June 2000 By Philip Berk
Vincent Perez, the French heart throb whose dreamy puppy dog looks and swarthy complexion have American women panting, arrives at his press conference, at the Regency Hotel, obviously pleased with the reception he’s receiving here.
He’s in New York for his latest, a big Hollywood romance, I Dreamed of Africa, in which Kim Basinger plays a wealthy Italian woman whose search for adventure leads to tragedy and eventual triumph.
Perez plays her adventurous husband.
Is he enjoying his visit to America?
“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” he tells me, “To get away from France is like changing your frame of mind, entering into a different way of thinking and expressing yourself, which is really wonderful. It’s like having two different personalities, one very French and the other a mixture, which I happen to be. In fact I think my career here is like my life. I’m a mixture from Europe, a traveler. I reinvent myself when traveling. I discover new things, new lands, new cultures. And that’s really great.”
Could he, like Depardieu, live in New York if he didn’t live in France?
“I love New York. I lived here for a year, and I really enjoyed it, but for the moment my home is Paris. I just had a child, a little girl who is eleven months old, so now that I’m married I need a base where I can go back to, and I like my base. But I would love to live in New York. My wife and I talk about that. She lived here for eight years, and she knows New York really well.”
Tell us about his daughter.
“Like me, she’s quite a mixture, part German, Spanish and Swiss on my side and Senegalese and Brittany French on her mother’s side. I think of her as the future, where people are mixtures and where home is the earth.”
What is there about France that he particularly likes?
“I like the French attitude. Everything isn’t so well organized in France, but it encourages freedom. Mess can create a kind of freedom, that’s part of the French tradition. Here in America everything is organized, much more than France. But I like to take a little bit of everything every where I go. I’m seeking happiness, which is not always the easiest thing to find.”
Has he found it in his marriage?
“Living a more settled life has been really helpful to me. I find real strength in my family so much so that I don’t really care where I am.”
Is his Senegalese wife African?
“Yeah, she is colored and half French.”
Did he ever dream of marrying an African?
(He doesn’t get the joke.)
How long has he known her?
“She was my best friend for seven years. We were together for four years and got married last year. My daughter Iman, which means faith, was conceived on a tree at the Tree Lodge in South Africa where we stayed during the making the film.”
Is that true?
“I had three trees, two rooms linked by a corridor, with two full beds and two balconies. Originally I was put up in a very luxurious lodge, The Rock Lodge, with a view that was amazing. You could see elephant crossing the lands. But that wasn’t the Africa I wanted to see. If I was going to spend three months in South Africa, I wanted to be a bit closer to the people. So I moved into the smaller lodge, which was owned by a black guy from Kenya. We lived with the Zulus. I really felt I was in touch with their culture. We ate together, we sang together. I really felt the soul of South Africa running through my veins. And that was wonderful.”
Was his wife with him?
“She stayed for two months.”
And that was when their daughter was conceived in a tree?
“We had three trees with two rooms linked by a corridor. We had two full beds, and two balconies. My stepdaughter wasn’t with us at that time, so we created this wonderful life. I had decided it was about time for me to have a child and Karina (my wife) also wanted to have a child. There is a scene in the movie when Kim comes and tells me she is pregnant and that I am going to be a father. The day before we shot that scene, I received a phone call from my wife telling me she was pregnant. So when I did that scene, I was really expressing what was in my heart, asking myself, Is it fiction or is it reality?”
Had he been to Africa before?
“I had, but this was my first time in the bush, so it really was like a dream. I’d always wanted to go there and see what it was like.”
And what did he learn?
“I learned a lot because I was open to it. I wasn’t afraid of anything. The first week I was there, I needed to run. I have to exercise every day, but being in the bush it’s very difficult to run because it can be dangerous. So when I saw a few locals playing soccer, I joined them. Later I learned I wasn’t supposed to do that. We played on a red field because the earth is so red there. I had my shorts on, and they wondered, ‘What’s he doing? He’s white!’ But after an hour I was accepted especially when I scored a goal. At the end of the game we said goodbye. I had really enjoyed it but was unaware how late it was. Suddenly it was dark, and I realized how far away from the hotel I was and that I would have to walk in the dark by myself. I was supposed to have a torch with me all the time. Fortunately the moon was full so I could see something, but I worried about stepping on a snake even though they don’t come out at night when it’s cool. I could hear the animals following me. I felt very small but strangely connected.”
Any other brushes with danger?
“One time I asked Kim and Alec (Baldwin, her husband) to join me on a safari, which means you take a car with a ranger and you follow the tracks of animals. We wanted to see elephants. Whenever I had a day off I was on the road doing a safari. So when they said yes, we started out, following the cheetahs and hoping to find the elephants. They’re difficult to get near because they are very secretive about their community. Suddenly the ranger told us, ‘I don’t think we’re going to see elephant today.’ He had heard on his radio that only 500 metres from where we were, a cameraman from Germany who was doing a documentary had been killed by an elephant. She was a mother protecting her baby. Afterwards they had to kill her because it’s a rule. If an animal kills a human, you have to kill the animal, which is not right. She was protecting her young, and he was invading her territory. But we humans want to control everything even the wildlife.
Were there other things that angered him?
