I recently got the opportunity to talk to James Gerard about his role in Holocaust drama ‘Sarah’s Key’. Here, James talks about what it was like tackling a controversial subject with the cast and crew, and about how he got into acting in the first place…
Hey James. Thanks for taking the time out to speak to me about your new film ‘Sarah’s Key’.
What is the general plotline surrounding the film?
Before I begin, I should pre-empt the possible reaction by some of your readers that this is “ another film about the Holocaust”. Firstly, by exploring through the experiences of a specific child, Sarah, (played by Mélusine Mayance), it exposes a little known and dark chapter of French history in comparison to the aspects of the Shoah better known to the cinema: between the 16th and the 17th of July, 1942. the French police exceeded Gestapo expectations by including children which was detrimental to their reassuring propaganda that the Jews were being sent to labour camps. Secondly, without giving away any spoilers, it compellingly links Sarah ‘s experiences to the present day through the character of Julia Jarmond, played by Kristen Scott Thomas, a US journalist based in Paris covering the events.for a magazine article. Unwittingly connected on a personal level, she raises the question for us possibly judging in the 21st century – e.g. “What would you have done?”, particularly in the light of Darfur and other modern-day genocides. Finally, and completely subjectively, it’s an unforgettable film and whilst emotionally rich it doesn’t ever play out to pathos or shock effect.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
I play Mike Bambers, a UK expat photographer and close colleague of Julia’s at the magazine. I’m young and naïve to the events, asking all the “stupid” questions to get the audience up to speed but I’m also supportive to Julia’s search for the truth despite my 21st century cynicism.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I was in Cannes when I got a call from my agent. The script was such a page turner reading it on the train back, I was certain it would make a compelling film. Having worked on my sides so much the night before I woke up only to remind myself I actually had to get to the casting audition. Convinced I’d done a rotten job, I initially understood the opposite when my agent said I‘d got the role, Having studied these little known events during a Master’s degree, I couldn’t believe years later that I was to be given the opportunity and honour to work on such an important film and with such a stellar cast.
The film stars Kristen Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot and Michel Duchaussoy – with Gilles Paquet-Brenner onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
I’m only involved in the 2009 storyline so can only really comment for Kristen, Gilles and the crew. That being said, at the projections I did get to meet Frédéric Pierrot and Mélusine Mayance. I noticed that we seemed to greet each other with both respect and a kind of humble, unspoken acknowledgement that we had contributed to something greater than our individual, ego –stroking, acting selves. I found Kristen to be as beautiful, charming and intelligent that all of us who make up her male fan club could ever hope her to be. She could also be surprisingly reserved, playful, vulnerable and had a rapid-fire, typically British, wit. Between takes, when she was alone with me, she would speak to me in French which initially surprised me but that I took as a sign of trust. Gilles was easy-going and friendly, knew what he wanted but remained open to other possibilities. As the crew is often a reflection of it’s captain, they were as talented and professional as can be expected but also very sensitive to the subject matter. I know that some of the harrowing scenes filmed affected more than one burly cameraman.
Let’s talk a bit about you James. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
I can’t say it was ever a conscious decision or want, more of an unconscious stating of the obvious. As if seeing a bicycle for the first time in your life and knowing you could and should just hop on and ride it. My first role was as a “baddy”, the innkeeper who tells Mary and Joseph there is no place to be had at the inn in the school nativity play. I remember being concerned that the medallion I was wearing had an image of the Holy Virgin, and was therefore an anachronism. I hoped the audience couldn’t make it out at a distance. I was 5 years old. If you want to go all therapy on me, you could also argue that being the middle child to a large, loving but noisy family, acting was a way of making yourself heard. At university I was guilty of indulging in the pleasure of surprising people and seeking to grow as a human being by exposing and exploring different aspects of myself. Now, I am more motivated by projects, storylines and characters that are seldom given voice, respect or weighting.
What is currently on your I-Pod / CD music system?
I have just bought an I-Pod Nano that I can use when I go running. A previous I-Pod was “borrowed” by a friend whose playlist I now plan to “borrow”: a mix of old school punk, soul and jungle.
If you could recommend a film or TV series to someone, what would you choose and why?
The first thing that comes to mind is the series ‘Rome’ for the subtle acting turns, broad strokes and the fact it reminds me of watching “I Claudius” with my parents as a child. In fact I bought them the box set for Christmas the last time I made it home. ‘Dexter’ and ‘True Blood’ are favourites for the scripts and I hear you can rapidly become a junkie to ‘The Wire’. Filmwise, I could go on forever but if anyone wants to brush up on their French film culture I would recommend the classics of Claude Sautet from the 1970’s – for the time he allows to set a mood. Watching Hichcock’s ‘Rear Window’ opening shot should be obligatory for scriptwriters in terms of cutting down exposition dialogue.
You’ve had a number of different roles on a range of different mainstream projects – who has been your favourite actor to work with so far and who has given the best advice to you?
My favourite actors to work with, stars or not, are actors who are generous, push you to raise your game and maintain a sense of fun. The Scottish actor Joe Sheridan with whom I worked in the series ‘Grand Star’ comes to mind. The actor who has given me the best piece of advice was probably Kika Mirylees, also a Scot and known in the UK from ‘The Darling Buds of May’, ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Eastenders’. A certain TV series had come to an end and we were all wondering what would become of us. As an old trooper she advised me that “sometimes to advance in life you have to go sideways.” I moved back to Paris and got one of the first interesting cinema roles.
What does a James Gerard day usually consist of?
A lot of coffee, urgent self-admonitions to do something practical with my day, the odd casting, sessions in the Buttes aux Chaumont with my trainer, the occasional late lunch and wandering in Paris – then working too late into the night on something or other.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
By local and national you mean the UK, I’m sure like many I’m concerned about the riots in Tottenham, as I am a former resident of North London with friends from all races in that area .
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
I’ve just finished a French comedy feature, ‘Comme Un Chef‘, opposite Jean Reno (‘Le Grand Bleu’, ‘Léon’ etc), playing a young, radical bio-molecular, English counterpart to his French, traditional, chef. At the end of this month I’m filming in Dublin and Paris an episode of a popular French detective series called ‘Interpol’ where I’m playing an Irish barman who murders his lover with a whiskey bottle, (naturally). I’m also looking forward to the release of ‘Peines D’Amour Perdu’, a TV movie set in Vietnam but filmed in Cambodia, where I play a shifty American arms trader during the first Vietnam War. Otherwise I’m saddled to a screen writing horse for the next two weeks, wish me luck!
I wish you luck. Thanks for the interview!