Lambert Wilson is one of France’s most popular actors. And thanks to his portrayal of The Merovingian in The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolution, he has received recognition outside of his home country. More recently, Wilson played the iconic oceanographer, filmmaker, and researcher Jacques Cousteau in Jérôme Salle’s The Odyssey (L’odyssée). In the film, which opens in Canada on Feb. 17, 2017 and also stars Audrey Tautou, Cousteau is depicted in a very serious way, partly because of a strong pro-environment message—and that is one of many aspects that drew Wilson to the project. He spoke about it during UniFrance in Paris this year, at which he appeared happy, proud, funny, and well-dressed.
In The Odyssey you play Jacques Cousteau. Was this role a challenge?
It was complicated, as I didn’t want to copy him. I find that giving a sensation of a person is more of a creation in a way. I’m not an imitator and I do not know how to imitate at all. I just have to absorb as much material as I can, then give back this vibration, this sensation.
Is Cousteau considered a hero in France?
In France, we do love to behead our heroes, it’s a great tradition. We do not like success, I mean it: we really do not like success. Success happens, inevitably; you only have to be a witness of our French Academy Awards ceremony to understand that we do not like to greet our heroes. It is very different from the American Academy Awards, or even what goes on in England.
I don’t know, I think that we are sort of envious, it’s sort of a trait that the French have. For Americans, it’s something to share with others; for the French, success is a bit vulgar, it’s not so great. Cousteau was extremely loved by the audience, he was one of the most loved French men in France. But we love to deconstruct our statues, and he was easy prey. First of all, there was an ambiguity between him and his brother, who was an anti-Semite and a theorist of anti-Semitism. So, inevitably, they were often confused and people were saying, “Ah, Cousteau, racist and anti-Semitic.” But that was his brother! Jacques Cousteau was a war hero, a resistance fighter, he had all the medals. He was trying to defend his brother, though people wanted Jacques to condemn him.
He was controversial figure because of environmental issues, too.
His rapport with ecology didn’t bring him friends. He was easily criticized for his attitude during the late 1940s and ‘50s, because naturally the world was their oyster, they could destroy they environment, they could use explosives to try and find fish, they could kill as many sharks as they wanted. And they did that. He was the one who changed his position concerning the environment, he became an ecologist activist throughout his life.
For Cousteau, a real revelation was to be able to go and swim with sharks; it was as if it was a part of life that he had missed. The scene in which you portrayed this in the film seems very realistic.
Well, I loved the diving, it was a revelation—a liberation, actually. In fact, I have realized that I always had been attracted towards that bottom of the sea, and even in pools I was always swimming at the bottom; as a kid, I was playing games and organizing piles of stuff, except that my ears would ache. Then being taught how to dive just freed me. I was so happy, and very crossed at the same time because in the film, Cousteau doesn’t dive that much. It was his brother Philippe who does most of the fun diving, including the one with the sharks and seals. So, it’s become my obsession, to go back and dive like that. I really loved it.
Also, because I think that divers are great guys in the sense that, like mountain climbers, they have a sport or activity that forces them to observe nature, and also to act with solidarity. So, you don’t have this feeling of competition. I think that divers are more about just being there and observing the beauty and the big vacuum of it all. It makes them different people, that’s what I love about them; people who just go for the competition are very different, they are just obsessed with adding another half a metre of depth.
There is a parody film which mirrored Cousteau’s life: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with Bill Murray. Have you seen it?
It might be a reference for other people, or for the director, but I refused to see the film. At the time, when I was asked to do The Odyssey, the film had already been around for a couple years or something, and I had missed it. I’m a great fan of Bill Murray but I hadn’t seen the film. And then I certainly didn’t want to have an ironic vision of Cousteau, for me it all became very serious. It was like, “Oh no, do not ridicule any of that. I have to believe in it.” So, since then I haven’t seen it. But now I want to see it, of course.
Has that red Cousteau cap become fashionable?
Before I did the film, I did one TV program, a live interview variety show in Paris. I was actually there to talk about something else, I was there to talk about another film. The journalist, the anchorwoman, said to me, “Ah, you are going to play Cousteau, and we have a surprise for you.” And she brought the red beanie, I had to put it on. It was crazy! I was in the middle of doing the costume fittings but I still hadn’t tried the beanie, I still hadn’t shown it to the director, and in front of a live audience, in front of about a million and a half spectators, I had to put on the red hat because I couldn’t say no. I just hated every single minute of it! Then they brought a basket full of fish, and I had to identify what kind of fish they were. And it was like, “Okay, you’ve boiled it down to that? So, it’s a red beanie and being able to say what’s a sole and a herring? Great. Something to look forward to, and for the communication of the film, fantastic.” So, I swore that I would never, ever, put the red hat on for the promotion of the film because I had felt so crossed, also for them having stolen that moment from me. You know, it’s the cherry on the cake. My theory is that you put the red beanie on anyone, and they will look like Cousteau anyway. That’s how powerful it is: he’s a man of image, above all.
He made films, he had to be a man of image.
If he had never gotten into diving he would have been a director anyway. For him, the way things look and the way things are to be filmed was key. That’s why he revamped the uniforms of the divers, that’s why he created those very symbolic images, like the crew wearing the red hats.
He had that ability to communicate with people easily. But was he an optimistic man?
He was one that was brilliant. He was one that was a great communicator. He had that sense. That created resentment, clearly, among the scientific community. And I have heard him say over and over again in radio interviews that he was not a scientist, that he was carrying on board a lot of scientists but that he was not one. However, he was the one who was delivering the speeches. He made himself a lot of enemies, I think, especially within the scientific world: people resenting the fact that he had such access to the media and therefore he was making those discoveries his own in a way, that he was owning those words.
Sometimes it’s difficult to hear the truth. When he gave radio interviews, when we had the one-hour-long specials in the ‘60s and ‘70s, he was wonderful because he was glooming. I love that. He was dark, especially towards the end; his vision of the future was super dark. He would never admit it, but if you read his book, it’s around there to be found. And that is what was said secretly: yes, he did fight for the environment, yes, he did obtain the extension of the moratorium to protect Antarctica, but he didn’t believe in the capacity of humanity to save the planet. He was super pessimistic.
Are you yourself pessimistic about the state of the planet?
Oh yeah, completely. It doesn’t stop me from being an ecological activist; I have decided recently to support Yanic Jadeau, who is a green contender for the presidential election. We know by heart that he doesn’t have a chance to be elected, but the discourse is important.
What do you want to achieve with your own activism?
My obsession is to have people understand that everybody is responsible for everything, that ecology is not something that is decided by big industry or politics. Environment is something that is shared by absolutely everyone on earth, and you have to become aware that. I say that all the time to young people: “You wash your hair with shampoo. Do you ever ask yourself what happens to the foam? Do you know where is goes? Just ask yourself: ‘this water that has been spoiled by your detergent, what happens to it?’” When you start asking yourself that question, it starts there. And I think that if you can make people react individually to their actions, it will already be a huge step, rather than just thinking in terms of great abstractions or systems that are out of our reach.
This interview has been edited and condensed.