“Racial prejudice. I have a great passion for animals, but I have a greater passion for cultures and people. I think my big crush there was with the tribes. It was amazing to talk to them. Being in South Africa where the racism much to my amazement is really shocking, I wanted to know about Mandela, Mbeki. I was really fascinated with South African history. “
His current film La Libertine is a big hit in France. Did he enjoy playing Diderot?
“When you play a philosopher like Denis Diderot, how can you not enjoy it. He is so French! He was so completely ahead of his time. He created freedom of thought. He created the first dictionary. If you were any more French than he, you’d die. I really think he created French culture.”
In that film, once again, he does frontal nudity
Does he enjoy that?
“No, I don’t like it. because I’m shy. But when you play Diderot, and you’re talking about nature, and the relationship between nature and desire, you realize he did that to provoke the Vatican. But it’s a crazy movie. It’s very funny. It’s not serious at all. And it gave me an opportunity to work with Michel Serrault, Josianne Belasco, and Fanny Ardant. I just adored working with them and felt lucky to play him.”
The last time I asked him about his nudity in Queen Margot he became quite angry.
“Why do you want to talk about my penis?” he admonished me. “I think it’s not really useful; in fact. I think it’s quite a waste of time. And you’re not the only one. Everywhere I go anywhere in the world, at a certain point we’re talking about the 35 seconds, even less, 15 seconds of nudity I did in Queen Margot.”
Ironically, even in I Dreamed of Africa, he sheds his clothes in one scene, although all we see is his rear end.
And he’s in good shape.
So besides running, what does he do to keep fit?
“I am thinking about starting yoga. I think I need to.”
Anything else he likes to do?
“I like to go to the desert. We went to Morocco recently. I enjoy being in the desert. I would like to hike in Tibet. “
The character he plays in I Dreamed of Africa, Paulo, is into male bonding. At every opportunity he leaves his wife to go hunting. Is he like that?
“Not at all. That’s not me. I feel good surrounded by women, my wife, my two girls. I enjoy that. I’m always on the road making movies, so when I can go back to my family and do things with them, that’s what I do. That’s how we reconnect.”
What was it like working with Kim Basinger?
“To tell the truth, because I live in Europe, I don’t really follow the stories surrounding Kim and Alec. I knew her as this wonderful actress who was in L.A. Confidential. When I met her, I was surprised by her generosity towards me. Straight away she said, ‘God I’m so glad you are in the movie because I really love your work.’ So I was happy to work with her, and it was confirmed later when we started shooting the film. We supported one another. I was the one who knew everything about Africa, even though it wasn’t really true, but because I was a world traveler she felt secure. So we had a perfect relationship. The three months we worked together was just delightful.”
He has been very critical of Switzerland, where he was born.
At his last interview he told me, “I’m Swiss even though I don’t have any Swiss blood. Like a lot of people here in America, I don’t really have a country. My mom is German, my father is Spanish, but I’ve never lived in Spain or Germany. I was born in Switzerland — I never chose to live in Switzerland, and I left as soon as possible to go to France. That was the only way for me to find work as an actor. France gave me that opportunity.”
So where is he most comfortable?
“I think its very important to stay in touch with your roots. When my father left Spain, he turned his back on Spain and refused everything coming from there because it was too painful for him. He had lost his father. My grandfather was killed in the Civil War by the Franco-ists, shot against a wall. And my mom went through those things when she was a kid. Her sisters were raped. It’s a complicated generation. They went to Switzerland to start everything all over again. But I think it’s very important to stay in touch with your roots. It helps you so I would say my roots are Europe.”
Why is he so anti-Swiss?
“Look I don’t like to judge. I think Switzerland is a really nice country, but the culture there is dead, and that’s pretty sad and worse yet the Swiss government doesn’t know it. Without a culture you’re killing a country, and that’s what’s happening in Switzerland. All their artists are in Los Angeles or Germany or France.”
Is he embarrassed by the Swiss-Nazi connection?
“I don’t know much about that. All I know is something weird happened. Maybe the money destroyed the Swiss soul, I don’t know. Maybe it destroyed the country because it’s been destroyed. There’s no life there. You can’t repair this situation, but I think they should find a solution.”
Have those words come back to haunt him?
“I am sorry I said those things. I know they were very angry with me in Switzerland, but if you’re young you can understand what I said. What I meant to say was, if you’re an actor and you stay in Switzerland, it’s difficult to make a career.”
How many languages does he speak?
“I speak French, a little bit of German, which is very helpful when you’re having an argument with my Mom. I really enjoy that because the language is appropriate. Spanish a bit, Italian, a phrase here and there, and English.”
Does he enjoy going to parties, being seen in public?
“I’m not very good at that. Big parties are not my thing. I should work on it. I like intimacy. I like to stay home.”
Would he like having an international career?
“Why not? I like diversity. I like to change, I’d like to try all things. I’d love to do an action movie. In France, that is quite difficult to do,”
Does he have any hobbies?
“I like to take pictures. I used to be a photographer so I take a lot of pictures. I know all the great French photographers. I take pictures of what I see in life, and I like doing that. So when I’m traveling, when I go to Africa, when I go to certain countries, I take a lot of pictures. I love to read books. I also like to cook sometimes.”