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Jean Reno on 22 Bullets

He’s very French, isn’t he?

Jean Reno. On a scale of Frenchness running from un to dix, I’d rate him a neuf-point-cinq.

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And I speak with the authority of someone who has spent a whole day in that country (Disneyland Paris, 2004) and who’s got a French O-level (Coleraine Academical Institute, Northern Ireland, 1980, C grade – you could probably tell from my obvious facility with French numbers. Or nombres as we French experts say).

I’ve been studying the actor/film star/sometime friend of Nicolas Sarkozy intently this afternoon and frankly he couldn’t be any more French if he was wearing a Breton top, a beret and a string of onions and kept breaking into a chorus of La Marsellaise between questions. He sounds French for a start. That’s a bit of a giveaway. He’s also called Jean and since I’m presuming his mum didn’t mistake him for a girl – because he doesn’t look much like a girl – she must have meant it to be pronounced the French way, Jahn, rather than the Scottish way, Jeen. (I’m married to a Jeen so I know all about that too. By now you’re probably thinking: what does he not know?) The fact he’s a friend of the French president is possibly relevant too.

And then there’s the way he doesn’t find it unusual to be asked if he has ever been shot. Jahn, I say, have you ever been shot? “No.” See, I told you. I think that’s what they call sang froid. The French probably ask each other that question all the time. Here, I’d usually leave it to the third or fourth time I meet someone before I share drive-by stories.

Well then, have you ever been shot at, Jahn? “No. I’m not fascinated by guns, not at all, no,” he says. “I was a very good shooter when I was in the army, but I don’t ’unt.” There’s no H in the word the way he says it. “I don’t have any guns at home, no … I’m more fascinated by a knife, because to cut … it is very strange. It come from the antiks, no?” Antiks? Antiques maybe. It doesn’t matter. He’s moved on without me. “I like the word ‘swoard’ in English,” he says, pronouncing the W. Actually, I think he pronounces about three Ws. “Sssssss. The sound.”

Case proved, I’d say. French with French on top and a side order of Frenchness for good measure.

We’re not actually in France today. We’re in Edinburgh, which is handy, budgets being what they are these days.

Given that Reno is not at home he’s happy to chat in decent English – sometimes a little wayward on grammar, tense and meaning, admittedly. But he does chuck in the odd French word to keep the conversation going when he can’t think of the English equivalent.

We could talk in French, of course, but then I studied for my French O-level (C grade) quite a long time ago and I’m not sure how far me asking him “Ou est la gare?” would get us. And he probably doesn’t know where la gare is, given that he’s just flown in.

Oh, and I haven’t mentioned his most charming habit. When he’s very excited he starts speaking in sound effects. No, honestly. Listen. This is him on the difference between acting in the theatre and acting in the movies. “It’s a different challenge. You prepare as if it’s the Olympics. The 5,000m, that’s the theatre. And the sprint … whooooshuuu … that’s more the movies.”

Was it a whooooshuuu or a whuuushoooo? I’m not sure. A shooshing sound anyway.

Theatre, Reno also says, is a bit “bom, bom, bom”, while making movies is more “tick, tick, tick”. Clear on that? Making a movie, he says, is like travelling. Over time, you get used to the jetlag. “Oh, I have 45 days? OK, we’ll start with that. That’s the first scene. Oh, it’s light. And then it’s the big onnnnne.” (Yes, I do have spellcheck on this computer, thank you. That’s how he pronounced it.) “And then – oh shit – all the shooting, the car chases. That means very little pieces each day. Dirty. Blood. Boof, boof, boof.”

He knows what he’s talking about (even if I’m not sure I do). He’s got a new movie to talk about. That’s why he’s flown into Edinburgh to make funny noises at me. It’s an action thriller called 22 Bullets, in which his character gets shot. Can you guess how many times? It’s based on a true story about a guy who gets shot 22 times (damn, I gave away the answer). The rest of it – the mob stuff, a man seeking vengeance – is fiction.

It is, about a man who wants to “redempt”, he says. “The challenge is to take the audience from the blood, the boom, baweh, pow, pho, fon. And then by the end you will cry … Also, I will change what you think he is. And also I like to give him a second chance. Why? Because society will give you a second chance.

“Human beings would say, ‘No, he raped my daughter. I will kill him.’ Oui. I understand. But society cannot follow that, so in that case we have to give him a second chance. Maybe being shot, having external things going into your body, is a signal for you to become somebody else. Because I believe in Judeo-Christian relationship with redemption.”

That’s some segue, isn’t it? From action movies to the Judeo-Christian relationship with redemption. You don’t tend to get that when you’re talking to The Saturdays, for example (although you will learn all about their pet dogs). Is he religious then? “No,” he says. But he was raised a Catholic and now all his friends are Jewish.

Reno, as we have already established, has never been shot, and doesn’t even like guns much (though if you see him loitering around the kitchen drawer where the sharper knives are kept you might like to sidle away slowly). But he keeps appearing in these movies where he gets shot at or shoots people. He made his name by getting shot at and shooting people in Leon (the one where he’s the professional assassin having a slightly inappropriate relationship with a 12-year-old Natalie Portman – très Français, non?).

