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Lambert Wilson: Flirting with the Divine in Of Gods and Men

BY AYSEGUL SERT, PHOTOGRAPHY MARIE-JULIE MAILLE/ WHY NOT PRODUCTIONS, COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

 

Something strange happened to me with Of Gods and Men,” remarks Lambert Wilson. “People would come up to me like never before, thanking me for the film, as if something good happened to them through it. At a time when we are told to be afraid of one and other, the characters in this film chose not to, showing incredible tolerance, and that’s something that touches the audience.” The French-born, British-educated actor continues, “I’ve reached something with this film. I can’t go back now; I have to find the same level of complexity and depth in future projects, and that’s not an easy task. Unfortunately, many times I’ve been disappointed. The films I’m proud of I can count with the fingers of one hand. Going through disappointments is a testament of one’s strength, yet I envy people who go from one success to another, to another.”

Known for his role as the Merovingian in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (both in 2003), Wilson has been working in film and television for over three decades, appearing in both English and French productions. In a transcendent turn, he delivers a breakthrough performance in Of Gods and Men, which won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The film tells the story of a group of French monks providing local aid in the mountains of North Africa, who have lived in harmony with their Muslim neighbors until a deadly threat muscles in. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps through the region. Should the monks flee the monastery or continue their mission? Director Xavier Beauvois’ film is loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, who were kidnapped and murdered in 1996.

“We removed our habits and our tics as actors so in the end you see a humanity that is very simple,” explains Wilson. “I didn’t have the impression that we were acting; it was more like we were just there. The main challenge was that one had to be as real as possible. Xavier wanted truth in all details and gestures. My character [Brother Christian] is a thinker; he has a very powerful mind. It’s always tricky to portray a thinker.”

Queried on whether he would describe himself as religious, Wilson answers, “I have faith but I’m not at ease with dogmas. Churches are not places where I feel good; I don’t need to go into a church to be in communion with the creation and the creator. After I shot this film and another by Bertrand Tavernier, I did a musical and then directed a theater piece — then I completely broke down.

I don’t know if it was the effect of the film, or whether I had flirted with something divine, the fact is I just fell in a hole. Today I ask myself what I gained from it, and I can tell you that studying these lives has changed me. Analyzing the choices they have made has changed me. Being alongside characters with so much faith does something to you; it makes you question your own.”

Wilson, born into an artistic family, tells of his acting path: “My father was a theater director; it was a world that was exciting. I had a terrible self esteem problem. I wanted my face to be very big on the screen; I wanted to be beautiful [but] I had a very bad image of myself. Cinema attracted me probably more than theater did; theater was something that we knew on a daily basis, that was familiar, yet cinema was a way to be respected.”

When he first received the script for Of Gods and Men, Wilson had hesitations. “I had done the role of a priest before and I didn’t want to be seen as an actor stuck in religious characters,” he confides. “I was worried that I was going to repeat myself, but it was such a moving story and the excitement of having to work with an unconventional director made me go for it. Being on Xavier’s set is not a calm adventure, but he is so talented and has such an interesting way of using the camera that I always felt reassured.” ▼

Of Gods and Men opens February 25th in Los Angeles and New York City. For more information visit www.sonyclassics.com/ofgodsandmen

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