Abbé Pierre is a national icon: playing him from 25 to 94 years old is both an opportunity and a risk for an actor…
Yes, there was reason to be intimidated! Accepting this role represented, in my eyes, a strong commitment and a great responsibility. It was the script by director Frédéric Tellier, very well written and conveying values that I share, which convinced me to accept. Because through the life of the Abbot, the film reaffirms that turning towards others gives meaning to our lives. This is what deeply inspired me.
How did you come to meet this extraordinary character?
By immersing myself in his memories and in a dematerialized file containing 5,000 photos and audiovisual archives. I was thus able to observe the man: absorb the metallic timbre and the powerful musicality of his voice. I did not seek to imitate his way of speaking but to rediscover the intensity of his eloquence. An extraordinary orator, his talent as a tribune took hold. He said he had the instinct for “measured insolence”, this very particular way of making himself heard without going beyond certain limits, so as not to become counterproductive for the causes he defended. I tried to reach him in the truth of his private and public speeches where passion alternates with gentleness.
This is a very technical role…
Yes, playing a character over a period of seventy years involves a work of metamorphosis, and it’s exhilarating! From the capuchin tonsure recreated hair by hair to the wig from winter 1954, including prosthetic ears, genius makeup artists reproduced the looks of the Abbot, who was also very flirtatious. Without falling into imitation, which would have been ridiculous, I spent a lot of time in front of my mirror to reproduce certain attitudes which say a lot about one’s relationship with the world. I think of the way he crosses his fingers, listens to his interlocutor with his eyes closed in a very concentrated manner and has his head tilted slightly, like this, to the right ( he makes the gesture) . Once this physical shell is prepared, my role as an actor is to fill it all inside. This is how I entered the galvanizing adventure of character composition.
To complete your preparation, you wanted to go to Assisi, in Tuscany. For what ?
In his memoirs, Abbot Pierre describes this place as a space of incredible beauty, which made me want to go there. I went there alone, a month before filming, taking a few books and podcasts to work with. I loved this time of intense concentration which continues to move me as I speak to you. This trip was my way of following in the Abbot’s footsteps. From the heights overlooking the Umbrian plains, I went to witness the same sunrise that had shocked him as a teenager when he returned from a trip to Rome with his school. As he looked out over this magnificent landscape, the church chimes began to ring out. It was a moment of revelation for him, a suspended time where the essential part of his life was decided. Saint Francis of Assisi was, for Abbot Pierre, a very inspiring figure.
What moral portrait would you paint of your character?
A man of faith and humanity, he is a rebel who manages to reach the most inflexible politicians. Free, he goes against the grain of conservative thinking, which sometimes provokes enmities that he accepts. He remained a resistance fighter all his life. Its aspect of awakening civic consciences seems very modern to me. In his fight against poor housing he is both a whistleblower and a humanist. He is an inspiring figure for young people today.
“Young people are searching for meaning. We’re going to find them one,” we hear him say in a reply…
Yes, young spectators are indeed touched by the themes of hope, commitment and solidarity which irrigate this biopic. “We didn’t know this gentleman. It gives wings, courage, meaning to life,” the 13-14 year olds who come in groups to the film previews often tell me. Some of his speeches have reached millions of views on YouTube. The popular rapper Fianso, close to the Abbé-Pierre Foundation, even covered in music, during a France Inter broadcast, a speech by the Abbé: “Those who took all the dish on their plate/Leaving the plates other voids…” They thrill young people of all origins and social backgrounds, going beyond the framework of Catholicism. Abbé Pierre is a landmark, a figure that it is precious to have heard again today. It tells us that action can change the world. We need that hope.
Not getting used to what should revolt us, is this the great challenge of our time that is reflected in this film?
The most deadly, the most constant but also the most unknown disease in our society is indifference, Abbot Pierre tells us. In this film, director Frédéric Tellier updates these words with intensity. Because faced with the overflow of horrors put online every day in the media and on the networks, the risk is to shield ourselves and give up by giving up action. Abbé Pierre’s journey tells us: “Hell is being alone, cut off from others”. If this film could open a new path and show the effectiveness of action as a key to happiness, that would already be good.
The director avoids the hagiographic trap by portraying a hero with his weaknesses, his doubts without trying to erase the rough edges of his journey.
Yes, he wanted to paint the portrait of the man behind the icon, showing his complexity, his impulsive, ultrasensitive, sometimes angry, messy and very scattered character. The screenplay very skillfully explores the Abbot’s inner questions: “I spent my life fighting hunger, cold, poverty, loneliness. Did I manage to change things? Am I leaving a better world behind? » we hear him ask himself, from the start of the film.
Lucie Coutaz, met within a resistance network in 1943, partially appeased him. How is their relationship portrayed?
Like a moving companionship that lasted forty years. The revelation of the film is the story of this relationship which, without being a secret, is little known to the public. They teamed up as resistance fighters and never left each other’s side. From all the fights alongside Abbot Pierre, she will be the friend of a lifetime, like a very great platonic love. She organized, framed, scolded, channeled the life of someone who said he had “too much heart and not enough head”. In the statutes, she is also co-founder of Emmaüs. A woman of great righteousness, totally dedicated to action, Lucie was essential to the Abbot. We see them, in the film, showing mutual admiration for each other. “Lucie was God’s wonderful gift to my life,” the Abbot said of her. They are both buried in the small cemetery of Esteville (Seine-Maritime), alongside their companions from the first hour.
You still seem imbued and moved by this role…
This role touched me and upset me on a personal level. I have often said in interviews how much goodness and kindness, sometimes devalued, are close to my heart. Christian values were passed on to me by my parents. And even if I am not a practicing Catholic like them, fraternity is an essential value for me. Caught in my comfort of life, I am far from being a model and I certainly don’t want to give a moral lesson to anyone! Because reaching out to others to take care of them is not easy. It’s time taken from one’s own freedom. Like many, I live with the hope of becoming the best I can be. Giving is learned over a lifetime. I try to apply the republican motto of Liberty Equality Fraternity on a daily basis because it perfectly suits my vision as a man and citizen.
How do you live these values through your job?
Within the Comédie Française troupe, our relationship with others and solidarity really carry us through. My work, for which I have a devouring passion, is also a vocation through which I give and receive a lot. Abbot Pierre explained to the companions that the gift of oneself was not a matter of duty or a good deed, but of the joy of giving. This is what makes me happy in my job.
Also read on the following pages: our investigation and the testimonies of the “Heirs of Abbé Pierre” p. 28-33.