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By Alex Lynchehaun
Friendly and down-to-earth, Thierry Lhermitte asks the audience’s permission to abandon the formality of the microphone and bottled Highland Spring water in favour of dangling his legs over the edge of the stage of the Taylorian. This immediately puts his audience at ease, which is indeed what he does best. Born in Paris, in the November of 1952, Lhermitte has made an appearance in over one hundred films to date, in addition to writing his own works for stage and screen.
In his early teens, Lhermitte started an acting group with a circle of friends which they called Le Splendid. It was this group that was to fuel and channel his love of acting; a group made up of school friends including Christian Clavier, Michel Blanc, and Gérard Jugnot. The group began writing their own plays, moving from theatre to screen with their screen adaptation of their already-popular theatre production Les Bronzés.
Having acted for both stage and screen, Lhermitte sees a strong distinction between the two mediums. For him, the essential difference lies with the audience. Having started in the theatre with Le Splendid, he then made the transition to the big screen – up until four years ago, when he went back to the stage in the later part of his career. Why return to treading the boards? He likes what he calls the “récompense” of theatre, in which you play for an audience sitting there in front of you: it’s about the immediate reaction, “l’ici et maintenant”, of making the public laugh. By contrast, in film the “récompense” arrives a year later, when the film comes out in cinemas and you receive the opinion of critics and the verdict of statistics. In film you are acting for your metteur en scène, whereas for theatre you are acting for your immediate public.
Asked about the difference between acting in his mother tongue and in English, Lhermitte answers that it is a question of the way in which we express ourselves. According to Lhermitte, “On s’exprime différemment”: French is a “flat” language, in which the meaning of a sentence is not conveyed by the use of intonation or word-stress. The English language instead relies on the use of emphasis and expression to carry its meaning; according to Lhermitte it is the musicality of a phrase that brings with it its sense. The film, Le Divorce (2003), directed by James Ivory and based on the New York Times bestseller by Diane Johnson, in which he plays the role of the Frenchman Edgar Cosset, offers a clear example of where he has had to master linguistic boundaries, finding a way of expressing himself in both English and French.
In 2001, Lhermitte played the role of private detective François Manéri in the film Une Affaire Privée, an interesting transition to a serious role after having worked with the comic genre for so long. What the group Le Splendid had in common was the fact that they enjoyed comedy (“nous faisions trop de bêtises pour une drame”) and as a young actor, this was the area of acting in which Lhermitte was to specialise. When asked initially to play the role of the detective, Lhermitte admits that his first response was negative. Yet ultimately he found that taking on such a role opened doors to other subsequent roles. Commenting upon the commonly-held notion that comic actors find it difficult, if not impossible, to play serious roles, Lhermitte argues that to be a comic actor is no more difficult than being any other. It simply involves “le goût de rire, le même désir de faire plaisir aux gens” (the taste for laughter, the same desire to please others), and an inner ability to see beyond “le côté sérieux”.
Lhermitte names the television production of L’affaire Gordji, in which he plays the role of Jacques Chirac (then French prime minister), as amongst his favourite productions. He emphasises that although he was playing a real person, in his view the vocation of the actor is not to imitate but rather to offer a resemblance, an interpretation of a character. Another particular mention is given to Le Dîner des cons. Under the direction of Francis Veber, Lhermitte explains the initial challenges and then subsequent rewards of the production, in the attempt to enter into the head and vision of their director – something he equates to being a pianist attempting to play a new composition with the composer sitting at his side; “c’est comme un pianiste qui joue avec le compositeur à côté”.
Until a couple of weeks ago, Lhermitte was touring with the play Match (directed by Stephen Belber), in which he plays the character of Tobi, a choreographer and dance-teacher. His forthcoming plan is a month’s tour of Michèle Levy-Bram’s adaptation of the short book Inconnu à cette addresse (Address Unknown). He is also currently working on the fourth series of the French version of Doc Martin, in which he plays the doctor himself.
And is there any role that Lhermitte would still like to play? Not any more, he says. Perhaps when he was younger he had some hope for roles which he never got to play, but not any more. Recently, Lhermitte explains, he has been writing a lot himself, and in this respect he feels that his writing has fulfilled his desire for roles. Above all, when he receives a new play or script, he likes to be surprised; “J’aime etre surpris”. It perhaps can be added that this very sense of excitement and surprise could be felt when meeting with the man himself.
By Claire Cocks
Thierry Lhermitte held a talk at the Taylorian as part of ‘La Culture et le Cinéma en fetes’, organised by Michael Abecassis.