The new movie? Ach, it’s OK. Marseilles looks nice in it. It’s full of guns and shooting and “boom, baweh, pow, pho, fon!” He’s made better movies, but then he’s made worse. He’s made The Pink Panther (the Steve Martin one). He’s made Godzilla. Jahn, I ask him as politely as I can, have you ever made a movie just for the money? No, he says. “Because I know the price. I have seen people … I can’t name … I have seen people being in very known movies, being very known characters, with the armour so you cannot see the face of the guy. And I have seen that guy doing a movie. I have seen him appearing as a regular actor and nobody knows him and he’s obliged to do that because he has to pay the bills and he has to work, which is two types of punishment. C’est terrible!”

While you translate that (because obviously given my French education I got it instantly. Or almost instantly), I’m thinking: who could Reno mean? Robert Downey Jr? Dave Prowse? Too late, he’s already on to the next thing. He’s telling me about his parents. His father was a linotypist. His mother “used to sue. Sew?” Sew, I say. Where was this? Casablanca. Ah yes, Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart. Claude Rains. “Round up the usual suspects”.

No, hold on, wait a minute. Casablanca? I got a geography O-level too (B grade, not that I like to brag) and I’m pretty sure that Casablanca isn’t in France. Africa? Worse than that, his parents aren’t even French, it seems. They’re Spanish. They fled to Morocco from General Franco. “They went there and then my uncle went back to the war and he was caught by the Franco military and he was put in front of a wall,” Reno says. “And he spoke a few words in Arabic and part of the troops that Franco had came from the north of Africa and so one Arab who was with Franco said, ‘You speak Arab?’ And he wasn’t killed.”

That’s good news, anyway. Even if he wasn’t French. I really must try to do my research before I speak to people.

Hold on, he’s jumping topics again. He’s talking about the movie and the way it looks at the paradox “between the light, the dark, the light, the dark”. He says it twice because it sounds good, presumably. It sounds quite poetic really. Maybe it sounds a bit poncey. Jahn, are you sure you’re not French? He’s not listening. He is making a point. “If you say today, ‘He is an Arab,’ you see September 11 etc, etc. I’m not defending the Arabs. Not at all. I’m talking about the paradox of what you know as an individual and what the press, the television will give you, which is interesting to explore. Because what is freedom in fact if it’s not the freedom of thinking in the most free way? En gros?” (Oh for goodness sake, I’m trying to conduct an interview here. You’ve got Google, haven’t you? Look it up. But it is definitely French.)

What was Africa like? What did it look like? What did it smell like? “Ah, oui, it’s an African smell,” he says. “The smell is strong, sometimes disturbing. You don’t want to smell it, especially after the rain. But also, you do not need a coat. So you can be somebody not being rich and be among people and nobody will say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t have a coat.’ Because when you’re a little boy, when you’re a teenager, you want to be part of a group. You don’t want to be exceptional. It is only after that it comes into your life, when you cannot have the girl, that you start thinking, ‘If I was exceptional she’d come to me.’ Voila.”

Reno went to the south of France when he was 12 to cure his asthma. He left Morocco “definitely” when he was 20. By then his mother had died. “You decide, ‘Now I have to hit the road. I have to go to France to become an actor because I want to be an actor.’” When did that desire begin? “Oh, around 14, 15. Before she died. But then she rushed everything, of course. Her disappearing. She influenced you as a lover of women because you will look differently and women will represent something different than if she was still by your side.”

Family life, he says, “exploded” when his mother died. “My father stayed there with my sister and he had to remarry. Après [afterwards], it’s another world. It’s completely finished with the tranquillity, the regular peaceful family life.”

Of course, Reno has got a family life these days. Five children. Some of them grown up. Is it harder to be a good father than a good husband? “Yes,” he replies. Which are you better at? “You don’t answer because I don’t want to be … ‘I’m a good guy’ … I can’t answer but I try to keep them not far from me. They will create a distance by themselves, but I try to be there.”

I’m not sure he’s too generous with pocket money though. He sounds like he’s a little too careful. “I never spend more money than I have,” he says. “If I have 10 I will spend eight. If I have 20 I will spend 18, etc, etc.” He sounds like my mother, I tell him. “Mais oui. It leads America to what they’ve done recently. Europe too. Because in America they live on the money they do not have. The Chinese are paying for them and nobody knows that. And when you say that they go, ‘Oh shit, it is true.’ C’est vrai.”

You see. I bet The Saturdays wouldn’t link the interviewer’s mother with the global economic crisis.

Reno is 62 now. Maybe getting a little old for the whole boom, baweh, pow, pho, fon. Does getting older bother him? “Oh yes.” He doesn’t believe people who say they enjoy being pensioners. “Even if you are in good health and you can do exercise, no, it is not true. Because you know the next one will start with the number seven.”

He tells me he is a “godfather” for an appeal for brain scanners. “The goal is to have 600 scientists searching for Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Do you know that in 2012, 2014, 50% of kids will live one century because of medical progress? It means you’re going to have illness in the brain increase très fort.” And then he tells me that once you get to the age of 47 two parts of your brain begin to corrode. “Slowly but surely.” Oh great. Guess who’s just turned 47. Thanks, Jahn.

Anyway, our time is up. Jean Reno is about to leave le bâtiment. Time for one more question. Do actors become actors because they need to be loved?

“To be loved? Ah oui. Actors more than the rest of the people.” He strides off down the corridor at quite a speed for a man his age. Whooooshuuu. Or is it whuuushoooo?

22 Bullets (18) goes on general release on September 3.

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