Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics
Left to Right: Lambert Wilson as Christian, Jean-Marie Frin as Paul and Philippe Laudenbach as Celestin
Left to Right: Lambert Wilson as Christian, Jean-Marie Frin as Paul and Philippe Laudenbach as Celestin Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics
Actor Lambert Wilson was largely unknown to American audiences before he appeared in the Matrix trilogy and Catwoman. But in France, Wilson has acted, directed, and sung in film for more than 30 years, playing mainly dapper romantics and silly, handsome comics.
In his latest movie, Of Gods and Men, Wilson shows that he's equally comfortable playing more serious roles. He stars as a headstrong Trappist monk, Brother Christian, who serves as the prior at an abbey in rural Algeria. The film, directed by Xavier Beauvois, is inspired by the true story of seven French monks working in Algeria who were kidnapped in 1996, during the Algerian Civil War, and later executed.
Before filming began, Wilson tells Terry Gross, he read as much as he could about the 1996 incident. He also went on a retreat at a secluded monastery in the French Alps with the other actors who worked on the film.
"We spent a few days observing the monks, eating in silence with the other people who were going on the retreat, and then we started singing," he says. "And that was really the best preparation. We learned Gregorian chanting. We learned liturgical singing as a group. This is really what got this group of French actors together."
Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics
Of Gods and Men.
"It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk," says Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) in Xavier Beauvois'
"It is mad to stay, like it is mad to become a monk," says Brother Christian (Lambert Wilson) in Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men. Marie-Julie Maille/Sony Pictures Classics
Because the Algerian monks spent up to four hours a day singing liturgical prayers, the French actors, including Wilson, also took voice lessons together in order to imitate the order's rhythm and cadence.
"It was very difficult for me at the beginning not to perform," Wilson says. "As any trained actor does, I wanted to have the most beautiful sound. But that was the best training, because we communicated together. In fact, we loved it so much that we would sing all day on set."
As filming progressed, Lambert says he also felt like his own spiritual orientation was changing. Though he did not have a religious upbringing, he frequently asked his neighbors to take him to church and then decided to become baptized later in life.
"I think it's made it more crucial, more present — something of everyday," he says. "I've always been attracted by those [spiritual] questions. I've always had a huge difficulty with dogma and religion. But I've always been drawn to spirituality and all of those questions."
On starring in the first French production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music
"People try to translate him, and you cannot translate Sondheim because the words are so cleverly placed on the music. So finally, this wonderful theater in Paris decided to put on a Sondheim show without translating it. Just with quick subtitles and that was that. We don't have a tradition of musical comedy. We don't have the theaters that can put them up and we don't have the same musical culture. We are a country of operetta and we are a country of rock. We don't have the tradition of musical theater."
On growing up as the son of actor-director George Wilson
"He did everything he could to give me a taste of the profession, of this world. And at the same time, when I was 16 and I had auditioned in a drama school in London, he refused. He would not subsidize me. He was extremely violent. He was extremely adamant that I didn't have it in me. What he said was interesting. He said that I hadn't suffered enough as a young man, that I didn't have strong enough motivation. Being an adolescent during the war, he had to take revenge on the world in a way. That was his motivation as an actor. He wanted to take revenge. It was a very strong drive, and he was worried that my drive was not strong enough."
On going to drama school at 17 and studying English
"When I arrived in London, I thought I understood everything — and I did not. So for six months, I didn't understand what anybody said. The first day of the first term when the principal addressed us, I simply didn't understand a word he said. I had auditioned in French because they quickly realized that my English wasn't good enough, and so they shifted to French, and it was a catastrophe. I wasted a lot of time and I was too young anyway. Imagine being in a drama school at 17. You're so young. You don't know anything about life. And it was a Method school, of all techniques. Therefore, a school in which you are supposed to bring your own experience to the character that you're performing. And I had none."
On his 1987 audition to play James Bond
"I had to say the famous line — 'My name is Bond. James Bond.' Perhaps it was impossible and you cannot have a French Bond. I think probably they were dreading that. So now I can only play a bad guy in a Bond film. ... My tests were not so bad. They wanted to know all my whereabouts for a couple of months and I started thinking, 'Am I going to be James Bond? Does this mean wherever I go in the world, I'm going to be James Bond?' And it really scared me. And I was almost relieved that I didn't get it, because the possibility of being known in such a famous character throughout the world was actually pretty terrifying."