was aware that I had to tried to stay as close to my character as possible even at night after the shoot. When I would go back home, I would try to keep him with me. I think the only day where I could breathe was the last day of shooting. The idea of changing your physical appearance, it helps to feel that you’re not yourself anymore. This actually took a lot of time to regain weight. Losing weight can be quick, but regaining is very long.

Q: I wish I had that problem. It’s not just beer and donuts to gain the weight back?!

(Laughs)

Q: When did you start losing the weight?

This was the longest thing to do. I think I started five months before I started shooting so I could take time.

Q: I hate asking but how much did you drop?

Nearly 30 pounds.

Q: That’s a lot.

When you say it seems like a lot, but it doesn’t show that much in the end. You realize you lose the first ten and it shows and then you have to go a lot more to really make a difference.

Q: Did you have rehearsal?

Not proper rehearsal. I don’t think Bertrand is a director who likes a lot to go through this process as he thinks it might kill the spontaneity. I kind of agree. We went through a lot of talking and a lot of time to prepare for the film because he cast the film way ahead. From the day I knew I was going to play in the film and the first day of shooting, a year had passed. This was really great because it was unusual. I had a full year to prepare. I think it was important to know what exactly we were going to do and we were on the same page.

Q: What was it like, having formed your character before getting clothed like him, to put on those glasses? The glasses are what stand out for me – when I think of Yves, that’s what I think of.

Of course. Inevitably it was a big help – it’s so part of this character. We actually made those glasses specially for the film. They were made by the guy who used to make Saint Laurent’s glasses. So they were exactly the same. We re-sized them to my face. After a certain extent, I was anxious to take them off for some scenes because I thought it would break the entire trick. Obviously, there are a few scenes where I don’t wear them and it doesn’t make any difference.

Q: Do you now feel compelled to always wear Yves Saint Laurent on the red carpet?

Not really. It’s not even like Saint Laurent is designing them anymore. They were much more supportive of the other film because Pierre Berge was supporting the other film. I love what Hedi Slimane is doing there but there’s not a direct connection the brand.

SAINT LAURENT is available on DVD/ Blu-ray on September 22.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.